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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Arielle Greenberg reviews

The Body by Jenny Boully

Slope Editions, $12.95

For better (what a challenge!) or for worse (what the hell?), the form The Body takes brings up a number of questions about itself before one begins to read a word. In this, her first book, Jenny Boully has invented an elaborately footnoted text on absence, love, ontology and identity — minus the text. Thus, the majority of each page is blank; the body is missing. Confronted with such a puzzle, the smart reader will begin to make demands: how am I to read this book? Is this book going to poke a hole in my idea of a book? What will it do besides poking a hole in that idea? What will it do besides commenting on poking a hole in that idea? And finally, are footnotes enough?

To the last question first: yes and no: an appropriately ambiguous answer for an ambiguous, but admirably ambitious, project. The footnotes are frustrating at first, partly because one can’t envision what the ‘body’ text of the invisible book would be — trying to ‘fill in the blanks’ is a futile exercise, as the footnotes range in style and substance from stage directions to diary excerpts to notes like no. 148: ‘Ibid., conclusion.’ With the work already so fragmented and concerned in marking things absent, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that one could fully imagine a text for which these annotations might be appropriate, but even the genre of ‘the real book’ is unclear. Interesting, perhaps, but since the footnotes themselves are already complex and various, an anchoring sense of center, of foundation, would be helpful. Although The Body is clearly not about solidity, the lack of presence — even erased presence — winds up feeling a bit sloppy rather than mysterious.

The footnotes themselves are similarly scattered: some in the perfunctory style of an editor (no. 34: ‘This was corrected in the second edition by the author. In the original, she wrote: ‘Prayer is merely a hopeful form of apostrophe.’’), some are in the first person of the author (no. 33: ‘All the same, how strange and sad that I, Jenny Boully, should be the sign of a signifier. . .’), still others in the voice of an omniscient commentator who somehow knows the inner life of every character in the drama (no. 68: ‘Actually, what she most desired was someone who would pay close attention to details. . .’). What book would have footnotes from such disparate sources? Again, this may be part of the fun, of the experiment, but it’s also somewhat misleading, and further lends the book its patch-worked quality.

Which is not to say that The Body is unfocused. This is a sustained, intricate project, concerned with profound issues and riddled with fine gems of language and insight. Boully is able to subtly draw fascinating connections betweens species of absent bodies, from former lovers to heroes mythical and personal, and she has woven the book from compelling notions of other lacks, from the simulacra of films, theater and dreams to the falsities of irony. The Body demands that we rethink the implications of evocation — what happens when something stands in place of something else, whether that thing be a mentor, a monument, or a missive? The entire book is an alias to itself. Footnote no. 156: ‘The essence behind the curtain, i.e., the stage, is composed of the yearning to determine what may be seen and what will remain unseen. This should be understood in the definition of ‘staging.’’

Some of the most clever moments in the book are meta-manifestations of the missing text, as in the many footnotes which read as a kind of miscommuniqué between unknown partners, as in no. 62: ‘To this particular question, she always answered, ‘No comment.’’ The message becomes more wonderfully empty here:

79 She wrote about this particular postcard in her journal:

. . .Why should I be the one responsible for explanations? [illegible] accused me of speaking in cryptic codes and waxing poetic. But why should I waste language, which has never done [illegible] and I any good? Why should I waste language, when one sentence says all that needs to be said, says where I’ve been, whom I’ve seen, what I’m doing, whom I’m missing, and whom I wish were there?. . .

The many layers are delightful: a puff pastry of undone meaning.

In other places, however, the work feels bogged down in academic rhetoric, too beholden to semiotics and cinema studies and overdressed in references to Joyce, Dante, and Derrida. There is also exactly one blank page with no footnotes or text whatsoever, and exactly one blank footnote — these moves felt requisite instead of earned, and smacked of gimmick, as did this footnote, no. 102:

If the window is open, then true. If the door is abruptly shut, then false. If the villanelle was blond, then add five points to your answer. If she was drinking a dirty martini, subtract 60 points for fear. If you forgot her name, wait out a turn. If love, then the ace of spades: for everything else, reshuffle and deal again.

Seeing that no other footnote makes mention of any such games or rules, this passage seems forced.

These flaws are those of a young writer in thrall to her own experimentation. Ironically, while Boully frequently mocks the controversy over emotional honesty in poetry, her own work soars when she risks vulnerability and fully and vividly explores a felt moment, as in footnote no. 29:

After my sister and I stared at the magazine, we were, the both of us, afraid to part our legs or even to pee. For months, we were inseparable in the bathroom, but then, we became brave and decided to look for our holes, and if the spider did in fact come out we would kill it.

Or in this excerpt from a love letter in footnote no. 42:

If this were a cartoon, you would be a giraffe & I’d be a mouse & we’d live in a sycamore-leaf shaped house & we’d fight all the time, that is, when you could hear me, your head being so high up, so far off; I’d sleep in your little alarm clock, sing a morning song for you, chew holes in your favorite socks, hide my best straw and bits of yarn in your breast pocket, let you use my tail to mark your places in books. . .

Or in this marvelously surreal annotation to footnote no. 100:

In the morning, the doves cooed their fuck-yous. And she departed, taking the wrong baggage, the wrong flight of stairs. Over the fire escape, the dress fluttered in the misdirected wind. Because he never said a word, the bits and pieces of her: lipstick and rose petals, sugar-spoons and pink envelopes, ended up in the wrong pockets. And damn-it-all-to-hell if someone didn’t, overnight, uproot and replant the road signs in all the most-traveled but wrong intersections. In the cathedral, the font was never so wanton, yet it liked that dipping of fingers again and again, and the candles were so whorish in their sharing of flames.

Such passages lend the book its charm, and keep it from feeling like an exercise — they give the work its humanity.

But so, how best to read it? The key is perhaps found in annotation z to footnote no. 143, which comes only a few pages from the end: the footnote quotes a character called Del Vecchio as saying about Jenny Boully, one assumes: ‘And then she started going on and on about this Robert Kelly [z] guy,’ and annotation [z] reads:

The following excerpt from Robert Kelly’s ‘Edmund Wilson on Alfred de Musset: The Dream’ was pasted above the author’s various beds in the various places she lived: ‘Dreams themselves are footnotes. But not footnotes to life. Some other transactions they are so busy annotating all night long.’

Does The Body poke a hole in the notion of a book? Certainly, like Thalia Field’s recent debut Point and Line (both Field and Kelly provide the blurbs on the back of The Body), it offers an invigorating new approach to the idea of a text, of fiction, of essay, of poetry collection. But does it do more than poke a hole in that idea? Yes. Boully’s book is, in the best sense, a restless effort, curious and full of rich curiosities, and signals a courageous and thoughtful new voice in literature.

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