Nicole Walker

Jenny Boully, The Book of Beginnings and Endings, Sarabande Books, 2007

Jenny Boully, Moveable Types, Noemi Press, 2007

[Review Guidelines]


This book is not a treatise on how best to live your life.

This book is not even a treatise on how to write your life.

This book is not a plot or a poem.

It's not a method or a symptom.

This book is not nonfiction.

This book is not redemption.

This book is not rock climbing.

This book is not a blue print.

This book is not a building.

This book is not a conglomeration of facts: it is fact undone and unwoven. It resists all expectation—for the reader, the page, the editor, and all attempts to categorize, generalize or make a speech about it. Each odd-numbered page is a beginning and each even-numbered page is an ending. And not the beginning and ending to one story. The stories do not omit one shared middle. Instead the beginnings and endings are in distinct modes, even genres with only lapses in common.
      When I read, I need to find a handhold or a foothold from which then the author can shove me into acrobatic reading. This book does provide a handhold. And then the hold disintegrates in your hand. Don't climb sandstone, it seems to say. It is in the falling, the absence of something to hold onto, the clawing against grinding rock that one begins to relax a little and delight in the fall. She warned us from the beginning "I am thinking of a number from one to ten and you are rowing a boat further and further from shore. If there were false surmises, it was I who embedded them into the locks, the open windows, the space of ajar"(3). Such steep falling was forewarned. There is a lot of space here she suggests. Gravity is one way to think of space. But space is another way to think about space—lapses, aeration, negation, void.
      The narrator, it turns out, isn't so much the one disintegrating the handholds as much as the one falling with you. She empathizes: "I am at my parent's house, outside reading, and hummingbirds flit about the red hibiscus, while you are on the other side of the scaffolding, refusing to break through" (5). It is this recognition that we are on the outside (of) reading, that convention, genre, expectation, once set up, is not so much a climbable rock face as it is a barrier between the narrator and the reader. By taking those conventions away—not letting us typify what genre this is or where the character development might lie or that inevitable nonfiction question "is it true," we are left with the words whose meaning is not codified. The meaning changes at every reading, moving the reader forcibly, as a mass acted upon. It is not the plot that moves the reader. It is not the line break. It is the sentences, grains of sand themselves, plain and dear that impact the reader—bit by bit. It is the reader who moves as well as the story.  The ones that seem to talk about how we're reading while we're reading gain the most force:

"When the flock of doves flies forth from the magician's breast pocket, they do not enter our world to perch on random branches of earthbound trees—we only see them briefly and for the sake of the trick" (8).

"On one side, there were lines of poetry; on the other, a message that can, at best, be described as half cryptic, half love letter" (15).

"I am a leaf-cutter ant, that, although oblivious to its object at the end of the trail, follows nevertheless with faith that it is being led to something somewhere" (16).

"The negative of all wishes is somehow still the need to proceed" (26).

"You see, it is not so much that things are seen, but that if you were superhuman, if you had indeed been born with the natural ability to see things more clearly, you may or may not be the beholder of epiphanies" (37).

 "and I remember being in a maze, embodying a bit dot that would have to eat an infinite number of smaller dots—an organic being eating an infinite amount of smaller beings" (44).

It's as if you and the narrator are falling through dust and pointing out to each other, oooh look, there's a good piece of sand. There's another. I see how this sand is made. In fact, by seeing this piece of sand, I can see how all this sand is made. And these rocks. And these hand-holds. This book, then, is not about climbing rocks or building skyscrapers. It's about building rocks one granule of sand at a time.



Paul Auster suggests these epigraphs for "The Book of Memory," the second half of his book The Invention of Solitude, both from Pascal: "Thoughts come at random, and go at random. No device for holding on to them or for having them. A thought has escaped: I was trying to write it down: instead I write that it has escaped me." And "As I write down my thought, it sometimes escapes me; but this makes me remember my own weakness, which I am constantly forgetting. This teaches me as much as my forgotten thoughts, for I strive only to know my own nothingness."
      If The Book of Beginnings and Endings is a free-fall, then Moveable Types is a climb. Boully's associations here work like the lattice she begins with—bean, then string, the lattice, the ladder, then Jacob, then the infinite. In between the ladder rungs and the lattice weave, space consumes. This book suggests that it is in the open, erased spaces that we can find footing. What launches us upward? Type, a clinging, fragmentary type that moves with every step. Where are we going? Not toward truth but to a visible kind of reading. Fragments of text, pieces of type are blown our way.

To tell the truth is to be a printing press with non-moveable type; it means to produce thousands of replications of the same message: omissions and errors are the fault of the nature of the machinery, not one's own. To admit the truth means to no longer own one's faults, but rather to hand them out in pamphlet form. (9)

It is up to the gatherer of floating paper— "When I think of growing older, I am made so happy, consoled, imagining the swarm of paper butterflies that will have accumulated over the years, reminding me perpetually of those things that cannot be so easily discarded" (29)—to weave with them a ladder or a lattice for string beans, the structure, and, in this case the narrative, comes misstep, mistake.

Through the erasure of the whole story,  Boully constructs a narrative of a missing life from the leftover parts—a missing X, someone has gone and the trace of them is left by fragmentary memories that follow.
      Parts of time: summer, some late June, some bits with a guitar, a knife that insists on cutting, another June, some July, and some last bit of July are all that's left in the text of memory. The story is an accumulation like so much type. The mistakes—the things remembered, written down, are the pieces of paper that wouldn't fly away. They are what have been left behind with which to cobble a story together.
      Stories, this book argues, are built of the excised fragments that we meant to get out of our brain but wouldn't go. There what's left behind when the X cannot be reconciled, when the X returns your missing documents that you did not want anymore but now you have to make something from the "tweezers, a book of matches, a pearl earring missing its backing, my blue bath towel, a few rough drafts and a scrap of paper" (37). The mistake is what gives the material for the stepping upward. If you leave behind a piece of scrap paper, I may just have to make a ladder out of you, just to step away. This book argues that narrative is that which cannot be erased. It is remembered fragments put together from a shattered something in some narrated order to pretend toward cause. A narrative, Boully here suggests, ties together those slippery somethings—mistakes, losses fragments, "patches of the past," as Nabokov put it, in order to make a next step.