Sunday, February 24, 2008

Approaching perfection

As a way to clear my mind and get myself properly thinking, cooking is really the only rival in my life to running. The methodical, repetitive nature of the work--combined with the division of attention that is forced by the number of necessarily simultaneous tasks--leads my mind to slowly cede active control over my movements. Whatever portion of my brain is assigned the task of not burning the garlic and onions while chopping the kale and keeping an eye on the broth seems to decouple from the part of my mind that is composed of sentences--and, lulled, I'm set free to think and write. (And then afterwards there are dishes to be washed, that most relaxing and contemplative of activities, which a poet friend once characterized as dealing with "finite objects in an infinite task.")

All this is by way of a preamble to a moment of synchronicity that occurred in my kitchen a while back. As I was prepping some vegetables, I glanced at a pot full of water on the verge of boiling. As I watched, a stream of tiny bubbles began to free themselves from the bottom of the pot and wend their way, with increasing speed, to the surface, where they broke exuberantly into nothingness. After I'd been watching for a few seconds I realized that the bubbles were rising and breaking in perfect time to the pleasantly formless electro-dance music that was playing on the stereo. With each beat, a bubble would burst, and as the almost reluctant off-beat took its turn, another bubble would set forth on its journey. The conjunction lasted a surprisingly long time, a seamless, mesmerizing melding of art and the accidents of the physical world.

As I watched, the unexpected perfection of the moment reminded me of a passage I heard Marilynne Robinson read at a writers' workshop in the summer of 1996. At that point, Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, was sixteen years behind her, and many readers wondered why she had not yet written a second novel, or whether she ever would do so. Though I had never quite understood the passion readers felt for Houskeeping--it's a memorable novel, but I find its narrative voice frequently unconvincing--as soon as Robinson began to read I was fully engaged, even enrapt, as if she were feeding words directly into my brain. It was an unforgettable experience, some of the best, most powerful writing I've ever encountered--yet at the same time I instantly understood why Robinson hadn't published anything for so many years. Such a definitive statement is of course absurdly presumptuous, but it really was what I thought at that moment: though she'd introduced the passage as being from a novel in progress, it was impossible to imagine what she read as forming any part of a sustained work.

And yet . . . it was just a passage about a bowl of blueberries. Freshly washed, resting in a cut glass bowl (or was it a colander?), they sat on a counter in the fading sun of late afternoon, the sun glimmering off the beads of water that clung to their purplish flesh. But Robinson described them so attentively, so luxuriantly, so--there's no other word for it--perfectly, that they became the most delectable, the most unforgettable, the most real blueberries imaginable. Even had they been present in the room, I'm not sure they could have been more obviously existing as a part of our universe. For those moments, the fineness of Robinson's attention made the very substance of the world seem divine.

It's possible that my memory of the passage is inaccurate in some way; it's also possible that Robinson also read about something beyond or aside from the blueberries. Regardless, the feeling of the shimmering reality she conjured up is still strongly resonant nearly a dozen years later.

Yet even as I was listening I thought--and still in some sense do think--that writing of that pitch of intensity would be utterly unsustainable over the course of a novel. For a reader and writer both, it would seem akin to running a marathon while holding to a pace appropriate for a 100-yard dash. When Gilead (which I do think is an exceptional novel) was published eight years later, it didn't contain that passage, and I wondered whether my instincts had been right. But what if they're not? What if I'm setting an artificial boundary on what can be done in art?

The thought brings to mind two of my favorite moments from John Ashbery's Three Poems. First, the temptation:
I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.
Leaving it all out is seductive--and not just because it can sometimes be easier. Maybe some form of that temptation is driving my pessimism about the possibility of sustaining such intensely observed reality. But perhaps Robinson would seize on the counter that Ashbery offers later in the poem:
Because life is short
We must remember to keep asking it the same question
Until the repeated question and the same silence become answer
In words broken open and pressed to the mouth
And the last silence reveal the lining
Until at last this thing exist separately
At all levels of the landscape and in the sky
And in the people who timidly inhabit it
Ultimately I keep hoping I'm wrong--that Robinson's next novel, or a work by someone else entirely, will take me by the hand and show me that, yes, the world can be apprehended, and loved, at that level of detail, yet that the attention can still somehow be extended as well, be as accommodating and expansive as is allowed by the capacious form of the novel.

I know I've not forgotten the perfection I glimpsed in the passage Robinson read; my guess is that she hasn't either, and that she'll keep worrying at it and mulling it until what once really was impossible is suddenly real and alive and existing. As long as the world offers up beautiful moments, as long as the dancing bubbles occasionally surprise us by matching up with the beats, the real artists will keep trying.

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