Little Review by Brian Kim Stefans
The Figures, 2003
Werner Herzog, the stoic devil that best managed to capture avenging angel Klaus Kinski on film deep in the wilds of the Amazon, once said that a film director is more an athlete than an aesthete -- that stamina is as important as sensibility. Kenneth Goldsmith has made a career out of creating, through masochistically tortuous writing practices, impossibly long, but very simply conceived books that follow through to the bitter end on some writing tick -- either through collecting, for two years, all of the phrases he encountered ending in the sound "r" (No. 111) or by spending an entire Bloomsday recording his every body movement into a tape recorder and transcribing it (Fidget). Book writing is a second career for Goldsmith, as he was a successful RISD-educated gallery sculpture for several years. He probably as well known now as the creator and maintainer of the ubu.com website (a huge collection of concrete poetry and sound files), as a provocative, frequently banned disk jockey on New Jersey's WFMU, and as a regular reviewer of avant-garde music for the New York Press. Goldsmith's new book, Day, doesn't reneg on this promise for extremity -- extremely simple acts repeated to the point of complex insights -- as it is a complete resetting of one day's New York Times, read linearly across the page (like a scanner), into plain text without missing a sales pitch, a day's errata note, obituary or punctuation mark. This huge blue tome makes his 610-page No. 111 look like an issue of Reader's Digest (indeed, any book less completist feels so), creating, of course, a lively air of scepticism (the meat of his art) in the mind of anyone who might chance to "read" it. Of course we must be sceptical -- of course we must be human -- as one was sceptical when Howard Johnsons first started appearing across the American desert and Warhol siphoned millions into his checking account without lifting a brush. But, in fact, Goldmsith is on to something deeper than mere pop bravado, as Day shows that a reader's interests are fed by only a fraction of the available information out there, but one needs this exclusivity, this personal-editing, to gird identity. For a tennis fan, there is a unique pleasure in reading about Andre Agassi's 3rd round loss to Arnauld Clement in the 2000 French Open, just riding the wave of his big comeback, showing he's human and also not yet married to Steffi Graf (a little beyond human) -- that this day occurred before 9/11 adds to the pathos. There's also an obscene -- as in "offstange" -- generosity in this book that treats everybone from the Wall Street brokers (represented by the largest number of pages, pure numbers and business names) to children (in the ads for children's clothes) to, of course, those folks populating the news and entertainment stories (it was a Friday) as equals before the blind deity of digital typesetting and book binding -- an interesting gloss on how history tends to reserve its annals only for the exceptional few (and how it might not have to any longer). Day makes for a giddy anthropology, and if one is to grant that it's "poetry," it is the grinning slacker brother to the Chaucer's cross-class ventriloquy in The Canterbury Tales, but one that, in essence, arrives hot off the press every day. It would take weeks to even run your eye over this stuff (one generally spends less time "reading the paper"), and the book gives you a sublime sense of how many words are published daily on this planet. Flattening out a pyramid of textual society -- its politics, its banalities, its heroicism -- into a 4th-person narrative like this -- making a newspaper weigh over 5 pounds while in the process engaging in a full frontal act of acidic plagiarism -- is itself a sculptural gesture, but also philosphical one that teases the well-worn point that the value of a text is often in how it's read than in the words, the sportsman Agassi as unwitting Chaplin-man mascot for this postmodern truism.
--Brian Kim Stefans