Opacity and Narrative Friction


x. Tombstone text, in this instance: the barest bone of the museum label, which says first in German then in English, “Egon Schiele / Dead City III (City on the Blue River III) / 1911 / Oil, opaque color on wood.” I remember being amused by this account of the materials used to create Schiele’s dark, floaty depiction of Český Krumlov, the city where his mother was born. In the translation of the material “Deckfarbe,” the descriptive utility of “opaque” was lost on me as I toyed with what felt meaningful from the English word “opacity.”

x. A guidebook to this mother city might plot my course along the river but couldn’t haunt the doors and portals as beautifully and illegibly as Schiele does. The lengthier Leopold Museum materials insist on the painting as an “allegory of isolation,” but this flat definition of allegory, however well-intentioned, diminishes the dead city of its radioactive liveliness. 

x. In Alyssa Quinn’s novel, Habilis (Dzanc), Lucy and Dina wander and think and drink through the exhibits of a museum which moonlights as a discotheque. The visual acoustics often hum at the frequency of the museum label, a genre of text too often dismissed as dull. The reader notices the light and the crystal forming at the vibrant edges of Quinn’s prose and its keen eye for the between-the-lines of wall text, the stretches of land rendered to blur by the train which bridges destinations, the passages between exhibitions, the passages between the organs and muscles we associate with speech and language formation, and about passages of time left behind by names and dates.

x. The pleasure of Alyssa Quinn’s narrative is curation, how and where she leaves what is interlaced. Prose, diction, line. By design, the reader thinks-with author and characters presumably left-to-right, front-to-back: 

x. She knows what she wants to say but the language for it is gone. Her tongue a thick muscle, lying like a corpse in the coffin of her mouth. There is a word, a word, a word for what she means.

x. These intentions rendered in radiant figurative ambivalence grant an agential power to the reader which does (and ought to) exceed the container of the sentence. Psychic and lingual breaks and memory’s cracking jar allow incongruous narrative possibilities to rub against each other. 

x. In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant includes “the right to opacity” [le droit à l’opacité] among the essential concepts and practices against monolithic Western thought. He describes a multidirectional irreducible political aesthetic weaving in which opacities “coexist and converge” and understanding focuses on the “texture of the weave.”

x. The tombstone which occupies the most consecutive pages belongs to Mary Leakey, an anthropologist who the reader may suspect actually lived in our reality in England and Kenya and elsewhere in the 20th century. Here, self-consciously rendered as a representation, a tableau vivant woven among many, the “real” Leakey is occluded, and the reader is trusted to consider the horrors and fractured potentials of learning, knowledge, science, and other terminals of Western myths (myths which, as Glissant reminds us, are made all the more illusory by relational practices).

x. A corridor connects the exhibit of these pages to a diorama from Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1978, and in one of the novel’s most brilliant and devastating passages, Quinn gives the white men who organized the event enough combustible material to burn themselves. In the organizer’s insistence against prejudice after the debacle, in the pathetic and dull lacuna following their defense that “for the most part everything was wonderful,” the reader constructs a critique against the racist, homophobic, and destructive plot of the real and dangerous colonialist structure. The texture is apparent, an ironic quality of the complex woven fabric. We see the crackling inside job of Quinn’s opaque spaces, the power such work accrues across the novel’s nonlinear structure and the incendiary narrative friction it occasions. What begins at the sentence or earlier, at the granular, at the bones in their sockets, extrapolates with transtemporal, cosmic force. 

x. Imagine them grating, bulb of one bone against the crater of the next.

x. Ursula Le Guin, in her “Some Thoughts on Narrative,” tells us: “Narrative is a central function of language. Not, in origin, an artifact of culture, an art, but a fundamental operation of the normal mind functioning in society. To learn to speak is to learn to tell a story.” Great storytellers float ideas: fiction connects possibilities.

x. In Renee Gladman’s Event Factory, translation and mistranslation fall together at a sensory level, the profound and unpredictable potential realignments represented by the hermeneutical complexities of language frequently find characters at impossible crossings literal and figurative.

                    x.  “Eat before you leave,” was more like ‘forget where you have been,’
because it was impossible to hold this crossing in your mind.”

x. Imagine my excitement when a writer with an incandescent talent for language, transformation, and ambivalent architecture then releases a book with “crosses a bridge” in the title.  

x. The functional drift of Alyssa Quinn’s narrative structure is “narrative friction,” trust in the agential aura of readerly opacity. Light only just shimmers in dark windows, even as the houses float away down river and disappear in blue dark. 

x. Olivia Cronk’s “The Bobbies,” which appeared online in Always Crashing on December 20th, 2022, plays in the variegated potential of memory with the repeated narrative maxim that “collage is the narcotizing pull of the corrupt land of hand.”

x. The silly generic nagging about whether this is fiction, nonfiction, or otherwise. It ought to be embarrassing to even think “Is this story true?” Only the byproduct of the pleasurable range and specificity of its references: four versions of “You Are My Special Angel” (two by men named Bobby, at play and in friction with the title), a music video for “Janitor” by Suburban Lawns, Lana Del Rey’s nostalgia, Night of the Living Dead, and more.

x. Something maybe too to the character named “my father,” but what I’d rather wonder about prose this touching, brisk, and animate in its excesses is: “does this story read like a dream?”

x. Cronk’s “The Bobbies,” like Quinn’s novel, does actually read like a dream, perhaps a result of a belief in “the alchemy of rubbing things together” (as Cronk’s narrator suggests).

x.  In repetition, deep sleep’s proposals, assumptions of memory, impossibilities—these all become indelible to the telling of the dream. Ambivalence and opacity allow memory (and something like what I hesitate to call mis-memory) to be explored fully, even luxuriously.

x. I ran an errand with my father. I can’t say now what the errand was, though I can recall the kinds
of things we did: stopped in at the wake of the mother of his friend Bob, picked up unknown
to me items from other people’s apartments.

x. The ambivalence between these references, the title’s playful rub against the pair of Bobby Vinton and Bobby Helms, casts spells and shadows across memory in which incongruous or contradictory realities can be recalled with equal veracity. Opacity loads and overloads each possibility, full of meanings and meanings which answer and question and destabilize “what does it mean?” to the narrator, to the author, and to the reader. Genuinely: what abject bounty!

x. What energized my interaction with the tombstone text and painting in Schiele’s “Tote Stadt III” was precisely this kind of friction. Oil on wood can’t explain the real magic of this representation, the dream of being guided to just this place by the spirit of Schiele. A fleck of white paint on a dark window draws my attention, and from this aesthetic stupor I’ll emerge already behind my mind’s narrativization. I’m still lost, now just in possibility. I don’t see any allegory here as limiting, everything false multiplies and shakes my experience of these dreamhouses along the blue river. The fiction of this place. The friction of its irreality. I dream I know these dead. In fact, Schiele guides me here in my dreams.

x. Glissant’s relational poetics are brilliant, messy yet ironically (necessarily) radically accessible even in presenting challenges as impenetrable. Of course, “impenetrable” can be an invitation. Maybe such challenges ought to be everyday, ordinary. Aesthetic levelling as common to every living thing as death. 

x. Death is the outcome of opacities, and this is why the idea of death never leaves us.

x.  When Blake’s Milton’s Satan stands “opake immeasurable,” the word for our divine poetics is hidden from us, but we can still sense its act and form in the sound which “thunders utterd from his hidden wheels.” Narrative friction, in which curation revels in opacities and in the play of illegibility, winds the wheels precisely where its realization/actualization gets interesting and comes to life.

x. The museum space too often wants to control “fraudulence.” We mock those who mis-take left-behind objects for art. We think perhaps it’s embarrassing to not fully understand what we’re looking at. (Obviously,) there are those who are both elitist and anti-intellectual and it can sometimes be useful to remind oneself: fuck em.

x. Again with the noise, in Glissant’s account: the “right to opacity for everyone,” is something for which to “clamor.”

x. The exhibits of Quinn’s novel are occasionally energized by the mundane. By indexical language and language learning and dull violences inherent to such things. Friedrich Kittler might spot here the ambivalence of the Mother’s mouth which teaches language and scolds. Like Schiele’s mother’s city, dark mystery surrounds the portal, and like the father’s jacket in Cronk’s story, such objects are potently associated with both warmth and danger.

x. Calcium horseshoe, little bone floating in the neck, nestled against larynx, pharynx, epiglottis, but unconnected to the rest of the skeleton. The particular position of the human hyoid allows for a wide range of sounds—a couple thousand phonemes. Nasal, sibilant, fricative, glottal. Diphthongs, plosives, trills, stops. So we comb the earth for these small bones, hoping for the hyoid as some kind of evidence, but the truth is simply this: language is a behavior that doesn’t fossilize. (from section titled “Exhibit: Human hyoid bone, 300,000 years old”).

x. Rather than being trapped in its curiosity for the indicative mood, Quinn’s prose wonders its way out. In her stunning accounts, it isn’t embarrassing to marvel at apocrypha or likelihoods of human language’s geneses, because what is enacted in its larger structures is implicit in the weave of any one story. This skilled storyteller returns us to the dreams and nightmares that animate these stories.  

x. In Quinn’s novel, again and again, these narrative threads challenge reductive clarity and causal relationships. The transcendent points of contact between her pages reverberate in opacity, all sparking connections are relevant to the reader and the dreamer-with.

x. Fiction makes actual all these possibilities at once. The author-reader trust goes both ways. Language is magic. Great fiction is alchemy and gives shape and buoyant lift to secrets deep and dark. 

Jace Brittain is the author of the novel Sorcererer (Schism 2022). Their writing, poetry, and translations have been featured in ANMLY, Dream Pop, Ballast, Snail Trail Press, and Deluge. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Utah, they study fiction, illegibility, and intersections between digital, animal, and ecological writing. In collaboration with the poet and book artist Rachel Zavecz, they run the small press Carrion Bloom Books.