Leslie Scalapino

2002 • 227 pp. • $15.95
ISBN: 9781931243445
(Published by Sun & Moon Press)

Out of Print

Defoe is an epic where images of battle become meditations, an epic wherein events flap in silence as the narrative moves toward a place where the reader and text become one. The images of this fiction don’t resemble events, but are new occurrences in time and space. In Part I, Waking Life, the heroine, in love with James Dean, discovers herself in a desert pocked with fires in which the “henna man”—a drug dealer—is being carried in a white cocoon. And throughout Scalapino’s work the reader is taken into a world where the written word creates “an event retrieved from so far back that it is separated from memory.”

“San Francisco poet Leslie Scalapino’s first work of long fiction is fascinating and challenging.

“Defoe” is part dream, nightmare or hallucination, part philosophical and social commentary, part musing on perception and imagination. The book defies categorization. Call it something as vague as “a prose narrative,” and we’re already on slippery ground: The “prose” reads like poetry; the “narrative” is disjointed, fragmentary, dislodged from the flow of time. Call it “a lyrical poem,” and we’ve failed to account for the book’s polemic thrust. Call it “an elegy on the world’s manifold cruelties,” and we’ve missed much else.

The question on what “Defoe” is touches on a major concern of the book’s. One of Scalapino’s insights is that how we perceive—and encode in language and narrative what we perceive—is not merely inherently different from the event in real time but removes us from it in a pernicious manner. Among other things, her book is in itself an attempt to challenge the encoding that we practice in our encounters with “reality” and even in the writing of fiction.

This attempt takes on many forms. It appears as the isolated image described in ways that defamiliarize: A woman “is lying on the nude back under the fan undulating distortedly on the ceiling”; a dog’s carcass, gleaming phosphorescently, becomes “the illuminated dog.” It appears as strands of narrative connected in odd ways. It appears as cryptic ruminations on what seeing entails: “Seeing in an old way overtly evident in this time as if the earlier construction of seeing were naïve though regarded by one as real and as consistent in this time is silent reading.” The narrator concludes that our inability to see makes us prone to being manipulated into brutality and callousness by corporations, politicians and journalists, who use language to create the “reality” of their choice.

Riddles engage the mind. Unavoidably the reader tries to understand the occurrences in the book—what character is looking for work, or being made love to, or killed, and by whom—or to determine the references to the world outside, examples being the Vietnam and Gulf wars, our inner cities, Daniel Defoe, the homeless, comic books and the detective story.

At the same time, and this is one of the fascinating things about “Defoe,” these mental processes are opposed by the visual and dreamlike aspects of the text, which lend it a hypnotic quality. The desert, moon and sun, bodies of water, flights of swans, figures in black robes without eyeholes, are recurrent images lyrically rendered. “Read slowly, without using the mind” is one of the book’s instructions, and it is tempting to follow it. Take this section: “It is moving backwards or turned around. The hennaed man alive for only an instant, who’s never been alive is it, and not being myself riding up the street a while ago, people crossing out or standing. Crossing, and they’re alive for an instant the same as the hennaed man. (as which is in this.) and so it’s in them. Who may see each other.”

Emphatically not a book to be raced through, “Defoe” is well worth silent hours of reading in which comfortable notions of what eye and mind reveal to us about the world are put to the test and found wanting.”
— Evelin Sullivan (San Francisco Chronicle)

“In her subversive and prismatic texts, Leslie Scalapino explodes the authority of narrative and writes fictions that cross all of the boundaries of conventional literature-between past and present, dreaming and waking, poetry and prose, illumination and obscurity. In Defoe, the latest installment in her enigmatical ouvre, Scalapino assembles a fiction in which the life around the narrator is perceived as a stream of disconnected strands of observation-gestures, movements, half-articulated phrases-and the reader becomes both participant and witness in her constantly unfolding, fragmentary narrative.

Scalapino’s writing has the fluid quality of a dream-art written with the half-lucid logic of sleep. Characters-the word seems vacuous in the context of this book-are more comparable to points on a plane than they are to flesh-and-blood people. Figures such as the Negative Jewel (a pool player), the henna man (who is being carried across a desert in a cocoon), a dog trailing…, and others identified only by their initials drift through the narrative. The writing is tinctured with political commentary and punctuated by passages of startling lucidity. Journalistic coverage of the Persian Gulf War, the savings and loan scandal, the Rodney King beating, and the Los Angeles elusive quality in collective experience–and also the tool by which individuals become complacent consumers of public narratives.

Not until halfway through the book does the reader discover that the persona of Daniel Defoe has been assumed by our heroine, whose observations of present time parallel his half-fictional “journalism”: “Defoe wrote journalistic pamphlets, yet made up what he said. It isn’t accurate. As is of this also.”

As a literary work, Defoe most closely resembles the sort of automatic writing pioneered by Breton and Soupault; as a political and philosophical critique of contemporary discourse, Defoe reveals a deep affinity with the works of Heidegger and Derrida. But ultimately–perhaps most controversially–it is a call to writers to liberate themselves from the limits of narrative and embrace a new kind of writing. In her own words, Scalapino urges writers to “Make writing that is held to present-time and does not arise from the memory. Get to the point when fiction is so transparent and separated that it doesn’t exist.” ”
— Sun & Moon Reviews

“Reading this book at different times, I try to make my life congruent with its own, which its author has spread around and refracted through samplings, revisions, and shards of recognition (reminiscence of a recent War, a city’s street life, a ‘50s movie, and much else) stirred into startling an insistence into play.

Reading it confuses, alienates, and reforms me. At times it is difficult or painful to think while reading it, and at times to think is all there is to do. The efforts to allow words to analyze or reflect the passions of an unmediated apprehension buffet these states through the text and so reading has involved feeling. That the narrative’s traumatic events matter arrests me in the tracks that I erratically trace. The memory informing them is of variable familiarity, and its operations argue for both analysis and leaps into assumption.

I pursue this practice, reading it, as a meditation, insecure in its ambiguity as object (a mantra) and surround (the stream). The text reflects or shimmers with my uncertainty, irritating the authority of distinction between mind (inside) and world (out), which radiate through one another according to their terrible rhythms throughout this fierce, unnerving book.”
— Steve Benson

“I think that DEFOE is a work of genius on the scale of Finnegan’s Wake, The Making of Americans, The Disasters of War and Guernica. But while Scalapino’s work deserves comparison to that of Joyce, Stein, Goya and Picasso, it is Kathy Ackers oeuvre I want to invoke here. The universe of Acker’s fiction-built-from-fiction is abusive, apocalyptic and “in your face,” The horror (whore-her) of her narratives derives from the ways in which sexuality and violence are casually, causally and explicitly intertwined. Something related but different is happening in DEFOE.

DEFOE effects a king of dull affect, a resolute flattening of language horizoning perception and consciousness, description and event. Fantasies, autobiography, commentary on current events, film and DEFOE itself, merge with dream narratives to produce a landscape less blatant but more terrifying than anything to be found in Acker’s work. Scalapino’s anger and passion are evident but mightily restrained. Her strategy of understatement pays off in a major way with DEFOE’s overwhelming cumulative effect.

Working out of received fictions, Kathy Acker’s writing highlights our culture’s essentional dysfunctions. Scalapino’s enacts a backdoor move on the received through a poetic phenomenology of the perceived in which “the fiction is so transparent and separated that it doesn’t exist.”

DEFOE is one of those rare works of art which will not be exhausted of its meaning. And Leslie Scalapino is that rarest of writers—one who is utterly awake.”
— Tom Beckett

“Formerly innovative long fiction in two parts, both of which investigate the changes that a person undergoes, and how that person perceives time, sequencing, and cause-and-effect in different ways. Events occur within the mind—whether or not there is a physical, measurable phenomenon that others observe is quite beside the point. Scalapino writes, “Time is flattened. Out on the street skittering onto the empty lot of the gas station, with the faces with pumps by the cars. This occurs later./ This occurs before the morning: dawn having squeezed out the gas station.” In DEFOE, the protagonist is represented inside as well as outside the narrative. As in other works, Scalapino utilizes the form of the comic book frame in order to sequence and clarify events so that they take the shape of a frozen-in-space configuration that is observable outside of itself. What comes to the surface in the comic frame is the ordering gaze of the viewer, whose sense of vision further freezes the frame and connects it with other images that have already been lodged within the mind. The narrative is written in an accessible, entertaining manner, with informal diction that leads the reader effortlessly through the surreal landscape. The desert is a place of decimation and transformation, not unlike (at times) Road Warriors or A Boy and His Dog. As in those films, the narrative doubles as a representation of the structures of the mind.”
— Susan Smith Nash

Leslie Scalapino (1944 – 2010) is the author of thirty books of poetry, prose inter-genre-fiction, plays, and essays. Granary Book just published a collaborative book by artist Kiki Smith and Leslie Scalapino, titled The Animal is in the World like Water in Water. Scalapino’s It’s go in horizontal/Selected Poems, 1974-2006 was published by University of California Press at Berkeley in 2008. Other books of Scalapino’s poetry include Day Ocean State of Stars’ Night (Green Integer), a collection of eight years; Zither & Autobiography (Wesleyan University Press), The Tango (Granary Press), Orchid Jetsam (Tuumba), Dahlia’s Iris—Secret Autobiography and Fiction (FC2 Publishers); a reprint of the prose work Defoe (Green Integer); and It’s Go In Quiet Illumined Grass Land (The Post-Apollo Press).