Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review of Seiobo There Below

Seiobo There Below does not use expected grammar. Those look like sentences, but they are not. Those blocks of texts look like paragraphs but, with a few exceptions, they are not. Yes, there is every indication that this book is organized in chapters, but I do not believe those are chapters. We have to borrow from other modes of expression to describe the grammar of Seiobo. It could be organized into stanzas and lines. Or perhaps lines, scenes, and acts. Those are better, but still not quite accurate. Seiobo There Below is a symphony; it is written in instrument sections, movements, solos, fugues...and the impossibility of Seiobo is that it is designed to be experienced as you would listen to a symphony; hearing all of the different parts come together. Or maybe its a painting, with the “sentences,” “paragraphs,” and “chapters,” as canvas, color and brushstroke, and again, we are somehow supposed to “see” the totality even though we can only read it in its separate parts.

Seibo There Below opens with an image of a Kamo-hunter, a crane or heron like bird standing in the river, and the entire opening chapter, entitled “The Kamo-hunter,” is just that bird standing in that river while time exists within and around it. I believe this passage acts like the first 70 or so pages in In Search of Lost Time, setting up all of the ideas and themes of the symphony, both in its content (fair warning, there is a lot of nothing happening) and in its style. You'll know pretty quickly whether Seiobo is a book for you. For me I was enraptured immediately by the prose; “Everything around it moves, as if just this one time and one time only, as if the message of Heraclitus has arrived here though some deep current, from the distance of an entire universe, in spite of all the senseless obstacles, because the water moves, it flows, it arrives, and cascades;...” The rhythm. The precision. The obsessive doubling and tripling and quadrupling back over scenes and images to put every detail in its perfect place; or at least, put details in places where they draw the eye of the reader so as to create an opportunity for mystery; an Acropolis whose hill you can climb but whose place you can never reach and then you get hit by a car.

The obsessiveness of Laszlo's prose naturally finds itself drawn to express obsessive actions, which, also pretty naturally, sets much of the action in Japan where precision is an end in itself. We see the restoration of a sacred Buddha statue, the carving of a Noh mask (I highly recommend Kissing the Mask by William Vollman, a critical study on Noh theater and femininity which could almost be read as a companion piece to Seiobo), and the cyclical rebuilding of a Shinto shrine and the ritual of cutting down the trees used to build it. But we also see the preparation of a panel for an altar in Renaissance Europe (which is insane), the construction of a Renaissance dowry box, and the copying of a legendary Andrei Rublev icon, all with such an intensity of precision that you are left feeling as though you have learned everything you could ever learn about the topic, while understanding nothing about it. (Oh, and a homeless guy buys a sharp knife in Barcelona, because reasons.)

This tension between knowledge and understanding, between erudition and meaning, between precision and communication reinforces the tension between the temporal experience of physically reading the book and unified experience it strives for. The movement about rebuilding the shrine climaxes when a native of Kyoto who had been acting as a guide for a Western journalist friend, hikes the friend to the top of a small mountain with a panoramic view of Kyoto at night. The Western journalist concludes the exact opposite of what his Japanese guide intended. Another way to describe Seiobo There Below is a symphony in words in opposition to the opposition to that moment of opposition. (Yeah, I'm going to go with that.) Or perhaps it just is and is about the impossibility of perfection. Or something else perfectly unified and perfectly divided.

Like Everything Matters! which is one of the most sincerely optimistic books I've ever read that also happens to be about the apocalypse, Seiobo There Below is one of the most sincerely cynical books I've ever read that also happens to be about beauty. It is a beautifully written obsession with beauty that finds at the end of its obsession...something that is not beauty. An empty box. The mask for a monster. A painting never completed. A very sharp knife purchased by a man who cannot afford it. The one time you don't look both ways before crossing the street. The relentless hollowness of ever lasting life. A long-legged raptor in a river.

Seiobo There Below is one of those absolutely brilliant, absolutely beautiful, absolutely stunning books, I have a difficult time recommending at the bookstore. For reasons I can totally understand, a lot of people simply will not or don't want to deal with sentences this long or feel they require an actual story arc to get into a book, or have a details limit after which something better fucking happen or they are totally tapping out. It's not a book you can put in a stranger's hands. But it is a beautiful book. And, in some ways, it is the most thorough and most direct study of beauty I've ever read. And if you have wondered about the process and statement of beauty, Seiobo There Below is a hill you should climb whether the “Acropolis” on top is the “Acropolis” in your mind or not.

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