Whiteness, Part 2

Daniel Davis Wood reviews Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9— Fog

This is part two of a two-part essay on white space in two recent novels.
The first part discusses Jeremy Cooper’s Ash Before Oak.

Kathryn Scanlan, Aug 9— Fog.
MCD Books, USD $18.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

As is the case with Ash Before Oak, questions of wellbeing are integral to Kathryn Scanlan’s début novel Aug 9— Fog. Here, though, they are comparatively oblique, hibernating in a white space that is even larger than Cooper’s, more mercurial, and at times hypothetical. They also arise from a text that is comparatively brief, at the extreme end of pairing words with emptiness. Aug 9— Fog runs to about one hundred pages, but the size of the physical object is misleading. It can be read from cover to cover in half an hour, as it totals only a few thousand words. Entire pages are given over to exceptionally small fragments of text — “New neighbours” is one full entry; “Little sun” is another — and not many contain more than a couple of sentences. These entries make haiku poems look like epic tales.

The publisher’s blurb describes Aug 9— Fog as “part diary, part collage, part fiction”. That’s a designation in need of some consideration. The first two terms are easiest to account for, thanks to the author’s note with which Scanlan opens the novel:

The text that follows is drawn from a stranger’s diary. I acquired the diary fifteen years ago, at a public estate auction. It was among the unsold items. I removed it from a box on its way to the garbage. It looks like garbage — I am surprised it made it to the auction house at all.

It is a small book, approximately the size of my hand, an inch and a quarter thick. The pages have detached from the spine and sit in a solid chunk. The binding is cracked and bandaged with brittle tape. … Whenever I handle it, some bits crumble onto my desk.

Because of the publisher’s claim that Aug 9— Fog is “part fiction”, it’s difficult to know exactly how much of the author’s note is true. Was there, is there, really a diary? Or is the novel wholly a work of fiction masquerading as found art? Interviewed about the process behind Aug 9— Fog, Scanlan has insisted that there’s nothing false about her note. Take her at her word, then: the raw material of Aug 9— Fog is, as she admits, the product of another person, so the novel amounts to a series of entries plucked from a stranger’s diary. Where does Scanlan herself enter the picture? Her prefatory note goes on to explain:

The diary was a Christmas present to the author from her daughter and son-in-law. The author wrote her full name and address on the front page. She resided in a small Illinois town. She was eighty-six years old when she began recording it.

The diary chronicles the years 1968 through 1972. Each page is a calendar day, divided into five sections — one for that date for each of the five years. … As I read, I typed out the sentences that caught my attention. Then, for ten years, off and on, I played with the sentences I’d pulled. I edited, arranged, and rearranged them into the composition you find here.

Now Scanlan’s role becomes clearer, if multifarious: she is alpha reader, editor, and censor; she is curator, collagist, and orchestrator of meaning. She revises and remixes the significance of the author’s words by changing the shape of the emptiness that runs through and around them. She exerts her artistry through the imposition of silence on the author’s prose. The material she works with is white space.

This is evident not only in the sheer amount of white space that appears on each page of the novel, but also in the white spaces that break the diary extracts into distinct sections. There are five sections in Aug 9— Fog, arranged seasonally: ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter’ again; but, unlike Ash Before Oak, none of the diary extracts are dated, not even with a year. This is important because Scanlan specifies up-front that each page of the original diary contains entries from multiple years, between 1968 and 1972, so that — what? So there’s no way to read an entry from, say, ‘Autumn’, and to know which year it comes from. So there’s no way to read successive entries and know whether they come from multiple years, jumping back and forth through time. There’s also no way to know whether the entries are sequenced according to their appearance on the original pages, or whether any one section might begin with entries taken from the end of the season and proceed, achronologically, through earlier entries assigned later positions. And there’s no way to know what to make of the entries in the first and last sections, plucked from various years but relegated to one of two winters that evoke the progression of a single year. Scanlan wields her invisible redactions like a scythe in overgrown grass. Shearing away all fixed markers of chronology, she reshuffles the offcuts into a seasonal structure that has a semblance of loose chronology but falsifies the connections between fragments.

Does it matter? On one level, surely not. The immediate attraction of Aug 9— Fog has little to do with Scanlan’s selection and sequencing of the original author’s diary entries. The attraction has everything to do with the diarist herself and her inimitable voice. Here is her first entry — or, rather, the first entry to appear in Aug 9— Fog — in its entirety:

Happy New Year. Brr. Brr. Brr. Alvira a cold. Harold sleep. Few snow flakes in eve. Emma didn’t get home.

Alvira and Harold and Emma. Martha and Clarence. Maude and Mildred. D. Vern. These are the people who populate the diarist’s days, who give her life meaning in her twilight years, but Aug 9— Fog offers little sense of their personalities, only cursorily noting their presence. Most of the novel — that is, most of what Scanlan has deemed worthy of extraction from her source material — seems to have been chosen not for what it conveys about the diarist’s domestic situation, but for the way it represents her distinctive pattern of speech and her habit of commenting evocatively on changes in the weather. “Sure pretty out”, she says in the first of the ‘Winter’ sections. “Sure grand out. D. making a new pie crust. All better.” And later: “So snowy & bad he came back. Beautiful big red sun dog on the North. D. played her Victrola. Vern working on Doris cupboards.” Later still, these two pages:

Ever where slick. Another beautiful white frost A.M.          eyes got the glimmer.

D. frying chicken. Ice on bird bath. D. & Vern’s anniversary, they got each other beautiful sweaters. This grand day         my feet tingle.

And, in ‘Spring’:

Janie was lonesome. Thundering. Each of us had bad wind blowed cars off road. …

Terrible windy          everything loose is traveling.

The diarist’s spelling, spacing, and syntax are all eccentric and, in their own ways, poetic. But Aug 9— Fog is at its best when these qualities take the diarist’s sentences in unpredictable directions, causing significant events to collide with mundane ones, and when Scanlan arranges these little collisions in a sequence that strengthens their juxtapositions. Here, for example, are four successive entries from the end of ‘Summer’:

D. got a big chunk wax out of right ear. Maude was operated on this A.M. They took out tumor in bladder it was cancer.

Terrible wind storm, D. took me for ride & to see trees down, streets blocked with limbs. Myra picked up 53 sparrows dead.

D. & I out to cemetery decorating. Cemetery looked bad, no mowing. Lightning terrible last nite. Burned out little bed stand light. Vern took treatment on lump in front of ear.

Out to timber for b. berries. Mostly dried up. Got enough for pie when Vern gets home. Bucky got his divorce today.

Ear wax and a malignant tumour, blueberry pie and a divorce, an apocalyptic wipeout of sparrows and a bedside lamp on the fritz. Did the diarist really experience all these things, one after another, towards the end of a single summer? Probably not: their position in relation to each other, and the pace of their events, seems to owe much to Kathryn Scanlan. Certainly the diarist does have her apparently linear ordeals — mostly involving the illnesses of loved ones — but it’s Scanlan who is responsible for the accentuation of her quirks and, via the manipulation of chronology, for the pathos of the diarist’s quotidian concerns. And crucially, by Scanlan’s admission, there is a reciprocal flow of energies from the diarist back to the one who has remixed her words: “At this point”, Scanlan writes in her note,

the diarist’s voice, her particular use of language, is firmly, intractably lodged in my head. Often I say to myself — “some hot nite” or “flowers coming fast” or “grass sure growing”…

“In fact”, Scanlan adds, “I have possessed this work so thoroughly that the diarist has ceased to be an entirely unique, autonomous other to me. I don’t picture her. I am her.”

The reader of Aug 9— Fog must take this as true, at least figuratively: it is impossible to disentangle the diarist from Kathryn Scanlan, and vice-versa. “The diary has become something like kin”, Scanlan adds, “a relation who is also me, myself”, and as a result the question of wellbeing emerges again. If it’s fitting to ask why Cooper’s narrator does what he does, relocating to Somerset and keeping a nature journal, it’s also fitting to ask why Scanlan does what she does, remixing the words of the diary in such a way that the diarist becomes in effect an extension of her. Like Cooper’s narrator, Scanlan doesn’t shy from posing these questions on her own initiative: “I have wondered why I continue to return to [the diary]”, she writes, “year after year, draft after draft. Why does it compel me so? Isn’t it terribly banal?”

But Scanlan also answers her own questions, if indirectly, when she indicates that her work on the diary has trained her in the art of “how to choose, contort, order, and cut”. What’s at stake for her, it seems, is her own stability, her peace of mind, her calm: not in the finished product of Aug 9— Fog, which, like Ash Before Oak, takes its final shape as a result of an arbitrary decision to stop work, but in the sheer length of time, the “ten years”, that Scanlan has spent dabbling in it. If there’s catharsis to the project, it’s to be found in Scanlan’s practice: her choosing, contorting, ordering, and cutting; her hours of engagement in those activities, and the gains she made from them.

Although this practice remains altogether invisible to readers, it delineates the larger, mercurial, hypothetical white space that encompasses Aug 9— Fog. So, in order to feel the flow of its energies, one must read Aug 9— Fog in such a way as to conjure up the novel’s alternative forms, to imagine the elaborations that didn’t make it onto the page and the permutations it went through before it assumed its final shape. The aggregate of all those possibilities is, for Scanlan, a slagheap of things renounced, stripped away, analogous to Cooper’s narrator’s filtering out of names: evidence of her learning about her own needs as a creative being, her own construction of a self through others. It is there in Aug 9— Fog, to be sensed if not directly perceived by readers accustomed “[t]o see without looking”. It is there in the whiteness that threatens to overrun the few words that have been spared the scythe and made it safely onto Scanlan’s pages.

It would be a stretch to say that either of these two books is likely to satisfy its readers. Neither of them is satisfying in any conventional sense. Neither of them resolves anything, any sort of dilemma, because neither of them stoops to contrive a dilemma capable of resolution. The difficulties experienced by their narrators are difficulties of a seasonal nature: difficulties that rise up and then fall away almost rhythmically, encountered and then overcome with as much agency and conscious effort as a change in the weather. In neither of these books do people seize control of their lives. If their narrators don’t quite relinquish control, they at least refrain from striving for it. If they don’t quite submit to the whims of the world around them, they at least yield to its impositions. Their behaviour is not the behaviour of characters with psychological depth and the will to make consequential decisions in narratives with meaningful stakes. Neither of these novels is bound tightly enough to that concept of character, or that concept of narrative, to please readers who expect to find such things in a work of fiction.

“Terrible windy”, says the diarist of Aug 9— Fog, “everything loose is traveling”, and, in much the same spirit, Cooper and Scanlan have produced novels shot through with gaps that allow a wind to rush in. There are lots of loose pieces “traveling” throughout Ash Before Oak and Aug 9— Fog, and although they sometimes blow into each other — presto: a narrative event — more often they are picked up on a chance breeze and carried off, blown away. Some readers will complain that this makes both novels feel directionless. True: it does. But it also makes them feel liberated from preconceived manoeuvres. Directionlessness can be a creative force, an experimental way of reckoning with the creative possibilities of genuine freedom.

This is not to say that Ash Before Oak and Aug 9— Fog are gripping novels, compulsively readable, unflaggingly interesting. It’s to say that both of them seem to want to exist outside those terms of literary appraisal, to shake free of those shackles so as to be read and valued according to different criteria. Both, indeed, would benefit from being read exceptionally slowly, in real time — over years, not hours — and subject to the seasonal changes of the northern hemisphere. Both of them all but cry out for a reader with the patience, dedication, and generosity to engage with them in this way, to internalise what their white space signifies most of all: the lived experience of being-in-time around the act of writing, the sensation of the passage of time as a force that compresses experience into words which may denote the facts of being but cannot communicate its qualities.

Is this perhaps a new and innovative use for white space in prose? We have paragraph breaks and section breaks, chapter breaks and more, but the white space in Ash Before Oak and Aug 9— Fog is something other, something more generative of sensation than suggestive of chronology. It is more a source of meaning in these novels than the words that catch the eye. The lasting value of these books belongs to those who open themselves to what its silences say.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.