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 Steins’ Making of Americans could be sliced down to a single paragraph ); however, the concrete quality of this writing is weak because unlike Steins 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, its 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 cant 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 doesnt.
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 Steins’ 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 interpreters 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.