Digest & Grapple

Only More So, Tony Lopez (225pp, 12.95, Shearsman)


This could be Tony Lopez's magnum opus. At around 225 pages and featuring 10 sections of prose it appears to be his longest collection to date for sure. The section, or book, entitled Darwin, appeared previously in 2009, from Acts of Language (Dartington). That this is a grand project there is no doubting, something along the lines of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, where each section is built-up from extracted original material, or quotations, from a wide variety of sources. There is probably some rewriting or adjusting going on here but not much I expect, so this is a case of sampling on an epic scale and Lopez's ability to feed raw material into an apparently seamless 'narrative' construction has never been more visible.

This is not a work you would wish to read from cover to cover in a short time-span:  rather it's a matter of dipping in, perhaps making connections or discovering links between the separate sections, though the reader is unlikely to come to any grand conclusion, I suspect. I should take an excerpt, by way of showing the method, in this case from the section entitled 'Collecting & Polishing Stories', a title which is as revealing as it is possibly ironic:

             At the heart of the pragmatic theory we are using is the notion
      of relevance, defined in terms of contextual effects and processing
      effort.  Experience  itself is  not  primarily cognitive. Every social
      policy, in particular,  has a  reflexive effect  on  those  who carry it
      forward. As I  gazed  out at  my class, their  names hovering in the
      air above their heads, they seemed expectant.

My experience of reading this material was somewhat dizzying, like that entailed in my limited attempts at reading modern philosophy - Merleau-Ponty, for example - where you attempt to get a flow into the reading while having to pause to digest or grapple with what you think it is that's actually being said. The term 'Experience itself is not primarily cognitive' is one of those moments here and having reasoned that I more or less agree with the premise (and trying to avoid the multiple byways this thought could distract you into) I carried on. The syntax and grammar is largely as expected and although the surface appears seamless you are constantly arrested by the non-sequiturs, by the mass of variegated material and by the humour this sometimes engenders. Much of this humour comes from the self-awareness involved in the use of montage as a method. In the hands of a less intelligent writer this could turn into an awful mess.

I'm pretty sure that Lopez is aware of the multiple interpretations that could be teased out from this prose and while there's a serious writer at work here - as is often the case this book is heavy with dark materials - there is also an aesthetic process evident in the playfulness and obvious pleasure derived from this montaging method. I'd say that this book extends the boundaries of that method and the fact that it all holds together - or appears to - is testament to Lopez's skill. The mix of critical motivation and aesthetic procedures is an unusual one - Lopez is less of a Brechtian than Robert Sheppard, for example - but it certainly works. I wouldn't say that I've entirely got to grips with what he's doing here but I am impressed. The extensive end-referencing is all part of the game, as well as providing a resource for interested parties, and raised a smile in this reader. This may be a key moment as I'm not sure how he moves on from here. After the extended compositions of progressive rock, a return to the humble three-minute song?

     Steve Spence 2012