Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Posting Yoknapatawpha

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Posting Yoknapatawpha

Article excerpt

The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan. Rather, he has done the opposite: Japan has starred him with any number of "flashes"; or, better still, Japan has afforded him a situation of writing. This situation is the very one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void, without the object's ever ceasing to be significant, desirable. Writing is, after all, in its way, a satori: satori (the Zen occurrence) is a more powerful. (though in no way formal) seism which causes knowledge, or the subject, to vacillate: it creates an emptiness of language. And it is also an emptiness of language which constitutes writing.

--Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs (4)

THE Sunday New York Times Book Review typically concludes with a column offering observations by guest authors or bookish staff writers on literary matters both contemporary (for instance, Oprah Winfrey's influence on bestseller lists) and perennial (the difference between reading a play and seeing it). It is perhaps the closest thing in the U.S. to the European feuilleton, the newspaper arts essay that, at its best, aspires to combine erudition with accessibility. There is humor in this column (usually entitled "The Last Word," sometimes "Bookend," sometimes simply "Essay"), but the jokes are more designed to elicit the knowing chuckles of a David Lodge than the guerilla snorts of a David Sedaris. So the February 6, 2000 edition of the column was somewhat out of the usual routine. First, it was not a column in the normal sense, but rather a full-page illustration: in describing the "Two Things That Depress Me When I Open a Novel," the writer Meg Wolitzer turned to the talents of cartoonist Christopher Niemann to present her argument in graphic detail. Second, it was bitterly funny, infused with an irreverence that refreshed even as it stung.

For the first thing that depresses Wolitzer when she opens a novel is being Confronted with "The Family Tree." Niemann's cartoon shows us exactly what she means: a genealogy springs either illegitimately or parthenogenetically (no woman's name appears) from one Nelson Copious Bordeen ("The Patriarch") to wend its way through two main descending branches (via the offspring of children Figurine Oleanna and Half-Nelson) before concluding, three generations distant from old Copious, in Bastardine, the "unacknowledged," incestuously conceived offspring of Erik Fjordkvist, Jr. (great-grandson of Figurine), and Towelette Vespers (great-granddaughter of Half-Nelson). The second thing that depresses Wolitzer when she opens a novel is finding "The Map of the Town"; Niemann gives us a quick sketch (probably not to scale) of the main sights of "Opportunity Knox, Miss.," home of the Bordeen clan: "Bundt Bay (Where Karen, nee Bastardine, sought her revenge on the townsfolk)"; the "Graveyard where Nelson Copious Bordeen's restless ghost often appears"; "Dagmar's Sewin' Shoppe"; and the "Dogwood Glade Rest Home (where Velveeta Scopes spent her remaining years)" (31). As the family tree already has informed us, Velveeta Scopes is the wife of Half-Nelson Bordeen and great-grandmother of the unfortunate Bastardine, and her names, both given and maiden, neatly let us know that Wolitzer found the inspiration for this "depressing" novel lying somewhere along the axis linking the actual Dayton, Tennessee, to the apocryphal Frenchman's Bend, Mississippi.

Wolitzer's column/cartoon is funny, of course, in the same way that the scores of entries in the annual "Faux Faulkner" contest are funny: it picks up easily recognizable Faulknerian tics--here the temporalization of space (the genealogy) and the spatialization of time (the map) apotheosized in the exalted and deeply troubling Yoknapatawpha material of Absalom, Absalom! and GoDown, Moses--and resettles them on an obviously unworthy site ("Dock of the Bundt Bay (where Seven-Eleven Jones was found bludgeoned to death)" [31]). …

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