Blackberry Gelatin Prose – Vincent Czyz’s Adrift in a Vanishing City

STORIES — Formless as a tadpole egg-sack, Adrift in a Vanishing City by Vincent Czyz, floats untethered to any narrative foundation. Snippets of characterization, dialogue, and non-sequiturs float in the prosey soup, slowly revealing the relationship of two women and a working class wanderer named Zirque, an international menege-a-trois unconfined by time or space.


The shapeless form of the book, echoes the culture chronicled in these nine sections. This is the culture of international airports where hookers work both Milan and Sea-Tac; but, regardless of their Italian phrases, the same thing is for sale fresh from some trailer park in Butte. Despite chronicling this culture, without a structural spine, the book has a heft like a fist-full of Jell-O; although there is a certain amount of substance here, it resists anyone possibly getting a grip on it. The prose dissolves. For example, “”Budapest Blue”” opens:

I could have told you of photographs I kept locked away in a drawer of unanswered desires, black-and-whites of you though we had never met, though I had never seen you, so then ’not you — but yes, you.

This self-nullifying statement destroys any literal meaning. I am not contending that every syllable of every sentence of every paragraph must contribute the big bang effect of the book, as if the book were a well constructed handgun (by this token Gertude Stein’s’ Making of Americans could be sliced down to a single paragraph ); however, the concrete quality of this writing is weak because unlike Stein’s “swing sing up into an apple tree,” the opening to “”Budapest Blue”” has the musicality of a quality assurance report for a multi-center public health study and so demands to be taken literally.

A book as an information object must have some form besides the arbitrary dumping of text into a sequence of pages numbered one through two hundred. The sections of Adrift in a Vanishing City could have be arranged in any order. However, in the second of the two prefaces of the book, the one titled as a challenge to the reader, “”Are You a Finely Tuned Reader?””, the author tells us, “To bring [the stories] into sharpest focus, it’s best to read them in the order in which they appear.”

To demonstrate that perhaps I am not a finely-tuned reader, as I am American and I was educated in an U.S. university, I xeroxed the book and cut it up into 158 individual sections and arbitrarily rearranged them; I prepared five copies in this manner. I left an equal number of books intact. I found ten foreign friends, all of whom had read at least one book by either James Joyce or Samuel Beckett. I gave the rearranged book to the foreign national friends with the following nationalities: a Canadian, two citizens of the UK, an Irish woman, and a naturalized American born and raised in Singapore. I then gave the five placebo copies to the following national mix: two Filipinos, a Swede, yet another British citizen, and a citizen of Mexico. With these readers, I found that there was no large difference, and maybe a slight preference for the rearranged books.

All right, I didn’’t actually conduct a scientific study to find finely tuned readers. Readers can’t be selected scientifically, and once the book is in the world no matter how many prefaces and afterwards the author stacks onto the reader either finds meaning in the text, or he doesn’t.

In a sense, this book uses protective language. Instead of hiding behind the formal structures of a codified genre (a murder mystery that must fulfill the strict dictate of body-suspect-cocktail party) this book hides its meaning in neatly turned nonsense and fractured cause-and-effect as unlikely as a lesbian love triangle in a Harlequin romance.

When I began to piece together the text, instead of finding an original vision of the world, I found a sort of Bohemian love story featuring Zirque the tall, gorgeous world-traveler who throws away matchbook covers with the lyrics of pop songs written on them years before they hit the charts.

I also finally found myself asking some questions about the assumptions of Vincent Czyz.

1. Does the novelist do us a disservice by organizing his material?

I believe this is the largest service he does to his material. He shapes the raw material into a whole book. A pile of scrap metal is not a functional automobile.

2. Does the process of constructing a novel take away from the power of the raw material?

I am not sure why the quality of raw has positive connotations as if the process of cooking a story destroys its vital nutrients. I find raw data inaccessible. Open an image file like a JPEG in a text editor and you find a screen full of garbage, a literal translation of binary data into ASCII. We require an interpreter to construct the image from the raw data. Gertrude Stein’s’ writing, for instance, defines its syntax in the course of the narrative. Writers like Italo Calvino and Georges Perec begin with a new interpreter (using constraint rules or new logical formulas) and then create a new text by fulfilling interpreter’s rules. Both Stein and Perec cook their data. It is just that they involve the reader in what the cooking process (the syntax of the book) is doing to the raw data. Raw data is just too difficult to digest. Czyz, while admirable in his fidelity to this ideal of honest information, does not provide for syntactical control over his material. In imaginative prose the author tells the reader something they know not to be true but in such a way as to inspire belief in the story. Adrift in the Vanishing City refuses to engage language at this basic level, and so without structure all the reader has left is ink on a bundle of pages bound into a book.

note: this is a correction to the original review published in The American Book Review Jan/Feb 2000

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12 Responses to Blackberry Gelatin Prose – Vincent Czyz’s Adrift in a Vanishing City

  1. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    This is a thoroughly irresponsible review by someone who probably never read the book. 1. It is NOT a novel; it is a short story collection. 2. No scene ever takes place in Milan, nor do I ever mention Milan. 2. No scene ever takes place in Butte, nor in any trailer park, nor at Sea-Tac, nor do I ever so much as mention ANY of these. The ONE quote Briggs uses–he misquoted. What’s more, I pointed out all of these mistakes to him years ago and while he apologized and seemed very contrite, here is the SAME assinine review–uncorrected. I suggest readers go to Amazon.com, where they can read other reviews and read accurately quoted sections. As for you, Briggs, you’re a complete ass.

  2. mattbriggs February 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Thank you for the complement about my ass, Vincent. I’d forgotten about this review, and actually forgotten about this book. I did read it, however. I had succeeded at putting out of my memory, so thanks for bringing it back, I guess. It was a very bad book if I recall. I would hope you would move on to better things. I do have it somewhere, and will correct the one quote. Thanks for drawing my attention to that. I was contrite about the mis-quote, for sure, but not my assessment of the book. The book was dreadful (and still is.) To call it a collection of stories presumes that they were stories; the book makes a claim of it not being stories or a novel, but instead “a guided tour.” This review looks like it was tagged “stories” but I hesitated in the review to call the fragments stories, preferring the term “sections.” I also do not say the book takes place in Milan, Sea-Tac, or Butte, but rather in a kind of pathetic, placeless place shared by these localities. I can see that is confusing, and would likely not do something like if I’d written the review in the last decade. However, I’ll be sure to post this review elsewhere as well since I’d forgotten about it and except for that misstep about Milan, Sea-Tac, Butte, I kind of like it. Thanks again for pointing out the misquote.

  3. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    You posted it four years after you wrote it–so you didn’t forget about it. To say it takes place in a placeless place is idiotic; your one misquote is from “Budapest Blue,” which, surprisingly enough, takes place in Budapest, Hungary. One story takes place in Mexico City–and it’s mentioned on the first page and repeatedly throughout. Two take place in Paris. Several in Pittisburg, Kansas. These are not placeless places, nor are they the places you mentioned. Of course you didn’t read it.

  4. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Let me be more specific: there are NO international airports mentioned in my book, nor are there any scenes set in any airports of any kind. There are no prostitutes in my book, neither in trailer parks nor in airports. And, again, it is NOT a novel as you called it in the review and as you’ve tagged it. As for the quality of the stories, the first story in the book won the 1994 Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction ($1,500); Allan Gurganus was the judge. The fourth story in the collection was the basis for a $5,000 grant. I might also add that you wrote the ONLY negative published review. You are entitled to your opinion but not to your distortions of the book.

  5. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    Here’s an actual quote. Go ahead and leave it up so readers can decide for themselves whether or not it’s any good.

    And what is to be done with those of us who have an aching for a myth to support our lives, a backbone, an Yggdrasil whose roots curl like a fist around our troubled hearts, whose leafy branches disappear in the strange horizon where vision blends with the sky lording over it, the pale moon and occasional lumps of burning rock-iron-copper angels who fall through it, gather at our feet as dust that has traveled light years to be stepped on and forgotten except for that one phosphorescent moment when we knew to make a wish before it was already too late. And maybe that is what you are doing up late at night, inventing one, crawling up the backbone as you add vertebra to vertebra, Jacques and the beanstalk, where does it lead and who is the giant waiting at the top? And how heavy are those golden eggs anyway? If we don’t want the trouble of using ligament attachments as rungs of a ladder, if we allow it to be watered down (afraid of heights) we paint in oil, we pastel, we draw angels in the air, stamp them out of plastic, print them on comforting cards to send to one another, put them on the tops of Christmas trees, make them in the snow, in mashed potatoes, and compose music to mimic the sound of their wings beating from heaven to heaven.

  6. mattbriggs February 9, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    I posted a bunch of old essentially undigested reviews at the same time, and have since forgotten even about those. I should look at them again.

    I can understand as the author that you cannot accept that I actually read the book and didn’t like it. I read the book. I didn’t like it. To me the most interesting thing about the book, the idea of escaping form, did not strike me as successful. My review is essentially about that, not about the specific content of the book, which I admittedly dismiss in my review since I think I found the love story vague, unconvincing, and sentimental.

    Long after having written this review, I’ve reconsidered the function of book reviews and tend to use them less as a chance to write about structure or other aspects of literature and more as a kind of service in which it is important to summarize the book, place the book in context, and try to find a point of connection with the book. That was not really the purpose of this review. I can understand your frustration, then, with the review since your book serves more as a prompt for some a loose rumination on the function of form. Your book did not prove the case for “formless” to me.

    I find your anger pretty unproductive in these comments. I have nothing to say about the content of your book. The review says little about it as well.

    I’m sure you have written and published a half-dozen books in the last 14 years. What would you recommend that I read?

  7. mattbriggs February 9, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Ah… thanks for posting a bit of an excerpt.

  8. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm #

    No, you didn’t read the book. Your whole review is a whine about narrative structure, but since it is a collection of SHORT STORIES–NOT a novel–you would have to take each story on an individual basis because the structures vary from story to story. But you wouldn’t have noticed that because you didn’t read the book. By far the longest story is the last, “Fire from Heaven,” (about 46 pages) and guess what? It has a straightforward, chronological narrative structure. the only tricky part is that the point of views shifts; there are several narrators–tough to follow I know. The second longest story (“The Northwest Passage”) also has a fairly straightforward narrative scheme–except that the present is intercut with passages from the logs of two ship captains. Otherwise it’s simply a single day in which the reader follows a single character. Nothing difficult here–except for you. In the 3rd story, an old man recounts his life to a young man passing through Mexico City–again, nothing confusing or shapeless; he describes things pretty much in the order they happened. I’m not going to detail all of the stories, but that’s enough to refute your so-called “review,” which, as you pointed out, has virtually nothing to do with the content of my book.

  9. mattbriggs February 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Vincent you are pissing up a tree. I read your book. I do not need to complete a reading comprehension questionnaire. A narrative is more than chronology, sequence, or pages bound into a book. There weren’t any stories in your book, just fragments. The question for me was does a collection of fragments make for a book? This seemed to be the most interesting conceit of the whole project. I agree a rigorous review would have spent time figuring out why each of your formless pieces was formless, but frankly, I found your prose so nauseating and the theme so sentimental that I was not up for that task. I also think it would have made for pretty dry analysis. The failure of your book is evidence that form is inescapable. I appreciate you reminding me of your book’s existence and this review for that reason.

  10. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

    I’m pissing on your leg–and enjoying it. You don’t even know the difference between narrative and narrative structure. I get a kick out of watching you try to think. For the last 12 years you thought ADRIFT was a novel. Yeah … you read it.

    PS — a novel in fragments? Sure: GHOST DANCE by Carole Maso (1986 or so, Harper Perennial) and a much more successful (tho less worthy) example is THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Among plenty of others. These are, though, *novels*. What a dunnce you are.

  11. mattbriggs February 9, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    I haven’t thought of your book for years. Good luck to you, Vincent.

  12. Vincent February 9, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

    I haven’t thought of you for years–until an accidental search turned this up.

    Be careful what you wish for … you might get it.

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