Brad Zellar (with photographs by Alec Soth)
House of Coates
St. Paul, MN
Coffee House Press
I can't say exactly what House of Coates is good at, but it’s very good at something. Part of it, to be a bit evasive, is simply the feeling that it’s stirring up some very specific emotion deep inside me, but I can never quite put my finger on it. That, by itself, keeps me thinking. It’s not the kind of book that stirs up a bunch of different thoughts and emotions, letting them collide and splash out, luminous on the surface of the page. This book is more cavernous, subterranean, and it harps on pretty much that one feeling, albeit in many subtly shifting shades. This isn’t quite right, but it’s something like loneliness. But with a seedy flavor, a weatherworn feel, both angrier and more subdued, totally frank and intimate, but also silent and empty. What’s truly amazing about this book, having just described it in such terms, is that it strikes some very familiar chord without seeming cliché or archetypal or borrowed. It’s not noir, for example. It’s not Dostoevsky, either. Sure, it’s about a broken man, Lester, a loner, a depressive misanthrope, but, despite all this, the book avoids categorization very well. Perhaps this isn’t necessarily a virtue in itself, but I think it’s symptomatic of a certain virtue—perhaps the virtue: that it makes the familiar seem like it’s never been said before.
Part of it, I think, are the pictures by Alec Soth. Or rather, the combination of pictures and words, which form a sort of recursive emotional loop. I like pictures in books (because I like pictures in general), but artistically speaking, I rarely see why they’re necessary. It seems the most obvious alliances of word and image are either illustration—a way of plugging the reader’s imagination into a more concrete visual world—or something more photojournalistic—words explaining what’s going on in a picture. House of Coates, however, does neither. Both the prose and the photographs are filled with detail—drab, mundane, derelict detail. But rather than each helping to explain the other, this detail seems to drive both word and image deeper into the ground, farther away from understanding.
It’s a quality all photographs have, this inherent muteness despite being a direct and equanimous record of what is or was once there. A photograph tells us nothing by itself and, despite our best intentions, always captures what we never wish to preserve: the nauseating overabundance of the world, which forms an incidental halo around the very subject we wish to preserve. The photographs of House of Coates force this quality to the foreground, creating an oddly effective vehicle for its eerie solitude. The pictures look like amateur snapshots, presumably taken with a disposable camera and which don’t seem to have any subject—at least not many human subjects. Without the saving grace of aesthetics, which might render documentary questions irrelevant, photos of snow banks, parked cars, diners, mattresses, and signs become strange, opaque artifacts that overflow with such questions—both the infinite contextual ones (e.g., Why is Bambi painted on this garage?) and the more fundamental authorial one (e.g., Why did someone take this picture of Bambi painted on this garage?). More than just a device for creating an illusion of intricate and expansive reality, mundane detail becomes a mark of both an unknown place and also of some unknown intention—the shadow of a man we can never know.
While perhaps this muteness is antithetical to language, the text also contains a mystifying photographic quality, especially when one is searching for an explanation for the pictures. Short, descriptive paragraphs, often unrelated, seem less like the machinery of continuous narrative momentum as the byproduct of meandering amongst moments and memories. Like the photos, these narrative tableaus are often specific and marginal: a description of an Alvin and the Chipmunks coloring book that Lester cherished as a child but never drew in, a dollhouse he coveted and wished to inhabit, the various apartments and boardinghouses he stayed in. In its own way, each episode fails to explain its importance or relation to other episodes, creating an eerie sort of breathing room: stretches of time forgotten, aspects of life neglected, the distance between characters lost and uprooted.
The second part of the book, a sort of addendum written by a presumably fictional journalist, describes his own pains in trying to track down Lester and confirm the factuality of the book House of Coates. In large part, the beauty and power of the main text of the book is that its peculiarity, its loneliness and muteness, its inexplicability of document and image is presented so simply and unceremoniously. It is devoid of all introduction, explanation, and didactic pretense. The metafictional addendum isn’t bad, necessarily, and it doesn’t necessarily explain away the text (in fact, our journalist friend finds out almost nothing from retracing Lester’s footsteps), but in a way it does coopt the sense of mystery that the reader feels when reading about Lester and scrutinizing the photographs. One is not simply reading a mysterious book, but reading a book that is also about mystery.
It’s not clear that disclosing something, that making a book about something, always devalues the reader’s experience of that thing. It’s possible that attempts to disclose via narrative framing returns the disclosed experience to the reader in an even more palpable form, especially in cases when the disclosure is incomplete or fails altogether, as could be argued is the case with the reporter and the book’s sense of mystery. At other times, though, the framing device seems too somehow contrived and, even when it fails spectacularly to explain a single thing, somehow sucks up all the power of a book’s juicy unknowns.
So, would the book be better without the addendum? Now that I’ve read it through, I can’t say. In a way, I know too much. But, I can say that House of Coates could stand by itself, even if the only sleuth is the reader.
Lincoln-Vogel is an animator who lives in Oakland, CA. You can see movies he’s made by clicking here.