Photographs in Fictional Texts: an extremely informal and provisional essay
© Jerry Cullum
Over the years, I have found that if I don’t get around to writing something major for long enough, someone else always does it so I don’t have to. This is not the case with transient exhibition reviews, and I haven’t quite figured out how to handle the problem of being unready to think about visual issues that almost always require more considered judgment than I have time or mental energy for. (There are numerous ways to fudge the issue when on deadline, but I have reached the point of wanting to be able to say, “I am not ready to have anything meaningful to say about this.”)
Shaj Mathew has written a rather superb piece for the May 18, 2015 issue of The New Republic titled “Welcome to Literature’s Duchamp Moment: Avant-garde fiction is starting to resemble conceptual art.”
W. G. Sebald has gotten more than his share of investigation since I first encountered his too-brief literary career, but at the time I was pondering why it was suddenly permissible if not quite openly respectable for novels to become picture books, or to have images slip into them in ways that previously hadn’t been the case since the demise of the illustrated edition of yore, in which the pictures were regarded as an incidental luxury, a grown-up version of the children’s picture book. (The Surrealist example in André Breton’s Nadja was never really part of the mainstream canon, at least not as the hybrid that it was; it was considered, if it was considered at all, a sort of highbrow illustrated novel rather than as a multi-page precursor to Duane Michals’ one-page photo narrative This Photograph Is My Proof—which usually is thought of as a work of art rather than as the very short story that it is.)
The reverse-motion photo flip book that concludes Jonathan Safran Foer’s otherwise pictureless Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came as a surprise. It more or less coincided in publication date with the English translation of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a novel about damaged memory in which the full-color images of objects from the protagonist’s childhood become an intrinsic part of the narrative rather than illustrations of it—something more traditional in its experimentation than Sebald’s visual slippage in which the uncaptioned photographs almost but not quite match what is being said in the adjacent text. (It occurred to me at the time that Donald Barthelmé’s City Life, a decades-earlier antic updating of Surrealist tomfoolery with pictures and text formats, had included a story titled “Brain Damage.”) At the time, circa 2004, there were a number of novels dealing with protagonists with neurological deficits, from Gene Wolfe’s Roman soldier bereft of short-term memory in the two Latro novels to Mitch Cullin’s nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes in A Slight Trick of the Mind, but these novels were uninterested in the troubled role of the visual in the story the mind tells to itself and others.
The editor to whom I pitched this idea found it fundamentally uninteresting, and thereafter, as they used to say in my part of the world, when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp.
Besides, the fashion passed, or perhaps was miscategorized as conceptual art after the prior model of Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne or Bill Burke’s I Want to Take Picture, two enterprises from earlier decades that are not usually thought of as experimental fiction on the one hand or hybridized travel narrative on the other—perhaps because the categories of art criticism of the time were insufficiently invested in the type of cross-genre criticism that Sebald’s novels later inspired. Later works of conceptual art must surely have investigated the intersection between socially shaped and displaced cultural identity and simple or not so simple neurological deficits, but at the moment none occur to me. In any case, even creators wearing the identities of novelist and conceptual artist, Tom McCarthy being a notable example, did not essay to mix the two overly; McCarthy’s installations did not appear between hard covers or even as online picture fictions, and his experimental tales had no visual elements once you got past the front cover, which frequently was nothing to write home about. (Writers seldom have much input into design of their books, anyway; A. S. Byatt specified cover images that were important parts of her novels, only to have them discarded when it came time for the paperback edition in America.)
The earlier emergence into general visibility of things like graphic novels had already muddled the picture in their predominant literalism—the correspondence (aesthetically complex though it might be) rather than disjuncture or uncertain tension between word and image. The latter was certainly there in the genre, but was seldom the main point.
The dislocations of the digital take us in yet another direction, not worth pursuing if I am ever to get to my point, which surely must be out there somewhere en route to an ending.
Orhan Pamuk, who began life as a visual artist before realizing that it was a poor career choice in Istanbul, returned to his visual roots with a work of conceptual art that may well establish new parameters for the genre—a permanent Museum of Innocence that contains all of the material objects left behind as evidence of the completely imaginary love affair that Pamuk claims to be recounting at the request of the protagonist in the novel titled The Museum of Innocence. A related book, The Innocence of Objects, is Pamuk’s annotated catalogue of the objects in situ in the museum, which actually exists in the building he bought for the purpose.
We seem to be in Sebald territory on steroids, since the photographs document the actual condition of objects to which false histories are ascribed even as they are contextualized in terms of actually existing Turkish material culture of past decades. On the other hand, Pamuk’s installations of these objects are a bit like Joseph Cornell’s boxes in their evocative juxtapositions; the two books could not be comfortably folded into each other.
Leanne Shapton took a different approach to the narration of a love affair through photographs of material culture with her auction-catalogue novel Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. The entire story, which is an all too common one, is told by way of the description of the successive items being put up for auction by the ex-couple, and the match between photograph and imagined context is as seamless as the match between text and same-size photo images of objects in Bill Burke’s two books narrating his experience in Southeast Asia—but here the fictional quality is obvious, just as Burke’s photographic proof was obviously meant as non-fiction. Unconventional as the formats were, neither venture was the literary “unreliable narrator” of yore turned to visual territory.
Epistemological slippage, however, seemed to be slipping back into literature by way of photography. Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project consisted of commentary starting from photo documentation but not quite ending there. And Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief seemed like an outright homage to Sebald, with photographs that might or might not be directly illustrative, in a novel that started life as a sequence of blog posts from the author’s actual failed return to Nigeria (we have come a long, dialectical way from Aimé Césaire’s famed return to his native land that launched the Négritude movement).
Mathew’s New Republic article contains a useful reference/link to Cole’s interview/conversation with Alexsandar Hemon in Bomb in which Cole discusses Sebald’s example and how the evolution of his novel from an epistolary online format (I believe an epistolary novel is currently being written on Twitter; how many have been written on other social media? Is there a Facebook/Instagram novel? Does putting it between hard covers constitute a genre violation?) affected this project, in which Cole eventually “wanted to stretch the book between the (arbitrary) poles of subjectivity and objectivity (which some would equate with fiction and nonfiction)…I wanted the photos to cover the same range too—but only to complicate reader’s ideas and perceptions.”
That takes us off in some really interesting directions that would make for an excellent article about the uses of photography in works of fiction blurred with nonfiction. (Think of the extent to which the artworld came to believe in the 1980s, without reference to Photoshop or to the kind of totalitarian-state retouching documented in The Commissar Vanishes, that “a photograph is not a piece of evidence for anything.” I would assume that this body of theory found its way into the Sebald criticism that I have never found time to read—at least I can’t imagine it and its successors not playing a role in such analysis.)
History outpaces my ability to write about it; Teju Cole is now a photo critic for the New York Times Magazine. And others will have to write the essays about photography and diaspora literature, identity and image, the distortions imposed by narration and interpretation, and so on. The best I can do these days is 1500 words before breakfast. Which latter it is now time to investigate.