Beyond Metaphor: On Prose by Chris Campanioni & Elizabeth Powell
the Internet is for real
(C&R Press, 2019)
Concerning the Holy Ghost’s Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues
(Leaky Boat Press, 2019)
In his book The Dialogic Imagination, M. M. Bakhtin observes that “the poetic symbol presupposes the unity of a voice with which it is identical, and presupposes that such a voice is completely alone within its own discourse.” For Bakhtin, one of the distinguishing features of poetic language is the use of the image to convey content that is narrative, emotional, or philosophical in nature. Even more importantly, the poetic image, in Bakhtin’s estimation, arises out of the sonic and stylistic terrain the poet has created, responding to, and directly informing, the behavior of the language itself.
Two recent hybrid texts explore, and fully exploit, the possibilities that poetic language holds for innovative prose writing. Chris Campanioni’s the Internet is for real and Elizabeth Powell’s Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues invoke recurring imagistic motifs as structural devices, the end result being a narrative arc that is not easily charted by familiar literary conventions. With that in mind, the image, for both of these gifted prose writers, lends a sense of order to, and circumscribes the boundaries of, the imaginative terrain that these vibrant, complex characters traverse. Though vastly different in style and aesthetic approach, these innovative practitioners share an investment in expanding what is possible within the artistic repertoire of fiction, carving a space for lyricism, ambiguity, and experimentation within the familiar act of storytelling.
This destabilizing impulse is most visible in these writers use of metaphor. As each book unfolds, metaphor is no longer mere adornment, a rhetorical flourish at the end of a lovely stanza. Instead, vehicle and tenor become organizing principles, offering a source of unity, and productive tension, within each novel’s carefully considered meditation on the nature of representation. As Powell herself writes, “…until we can see clearly the way of the flower to the sun, we shall dwell in the photograph of the free world, forever and ever. Amen.”
Powell’s Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of JCrew Catalogues takes as its artistic subject the incommensurability of reality and representation. To that end, the novel’s central metaphor is that of religion, a comparison between the texts circulated within mass culture and the familiar holy books of the Christian church. For Powell, the mass-produced and mass-circulated image becomes almost divine for the constituents of a consumer society. As Powell observes, “the Holy Ghost moves words in the copywriter’s mind as he sleeps in his room of burgundy velvet on the East Side of New York City.”
Throughout the book, this metaphor becomes a source of productive tension and complexity, particularly as Powell calls attention to a blurring of boundaries between secular and religious ways of thinking, perceiving, and being in the world. More specifically, Powell reminds us how religious frameworks for meaning-making subtly manifest in secular life, as they are so deeply ingrained in collective memory.
Powell writes, for example, early in the book:
For blessed were Mindy’s diet pills, for they helped to make her free. Blessed are too many diet pills when Mindy stood alone in memory; she therefore blacked out. But here captured on page twelve of the catalogue was the moment when Mindy was at the height of her speeded frenzy, meeting each click of the camera, each click of the speed in her brain with a facial expression so pure, so true, she sold a quarter-million of these dresses.
Here Powell underscores the many ways mass culture equates weight loss with virtue, reminding us that asceticism began as a show of piety. What’s perhaps most revealing about this passage is the behavior of the language, as the work’s central metaphor fittingly dictates tone, cadence, and diction. In such a way, the lyricism of this invocation visibly enacts and performs the transformation of doctrine, as old forms are reconstituted with wildly unexpected and thoroughly modern content.
As Powell herself observes, “She believed in the holy American religion of the Self, although she had not thought it through too deeply.”
Like Powell’s novel, Chris Campanioni’s hybrid text, the Internet is for real, takes as its primary consideration the necessary tension between reality and representation. For Campanioni, this friction is amplified by technology, social media networks, and the their undeniable presence within interpersonal relationships. The work’s central metaphor, then, becomes the photographic image as signifier, rendering the physical body an “immaterial daydream” and a deceptive chimera. As Campanioni himself asks in one of the book’s more essayistic sections, “The camera is us. We have become so fully integrated into the machine as to become its greatest development: a living snapshot.”
If the boundary between reality and representation has been dismantled by the rise of readily accessible social networking, what does this mean for art? In Campanioni’s estimation, the parameters of art are then expanded, as the most quotidian tasks become, at turns, performance and narrative, our being in the world a “visible plastic symbol,” an adornment, and a satiric impulse.
Campanioni writes, for example, in one of the book’s many discrete prose episodes:
You make your way through a rave-like jungle as each crystal bulb pulses and changes color, swaying as though you are the jungle: a body forgotten or fused with an ecosystem or system of hardware. The self that has left its own skin.
The word “system” here is telling, as Campanioni reminds us of our place in the various economies of language and representation that circulate around us. Social networks, then, become a kind of auction block, the subject’s performance a commodity, its artifice intended to secure a place within this larger system of valuation. By describing the self as “a rave-like jungle,” he posits the individual as a nexus for transpositions, transactions, and transformations when considering these larger systems of labor and value. However, Campanioni’s work is most provocative in its considerations of deception in these technologized environments, in which the photographic image becomes a way of reclaiming power and agency within a broken cultural mechanism.
As Campanioni himself asks, “Send this message without a body or a subject?”
If the act of representation is the most self-conscious of metaphors, then poetic language is a dramatization of the distance between the vehicle and its tenor. After all, there is no metaphor without some degree of separation, that bright aperture between language and its point of reference. Powell and Campanioni show us that in this gap, this fissure, transformation becomes possible. The ascent into the realm of the symbolic, that diction which generates possibility after possibility, becomes, for Powell and Campanioni, a way of destabilizing the familiar architecture of story. As Campanioni tells us, “Storyteller and stagehand; lyrical and expository, theoretical and autobiographical. I want to always be both.”