On Friday I managed, for the first time, to make it to one of Stephanie’s apartment readings. The setting is absolutely perfect, as if Stephanie had gotten the place just for this purpose: a big kitchen where food was laid out before the reading, and a gorgeous living room with lots of dark wood, couches, chairs, cushions, and even a big window seat, people right up next to each other and Stephanie perching on the arm of a loveseat. The lights were turned out except for a table lamp to the right of and slightly behind the readers, who sat in an armchair, faces in shadow, as if presiding over a round of ghost stories.
I’d seen Mary Burger open for Ron Silliman at 21 Grand over the summer; at the time I’d found it difficult to gain access to her work, but in this more intimate setting I think I got a better grasp of her project. The bulk of her reading was from an ongoing work called Sonny (which I, of course, wrote down in my notebook as "Sunny"), whose genre, Burger told us, was that of the "speculative memoir," a phrase that makes explicit the problem of anyone setting out to write a family history: not even in your own family can you find out everything that happened, whether because of death, failure of memory, or willful withholding. Burger’s solution to this problem is to write a family history as a kind of abstract prose poem, with philosophical statements ("the act is different from the understanding of the act") alternating with biographical vignettes—though the vignettes themselves were still generic enough that they could have been (to paraphrase Stein, a hovering presence throughout the evening) anybody’s life.
The obvious contemporary comparison, of course, is Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which I was thinking about throughout Burger’s reading. My Life works because of its pitch-perfect balance of the universal and the particular, the lyric and the narrative, but perhaps most of all because of its discovery of an organizing structure that’s an alternative to that of the conventional memoir—the repetition and variation of phrases, the numerological correspondence of sections and years—a homology with a life that doesn’t purport to be a transparent rendering.
Burger’s project is, at some level, more ambitious and difficult, seeking to reconstruct the lives of others as well as her own. Yet I also couldn’t help but feel, at times, that Burger doesn’t fully take advantage of those strategies Hejinian uses to keep My Life compelling. Burger does do some interesting play with narrative, as in one section where she presents overlapping narratives of a man’s life, starting over several times at different points in the life with slight variations, to show us the difficulty of constructing a narrative that represents "the life." But something in Burger’s reading style—taking each sentence as if it were a line of poetry, giving little variation in inflection or voice—prevented the glimpsing of anything like a narrative through-line that could exist in tension with the work’s more speculative aspects. Perhaps this is something that would be more visible on the page; though it may also be the case, as Burger put it, that "what is individual is not visible."
Stephanie offered an intermission but no one took her up on it, so we launched right into the second reading, by Magdalena Zurawski. Zurawski (a recent transplant to the Bay Area) had arrived late, after transportation incidents including a broken windshield wiper and Bay Bridge traffic, but still sporting a brand-new "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" T-shirt.
Zurawski started off in a kind of introverted monotone, but by midway through I was getting chills down my spine and my jaw was somewhere on its way to the floor. While Burger’s touchstone seemed to be poetry, Zurawski was more firmly in the camp of prose, with long, run-on, hypotactic, self-conscious and self-referential sentences that seemed at first to be doing a kind of David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers thing; the first piece, "The Ham Steak," was set in a college dining hall and dwelled lovingly on the translucent surfaces and methodical eating of the eponymous low-grade meat (including a long exposition, delivered utterly deadpan, of the geometrically and obsessively precise arrangement of ham, peas, and potatoes on the eater’s plate). What at first seemed clever, though, suddenly opened dizzyingly up, beginning with the narrator’s casual but repeated mention of a bruise on her forehead whose story she dared not reveal, for fear of giving away the secrets of her imagination. Zurawski seemed able to do, almost effortlessly what somebody like Eggers is constantly tying himself in knots trying to do: to take some lying-awake-at-night, collegiate existential conundrum and open up the real abyss beneath it, bringing emotion and terror sidling up as if by accident.
The brilliance of pairing Zurawski and Burger was most evident in Zurawski’s second piece, "A Drugstore Comb," which begins from the portentous pronouncements of literary theory: "In literature class I learned that memories live not in people but in things." I was a little worried when I heard this one: any number of overly precious poems and stories present themselves as illustrations (or refutations) of such lit-class platitudes. For Burger, such a statement might be something to be mulled over, permuted, obliquely illustrated. But Zurawski used this thought to plunge into an almost pathological solipsism, driving forward with relentless logic and chillingly repeated motifs. Like Burger, Zurawski was preoccupied with memory; but while Burger meditated on memory’s incompleteness, Zurawski gave us a Borgesian excess of it, reciting at one point a photographic recall of the entire list of ingredients of a sandwich. And—surprisingly, to me, I guess—all this worked because it was deeply psychologized, woven into the character of the young college woman in whose voice lines like this were spoken: "I needed someone to see me so I could see myself."