Have I told you about the Whistler of Northampton?
He was supremely annoying, as—I’ve got to say it—all whistlers are. For example, the other day I was at the YMCA, in the men’s locker room, and this guy was just wailing away, wailing, almost like he was in some kind of serious distress and this whistling was his only way of communicating his desperate need for help. So, not wanting to shirk my duty as a citizen (it was the YMCA, after all), I peeked over the lockers to see if this guy might be perilously entangled in his swim goggles or something, and, well, no, I saw that he was not.
He was this middle-aged dude (late middle age, salt and pepper everywhere), quite fine, actually, talcum powdering his late middle aged man parts. And just whistling away! Like he was on some delightful hobo journey to his nether regions!
I mean, really! Shut up!
Anyways, the Whistler of Northampton worked at the Raven, the used bookstore, and the summer after we lived in Park Slope I was (shocking!) broke and so decided to sell a big bag of books there at the Raven. One of the books, one I had read in Brooklyn because it was summer and in the summer I feel the need to read big important novels, was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
I hated that book. It made me seethe—after reading the last line I remember yelling, “Oh, come on” to the empty apartment and slamming the book on the table.
When the Whistler pulled American Pastoral out of the bag he stopped his aleatory wheezing and looked up with magic eyes.
“Isn’t Philip Roth the most amazing writer,” he said through his little whistle hole.
“No,” I said, all that weird anger coming back, “he’s morally bankrupt and a liar.” And then I stormed out.
(Not really. I’m sure I got my measly three or so dollars from the Whistler and then bought a burrito somewhere).
Now, I like detective stories, so I’m not averse to intricately manipulated plot structures; I like sports, so I’m not averse to passively taking in well-rehearsed performance; and I like depravity, so I’m not averse to reading about horribly intimate acts, so why can’t I enjoy Philip Roth, or Ian McEwan, for that matter, or Clint Eastwood movies, U2, Donald Hall or John Currin?
I know these guys are incredibly skilled—virtuosos in their media—and they’ve got all kinds of big ideas, all of which make me feel like a simple-minded delinquent for not liking them, but, you know, A+! First Place! Gold star for you! Now, take your swaggering self-confidence and moralizing somewhere else, please.
I mean, I like things to collapse. I like art that creates a structure in which collapse is possible, where the creator risks failure from line to line, sentence to sentence, move to move, where the spell can be broken with the slightest mistake and, then, often, is broken. Horribly. But also beautifully in a way that sends me reeling from the book, the painting, the speakers, the screen, thrown back into my own ideas and memories, scurrying to my own little creative camp to draw up new plans.
I guess this is what pretentious people (okay, what I) call duende.
And I’m thinking about all of this because Bhanu Kapil’s new book, Incubation, which I’ve just read again for like the fourth time, has some serious duende. It collapses beautifully and sends me reeling.
After I finished it the first time, I wrote for hours—actually before I could finish it I was writing in my notebook, staring off into space, pacing around. In it.
It’s a “process” book, a messy look into Bhanu’s exploratory journals where she has tried to decipher how people become, by looking into her own memories of coming to America, hitchhiking, having strange sex with shady characters, etc.
Like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, and a number of other books I love (Chris Ware’s Sketchbook, Mallarme’s Tomb for Anatole . . .), Incubation is determined not to let the present confidence overwrite the uncertainty of the past. Though terrifying, uncertain adolescence is the essential time of differentiation, a space for writers, monsters, exiles and immigrants. It’s necessary, and, strangely, unexplored.
Here you go:
“It’s all ahead of you, crossing the street to the parking lot and then the beach. It is arrival in reverse to approach an ocean. Are you an immigrant? Don’t panic immigrant. There are places to curl up in under a cliff, in a cave, and in the morning you will be covered with starfish, opening and closing all over your body. Encrusted, riveted, bright orange, what will you do? What will you do with your new body? What will you make it do?”
It’s like a classic coming of age novel, except instead of looking back from a fixed point, a point of certainty, and recalling all the steps that led to that point—each step with the inevitable end point embedded—it casts about wildly, questioning and doubting, pushing against inevitability with the only adequate weapon against it—poetry.
Seriously. I think Philip Roth would hate it. I think you would love it.
Let me know.