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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Dermot Woods's The Complete Collection of people, places and things reviewed by Lindsey Drager


John Dermot Woods
The Complete Collection of people, places and things
BlazeVOX, 2009. 178 pp, pbk.

Reviewed by Lindsey Drager

John Dermot Woods’s epigraph to The Complete Collection of people, places and things comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. It reads:
By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before.
While the obvious allusions to Anderson’s book don’t reach far beyond the opening chapter, it is difficult to ignore the gaping ambiguity in this sentence; that is, there is no referent for “it”. It can be argued that opening a book as such is a risky move, but here it seems more an experiment in the cannon as archive. In other words, you have to look it up.

Anderson’s quote surfaces in the first chapter of Winesburg, in a section entitled “The Book of the Grotesques”. In it, an elderly writer composes the book in response to “a dream that was not a dream” in which “all of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques”(Anderson, 24). The “it” of Woods’s epigraph refers to the narrator’s summary of this writer’s book which he recalls as such:
In the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. (Anderson, 25)

There is no better introduction to Woods’s The Complete Collection of people, places and things, which can be read as a modern day reimagining of “The Book of Grotesques”. Woods’s novel is a practice in the art of defamiliarization, outlining a world that is only vaguely recognizable, in which the existence of water has not yet been proven and sleep is induced through force; “a place where people ended up remembering, when all they wanted to do was regret” (pg.100). The book functions as both ethnography of our-world-estranged as well as instructions for navigating it, centered on characters named Glo-worm, Voltron, Punky Brewster, Danger Mouse, Rainbow Brite, and Optimus Prime who are embarrassed to admit in public they haven’t used game cartridges and protect their party favors and switchboards with as much fervor as their pride. The attempt here is catalogue, as it is the concision of each tale that defines the person’s role not as an individual, but in accordance with or opposition to, others. It is in this way that the story revolves rather than progresses linearly, arguing along with Anderson that history is both fractured and circuitous.

Though the “people” and “places” are effectively rendered here, it is the “things” that are particularly alien and therefore steal the spotlight of this book; manuals, chopsticks and Velcro all adopt a value that is both deeply personal and—or maybe therefore—profoundly political when the behavior associated with such tools is deemed improper.

In fact, this is a world that functions because of law, though perhaps corrupt and certainly alien and Woods’s tone and register support this. For example, consider this case study in Velcro:
It was something that touched people where it meant the most. People cherished their Velcro when they were alone—or sometimes with their immediate families. Velcro was solemn; it was usually found in kitchens. For years, people had been doubting if real innovation was possible; Velcro seemed so fully realized. It was admitted that change might come—but acknowledged only in whispers—between thundering knocks on wood and the grating dirge of the head side of a one-bit coin scraping against the tailside of another. People like their Velcro exactly the way it was; they just didn’t trust that is would stay that way. (pg.79)
Reflective of the comic melancholy that permeates the book, this description of what in our world might be a merely pragmatic tool heightens Woods’ project to a performance of high burlesque. Such is also the case with kiosks and stilts, both of which are rendered through the simple language and distant tenor characteristic of a guidebook or instruction manual and are presented as items to be lauded.

The degree to which Woods’ Collection is “complete” is a point worth discussing as the commitment to succinctness and brevity suggests we learn about these characters, spaces and objects through what could be deemed profile. This argument is supported by the truly stunning illustrations that accompany each of these thirty-two 500-700 word “stories”, as each profile becomes both literally and figuratively a character sketch.

In an age in which the meaning of “profile” has been intimately linked with the ethically complex task of self-representation, it is easy to forget the word’s literal definition; an outline, or: a drawing within the frame of one dimension. In other words, the profile stands antithetical to completeness, as it is the very lack of total knowledge that defines it.

Yet the narrator claims that the collection is not “just a recounting, or some sort of a Manual; it was complete” (pg. 4). The question raised is what to do with past: how to keep it; how to keep it safe; who should care and/or care for it.

The Complete Collection reminds us that it is fiction that transcends the dichotomy of profile and complete tale, as it is discrimination in presenting the events of a characters’ life on the page that constitutes story; this is, in fact what designates the map from the territory. In the realm of story, the world is only what it is on the page. Woods’ book simultaneously critiques and embraces the very storiness of history, an edifice we tend to confuse with The Truth. It is this thin volume, an artifact that is itself referenced in the beginning of the tale, that is the complete life of this world, and in the end, to echo Anderson, all the truths are beautiful.

In the introduction entitled “A Village Beyond Approach” (the play on words here stands as joke initially, but bears thematic meaning as the section concludes, as does most of Woods’ humor throughout the book), the question of a full and accurate depiction of history through the medium of text is addressed eloquently in a discussion the narrator overhears between a young man and the town’s scribe:
The collector admitted that there were times his pen lost the shape of the world he intended to craft. He was once part of a league (he thinks it was organized by the local Policemen’s Benevolent Association). It was a whole collection of collectors who pooled their efforts. They compared, contrasted, refined and traded their doubles. But, over the years, trends kept changing, and, as such, the process of transcribing history became more taxing. Most of his compatriots found more ephemeral subjects to collect and quickly discard. When he was left alone, his words faltered and he fell silent. (pg. 3)
In an effort to fulfill his former commitment in recording the world, the scribe produces The Complete Collection by means of (not insignificantly) erasable pen. But, and importantly, it is the narrator’s recalling of the collector’s text that we as readers are provided. This triple removal further underscores Woods’ commentary on the meaning of making; that the collector’s belief in reaching a singular history and accurately recording such is a myth that escapes him implies our sympathy should lie with the collector.

But it is with the people, places and things that I share sympathy, as their history is a history particularly—and perhaps cruelly—not their own. In a moving metaphor in the penultimate chapter Woods gathers his cast under a tent. “It might have been an awe-inspiring sight,” the nameless narrator tells us, and we know what is coming next because we are these people, places and things, yet the line devastates; “but there was no one outside to witness it” (pg. 174).

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Viking Press, 1960.

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Lindsey Drager is an MFA candidate at the University of Illinois where she teaches creative writing and holds a graduate assistantship with Dalkey Archive Press. She has work published or forthcoming in Artifice Magazine, PANK, Dislocate, Redivider and elsewhere on the web.