‘SSES”‘SSES”“SSEY’ by Chaulky White. $24.00, 200 pp. Calamari Press/Calamari Archive, Ink
My first encounter with ‘SSES”‘SSES”“SSEY’—via an excerpt published online in the literary journal Sleepingfish—was, for reasons I’ll elucidate shortly, short-lived. To be honest, I was intimidated, and not only because I hadn’t read The Odyssey since high school, or Ulysses since college (turns out, this actually didn’t really matter). What more intimidated me was the textbook-like plenum that I was confronted by—at first glance, a jumble of lines that refused to resolve itself into clear cartography. Where was I supposed to begin reading this thing? How to proceed? And who was this “Chaulky White”—ostensibly the author? Would he be there to help guide me through this dense collage of fonts and scribbles, images and abstractions?
My next encounter, a few weeks later, involved my actually attempting to read the thing. A sort of leap of faith, I suppose, and one that paid off rather quickly: it wasn’t long at all before a kind of reading process (or prawSESS as Chaulky might write) was well underway. Intimidation then gave way to something more troubling. If narrative is, as Derek White (roughly half of the composite author named Chaulky, as well as the editorial and curatorial force behind Calamari Archive, Ink, who publishes the book) muses in a sort of extended footnote, “like backseat driving . . . or drugs. Hard to «try» or experience vicariously + not get sucked in,” trying ‘SSES”‘SSES”“ssey’ (from here on SSS) is perhaps like being on drugs on drugs. Which is not exactly to say that reading it will take you any higher than ordinary narrative, but more that the ordinary function of narrative—narrative as drug, as gateway to somewhere higher—will be altered. Reading SSS might actually be more like frontseat than backseat driving, only there are many drivers’ seats and many steering wheels. Though the work is of a deeply personal nature, a reader cannot help but become a part of the mechanism’s workings, in my case, a sort of jeSSES, steering alongside Derek steering alongside Kevin (Derek’s deceased brother and the other half of Chaulky) steering alongside Joyce steering alongside Homer . . . If this vehicle sounds unwieldy, even dangerous, it is—and that jumble of lines never becomes the kind of map that could dictate one’s course. But, as Chaulky often reiterates (possibly quoting from somewhere; he can no longer recall), it’s impossible to get lost so long as one’s renounced one’s destination.
* * * *
In 1990, Kevin White composed a piece of writing called ‘SSES”‘SSES” as his thesis for a master’s degree at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. In it he used the structure of Joyce’s Ulysses as a lens to refract and reflect on his own travels through Asia in search of his (and Derek’s) father, who committed suicide in 1982. ‘SSES”‘SSES”, along with Kevin’s journals and notebooks, came into Derek’s possession when Kevin died of a drug overdose in 1997. Derek describes SSS on what might be page one (as we shall see, where the book begins and ends are not clearly delineated), as “a dilated (+belated) expansion of that book, a deconstructed REDUX w/ further recapitulations by me searching recursively in parallel for: my brother searching for: our father.” Embedding ‘SSES”‘SSES” within carefully but chaotically assembled pages composed of Kevin’s journal entries, fiction fragments, reproductions of his paintings, and designs for conceptual art pieces, Derek has created, or curated, something much more complex than an homage to his brother or an archive of his creative output. In Derek’s hands, and with recourse to the guidance of the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, what could have been a sort of Collected Writings of Kevin White becomes instead a labyrinthine and polyphonic odyssey of its own wherein Derek’s chronicling and deconstructing of his curatorial and editorial processes become as integral to the collection as what it collects. This is also, by the way, only half of it: Books 0 and I, “En-Telemachy (In Absence)” and “In Pursuit of Higher Art In.” Book 2, “The Homecoming,” remains in progress and will comprise Volume 2.
The radical demands and strategies to be found within SSS—and Derek White’s publishing project as a whole—spill out onto the cover page. Instead of a copyright we find a backwards “(c),” a “Copyleft—all rites reversed.” With this, Derek consummates his press’s choice to no longer publish copyrighted material, a decision announced in conjunction with Calamari Press’s name change to Calamari Archive, Ink, in September 2014. As Derek articulates in this “press release,” “To publish should mean to set free, not restrict.” At face value, the copyleft signals encouragement to freely replicate and recreate the book (so long as what ensues is likewise copylefted); more covertly it announces that the authors who choose to publish with Calamari (Chaulky obviously, perhaps especially, included) have chosen to relinquish at least one form of authority over their texts. Indeed, this “self-contained book object,” as the cover page goes on to insist, “requires no a priori knowledge or technology to read it. Instructions on how to read the book are contained within the book itself . . . in fact, [SSS] could be considered just that—a protocol to interpret itself . . .” Already challenging traditional literary presumptions about the writer-to-book-to-reader dynamic, this first description of the book treats the writing to come like some sort of mechanical animal, a machine that uses its authors, its readers, and even its book—all these collective, interpretive, archival, affective, defective energies—as fuel for its locomotion, not unlike the “unmanned” boats on Lake Chapula, described much later in the text, which were introduced to the lake to combat the non-native weed overtaking the ecosystem, boats which convert the weeds they destroy into fuel to keep them moving.
«INGENUOUS,» U say, but this self-medicating was only a stop-gap measure . . . what the powers that be didn’t account for was that mulching the flowers released the lotus seeds back into the lake for the next generation to cope with . . .
How today’s weeds have been seeded by previous generations, and how our unmanned mechanisms threaten the next: SSSis as deeply concerned with issues of inheritance and patriarchy as the books that fuel it (The Odyssey, Ulysses, ‘SSES”‘SSES”). A rather emblematic spread in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode (“Heliotropism”), for instance, includes among other things: a passage listing the amount of children each male member of the family has fathered (father: 4, Kevin: 0, Derek: 0 “so far,” Brother #3: 4, Brother #4: 1); below, a paragraph features some Stephen Dedalus quotes including: “The images of other males of his blood will repel him. He will see in them grotesque attempts of nature to foretell or repeat himself”; and on the page opposite, a passage, purportedly taken from a dream journal, photocopied from Derek’s 2004 Poste Restante: while a Chaulky-like figure has murdered his children and is using their body parts to make a stew, Derek, who has cut himself, announces that “In reality, I was more preoccupied with the containment of my own blood.”
I mention this to give some idea of the vast network of recursive subtexts and intertextual threads that seem to guide the jumble of lines in SSS, a jumble which, like a rhizomatic shoot, only appears to be individual and self-contained, but in fact draws from and supplements an endless and sourceless underground root system that extends well beyond the borders of the book’s cover. Why I chose this node I cannot say; I could’ve chosen any other; and I suppose this is one of the challenges facing the reader—where to begin, how to proceed—a challenge which no doubt sheds light on the magnitude of the task that Derek must have faced in creating this book from the shards of his brother’s life, a task the reader will have no choice but to mimic as she defines her own linear passage across the nonlinear pages, across the nonlinear book. Book? This might be more aptly called a movement—a movement, as in a movement in a larger piece of music, or else a political movement, albeit one united more by dissent than intent, or maybe simply the movement of a self-propelling boat both destroying and propagating invasive lotus plants which are themselves rhizomatic—the reader will have no choice but to become in a sense a writer of this book, another part of Chaulky trying to say everything at once, to touch everything with every sentence, to fill every white space, but to have to compromise and choose an arbitrary form, whether it be the form of The Odyssey, Ulysses, or that implied by singling out one or two particularly compelling tangles of roots.
* * * *
Derek says that, as children, Kevin “was just better at everything, xcept the WEED PATROL, he miht pick more, but when our dad woud judge our pickings he’d say i got more BY THE ROOTS.” As much as Chaulky embodies a union between Derek and Kevin, the differences between the two brothers are often quite stark, a fact reflected in both form and content. The right-hand page from which the above quote was taken, midway through Episode 8 (“Backwards”)—which marks the transition from “Lotus Eaters” to “Cyclops” (SSS follows the breakdown of The Odyssey rather than Ulysses; here two Joycean episodes make up one Homeric)—features text written by Derek and an image of a work by Kevin. A few pages further on, we find a fiction fragment written by Kevin, a portrait of an eye-patched Joyce (we’re still in “Cyclops,” mind you), a column of text written by Derek self-consciously reflecting on producing “marginalia” like this column—“We write these notes to self thinking they are line items we can use or inkorporate later but when we re-read we don’t member what we initially meant + feel more inklined to omit or erase”—and a rare patch of blank space, blank save for the bold and bracketed: [THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LFET BLANK]. A footnote reads:
This overzealous compulsion to fill all white space is mine, not his. Art school undoubtedly taught him the importance of white space, but i’ve always been driven by practical economic efficiency. In fact, it’s occuring to us now (too late . . . out of space) that we should include here the postcard invitation for THE WHITE SHOW (an exhibit he was in along w/ 4 others including another artist w/ last name White . . .
The compulsion to fill all white space (which seems to be tied somehow to the impulse to contain all White blood), so prevalent in Derek’s artistic and literary aesthetics, has what might be seen as a telling correlate in Kevin’s. The first page of Kevin’s thesis, for example, embedded in Episode 1, “Assembly + Departure (Telemachus),” opens the work with a story of flying in a plane with the father:
En route to the coast we pass over home so we decide to take the plane down low and wave. After a few moments the jumble of lines and tea-brown patches of earth coalesce into the true map. I am very pleased with myself. My map concedes nothing.
As violent and self-chastising as Kevin’s writings sometimes are, they are often marked by a sort of hopefulness and nostalgia. The thought of something better seems to be smuggled into every one of Kevin’s dystopias, a higher plane implied and looming over every sordid patch and jumble of lines. That the Himalayas served as a kind of telos for his travels also suggests this. Take the story of Stephen, whose plan is to reach the summit of Everest and die. His frozen remains are discovered at the top and brought down to the base camp where, miraculously, he thaws and survives, becomes a holy man, content in his silence. It’s almost as though life might become worth living, if only we could get high enough. This jumble of lines might untangle. But would it? See a story about another Stephen climbing another mountain: “For the first time in years Stephen is truly happy . . . but within minutes he finds himself wondering how long it will last.” Knowing that it won’t, that it never does, doesn’t seem to stop the highs from making everything else seem low.
* * * *
To close, one last remark: Derek recounts from a dream that “a summit was like a dead end . . . not something to aspire to, but something to retreat from.” The deadliness of the summit is something only Chaulky—described at one point as Derek re-inhabiting the hollowed body of his brother—can truly convey. Chaulky remarks in a footnote that “brother-½ [Kevin] had homing instinct . . . at least moreso than this ½ ever did. Perhaps this was the beginning of his spiraling downfall . . . this never-ending quest to have some semblance of «home» which I had long since learned to abandon.” Just as the having of a destination engenders the possibility of being lost, Chaulky seems to suggest that it’s the hope to return home that gives life to the sense of one’s displacement. In which case, an odyssey—a journey home—would be something best avoided, or at least indefinitely sustained.
Chaulky’s odyssey, might be just that: the attempt (it will, by its very nature, be a failure, but a heroic one) to convert the odysseys of those in his bloodline—father, Kevin, Derek, Joyce, Homer, reader—into endless wanderings, journeys of homelessness with no possible semblance of home by which to distinguish them and thereby assign them a positive or negative value—in short, a way for those of us lost in this jumble of lines to survive and even thrive in them. My first encounter with SSS was short-lived; the second may never end.
Jesse Kohn’s fiction has appeared in Spork Press, Sleepingfish,The Atlas Review, Everyday Genius, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. He has contributed essays and interviews to Quarterly Conversation, BOMB, Bookslut, HTMLGiant, and more. Links can be found here: http://jessekohn.weebly.com/.
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