Meat and Bones: Notes on Process

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Rogue Notebooks: 2006 – 2014 or How to Become a Novelist in Ten Minutes or Less | Bhanu Kapil.

Banango Street.

⇒Bhanu Kapil’s “Rogue Notebooks” first appeared at Banango Street back in October. The publication coincided with the manifestation of her newest book, Ban en Banlieue, published by Nightboat Books. I purchased this book a few weeks ago and am currently 63 pages into it. Here is how I imagine the book ends: Ban (a Pakistani girl in London in the 70s, surrounded by racially charged tumult; also: a site of cultural osmosis) meets someone of equally complex identity and they become friends; it’s totally platonic.

Ms. Kapil’s “Rogue Notebooks” does some very beautiful things, and what I want to state from the outset is that it is not a supplement to Ban en Banlieue. This digitally published prose creature is not an adjunct to the book, even if it does exist in a meta-textual relationship with B-en-B. Each can be read on its own. Today we’re talking about the process-driven story surrounding B-en-B, an account of the years in which the book was incubated. My “review” (it is not a review) is about “Rogue Notebooks:” a set of process-journals (footnotes) for the equally process-driven, equally self-conscious B-en-B, and my commentary, as we will see in succeeding paragraphs, will be equally process-driven, partly as a tribute, partly as performance art, and partly out of my own awed self-doubt.

So:

You don’t need to read B-en-B to pocket a thing or two from today’s featured piece. But you should read the book anyway. It’s lovely.

And:

A full-disclosure thing: I once studied with Bhanu. I was a student at the Buddhist University where she teaches. She may not remember me.

Here is an object that figures prominently in “Rogue Notebooks”: a butcher’s block. Here is how the speaker (the author’s text-persona) describes this object and her relation to it:

I swivelled in the alcove to the butcher’s block I had stuffed and organized with pre-literature. Pre-nothing. Target journals and A4 legal pads stuffed into the wire cages beneath the “block” itself. I opened the first “basket,” feeling a deep trust in the sculptural analogy of the book as a kind of meat — and writing a kind of – tendon work or display. But what can I say? I was daunted. So many notebooks. And so I decided to extract a vein – bright blue or red-grey – from each one, until I had accrued: through bibliomancy …– a text.

This is a part of my text.

A chop.

Let’s take this passage apart, not with tweezers or a scalpel or even a paring knife: get me my cleaver.

Out of respect for the abattoir imagery the author unrolls as if from its water-bloody tray, I won’t delicately peel at but hack and fling and generally make a mess of what’s here. I want to capture the CHOP of her paragraph. But is the written word necessarily violent? perhaps, but is the process necessarily so? Maybe, as the author suggests here – this is perhaps the most telling process-write in Bhanu’s behind-the-Ban narrative – the pre-literary, the Pre-Text, is the most violent stage of composition. This is the messy, unhappy, primordial phase – the butchery before the art.

I suppose this is what makes this piece so compelling. I will not summarize it. I will CHOP away chunks with my cleaver and hold them bloodily up to you as exemplars of the following techniques/concerns, which I enumerate bullet-pointedly:

  • Fragmentation, disjunction : or, a graceful distrust of cause + effect as we know it (i.e.: “I have used the word silver twice, and now – because of that – it’s raining.” Sec. 6)
  • Constant injection of authorial experience | memoir/fiction genre-blurring (she uses the term hybridity, a forever growing beast, which may fit)
  • Metaphors (here is my favorite: “Hi. I am Bhanu… who has lived in Colorado long enough to raise a tiny, makeshift wolf to puberty” sec. 2)
  • Literary references (Sebald, Bataille, Danielle Steele (!), et al) and references to her friends, who tend to be quite literary themselves (my word count just hit 700 – time to rap this up with one more bullet point:)
  • Writerly self-doubt (e.g., “8. I just feel like such a loser.”) that may inspire other writers by reinforcing the universality of writerly self-doubt. Or it may crush and discourage other writers by reinforcing the universality of writerly self-doubt.

People look at me funny when I use metaphors related to butchery and meat. This is understandable. I am a vegan. But meat and blood have that primal oomph that just can’t be found in grass stains and crumbled soil. Either way, the lesson I take from Bhanu Kapil’s work, no matter how quote-unquote experimental it gets (no, this isn’t James fucking Patterson), the big take-away for me is that writers, hooked on abstraction and introspection and intangibles, need to return to physicality, to let their writing become something we cannot just imagine but almost touch: build a shrine, trace the body, chop a hunk of meat atop a grainy butcher’s block.

But wash off the block when you’re done: I am going to chop some vegetables.

Read the story at Banango Street.

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