by Weston Cutter
This claim’ll seem unlikely as you (if you) make your way through this review, but I swear to god: I’m doing my absolute best to limit my use of hyperbole.
Ideally, this wouldn’t even be a review but just a picture of a face, eyes wide and jaw dropped both in wonder and dismay, and the caption’d read either Holy Shit. You Really Can’t Believe This Until You See It or Another Jenny Boully Reader.
You’ve seen Jenny Boully’s stuff, maybe, in the John D’Agata edited The Next American Essay, or in one of the Best American Poetry books, or maybe in one of the cooler and more daring literary journals (Seneca Review, Conjunctions, Boston Review), or maybe you’ve got a really cool and hip friend (or maybe you’re that cool and hip friend to others) who finds and reads books from small, small presses (Tarpaulin Sky, Essay Press) and s/he passed on either of Boully’s previous two books, [one love affair]* or The Body and, like anyone with a functioning brain, you just flipped out when you saw, say, that The Body is one whole essay composed entirely of footnotes.
Or none of the above? Or some of it?
Here’s the newest (and, maybe, best) way to get into Jenny Boully’s work: there’s a new, slim book that’s just been released by Sarabande, and it’s called The Book of Beginnings and Endings, and it’s exactly what it purports to be, and though it’s hands-down on any shortlist for most formally interesting books of the year, this is not simply some staid exercise in breaking or shuffling form. It is, easily, one of the most feeling and felt books of the year.
Any straightforward description of the book itself falls flat. Here’s what happens: on each odd-numbered page (the right hand side of the book) is the beginning of a book, and once you read that page and turn it the even numbered page on the back is, in a different font, the end of that same book. That’s it. There are twenty-six beginnings and endings. What sounds (to me, anyway) like nothing more than an interesting conceit—something that seems as if it’d work more as a game or exercise than a cohesive work—is actually the skeleton of something so beautiful and moving and soulful I have a hard time even knowing where to begin.
Boully’s latest—like her two previous books—is a sort of enacted meditation on absence, a thing defined by what’s missing. But what Boully’s doing that so freakishly cool and wild is that the absence itself functions as a something—a nothing that’s something, a nothing with charge. It’s territory mined regularly by any poet who skillfully uses a linebreak or a space between sections or stanzas of a poem, but by and large the reader doesn’t give much of a chance to let that sort of silence speak. The line breaks, or the section completes, and we move one, barely registering the silent pause we just encountered.
Here, though, the absence is overwhelming, overflowing, an thing so yawning it dwarfs each specific beginning and end. And so each of the ‘books’—the beginnings and endings we actually read—become something like sensualized, sketchy brackets for these silences, these absences: the text becomes a sort of guide to the huge silence. If that sounds like something that’s either simple to execute or something that’s not that big a deal, consider how much work it takes to sit silently in a room with one other person for a whole single minute. What Boully’s doing that’s actually borderline heroic is working with silence as thing—in ways that might be sort of comparable to Cage’s 4:33—and I’d posit that whatever creepiness or discomfort may come up through reading this book might, in fact, be a lack in the reader’s ability to negotiate/tolerate/synthesize silence.
While one of the impulses might be to ‘fill in’ the story that’s between these beginnings and endings, what the absence/space/silence actually does is create something more akin to an echo chamber, though strangely an echo chamber that’s cohesive and coherent. A simple mental game: with a friend, read the exact same book. Discuss upon finishing. The moments each of you find resonant may—may—match up, though it’s unlikely. What you find out, quickly (and likely already know) is that each of us reads books differently, and we read books differently each time we come to them (think of parts of books you’ve come back to, remembering loving them, and finding, instead, different parts that move and jangle you; finding that, though you still appreciate and enjoy what you (believed) you remembered, it’s now new and other sections that hook you so.).
What I’m trying to get at is that, amazingly, this is a book which hauntingly but directly ‘speaks’ to the reader—it’s a book that’ll not only radically shift from reading to reading but reader to reader. (And seriously: radically shift. As in: if you’re heartbroken, steer clear of this book: it’ll make you just weep.). To use a dork and somewhat inaccurate analogy: the scene in Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke has to go into a cave and face Vader? This book is something like that, though not at all exclusively bleak or dark side or having to do with enemies or relatives. It’s less that the reader ‘fills in’ the silence between beginnings and endings, but whatever we ‘find’ or discover or hear in those absences will have everything to do with how we read, who we are, how we feel, what we believe, etc etc etc.
And again: if that sounds like something that’s not capital-P Profound, please reconsider your definition of profound.
It’s (obviously) easy to get tangled up in the brilliance of this book’s form, and it’s an unfortunate temptation simply because Boully, regardless of her razor-sharp skills at stretching and/or shattering forms (for instance: what the hell is this book? Essays? Poetry? Fiction?)(or: What is a beginning? and end? What are these “books” she’s starting and finishing? What’s a book at all? At what point must we “believe” something about a “book”?), is a dynamite writer, putting sentences on paper which are as fresh and vibrant and gut-punching as any being written by anyone anywhere. The actual beginnings and endings in the book—the actual texts, stories, whatever—are as varied as imagination. There are some which are seemingly the start of narratives, though also pieces purporting to be nonfiction accounts of affairs, insects, trees; for the uninitiated, one of the beginnings is from Boully’s The Body—a page blank aside from footnotes.
I’m not at all trying to shirk any reviewerly responsibility in not talking specifics or quoting passages. As I’ve gone through this book a few times in the last week (you could read the whole thing in an hour), the pieces shift, create new views each time, and so quoting from the book feels cheap, bordering on blasphemy. This book is art in and of itself: to pull bits of words from within would be like presenting someone with a snapshot of a corner of a Cornell box. Perhaps you’d see something that’d tug at you, but you owe it to yourself to experience this as a whole thing.
John D’Agata, on his glowing blurb from the back of the book, writes, “Jenny is the future of nonfiction in America. What an absurdly arrogant statement to make. I make it anyway. Watch.” He’s right, completely, though there’s better and more to be said: Jenny Boully is the present of nonfiction in America. I’m crazy for McPhee and Wallace and Jo Ann Beard and Anne Carson, but any glimpse of what it means to write nonfiction in the year 2007 that doesn’t include Jenny Boully is a fatally flawed glimpse, incomplete in the most disastrous way.
A last imploration: great and interesting books have always and continue to draw admirers who don’t actually read them. The number of people who own but haven’t read Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Danielewski’s House of Leaves is far too large, to say nothing at all about the fact that there’s a recent book all about talking cleverly about books you haven’t in fact read. Please, please, don’t bullshit any of it: read this book. Buy ten copies. Give them away. Be amazed. Believe.