Chaulky White, "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY', volumes 0 & 1, Calamari Archive, Ink, 2015

[Review Guidelines]

1. We would like to recognize up front that it's a little weird to review a book we're running an excerpt of in the same issue. We normally don't reprint things (except for diagrams) either, but we're excerpting the book in this issue because it's such a compelling project. So fuck it is what we say, and by god we like it. Now let us commence talk about Chaulky White.

2. Do you know about Calamari Archive, Ink (formerly Calamari Press)? It's Derek White's one-man operation (as far as I can tell, presumably with a rotating cast of other contributors), a publishing project that has put out a series of very cool little books over the years, including Beth Steidle's The Static Herd, Stanley Crawford's Travel Notes (From here—to there), Miranda Mellis's The Revisionist, Peter Markus's Good, Brother, and Gary Lutz's Divorcer and Stories in the Worst Way, just to hit a few highlights from an expansive catalog. They also brough Scott Bradfield's seminal A History of Luminous Motion back into print, for which they deserve our thanks (pause here to read that if you haven't). Or maybe Calamari is not a press at all. To quote the sort of press release they sent out in September 2014 in which Derek rails against copyright, "Calamari Archive is itself a sea-faring book composed of living books, a fractal ark of arks, a dendritic river branching off a new rhizoming river w/ each release, a library that flows deterritorialized rather than be confined by banks or bookends." So, well, there's that. This press release detailed Calamari's evolving and sort-of radical approach to publishing. Like Calamari itself, it's slippery and cool and kind of hard to fully grok.

3. Calamari has been on our radar for nearly as long as DIAGRAM has been in operation. In fact we published one of Derek's pieces in issue [1.3] way back in 2000, which probably (we're not sure) dates close to the beginning of his own experiments in writing, publishing, and design (which, as they're not unconnected, we should probably not even separate with a comma-delimited list, but then sometimes clarity makes it worth the tradeoff).All of these projects make use of Derek's distinctive, idiosyncratic, and kind of gonzo design sense which prioritizes collage and energy and chaos (which isn't necessarily to say noise) over orderliness, cleanliness, and classical typography. A disciple of Robert Bringhurst (The Elements of Typographic Style) he does not appear to be. These principles are in line with his somewhat anarchic take on publishing.

4. There's something deeply admirable about Calamari Archive and this long, ongoing work in publishing a lot of great books (not even to mention the magazine Sleepingfish, "the farm team for Calamari," as the press release puts it). Props, Derek White.

5. I know, I know, this is a lot of context. But I think it's important to get a sense of the larger project in which "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY" operates.

6. So one of the cool things about running a magazine is that we get a lot of books in the mail. Some are obviously aimed at us possibly reviewing them. Others just appear. Did we order them while drunk? That does sometimes happen. Or are they being sent by interested and attractive friends to our attention? Sweet! We like books. We like weird books a lot. But Have we reviewed any of Calamari's books before? It seems impossible that we haven't, but none come to mind, even though we've read most of them, and though our contributor lists overlap quite a bit, and we think of Calamari as a project close to our own weirdo hearts. I for one I always look hard at the Calamari books, since each of them feel singular both as hunks of text-art and as artifacts in themselves.

7. Well, okay, let's get to it: "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY" is an unhinged and very great project. In our view it might be the best Calamari book yet produced, or at least the best one written (sort of: more on that in a moment) by Derek.

8. So this isn't Derek's book. Or it's not just (or not even mostly) Derek's book. Better to just quote the copy on it:

"SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY" is a book object that is based/ extrapolates on an MFA thesis Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled 'SSES" 'SSES" wherein he recapitulated Joyce's Ulysses' recapitulation of Homer's Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of his father (who committed suicide in 1982). 'SSES" 'SSES" "SSEY' takes this recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a heroin overdose in 1997. 

9. So there's that: It's a book made up of at least four identifiable strata, each talking to the one/s underneath, with Derek's layer resting on the top. It's also evidently only volumes 0 and 1 of an eventual 2. The second volume will be published...sometime. Probably next year, I'd guess. It looks like Chaulky is hard at work on it.

10. I'm a sucker for these sorts of collaborations: the living collaborating with the dead, and the dead, and the dead. Calling what we do when we write collaboration or maybe even conversation feels more true to my experience than the little fiction that art comes from nowhere, sui generis, does its thing, and disappears, speaking to no one. We're always collaborating with everything we've ingested (and everything ingested by that which we've ingested (see an essay in our upcoming issue 15.2 by Josh Bell), even if we won't acknowledge it.

11. The collaboration here is exemplified by the mixed-media collage approach of the book. That is: its seams are everywhere and made manifest.

12. So here I should confess that I'm not always onboard with Calamari's design aesthetic. I find it at the least often hard to track, usually busy, sometimes obfuscatory or simply confusing, and occasionally impenetrable. It is, however, always interesting. It holds my attention. So perhaps you could say the design is doing its job. (Parenthetically I should say that I recognize that my resistance probably says more about my own design aesthetic, which usually tends toward the clean and focused and classical, than it does about Derek's (and double-parenthetically, commenting on the process of the review, sort of in the spirit of "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY", actually and appropriately, I wonder whether it's important to articulate this stance? Is it just the requisite quibble designed to leaven what is pretty much straight-up praise?).) For instance, this excerpt might give you a sense of what's going on in a given page, even without getting into the collaging of images (see the excerpt in this issue):

Reading a Calamari book, and this one's no exception, I sometimes wonder about whether all of that energy in the design and production and layering and cut-and-pasting and typography and writing distracts in some ways from the story—or whatever the central motor of the thing in question is.

13. But here's the thing with "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY": that framing narrative, the brother collaborating with the dead brother twenty years later, sort-of searching for their dead father (and sort-of searching for the dead literary fathers of Joyce and Homer) is a real powerful engine. Its force and execution pummels much of my resistance away.

14. And in this case anyhow, all the other stuff—all those other energies, some of which are tangential or tough to parse or unclear or maybe even obfuscatory—they all get pulled along by the that frame and its narrative push. The underlying current is powerful enough almost to pull anything in its past.

15. That narrative engine isn't the only engine in the book, of course. The book also wants to talk about the making of the book and the making of art and the living of life (and "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY" knows that art is always about the making of art and learning how to build and rebuild the engine and get it running and humming), and the tensions between these three things. Its thinking isn't all that far off from a lot of the recent David Shields (so much so that we sent him a copy of the book since we think he'd obviously dig it; no word back as of this writing), but it's more visceral and visual. This is no Reality Hunger, though it sure hungers for reality and incorporates it interestingly. "SSES' 'SSES" "SSEY"'s structure is already setup to talk about originality and intertextuality in compelling ways, but in case we missed it, one of the book's strands is explicit about this thinking: "The art to any thing is learning the balance between rhizomatic rupturing + linear narrative." Yes indeed, Chaulky White. It cops to its method being to some degree rushed, in which we learn that little to no revision is happening of any given page after it's in place, so as better to focus on moving ahead. So there are periodic typos and errors and happenstances that you sort of have to just accept.

16. Often that would read to me as bogus, but here it feels true.

17. That's in part because the book has a lot of heat to it. The sense of urgency is strong here, even though it's twenty-plus years on.

18. And it's also because you can feel the labor of each page, each spread, how the design shifts and quickens as it goes, shifts modalities, doubles back on itself. So too you can feel the artistry of its making in the assembly that's right there for us to see: seams extrude everywhere.

19. I should also mention that all we learn about Kevin isn't always super positive. He's occasionally given to misogyny (and isn't always called on it—though perhaps that's not always the obligation of a documentary text; perhaps it's not the obligation of the living brother either). His narrative doesn't entirely hold together. But he's Derek's brother and posthumous collaborator. Brothers being what they are you can love someone but not love all aspects of them. Anyway.

20. In case it isn't obvious, the reader would be wise not to spend too much time trying to disentangle everything on every page. Don't focus too much on the micro. It doesn't always come together. But then it doesn't have to. Every page—and every spread—is a mess, but it's a mess with a purpose, and usually it works pretty finely, and even when it doesn't, more often than not we're moving quickly enough ahead that nobody's getting chucked out of the boat.

21. Just enjoy the ride is what I'm saying. That is, if you like big engines and intertextuality and collage and good-ass art. The balance between the rhizomatic and the linear feels good when you get it out on the road.

22. We've, ha ha, perhaps ridden our metaphor too far.

23. But how far is too far in the service of art?

24. Or in the service of trying to find some meaning in your dead brother's work?

25. Or of collaborating posthumously, the sad fact being that this conversation mostly only goes one way.

26. Well, maybe Kevin's work has enough in it that it can still resist Derek's collaboration, that it can still talk back and give off little sparks these twenty-plus years on.

27. And isn't that all we'd ask from art?

28. We'd say the same for Derek's part. And thus for the binary star of Chaulky.

29. And it's not over yet. At least one more volume's promised.

30. In the spirit of the book, we're just finishing this review ten minutes before the new issue's live.

31. The wire is live. Chaulky White is live. They or he or he or all of us or it will make you feel alive.