Sunday, August 25, 2013

Vanessa Place

I haven't been posting much here lately- this feels mostly abandoned, thoughts about comics are up at, thoughts about music will maybe run in print in Acres magazine, and while I've been reading a lot of prose fiction this year, I am imagining I will save all those thoughts until the end of the year, at which point I will make a monstrous post about a year's worth of reading.

But one of the books of prose I've read recently is a bit of non-fiction published by a comics publisher- Bob Levin's Most Outrageous, published by Fantagraphics. That's a book about the life and trial of Dwaine Tinsley, Hustler cartoonist, who was accused by his daughter of molesting her as she grew up. Showing up late in the book, as the attorney handling Tinsley's in a court of appeals, is Vanessa Place, who, coincidentally, is one of the writers whose books I've read this year.

Vanessa wrote a book of non-fiction about her work as an appellate attorney representing sex offenders, The Guilt Project, which is an interesting book for, I guess, its ambiguous morality, its nuanced point in an area that would probably bother a lot of people. Her argument is counterintuitive, I suppose, in the sense of "intuition" as a synonym for "gut reaction." You can read a "conceptual review" of this book that consists entirely of quotes from the book itself, edited by a person uncredited.

Place also wrote a completely awesome massive brick of a novel, LA MEDUSA, published by FC2, which really made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing as I went about my own fiction-writing. A bit of text on the back cover describes it as "a polyphonic novel of post-conceptual consciousness." The main thing Place is known for being, I suppose, or what her public persona at this point revolves around, what she maybe holds out hope to get a tenured professorial position on the basis of, is her work as a conceptual poet. She was written texts explicating her aims, the goals of this project, and has put out works that are conceptual poems, mostly in the sense of being appropriated texts. The work that makes me most wince is a thing called "Statement Of Facts" which is based around court documents, appellate briefs she's filed. "Not for the squeamish" in any number of ways. The conceptualism makes me uncomfortable, as a writer- It's sort of a feeling related to the "this is so good it makes me feel like I don't know what I'm doing" of LA MEDUSA, but also feels like someone operating at another irony level than you, a frame around a frame, away from earnest expression, the sort of thing that makes people nervous and self-conscious. It is a strange fright but probably you have felt it. Perhaps I have even made you feel this way, at some point in the past.

I think an interesting thing about feminist art is its ability to make a male audience uncomfortable, by upsetting their presumed authority. I think that's awesome, theoretically, and in a lot of ways making men more self-conscious about the things they do unthinkingly is a bit of fair play. What Place does would probably make a lot of self-identified feminists uncomfortable, both with what she does for a living and how she turns that into art, all the ways she turns these things, which she certainly understands the horrors of, into capital of one kind or another. That said, I would urge anyone upset by the mere concept to track down a copy of The Guilt Project. I am doing the book a disservice by not really going into it, specifically out of respect for the intelligence of an imagined reader of this blog- does this blog still have readers? All the comments are from spambots- that they track down the works in question to actually do the reading. Although as I say this I should perhaps acknowledge the irony that I haven't read Place's critical writing about conceptual writing. I should note, also, how in LA MEDUSA, despite its lack of emotion, it proves that Place can write- Her conceptual appropriations cannot be dismissed as the defense mechanism of someone who can't write.

In another weird coincidence, much like Place showing up as a figure in the Bob Levin book, another one of the great books I've read this year, the other novel of notable length, is Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity, and that is a book written by a public defender of indigents in New York City, and is a good introduction to the moral necessity of defense attorneys, in a legal system that is pretty much stacked in favor of putting people who've been arrested behind bars for as long as possible.