New York, NY
How does one write about something that, in a way, resists the fundamental ways we often approach writing? As a glance at any of Franklinstein's blurbs will tell you, Susan Landers has written a book that is somehow history, memoir, and poetry all at once. In a kind of explanation of this refusal to be just one thing, Landers writes early on, “To come closer / to come to see / this writing must meander.” From the beginning, we know that Landers' writing is not only a telling of, but also a searching for, what has happened—to her and to the Philadelphia Germantown of her upbringing. By the end, it is not clear whether she has found what she's searching for; but what her searching has amounted to, you'll want to read and revisit again and again.
"Like Frankenstein's monster, who is somehow one man and several men all at once, this book is one thing yet is plural, conflicted and divisible, and it is always conscious of its parts."
“At the beginning of this writing I was reading... two books I had never read before: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and [Gertrude Stein's] The Making of Americans.” So begins the book's prologue, which follows a preface in the form of a conversation between the authors of the aforementioned books, constructed entirely of alternating lines from each text. “And as I was reading, I thought: I should make a new book ... from pieces. A new book using only Ben's words and Gertrude's. And so I did that. ...Cutting and pasting little pieces. To make a monster. And it was so boring. / It was so boring, my dead thing of parts.” (17) Here manifests the third and final subtext—Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—of Landers' wonderful, confounding piece made of “pieces.” Like Frankenstein's monster, who is somehow one man and several men all at once, this book is one thing yet is plural, conflicted and divisible, and it is always conscious of its parts. Each word, each phrase, each chapter or protracted poem is both a container for a set of meanings and a piece of a larger container of meaning.
"Landers separates and chains together phrases that have the same general shape and feel, but change meaning according to subtle shifts in the surface of our perception, the way that the image in a stained glass window changes depending on the light and angle at which one views it."
This manifests as strongly in the book's themes and imagery (pieces of stained glass, bricks and buildings, and parts of wholes abound) as it does in the very grammar of the text. “[H]e lost some of his memory—he lost some of his ability to remember things—the way he can't remember his story is part of his story—sometimes when he tells his story he forgets which part he wants to tell.” (59) Landers separates and chains together phrases that have the same general shape and feel, but change meaning according to subtle shifts in the surface of our perception, the way that the image in a stained glass window changes depending on the light and angle at which one views it. In this case, “his memory” becomes “his ability to remember things.” The effect is an exposé of every possible viewing of one single stained-glass window, with just one or two parts altered. For Landers, any one idea is actually composed of a kaleidoscope of individual yet mutual possibilities.
"Her writing about herself becomes a kind of inner history, tracing not only the ways an individual is shaped by a community but also the ways a re-construction of that community's legacy is shaped by the individual."
Landers is certainly not the first person to have blended oil-and-water (personal/poetic and historical/non-fictional) styles of writing. While her use of the poetic form to write about history especially stands out, the spirit of what she's doing breeds comparisons to a host of forerunners: Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, or Annie Dillard, to name a few. Yet there is something about the writing's self-awareness, its preoccupation with its own hybridity, that truly sets it apart: it makes reading the book feel like looking at a portrait made of stained glass inside a house of mirrors. At the same time, the writing feels far from self-obsessed; on the contrary, the poetic-historic lens of her writing pans constantly between her own experiences—“the earliest memory of me, my earliest memory”—and the memories of Germantown as they manifest across race, class, and gender. Her writing about herself becomes a kind of inner history, tracing not only the ways an individual is shaped by a community but also the ways a re-construction of that community's legacy is shaped by the individual.
In a way, the presence of Franklin and Stein represent two modes not of telling but of distorting history. “[Franklin] wrote, let all things have their places. He ruled each page with red ink to keep track of his rights and wrongs.” (37) Landers shines the light of these records on a reference to the practice of redlining in American cities, or zoning residential areas based on race in order to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods. Thus, in Franklin's journals, we have a neat attempt at narrativizing the history of something constructed by white men, a history itself constructed by white men: the voice of hegemony, or that which controls the construction and re-construction of things. Stein's words, on the other hand, distort the past through an intentional break with traditional language, i.e. through the use of language that actually resides in ambiguity, embodies it, and resists straightforward interpretation.
"It is precisely her use of poetry, a language of emotion and abstraction, that allows a truer, if less coherent, interpretation of history."
If Landers' book was just a “dead thing of parts” when written only by Franklin and Stein, it is her own thread of poetic memoir, which, like that elusive element that animated Frankenstein's monster, gives life—viability, validity—to this pasted-together telling of one individual's part in a particular community. It is precisely her use of poetry, a language of emotion and abstraction, that allows a truer, if less coherent, interpretation of history. That is, for Landers, history cannot simply be a retelling of things dead in the past, but, rather, must be an act of digging up, dusting off, and re-blessing with life. Anything else would be a distortion, a deletion, a deadening of the past.
Muller is an educator and reader who can't stand to live just one life—so she also writes. She has contributed to Oatmeal Magazine and The SF Bay Reader, and lives in her head/Oakland.