Sunday, July 19, 2020

'The Land of Infinite Variety: Stories and Other Prose' Now Indexed on ProQuest

July 19, 2020 -- The arrival of a first-class envelope at my doorstep here in Portland over the weekend took me back about 10 years. It bore the seal of the university I've attended as a doctoral student for much of that time, and in the corner, the words DIPLOMA—DO NOT BEND. Amid the uncertainties of the global pandemic, like so many other newly-minted scholars and professionals exiting graduate programs in 2020, I'd been waiting for this materialization, some real-world sign of the terminus of my studies. This was it, complete with tissue paper, faux leather, and the digitally-rendered signatures of various officials.
Forget about commencement. The impersonality of the white envelope and its carefully-wrapped contents carried me back, instead, to memories of the Peace Corps and my smoke-filled exit from southern Kyrgyzstan via the Manas Air Base outside Bishkek, which I've narrated in previous posts. (The writer Jia Tolentino, also from K-18, our doomed volunteer class of 2010, has chronicled parallel experiences and argued for agency reforms meant to prevent other kinds of violence.)
Months after the evacuations of many in K-18, an unmarked truck with a U.S. government plate deposited a similarly-shrouded parcel at my doorstep in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I had returned to complete a master's degree in English at Colorado State. Inside the package I found assorted dictionaries, notebooks, travel guides, novels, and dusty personal effects that had survived the looting of the Melon Revolution. In other words, the rhetorical artifacts of my tenure abroad as a university educator—some 100 days of living with host families, preparing to co-teach English with local instructors, and beginning the journey toward fluency in one of Central Asia's dozens of Turkic languages. It had all ended in waves of violence that swept through the Kyrgyz provinces in mid-June 2010, for reasons still not well understood, resulting in hundreds of thousands of families displaced. And some 2,000 deaths—including the reported killing of two fixers hired to ferry my own team of American volunteers out of the chaos of an ancient city in flames.
Writing and reflecting on the broader systems of violence and colonization in which I found myself implicated that summer—and on what it means to arrive "home" in the American West—has taken the better part of a decade. And that work of self-examination (personal, fictive, familial, rhetorical) is far from finished. But this summer, along with my doctoral diploma, I can point to another kind of materiality: the assemblage, in manuscript form, of a book of stories and other prose now available on ProQuest (metadata only, for the near future). Below I'm sharing the abstract and table of contents for The Land of Infinite Variety, and offering thanks to the many generous souls who have guided this work and its author thus far.
For another window into its composition, here is a brief excerpt from my dissertation's artist's statement, which draws in part on a critical review by Patrick Madden, "W. G. Sebald: Where Essay Meets Fiction":
For Madden, then, the essay as a form is not limited to conventional genres of fact. His thought experiment maintains that Sebald’s first three translated “novels” can actually be read as nonfiction, while the fourth, Austerlitz (The Modern Library, 2001) “performs the actions of an essay” (174). In response, I might propose that we place Sebald’s works along a spectrum of essaying as a mode of discourse, rather than unnecessarily divorcing The Emigrants, for example, from the canon of literary fiction by applying the “non” prefix. More generally, however, my work asserts support for Madden’s thesis. Sebald’s and similar volumes of under-recognized “essays”—ranging from Brian Kiteley’s “novel” Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1989) to emerging works perhaps best captured in the title essay of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton, 2018)—have been remarkably influential in composing certain stories at the heart of Infinite Variety. “The events of your life like an empty field . . . Invent something,” Chee muses, “that fits the shape of what you know,” then tell the story of this thing through “a character like you, but not you” (246). As of late, we find works fitting this mold in almost every kind of experimental fiction. From the lyrical fixations of Lydia Davis and Rita Bullwinkel to wartime cycles such as Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Penguin, 2014). From the New American anthologies of Ben Marcus to Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (Farrar, 2019), with its chapters culled from essays, autoethnographic stories of therapy, fictionalized memories of high school forensics, and appearances of Duccio’s Madonna and Child, “a real painting,” in places that do not correspond with real time. Such anachronisms, explains Lerner in the back matter, work to signal his social novel’s “unstable mixture of fact and fiction” (285).
Turning to my own work, “A Fictional Essay On or About the 100th Meridian, Alphabetically Arranged,” for example, borrows its title and underlying structure from Dinty W. Moore’s enduring “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” which found its way from Crazyhorse to Harper’s. Moore, also a former journalist, catalogues some two dozen images of fathers (from classic television, the natural world, academia, genetics, and so on), beginning with “Allen, Tim,” then gradually intersecting with more personal entries such as “Vasectomies” (49-52). In my fictional essay’s examination of 26 scenes from a line of demarcation with “great significance” in the American West, an opening section titled “Adventure” introduces the cultural memory of “three fair-skinned, French tourists” paddling southward into the bowels of the high country. Their journey is followed by more personal “Echoes”:
It’s the same storied meridian many American families deserted—propelled less by adventure than desperation—in the year before the voyagers arrived to the land they called the Far-West. Might Antoine’s journal somehow call into question the writer’s own nostalgia for the late frontier—built on his grandfather’s late memories (1928-2013) of the Dakotas? . . . How many echoes, and how much dissonance? What of the parallels in these perpendicular lines of flight? (123)
. . . In this wayward manner, [my] work unfolds with parallels to what Sebald once described to a New Yorker interviewer: “Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field” (qtd. in Madden 170).