A. The Death Instinct and the Life Instinct:
The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing, dynamic, change.
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Publications discussed here (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):
- Let It Sink by Jim Joyce (victimsofmathematics at gmail, 2013)*
- Filmme Fatales Issue 1, ed. Brodie Lancaster (filmmefatales.com, 2013)*
- Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott (City Lights/Sister Spit, 2013)*
- Collisions by Brendan Monroe (brendanmonroe.com, ??)
- Life Form by Amélie Nothomb, trans. Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2013)*
- Rumspringa by Tom Schachtman (North Point, 2006)
Right now I’m taking a class with some painters—mostly we read, and talk—and the other day, we were talking about endings. For painters, I’m learning endings mean say, photography, and intubated paint, and Rodchenko. I’m a writer so I started thinking about Samuel Beckett, the Independent Press Association, Kathy Acker’s parrots and pirates, her red/read. But more generally, meditating to “This body will be a corpse,” and to be fair that really just used to crack me up. It is very hard for ex-Sad Teenage Girls like myself to meditate to that, because for so long we were like “Yes I know, hurry up already.”
Endings can be cliffs or phoenixes or Frankensteins and anyway, like Sarah Kane says, “the only response is to live with as much humanity, humor, and freedom as you can.” Because you know, my friends aren’t going to stop painting. I’m not going to stop writing. (I don’t mean this in a straightedge sense, I mean it like writing’s what I do. It’s how I work.)
So then my class talked about what happens around the endings, or despite them. We looked at Sanfranchrisko’s pictures of the dust under the Brancusis at MoMA—the dust that’s just collected, the fly eyes and the pieces of skin—and after that, my teachers showed us some pictures of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. In one, she’s just lying in the street, hugging the curb like a parenthesis, and in another she’s shaking hands with one of 8,500 city sanitation workers.
Ukeles is 73, and for over forty years now she’s been Artist in Residence for New York City’s Sanitation Department. She practices “Maintenance Art”, and sure, at first I wondered if that was actually a gross kind of slumming—or a bleeding heart kinda situation, which is sometimes worse. Next, as I’ve cleaned my share of homes and public spaces for money, I wondered if graduate school was somehow morphing my brain. Who am I kidding, reading about maintenance in a textbook? But then I got over myself, because people: Ukeles is rad.
In 2009, Bartholomew Ryan interviewed her for Art In America, and she talked about 1968, when she had her first baby. “And when people would meet me pushing my baby carriage,” Ukeles said, “they didn’t have any questions to ask me. They didn’t say, ‘How is it, to create life? How can you describe this amazing thing?’ These weren’t really questions. It was like I was mute, there was no language.’
“The trajectory was: make something new, always move forward. Capitalism is like that. The people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didn’t like it!” So Ukeles wrote a manifesto for Maintenance Art, which she’s still practicing. Her projects focus on involving everyone—“everyone!”—in community dialogue, long-term projects, and ecological sustainability. Maintenance, Ukeles told Ryan, “is trying to listen to the hum of living. A feeling of being alive, breath to breath.”
Not to be woo-woo, but that’s what I want this column to be about—the hum. I mean, yes of course I am going to review books, and art books. (If you would like me to review yours, or someone else’s, please let me know: mairead dot case at gmail.com). But I am going to review them as objects in time—for example, Collisions, which I write about below, was sent by a friend who found it on tour, and Rumspringa came out in 2006 but I just read it—I am going to write about these books as objects in time, and I am going to write about them as a writer, editor, student, and teacher who wants to get better at these jobs, and be in this community her whole life.
I want this column to be about maintenance, because endings get so much press right now—education is increasingly privatized and teachers are undervalued, slow media is undervalued, pedagogy and art practice and criticism are going weirdo Cerebrus on us—and instead of getting ever-crabbier or just throwing in the towel, I want to talk about how we’re living. How we’re taking care, how we’re keeping the wheels turning. How we’re supporting ourselves long-haul. (Why books? I spend most of my time in libraries and classrooms, and reading, so books seem like a good place to start.)
MAINTENANCE will focus on reviewing new publications, but there’ll always be older ones in the mix. Again, if there’s something you’d like me to cover, please be in touch: mairead dot case at gmail.com. Hi!
Let It Sink by Jim Joyce
Let It Sink is a zine by Jim Joyce, who grew up here in Chicago and now teaches high school English. I read the sample edition. It’s a four-story short with Sam the Sham lyrics on the back, made for “giving to riff-raff on the bus or in bars or libraries.” (Jim gave this to me after his class visited the library where I work, and also he used to live above the hot dog stand on my street.)
Let It Sink is clearly made by someone who reads zines as well as writes them, which is totally the way to go. It has a co-opted Art Shay photo of a person jumping in a trainyard, irregularly-cut pages, and a sweet, complicated border running around all the text. Jim’s voice is loud and sure, and there are run-ons and typos but who cares. I admire him for finishing something else while teaching high school classes, which Lord knows makes me so tired some nights I can barely make eggs for dinner, let alone write.
In my favorite story, Jim talks about other Joyces he knows, including James the novelist but also “John, James, Ed, Tom, Ed, Tom, James, Tom; all our Chicago names jingling around from 22nd Street to 127th.” I read Let It Sink front to back on my commute one morning, happily, and if you’d like to do the same, email me your mailing address. First dibs gets it!
Filmme Fatales Issue 1, ed. Brodie Lancaster
Filmme Fatales is a magazine (no barcode, but a logo, a gorgeous heavyweight color cover, and a glossy center spread) about film and feminism, edited by Brodie Lancaster of Melbourne, Australia. The introduction shouts out to characters in their “post-college, pre-career funk,” women who love Lena Dunham but know she can’t speak for everyone. Lancaster founded Filmme Fatales in response to that, and while there’s a lot to love here I was also frustrated by how “everyone” seems to mean cisgendered, straight-but-queer-friendly white women (with the exception of Jonah D. Ansell, whose She-Ra essay is printed in the very back).
But then I paused, as while of course it’s OK to wish, it’s not always OK to impose. The contributors to Filmme Fatales do a brave, beautiful job looking at where it seems they’re from (the centerfold is Kiki Dunst, dreamy beween diamonds and cake: “We get it. Weddings suck”; so good!), and props to Lancaster for publishing her own writing too, both a thinkpiece about watching sexual violence in film and a charming valentine to one of her heroines, the actress Mae Whitman. Her heart here is clear. My favorite piece was Lauren Vadnjal’s essay about Kristen Stewart’s Marylou, in the upcoming On The Road movie. While I don’t agree with all Vadnjal’s romanticisms, her focus and passion helped my gut get past the lack of female pronouns in that book and consider the story for real, for probably the first time in fifteen years.
Cha-Ching! by Ali Liebegott
Cha-Ching! is Ali Liebegott’s third book, and one of the first from Sister Spit’s City Lights imprint. It’s a love story about a girl—say the press releases; also, Liebegott’s character is named Theo and identifies as a sirma’amsir—in her twenties in 90s Brooklyn. As the book starts, Theo drives suddenly but directly from San Francisco to New York, with a rescue dog named Carey Grant, a renewed commitment to sobriety, money won gambling, and a chest tattoo that was supposed to be a dagger but looks more like a penis. Theo is so hungry, and hungry, and makes some really truly terrible decisions, all while winning the reader’s love and support for real. I loved Theo like I loved Craig Finn’s Holly and Charlemagne, and two-thirds of the way through, when Liebegott flips from Theo’s thoughts to the thoughts of Marisol, a girl Theo’s dating, the book got bigger than its protagonist and I teared up on the bus. I really admire how clearly Liebegott writes about sex, money, and need, and how her characters have their hearts on their sleeves even still.
Collisions by Brendan Monroe
My friend Mattilda is on a tour for her book, The End of San Francisco, and she found this zine in Los Angeles and sent it to me. It’s all black, white, and gray, with no words except for Brendan’s contact info on the back in silver script. There’s a tension between the bleak contrasts of that look and the looping, multiplying graphics—an explosion on each page. Some look like Spirographs or math problems, others like dandelion seeds blowing away. When I looked at Monroe’s website I realized these were drawings of particles colliding at light speed, after data from the Large Hadron Collider at SERN, in Switzerland, which made me love them twice. This zine is gorgeous, and I want to keep it on my bookshelf for a very long time.
Life Form by Amélie Nothomb, trans. Alison Anderson
Two of my favorite women writing in French today are Annie Ernaux (whose book The Possession is my ur-breakup diary) and Amélie Nothomb. Nothomb, the daughter of Belgian diplomats, lived the first five years of her life in Japan and loved it dearly, so much so that she wrote The Character of Rain—an autobiographical novel about a three-year-old Belgian girl in Japan, who sees her life in water and tubes. Her books are hilarious, powerful, and full-hearted. They almost always have her face on them too—big eyes, dark and stormy hair—so whenever I see a new one at the bookstore it feels like bumping into a friend.
Nothomb’s latest, Life Form, which is also her nineteenth, really starts when she opens a letter from Melvin Mapple, a fan and American soldier fighting in Iraq. Mapple loves Nothomb’s weird writing so thinks she’d get him, and eventually he tells her he has a serious problem with food. He has eaten so much he can barely fit into his XXXXL uniform anymore. To cope, Mapple names his fat Scheherazade, and at night he’s not lonely because he imagines she’s hugging him. Nothomb is both touched and grossed out, and she writes him back, and they start corresponding regularly. I read this book in a night at the bar, over a hamburger, and admired it as a novel within Nothomb’s oeuvre, a novel in letters, and a look at this war through someone else’s eyes.
Rumspringa by Tom Schachtman
A couple weeks ago, after a day of writing I baggied a sandwich, ate dinner waiting for the bus, and rode into the Loop to see Spring Breakers. I hustled to the early show because it meant I could wander into After-Words Books afterwards, let myself buy one before the store closed. I picked Rumspringa, Schachtman’s book about sixteen-year-old Amish teenagers, and the period of time when they’re allowed to experiment with drugs, sex, cars, and school as a way of discerning whether or not they’re truly meant for the Amish life, permanently. It seemed a good compliment to the movie. The lady who sold it to me said she’d read two chapters in advance, back before it came out, and liked them.
The scope of the book is really stunning—case study after case study, in context but without English judgment so—it seems to me—you could read the book if you knew nothing about rumspringa, or if you knew everything but wanted to talk about it. (Schachtman directed a documentary about rumspringa, too.) We meet Johnny, who falls in hard fast love with major league baseball, Faron Y., who was frightened by falling stars at eleven and ran away from home when he was fourteen; we meet eldest daughters, an “Amish drug ring”, and Amish parents trying to support their children’s discernment as faithfully as they possibly can. I stayed up reading The New Inquiry’s Spring Breakers insert and this book’s first several chapters, then had strange dreams about hot green bikinis and electricity-free farms.