Adam Tipps Weinstein, Some Versions of the Ice, Les Figues Press, 2016

[Review Guidelines]

It seems best to begin this with an underexplained quotation. In The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco writes: "Since infinite alternative worlds are part of each of the infinite Magnum Opuses, the angels will write infinite Daily Books in which they mix statements that are true in one world and false in another...at that point it will be very difficult to say which books are true and which are fictitious."
     Eco is describing the concept behind the literary theorist Thomas Pavel's Fictional Worlds, but he might also apply it to Adam Tipps Weinstein's Some Versions of the Ice, out this year from Les Figues and winner of the 2014 Not Otherwise Specified Book Contest as selected by Fanny Howe.
     Weinstein's book, like the angels' "statements that are true in one world and false in another," transposes fact and fiction, appropriating the one onto the other and vice versa. The essays' subjects form a strange, miniature Wunderkammer—graveyard shoes, a Braille that can be smelled, false pigeons, heaven-seeking collars, and ice-pick leucotomies—and like the objects of those Wunderkammers, the authenticity of these essays' provenances is doubtful but also not necessarily the point. 
     The fact/fiction debate is, at this point, a tired one in nonfiction and perhaps unfair to mention with regards to Weinstein since the author does not seem concerned with the debate in the first place. Yet Some Versions must be praised for not falling in love with its own cleverness when it comes to fudging; like any good comedian, Weinstein never sours the joke with too heavy a wink. Instead, he maintains a playful, satirical didacticism and reminds us the pleasure to be had isn't in sniffing out what's true and what's not (one can be fairly certain that pulque, the Mexican alcoholic beverage isn't made from the shoes of the dead, yet Weinstein's relation of the invention of the detachable collar does turn out, apocryphally, to be the case), but in catching scent of the epistemological hunt.
     Eco's quotation also applies because it is, well, a quotation. Weinstein's essays are chock full of these citations, blocked and centered in the middle of the text, attributed (accurately or inaccurately) to names yet without further notation. The effect serves as both accompaniment and counterpoint, a way for Weinstein to show his research and thus his mind at work. He handles both with lightness and density. "The essay is born of books," Weinstein has quoted William Gass in the afterword, but he might also have added this: "The essay convokes a community of writers. It uses any and each and all of them like instruments in an orchestra...You can be assured you are reading an excellent essay when you find yourself relishing the quotations as much as the text that contains them."
     And there are many excellent essays here. True, that epistemological hunt can feel more like etudes or exercises in some of the shorter essays. But in the longest and most enticing essays—"Scenting Braille" with its synesthesia and nostalgia, and "False Pigeons," with its overlayerings of reality and artifice between the passenger pigeon and a museum diorama— obsessions play out so that we see both the pull and pleasure of gathering knowledge, but also the dark allure that lies at the completion of any obsession: disappearance, if not extinction. In both "False Pigeons," and "Tabula Rasa or Some Versions of the Ice," with its medley of Arctic exploration, Frankenstein, and the warming undercurrent ready to wipe the world a blank slate, Weinstein achieves with the "untrue" essay what it might do best: he signals our own artifices and constructions and warns us that, although there might well be Pavel's "infinite alternative worlds," we are in this one and we should best watch what we do. [TMYL]