Artistic Unravellings

Reviewed by Maude Lapierre

Cavell’s Marinetti Dines with the High Command, Hutchison’s Jonas in Frames, and Legatt’s The Incomparables differ greatly in style, but all contain protagonists whose individuality and perception of reality is shaped by artistic modes of expression. Legatt’s novel achieves this in a forceful manner, as her protagonist Lydia, a costume designer in a theatre company, can only understand the world around her through the fabrics she touches. As Lydia explains, “I revere textiles because of the textures, the weaves, it speaks to me, lets me feel.” This reliance on fabric in order to express herself entails Lydia to manifest her feelings of betrayal towards her cheating husband by sabotaging the costumes of the play in which he is acting. By the beginning of the novel, Lydia has as a result lost both her husband and her job, and must determine who she can be now that she has vowed never to sew again. After returning to her mother’s home, now a bed and breakfast, she meets a group called the Counsellors who compel her to confront her past and to sew again. It is in the introduction of this mysterious group of characters that the novel becomes muddled, as their eclectic combination of Eastern philosophies, cryptic proverbs, and prohibitions from knowing are neither explained nor well-integrated in the narrative. Yet the ending of the novel, which questions the reliability of the entire narrative, does manage to undercut Lydia’s overreliance on “words of wisdom” and successfully troubles the possibility of healing that the text had previously advanced.

If artistic expression is primarily a way of deciphering the world for Legatt’s Lydia, it allows Hutchison in Jonas in Frames to convey Jonas’ unstable state of mind effectively. Unlike Lydia’s mental illness, which is hinted at but not clearly defined in The Incomparables, Hutchison uses his experimental style to render in print his protagonist’s experiences, detailing his hallucinations, black outs, and ability to slip in time and from place to place. Since the account of Jonas’ life is interrupted by “Lab notes,” wherein researchers share their findings and theories as they experiment on their subject, the text reinforces the legitimacy of Jonas’ paranoid conviction that his experiences lack authenticity as the notes imply that his reality is indeed fabricated. For Jonas, nothing is in the present is ever “real” enough, while the past is always somehow more “authentic.” It is this obsession with authenticity that makes him imagine, in his second person voice, the state of always being “a tourist, wherever you are, but especially here, no matter how long you stick around.” The text, however, questions Jonas’ fascination with the past, as its stylistic innovation breaks with tradition by interweaving pop culture and media with literary references, in a way that entails a playful lack of reverence for the past.

The tension between past and future also haunts Cavell’s Marinetti performance play, as Marinetti’s desire to break with all traditions competes with Cavell’s revisionist account of his controversial subject in the essay that concludes this work. With Futurism, Marinetti aimed to break away from tradition, from an elite that worships the classics but neglects its contemporary artists. His desire for something new is best encapsulated in his Aeropoems, a form inspired by air travel he invented in order to discard the “outdated syntax we had inherited from Homer,” which could “walk, run a bit . . . but it couldn’t fly.” Marinetti’s passion for the new is contrasted to Cavell’s revisionist project, which inevitably looks backwards in its appeal for a reconsideration of Futurism. Cavell uses the play’s climax, in which Marinetti performs an Aeropoem for the Nazi High Command and smashes their dining table in the process, to argue that Futurism is much more than the aesthetics of fascism it is now assumed to be. For Cavell, Marinetti “understood the need to defend art in the face of fascism because art represented for him the freedom to think.” In Cavell’s account of Marinetti, politics and aesthetics are always entangled, and Marinetti himself is aware of this complex relation. Neither the play nor the essay downplays the darker aspects of Futurism or Marinetti’s politics. Instead, because the play constructs parallels between the “utopian and dystopian elements” of Futurism, Cavell’s work successfully manages to acknowledge Futurism’s fascist connections while emphasizing that Marinetti’s art resisted some aspects of fascism. As with the novels of Legatt and Hutchinson, Cavell’s text focuses on the power of art to unravel what is considered “real” to then reshape it in a new way.

This review “Artistic Unravellings” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 116-117.

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