Cornellian Fictions

May 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection and Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

Who doesn’t love Joseph Cornell? There’s something in his art that appeals to seemingly everyone. I suppose it’s partly that his work is just so ambiguously evocative that you can read just about anything into it; partly the toylike nature of his constructions, irresistible in their moving parts and mysterious rules; partly the deep veins of sadness and joy running through his work. Maybe there are Cornell haters out there; I haven’t met them.

TWC sports a picture of a Cornell box on its dust jacket. (Writers and Book Designers of the World, I can more or less guarantee that choosing such an image for your next project will guarantee you bookstore browsing time from yours truly.) Aside from just looking awful purdy, this choice dovetails very nicely with the construction of the collection as a whole: the title, the jacket, and the content (most of all) all lead you to see this book as a coherent construction made of disparate parts — a Cornellian box of specimens (natural historical, personal memory, social historical, etc.) There are all kinds of interesting ways the book works as this kind of construction; memoir here is much more than pretending you were once in a gang, and fiction is much more than ripping off some “true story.” But I digress.

“Ave Maria Grotto” was the first story that made me think of Cornell in its content, rather than in its form. It’s an imagining of the life of Joseph Zoettl, a real-life Benedictine monk in Alabama who created models of buildings (some religious, some not) out of found and donated “junk.” (More interesting echoes of The Art of Memory here, with its construction of memory palaces.) It’s a lovely story, and two passages stand out for me: “There could be no truly worthless thing; perhaps, he thought, it was a problem of transposing something into its next place of service.” And then, at the end, this interesting twist on Biblical exegesis:

Perhaps he thought, as he worked, of that old verse in Jeremiah: What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks rock in pieces? Then it fit; he understood. Only what’s broken can fully be used. Nothing too humble; nothing too good.

The grace in everyday objects and quotidian memories, the importance of seeing the value in the used and broken as well as the rare and valuable, the hermetic (borderline creepy) devotion to work on a deeply personal, somewhat mystical art: these are Cornellian. Interestingly, the orientation Tevis displays toward her craft also seems to bear some resemblance to Cornell. He was always combining autobiography and fantasy, seeming to contain a bottomless well of nostalgia for things that he’d never known or knew only slightly. Dreams, daydreams, occurrences, relationships, world events: he used them all, he seemed to sense how they fit together.

So that’s one kind of Cornellian fiction. Another is displayed by Gilbert Sorrentino, in the book I’ve been reading before bed. This book, Lunar Follies, is wild, man. We’re talking short-short representations of art-gallery shows, performance art pieces, Joycean word associations, with each piece named after a feature of the moon. “Copernicus” is the Cornell piece, subtitled “A Collage.” It’s the longest in the book, eight pages. It’s a hell of a story, managing to combine Cornell’s obsessions with hotels, the stars, pop-culture stars, ballet, mythology, nobility, toys and games, and surrealism. He does so playfully, working the titles of and associations in Cornell’s art into a phantasmagoric surrealist story which highlights the overheated sexual longing running through so much of Cornell’s work. This is a dream-story: connections bounce off of one another, spinning a yarn that you can never quite unravel, once you’re done spinning it. There’s a great section on “Black Hunter, a version of the Korean board game of great antiquity, Box with Corks and Other Corks,” with mystical, obscure gameplay and rules: “It had reached that moment of transformation called Central Park carousel pavilion, a critical juncture that always nullified the effects of the aggressive gambit, American Gothic casement, even when that move was followed by the spectacular night sky and window facade.”

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