Connecting Dots in Between the Lines: On Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E.


A masterfully collaged prose object, Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. (Outpost19) defies categorization, privileging fusion and hybridity while also openly displaying its parts: essayings on the mind, on identity, on falling, on death, on marriage; obsessively scrutinous, seemingly frame-by-frame analyses of a classic psychological thriller; self-reflexive reveries on writing and, especially, not writing; deconstructions of patriarchy in the form of control of and/or violence against women, whether physical, emotional, psychological, etc. Like Alfred Hitchcock, one of this book’s many subject-characters/character-subjects, Blackwell “leaves holes” in his art, that is, in Madeleine E., a text with hundreds of ellipses, a constellation of dots pocking pages, signaling absences, voids, pauses, where multiple possible readings, connections of dots, as it were, can take place.

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A David Bowie of Literature?

Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.

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Big Other Reaches One Million Page Views!

One Million Dots (detail) / Robert Barry. 1968

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Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William H. Gass, 2012

Photo by Frank Di Piazza

It’s probably too easy a move to begin my very brief remarks about Gass’s use of architecture as a metaphor by trotting out the old horse of a quote about language being the house of Being, before flogging it to death once and for all; but it seems appropriate, nevertheless, to do so, especially when I think about Gass’s positing that the sentence is a container of consciousness. Actually, the quote from Heidegger is useful only when held in contrast with Gass’s ideas about language. Whereas Heidegger placed speech, that is, the continuum of speech, which includes talking, listening, and silence, at the center of his theory of language, Gass does not see writing as a mere supplement to speech. The continuum of writing includes four modes: persuasive, expository, expressive, and literary; and two hybrid modes: argumentative (a fusion of persuasive and expository) and critical (a fusion of expository and expressive) modes. Of these modes, it is the literary that receives the primary focus in Gass’s critical writing. And so, one might perhaps properly say that, for Gass, writing, or, rather, the sentence is the house of becoming. And what is it exactly that becomes in a sentence? For Gass, the sentence is a container of consciousness, a “verbal consciousness, of course, one built of symbols, not sensations; yet one of perceptions all the same: perceptions followed by thoughts like tracking hounds, and infused throughout by the energies of memory and desire, the moods emotions foster, and the reach, through imagery and other juxtapositions, of imagination…” (“The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”). Like any house, this container can take any number of forms:

[S]entences must be understood to contain all sorts of unused syntactical space; places that could be filled with more words, but, in any specific instance, aren’t…Sentences are like latticework, like fences, to be left open or prudently closed, their boards wide or narrow, pointy or level, the spaces between them, ditto….A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel; it’s like a spiral stair. To me, for instance, Sir Thomas Browne’s triplet—“Grave stones tell truth scarce forty years. Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oak.”—with its relentlessly stressed syllables (seven strong to one weak in the first row, seven to two in the second course, and six to one in the last) resembles a wall. I can even locate spots (the weak stresses) where its stones have crumbled. Families come to pieces the way the word does.

Yes, architecture is a theme running throughout William Gass’s oeuvre, not only in his critical work but in his fictions as well, particularly in The Tunnel, where tunnel-as-metaphor is used as the very structure from which the novel is built.

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Gabriel Blackwell’s “Literary Pillars”

I embarked on a list-led reading quest over a decade ago—not with Gass’s list, but with Borges’s (“A Personal Library”)—but I gave it up less than a year later. I think I lost the list (I had copied it out of a library book), and, besides, I had exhausted my enthusiasm (I was at least a decade younger, callow, infrequently Ritalinated, often inebriated). Looking at that list now, I find that I’ve read perhaps 80% of the books there, just in the course of following my own interests. More than I might reasonably have expected, I suppose. Gass’s pillars, too, have been accounted for in my list of books read, completely by accident given that I honestly didn’t know about his essay until your email, John. (Though I own A Temple of Texts, shamefully, I haven’t read it; I suppose the fact that I have presumably spent some of the time I might have devoted to reading it to reading some of the books recommended in it will somewhat make up for my failing.) I suppose the 20% of Borges’s list and the remainder of Gass’s are, in fact, what those lists are for—we don’t need them for what we’ve read or would have read anyway, but for what we haven’t and wouldn’t have.

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Q and A: Writer Gabriel Blackwell, Portland

Q and A With Matty ByloosIn Q and A, I try to get at something valuable from my fellow writers, by asking just a single question.

Installment #2: Gabriel Blackwell, Portland, OR.


What kinds of things do you take into consideration when preparing for a reading / performance, especially when there has been no specific prompt? Do you factor in audience? Do you prepare multiple sets and gauge the room in real time before choosing, let’s say, slightly humorous over more serious work? Do you favor brand new writing over material that’s a bit more “tested”?


I read aloud while I’m writing, more or less constantly (I’m reading this aloud now), so my voice seems to be a part of the thing already. That’s my preparation. I already have a pretty good idea of what “sounds good,” at least to me, just from the process of writing it. Continue reading