The Other Walk by Sven Birkerts. Graywolf Press. 192 pp. $15.00.
Critic Sven Birkerts is a man of the meditative walk, the reflective stroll. Whereas most of us don’t go anywhere without a predetermined destination (the bar, the shop, the can), Birkerts is out there “almost every morning,” nature-bonding and sky-gazing, thinking or not-thinking, but always looking, always seeing. “If I didn’t look at things so much before, now I do,” he writes. And what does he look at? Beholding some blighted townscape in hilly Massachusetts, what does he take in? “I start down the street and let my gaze swing this way and that, taking in the sky, the outlines of branches, the crazing of the pavement.”
As a literary critic, Birkerts is deservedly lauded and praised. Anyone with a serious interest in modern literature will know An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (1987) or The Gutenberg Elegies (1994), Birkerts’ thoughtful book about the decline of reading in the digital age, not to mention his now decade-long stint as editor of the literary journal AGNI. This is of course the Birkerts Seamus Heaney calls a “literary conscience” and whom Susan Sontag identifies as “one of America’s most distinguished, eloquent servants of the poetry and fiction that matter”; the same Birkerts who recognized the importance of Infinite Jest and Hopscotch.
But what about Birkerts the denizen of “the contemplative life”? The Other Walk invites readers to follow as Birkerts walks about, reflecting on his past, often stirred by the sudden uncovering of a scrap of tin or a discarded mug. “Everything relates,” Birkerts writes. Everything everywhere is “soaked in significance.” Later he asks: “How is it that so many of our supposedly important artifacts end up keeping no charge of real meaning whatsoever while some incidental piece of ticky-tacky still glows like a marvel?”
The impression one gets is that in order to write this book Birkerts simply left his study and walked about the house, allowing all his knick-knacks to soak him with their significance. (The Birkertsian household, I gather, is a storage facility for mini-essays). Birkerts muses, in turn, on his Latvian ancestors, his grandfather’s nature paintings, his years as a young bookseller in Ann Arbor. He picks up pens and photographs and searches high and low for a lost tape dispenser. At one point he even tells a little story about a ladder—“the tallest ladder I’d ever seen.”
It’s when he is recollecting past loves or friendships that The Other Walk is at its best. At times these reminiscences tend toward the colorless: there are various “then-girlfriends” and “high school loves” with names like Pam and Beth and Lynn, and there seems to have been a lot of laughing and talking going on, as in, “we laughed and laughed,” or “we got to talking,” or “we talked and laughed.” But when Birkerts does touch on something of genuine interest it’s as if his prose narrows its focus. There’s his old college buddy Todd Wagner, for instance—Reddog, as he was known—whose laughter was like “something you might hear echoing in the corridors of an asylum.” Or the memory of his parents’ friend Arnis who was “quick to freshen his drink . . . or start in on his beer before the head had settled.”
Best of all is the gripping story of his son’s near-death in July 2008. In a sailboat with his friend Caleb, Liam Birkerts’ boat capsizes and his head is caught in a noose of rope. He very nearly drowns. Birkerts senior sees none of this; from his vantage point on a chair in the harbor he can barely make out the two boats as they round the pier. Even when he realizes that Liam has capsized (“Fatherhood compresses into a single pulse”), he is unaware that his son is in serious danger (he was wearing a life vest; he could swim). This is why the story is so powerfully told; Birkerts weaves the history of his wife and two children and their summers on Cape Cod through a moment of near-tragedy. It becomes a very moving meditation on the anxieties of fatherhood.
But what’s really tragic is that such a powerful story should be bookended by so many trivialities. There are just too many moments in this book when the reader’s reaction (in my case one of eye-rubbing fatigue) simply flatlines, and remain so for the next seventy-or-whatever pages. One feels hoodwinked by three investigative pages about a Dutch-made tin called the Schimmelpennick only to be told that, at the end of the day, “the Schimmelpennick is just another container with stray pennies.” Why didn’t Birkerts just cast a dismissive glance at the Schimmelpennick, instead of walking us through the delusion that it was an object worthy of literary inquiry? Sometimes a Schimmelpenick is just a Schimmelpennick.
These are the moments when Birkerts sounds like Gwyn Barry, the very successful, no-talent novelist in Martin Amis’ The Information, who always gazes with childlike wonder at the most commonplace objects. Behold Birkerts:
I stopped myself this afternoon. I did that thing I sometimes need to do: I stood by the glass door to check the deck and said, “Look.” And then, “No—look!” Don’t just see what you see every time you walk past, skimming the eyes over what you remember or believe to be there. But look. There: at the tree, the apple tree, with its horse-collar hollow all dug out by squirrels and its peeled-off bark, the old snapped-off branches and their quivers of straight reedy suckers . . .
Birkerts likes to quote to his writing students a piece of advice from Flaubert: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Judging from The Other Walk, that’s not necessarily sound advice. His book is a mutinous objection to Flaubert’s words, despite the successes they have bred in the past. In The Broken Estate James Wood writes that Flaubert is responsible for the tendency of modern authors to fetishize the visual. According to Wood, the overemphasis on visual detail in Updike and Nabokov often comes at too high an expense to interiority, to the unseen. You risk getting all surface and no depth. Good writing is not simply the result of prolonged attention to visual detail; very often, if you look at something long enough it produces a feeling of abstractness or estrangement, like repeating your own name to yourself: you end up with a bunch of sounds that don’t really mean anything. The Other Walk demonstrates the opposite of Flaubert’s advice; sometimes a furtive glance, a simple impression, is more than enough.
Morten Høi Jensen is a freelance book critic. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Millions.
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