I got caught up in the wave of Bruce Boone mania that swept Portland earlier this month, but because I lost my notes, and because so much of the fun was in the table talk, it’s been hard to decide what to report on here.
There shouldn’t really be a problem; the book he read from is newly available from Nightboat Books, while table talk—with its intimacy, off-the-cuff fluency, elevation of the incidental, and promise of access to circles outside the recipient’s ken—is already part of the weave of Boone’s writing.
Robbie Dewhurst gave a remote introduction, all CA Conrad/Small Press Traffic-style, through the vox of David Abel that noted Boone’s ability to “connect to a universe in which emotionality and experiment are not mutually exclusive terms,” a take on his work that reminded me of something Dana Ward says in his Century of Clouds review: “What happens to us is profound because our feelings are endeared to our politics by way of lived relations.” Some of the recent excitement around Boone’s work I think involves his special fusion of the “third-person” registers of theory, experiment, and political sophistication with the kind of “emotionality” and personal affections that come most alive in second-person address. The split between the two has always been more tonal than philosophical, since theory and affections can nuzzle up in any way anyone wants them to, but Boone’s especially deft at carrying on like there’s no gap to bridge at all.
His route to the join in Century of Clouds is to tell a friend about the goings-on at the then-recent meeting of the Marxist Literary Group in St. Cloud, MN some thirty summers back. The straightforward formal frame turns out to allow for all kinds of complex refractions and meta-moments, where the actors in the story replicate the power hierarchies they’re so earnestly out to take down. That a gaggle of literary Marxists should themselves become subjects of literature is already kind of delicious, like those scenes in movies where the camera swivels around to include the studio and crew in the shot. The result is that anything the characters say in the story becomes a potential commentary on the story, really on the nature of story itself, which is also the topic of the conference that drives the plot. The set-up allows for the most ordinary details—a volleyball game, a passed note, a Midwestern sunset, or a leisurely discussion of ceremony—to move simultaneously in multiple directions, from critique to metaphor to pathetic fallacy to objective correlative to fierce reportage, without strong-arming the reader to settle on any one.
Boone’s own situation, having recently turned 70, reading in his hometown for the first time from a newly “rediscovered” book published more than a quarter century ago, added an extra dimension to the narrative layering. For me, it gave his story the quality of a grand summing up, so that sunsets, the evening crossing of bridges, the falling arc of a volleyball, or the climactic rising up of our narrator to call out the academic Marxists on their homophobia all felt like tropes for ending, or interrogations of the idea of endings, a narrative convention that in Boone’s hands can feel casually descriptive, craftily contrived, and mythically profound all at the same time.
Early on, Boone read a passage in which he and another conference attendee talk about Marxism and funerals. Are they too bourgeois? Unnecessary? Should they be thrown out completely, or re-tooled to fit new social needs? What would a proletarian funeral look like? Do humans need ceremony, or should they be weaned from the urge for that kind of order? Aside from its obvious connection to death, the ultimate story-ender, the scene works equally well as a wry commentary on the ceremonial status of all manner of social conventions, from academic power structures to class divisions to religious rites to syntax itself, maybe the quintessential ceremony for enforcing and preserving communal meanings.
Boone deals with these heavy questions with such a light, insistent touch that when he told us he was skipping the volleyball game which launches the ball whose fall the story ends with, you could practically hear the audience collectively sigh.
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