On Proxies

By: Steve Howe on Monday, August 1st, 2016

At the AWP conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, I was on a quest for writers with a different style and approach to craft than I’d been exposed to. I browsed the various presses in attendance and asked them to point me to the writers they publish whose work would likely get thrown out of a traditional nonfiction workshop. Several presses looked at me like I was a tad crazy and had nothing to offer. But two presses, Sarabande Books and Nightboat Books, gave me knowing grins and their hands instantaneously reached toward the stacks. From Sarabande, I walked away with Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello, which I’m reading now, and from Nightboat, I was given Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} by Brian Blanchfield, both essay collections.

At Nightboat, after I paid, the booth attendant told me to wait and she returned with the author, who just happened to be milling about nearby. This is what makes AWP so amazing, by the way. I had a brief chat with Mr. Blanchfield and he signed my book, “For Steve- Shows what I know.” My initial thought on reading this inscription was that he was tired of signing books and this was the first thing that came to his head; a trite attempt at sarcastic self-deprecation. But upon reading Proxies, I came to realize this inscription was a statement on the approach he took to writing the book and a statement on memoir in general. In the introductory notes, he discusses how the “Susceptibility to error is a hazard inherent in Proxies.” He wrote the essays solely from memory (showing what he knows) without the aid of research or the internet. To reconcile the factual errors, which are unavoidable in memoir, he includes an extensive section titled, “Corrections,” at that back of the book, though the essays remain as originally written, errors and all. This, in and of itself, makes this a book worth teaching in memoir classes and workshops, but its real strength is in the art and craft of writing.

Each essay begins with a somewhat scholarly exploration of a commonplace topic, such as meeting minutes and housesitting, and they are titled simply and clearly, i.e., “On Minutes,” “On Housesitting,” etc. Additionally, all twenty-four essays are subtitled, “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” In these essays, the reader is wonderfully duped into thinking they are being given a smart and thoughtful look into the banal only to find themselves, within a page turn, in a deeply emotional place within the author’s life, which is both painfully familiar and compellingly foreign to the reader.

Blanchfield has also published three books of poetry and his expertise in that genre carries over to this nonfiction venture. The sentences are artfully crafted, and the descriptions and scenes are rendered as only a poet can. The work is highly intellectual and contemplative, though, at times, discursive. He has a gift for giving life to the mundane and providing sense to the complex. With over a million words in the English language, it’s a joy to watch Blanchfield explore the space and not skimp on the vocabulary. This occasionally causes the work to teeter on pretension, but the moments of self-deprecation and self-implication prevent the tip. A less skilled writer might alienate the reader with this approach to essay, but Blanchfield’s capable pen eases them in and assures us everything will be fine, be patient, it will pay off.

The payoff is never better, in my view, than in the essay, “On Peripersonal Space.” It is brilliant in the way Blanchfield begins with an exploration of personal space, which transitions into a painful, but touching portrait of a son and mother, each struggling with identity and loneliness, and who realize they are each other’s best friends. This beautiful friendship is then shattered by the divide between the mother’s faith and the son’s sexuality.

Throughout the book, Blanchfield bravely guides the reader through the more difficult experiences of his life through interrogation of internal conflicts and external relationships, fully understanding the risks in what he is doing on the page. Proxies clearly met the criteria I placed on my quest at AWP; this work likely would not be well received in an MFA workshop due to its unconventional structure, the lack of a clear narrative arc, challenging language, and its tendency to meander. But this is what makes this work so important and interesting to read. It is not typical in any way, but as a reader and writer, I am excited to see such an effective approach to memoir through essay. And in addition to applauding Blanchfield for his exploration and experimentation, we should also recognize presses, such as Nightboat Books, for giving authors a place to take chances.

 

Steve Howe is the nonfiction editor for Blue Mesa Review. Originally from South Dakota, he has lived in many cities around the country and now calls Albuquerque, NM home. Steve is a second year MFA student in Creative Nonfiction, though he also explores poetry and writing for the stage. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus and The Vermillion Literary Project Journal, as well as in other publications long, long, ago in places far, far away.

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