Thursday, April 25, 2013

Anonymity, terrible anonymity

When I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I was the fine arts editor of City on a Hill Press, the student newspaper. As if eager to confirm what I wrote just yesterday (“The secret to understanding literature—any literature—is wide reading and long experience, which leaves the beginner practically worthless as a critic”), I was also the paper’s book critic. As a senior sophomore, I reviewed Another Shore, the only novel by the late George Hitchcock, the editor of the one-man magazine kayak who did so much to make Santa Cruz something like Black Mountain West. At Santa Cruz there was a passionate attachment to art which was strictly non-discursive. I’m not sure I was the best person, given my literary loyalties, to be the fine arts editor of the student newspaper there. At all events, my old friend Rand Careaga—we were at Santa Cruz together, he also studied under Hitchcock—sends along a clipping of the review I wrote at 22 20 of the novel I described in my obituary of Hitchcock as “utter nonsense,” but a “merry read.” Here it is. For the historical record or something.

Another Shore, by George Hitchcock, Kayak, $2.00

The novels of poets are a curious lot. Ideally the poet brings to the form that, in America, has been suckled on the peculiar notion of escape into realism a linguistic sense of illusion. Having worked a lifetime with the limitations of language, the poet seems to be in a position to overcome or surpass realism. The fact of his art allows him to differentiate between the limits of reality and the limits of illusion. His linguistic sensibility is the perfect literary foil.

The distinction between illusion and reality is central to poet George Hitchcock’s novel, Another Shore. But as in Ellison’s Invisible Man, here the sense of illusion becomes a question of identity.

The nameless narrator of the book is sent to “potentially hostile territory” as a spy whose mission is to identify the enemy. His superior, Colonel Negundo, says, “What has become decisive in all branches of warfare is the question of identity. . . . The central problem, the existential problem if you like, without which nothing else makes sense, is the question of identity.” Thus the narrator of Another Shore becomes another Invisible Man who, in tabbing the illusion about him, comes to grips with his own non-identity: “. . . that what began as an artifice has become my master: anonymity, terrible anonymity.” It is a paradox that he must become anonymous (and yet seek the identity of “the enemy”). In having no identity himself, nothing else about him does make sense. It is as the Invisible Man put it, “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE FREE OF ILLUSION. . . . And now I answered, ‘Painful and empty’ . . .”

Appropriately, the title of Another Shore comes from the lament of the Mock Turtle in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

“What matters is how far we go?” his scaly friend replied.
“There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”
Like Alice, the nameless narrator has come to a one-dimensional land of surface actions and interactions. It is not even the form of the land that is dreamlike, but that, in coming from that “other side,” the narrator brings with him an inherent dualism. It is the dualism between illusion and reality. This “another shore” cannot appear but as illusory.

Given this context, Hitchcock allows his wit and imagination to develop freely. The narrator’s experiences range fully between the hilarious and the horrific.

There are, of course, no characters in the novel. Soon after parachuting into “hostile territory,” the nameless narrator is wed to a local girl named Flavia. But he leaves Flavia quickly; and she appears and reappears throughout the rest of the book in different roles and modes, climaxing in a scene of sacrificial terror.

It is not that Hitchcock is unable to create characters. It is that the realm of illusion is uninhabited. The nameless narrator come to term himself “a witness to God’s changing identity.” He is a voyeur of the changing nature of illusion about him, of his own ever-changing anonymity.

As a novelist, George Hitchcock becomes not a metaphysician, but a metarealist. All of the illusions of Another Shore are eninently real, to the reader as well as to the nameless narrator of the book. There is something above realm, fictional or otherwise. Like Alice in Wonderland, its genesis is perhaps dreamlike; but its playing out is immediately and charmingly lifelike.

This is a tribute to Hitchcock’s language. The prose of Another Shore never slops into didacticism, or slips into surreal vacuity. While the nature of the novel demands an absence of character, the fiction of George Hitchcock never requires characterization to give it vitality. Mr. Hitchcock has written a fine novel in which the portrayal of and obsession with illusion is achieved in a remarkable tension. It is more than just fun to read.


Rand Careaga said...

Actually, David, you reviewed this as a sophomore, not a senior, so cut yourself some slack. I was a college dropout at the time, having flunked out at (of all places!) UCR, whence I'd been shunted after failing to make the last cut in the then-competitive UC Santa Cruz admissions process, all my alternative campus choices being by then closed. I passed most of the 1971-72 school year discreetly homeless at UCSC, spending most of my waking hours in the University Library, and probably acquired half my post-secondary education during that period. I also washed dishes on campus, a career track I pursued through 1976, by way of developing the only marketable skill I actually acquired at UCSC. Given my present line of work I would have done very well to have attached myself to William Everson and his letterpress.

I should mention that it was your review that first made me aware, as I lurked on campus pestering the admissions office, of Another Shore and of Hitchcock. I never made the connection until the other day when I followed a link to the ACB doppelganger site I have called to your attention elsewhere.

Rand Careaga said...

Further to this post: Your review duplicated Hitchcock's own misquote of Lewis Carroll:

"What matters is how far we go..."

Which ought of course have been "What matters it" et cetera. I noticed that at the time, but never got round to asking George about it. I still think it was a typo.