I began the day every day for a week reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities, a book I had given the illustrator for Christmas. In the book, which is comprised of essays which are also not not poems, each one begins with the phrase ‘I began the day.’ For instance, there's an essay in which Gladman begins the day arranged in an isosceles with ‘the ceramicist’, a person I take to be her partner. Together they form ‘an awkward triangle’. Ideas about space and architecture coalesce around this shape. The other essays proceed similarly; Gladman attends a faculty meeting, on holiday Gladman eats a Snickers bar, Gladman has a dream.
I know people who find writing in which nothing happens very frustrating. I take their imperative to lush plot and rigorous world-building as an understandable resistance to the often snobby-seeming world of 'literary fiction'. In that slack category, to be reductive in the extreme, interiority proliferates; a single character can come to signify a whole class—and though I by no means always disagree with the frustration, I do often wonder what people mean by ‘happens’.
Sure, Calamities does document food eaten, dreams dreamed, architectures inhabited or imagined, infrastructures navigated, and books read. That is to say, it is a book concerned mainly with the mundane details of a life which, not dissimilar to mine and yours, are largely routine, familiar, ‘uneventful’, the chaff to excitements’ wheat. We wake, we walk, we talk, we shower, we eat, we commute, we work, we fuck, we sleep etc. But Gladman’s essays are also woven into and over the racial politics of the contemporary university, category 5 Atlantic hurricanes, and the organisation of space.
Last week the illustrator and I went to see a documentary called Turtle Rock. Filmed in black and white, this contemplative film follows three generations of one family living in a remote Chinese village through four seasons. By limiting himself to a single year, filmmaker Xiao Xiao, a former resident of the village, forgoes prioritisation. One event sits alongside the other, one moment is followed by the next. Employing a strictly time-bound constraint demands equal attention be given to peeling garlic, chopping firewood, the torturous, frustrating unwinding of galvanised wire as it is for pilgrimage, worship or local politics. But like Calamities, the film does not employ introversion as a mode, nor does it revere or romanticise remote life by casting Cézannesque solitude as crucial to mankind’s satisfaction. Its subjects’ stories and sociabilites are deeply imbricated with politics; they track the slow psychological strain of drastic changes in economic policy, the local toll of rapid urbanisation, and the physical effects of labouring in heavy industry. The grandmother, well into her eighties, still works tirelessly. Her son returns from work away only to find that employment in the mountains is irregular, he slides slowly into poverty. Her grandson, exhausted from working as a migrant labourer in the city, returns to the mountains to start a business raising chickens and after it fails he falls into debt. Their neighbour also returns to Turtle Rock after acquiring an injury doing perilous, industrial labour renders him unable to work. And all this is set against the context of the village’s formation by exiles, who fled to these mountains to escape war.
I’ve written here before about my interest in observational documentary. This is, in part, a personal endeavour to shake off my myopic devotion to the two-second shot rapidity of action films but also, less frivolously, because these films are often attuned to and invested in the generative dilation of everyday life. I think too of Eley Williams’ fiction in which moments—stepping off a train, say, or looking for a while at a painting in a gallery—effloresce. On a similar register, I’m interested in the kind of expiative life writing found in Calamities: writing that’s metabolic, writing in which novelistic and memoiristic waystations are jettisoned because a delimitation requires that both the journeys between and the arrivals at the stations of the cross have equal standing, writing that’s neither averse to crisis nor hinged on it. In tandem, these two constrained practices work to raise aloft the everyday. They plot the nothing against the happens of unexpected election results, the horrors of state violence, catastrophic climate collapse, producing both as meaningful and inseparable.
I’ve been trying to work through why I feel so drawn to this mode. I think it matters (to and apart from me) for a number of reasons, amongst them its possible implications for the ways trans narratives are broadcast by industries that demand epiphanic narratives proliferate. The imperative to introversion by way of autobiography means not only that trans writing is always understood first and foremost as autobiography—even when it’s poetry, philosophy, flash fiction—but also as highly individual, even anti-social. I wonder, might durational limits, experimentation, a widened aperture, play, and pleasure offer a way out of this reception?
But leaving that to one side for now, Gladman’s work is accumulative—that is, it’s produced by way of repetition—and is also loosely bound by (so far as I can tell) an arbitrary limit of 13 essays. But, in an interview with Lucy Ives, Gladman reveals she’s written over 35 calamities (the essays), not all of which made it into Calamities (the book). Her dedication to repetition in the collection, where every page or so constitutes a new beginning, not only articulates an insistent recognition of and attention to detail but might, I think, make gestures towards something like solidarity. For one, the inclusion of dinner dates or neuroses or landscapes or boredoms or whatever, whether or not those stories serve the familiar rhythms of conflict and its later resolution, is unpossessing. As a method, this type of life-writing necessarily invites anything into its orbit, and as such represents—much to Susie Hodge’s ire I’m sure—the possibility that anyone could turn their own trivias into their own writing ritual, a programme, a poem, a book, or whatever else. It could I guess also nod to embracing unproductivity by its failure to properly cooperate with or invest in a more familiar kind of life-writing narrative organised around the autobiographical or ‘confessional’ that might more easily adhere to say, the economies of the publishing industry. And in her own words, they fail as essays:
They don’t sustain an argument, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t conclude anything, and the half-paragraph ones seem even more so, kind of absurd. I mean, the whole thing is to allow me to have fun with some of my stresses, like teaching, being an academic, trying to get tenure, living in a sad, lonely city.
And I wonder if, by elevating the humdrum aspects of a life so repetitively and with such intent, readers might be encouraged to shake off the attachment to a largely private perspective. And, in turn, that they might embrace others responsibly not necessarily by way of identification or ‘relatability’, but by way of solidarity in the form of vignettes drawn from an ordinary world. I began the day every day for a week reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities and on my commute, I ended it that way too.
Body image: Landscape by Klaus