Against Despair: a set of approaches toward an initial critical appreciation of the fictions of Joe Ashby Porter
James Tierney

We live in a world that only appears to be incomprehensible...We read newspapers that lie, we see films that tell us nothing, and we read books that conceal what's most essential. We suffer from what's fashionable, above all from despair, which one finds at every step: in shop windows, in objects, on every canvas, under every sound, in every word. But all this is only appearance: we don't have to reflect the image of a society that, because it's heading for its ruin, wants to drag humankind along with it. We have to take the leap forward, and this realization is already beginning to reveal itself, indeed it's quickening the fall... It is hidden from us, and we can't see it easily, but we must look for it beneath our own gestures, beneath our words and our actions. It exists, it is in the distance, and to describe the struggling world in this light is to help it triumph more quickly.

Georges Perec, For a Realist Literature, 1962

Georges Perec is writing this in France during a period of great social and artistic change, proposing in this essay a certain " realist literature" which he sets directly in opposition to " naturalism," as at that time was prominently represented by the Nouveau Roman, and as in America today is easily identified as the degraded, mutated, and highly virulent strain that currently afflicts our most visible writers of all ages, in a word, those who commit, and at some length, that familiar fallacy of, as Perec puts it, " confusing a description of boredom with a boring description." Additionally, Perec is linking this anticipated, essential movement in literature to the social and political shift from a tapped-out inward-looking bourgeoisie to a broad and invigorating acceptance of socialism as the only, and obvious, way forward. Without making too much of the social argument, though it should be acknowledged as implicit in everything that follows, I would like to start by saying that Joe Ashby Porter is among the most elite artists of his day and at the same time surely one of the great proletarians working in any medium. In a country where the sign of a good proletarian patriot is a stained oversized t-shirt and elasticized cotton sweats there are still a few who will not step out for a loaf of bread without putting on their finest. In the literary world the t-shirt and sweats crowd has gained a seemingly insurmountable ascendancy. The inevitable mathematical leveling that comes with such clustering sweeps across the plains and what remains is a tidy patch of mown lawn somewhere near Brooklyn. But it's not fashion or real-estate, it's language I mean.

When x wrote that y is the worst writer of his generation perhaps his real complaint, somehow misarticulated, perhaps because in saying it straight he surely would have fouled his own nest, was that y may merely be the most representative writer of his generation, and thus among those least likely to provoke enlightenment and inspire differences. The writer who fills this bill is in all likelihood, if only in retrospect, working at a distinct distance from the stadium lights of the perceived zeitgeist. If you should at this moment in time allow your gaze to wander away from where those lights are focused, over the crowd, and yonder to that penalty box in the hollow of unacknowledged American fiction, you might be fortunate enough to spy, among others, the curious figure of Joe Ashby Porter.

Porter proposes a populism that insists on the best for everyone, and the best of everyone. His characters, rooted in their bizarre, hybrid cultures, at root distinctly populist prototypes, regularly live well beyond their intellectual means: they have always done their research, are continually engaged with what confronts them, and without fail are in command of their situations whatever the state of the world around them and no matter how thoroughly formed, and fated, by the culture that bred them. They are at home in, and masters of, the world in which they live, whatever its limits.

In creating somewhat dystopian physical and sometimes social environments, Porter at the same time, within each and every of its units, creates a kind of utopian psychology, a world in which every Tom, Dick, and Harriet Miers has a mind of his and her own, and the language to express it. He takes types typically represented as American disasters and rehabilitates them through their own ability to articulate themselves. What's more, Porter in this process sustains an effort to reclaim for all a considerable portion of our very own language that has steadily been bobbing out with the tide. Understanding perhaps the possibility that the narrower our lexicon, the more likely we are to be victimized by our own minds.

There is hardly a writer working today who does not claim, if given the chance, and often in the most expansive terms, that his or her chief interest in writing is something called " language." It is striking that this claim is often followed by a bumbling inability to articulate what this means. The truth is, one must look far and wide before encountering a work of fiction, or prose of any kind, that demonstrates its author's professed and abiding concern for language as a medium. In fact most representative samplings are more likely to demonstrate an appalling disdain for language, treating it less as the medium of their choice and more as a tiresome impediment to something even they believe deep down is better expressed as light, sound, movement, on 16mm, 4-track, a stage in the Catskills, for instance, rather than the fundamentally constraint-based effort of words printed on paper. In spite of the obvious concreteness of Porter's fictions and their thorough engagement with the world, it is not an exaggeration to say they are built entirely on an intricately assembled matrix of pure language. A language with which to order the world, not to abandon it.

Of course you could get away with saying this about any written work, that it is made only of language, but to say so as a critic of the art you would be wrong. It is true all written work is made only of words, but the representational value of Porter's fictions is driven by the use of these words as the representational medium for processed thought, not by their more common use as a (rather weak) conveyance of the sensory perceptions within the real world, of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, of direct experience, all of which are better communicated in the mediums that most directly represent them, none of which is language. When these sensations take precedence over the words that gird them and are made the support structures of narrative, the result is a clumsy, airy representation of already known quantities, readily digestible, or predigested, regurgitations. Language, at its best, is the direct representation of what we call consciousness alone, something composed of a grasping at and processing of the billion strains of direct experience, and is its ultimate articulation. Recent literary fiction at its most average is perpetrated as a dull description of other arts (and maybe most commonly as a dull description of its own past achievements) rather than as the independent art form it is generally idealized to be. It comes down to a failure of execution, a certain capitulation not only to fashion but to passivity, or fear, the simple failure to use language as the primary medium for the art of writing. For instance, many recent books of literary fiction, which as books can be dull as rocks, might engage us more effectively in their film versions. Porter's stories, however, may only exist as language. There will never be any other possible manifestation of his works. They are exemplars of the medium and the essence of writing as its own art form, and it is important to look closely at them.

Porter almost never hits a wrong note and at the same time is nearly always hitting some of the strangest, most unlikely, and even unpopular notes in American fiction. He has employed a pitch-perfect sort of high-, middle-, and low-brow cornball vernacular, and with the utmost respect to its sources (himself possibly foremost among them), in order to render the innumerable combinations and permutations of the unparsable American (and French, and Tunisian, etc.) hybrid experience. It is an experience, as far as where Porter's concern lies, chiefly of language: spoken, written, heard, and obsolete. In Porter's hands the idiom reaches its alarming peak when the four occasionally meet in a Shakespearean rendering of an American underworld of language most of us will only experience as flashes of fractured parts before each is either institutionalized, assimilated, hidden away, or wiped off the face of the earth. Not that Porter has any strong interest in rendering faithfully the speech patterns and vocabulary of some dystopic American subset or another, none at all I would guess, but rather the interest is in using these disparate popular vernaculars, sometimes many at once, to create a sentence, a single sentence, that is so unfamiliar at times that it could not possibly achieve meaning without the proactive participation of the reader on the other end. And yet the source for this disorientation is typically nothing exotic at all, it's just folks.

When Porter uses technology in his fiction he is really only using the language of technology, politics the language of politicians, the family the language of the family, fishing fishing, weaving weaving, poker poker, the paranormal, business, crime, war, sex, love. Even with sound he doesn't want you to hear the sound, he wants you to see it on the page as an expression of our conscious assimilation of it into language. Porter is not in this process avoiding a direct address of these subjects, clearly to introduce their language, their lexicons, the voices that speak them, is to address them in some way. It is precisely here where the reader comes in. The stories not only assume the best of their readers, they actually bank on it. Joe Ashby Porter is not writing fiction directly in the mode of a social critic, but in order to read his fiction one must engage it with a critical mind. Only at that point does it even manage to exist.

It is this interactivity with the reader that defines what Richard Wilbur has tagged " the Porter sentence." No matter how much one reads of Porter's work (and there is, after all, precious little of it) one never " settles into" it, one is in a perpetual state of unsettled, working to put language, and this outrageously implacable sensibility of Porter's, into a place where one knows what to do with it, how to approach it, and above all: what to think of it (to make of it). It is this confusion, this taxonomic ambiguity, that is most often expressed by his detractors as what I take to be a general uneasiness with Porter's writing, and that of the more original of his peers, and their place among the writers of the day.

Key West, Old Town, circa 1990

Harry Mathews: [barefoot, in spite of the danger of scorpions] I wonder how writers like us will be thought about in the future?

Joe Porter: [strolling beside him in the dark] If at all...

Harry Mathews: [nodding] Perhaps we will be regarded as the alchemists are today.

Possibly it is taken for granted these days the notion that content and form are one in the same, but there are substantial variations on how the two come together to constitute a work of art. The relation between form and content in Porter's work is far less clear than it is in perhaps the most elementary examples of this truism, where for instance a galloping swath of text is perfectly analogous to the feverish events or anxieties it aims to communicate, or might, say, accompany the entrance of a horse. Because whereas Porter's basic narrative content in some instances might resemble the machinations of an episode of Scooby-Doo, the form is forever working to alter just exactly what such banality might mean when delivered as it is by Porter. In other words, through his masterful and stringless manipulation of the formal elements of language one is liable to come across in the most lightweight of moments a passing cloud of profound darkness and melancholy, of disappointment, sarcasm, irony, black humor, and even simple joy, levity, brightness, the light shining through. It is hard to be sure that you have really seen it, and the patent goofiness of what is happening on the surface is enough to keep you second-guessing. The perfection of this execution resides in the fact that it never lingers. These moments alone mark Porter as a kind of master. For a work of art to impart any sort of life-force, dark or light, it cannot do this through the flat and insistent, inevitably frustrated, representations of one or the other but must have possession of the flashing mechanisms that determine both.

So while one of Porter's major ruses, one making its exceptions all the more extraordinary, is that his characters often exist inside bubbles of immunity in which all of the harms of the world may approach but not strike—the overriding construct of his first novel Eelgrass—there is overwhelmingly in the language creating these " utopian" worlds a heavyweight tremor of menace. This menace defines these works by drawing their limits, and makes clear their engagement in fantasy, the " systematic artifice" that defines with no equivocation the disparition of these hazards. This sensation of impending menace, familiar to anyone who has read much of Porter's work, is the driving force behind the relentless and sometimes grim march of Porter's Kentucky stories from his 1983 book of that name. Most recently one can look at the peculiar way Porter relates, in both scenario and language, to the projected OIDS plague in The Near Future. And this same specter hovers about like some uninvited dinner guest in such bleakly colored and yet hope-driven stories as " An Errand" from Touch Wood, where Cooper—this particular single name itself suggesting a kind of prefigured obsolescence—ruminates rather hopefully on things darkest only at their edges as he shuffles over the uncertain landscape of a shady, semi-official dumping ground where a not-long-for-Porter's-world serial killer scrounges unwisely for mushrooms. " ...don't capitulate, Cooper," the story instructs itself near the end, " Don't even dream of changing this life of yours." Luck favors the prepared and it is in this spirit that a supernatural benevolence watches over many of Porter's characters. For even as ill befalls them it is their previously established steadfastness, their mastery of their own world, a sort of insensible imperturbability, endowed upon them by Porter, that is their protection. Generally, if not fatal, and even in some cases when it is, malevolence is shrugged right off.
This idea, as well as such purposeful blending of light and dark, is most explicitly addressed and perhaps even mysteriously, amusingly codified in the brief story " Touch Wood," where the story itself behaves as a chain letter, a karmic pyramid scheme designed to act out on the world in accordance with the story's reception by characters either prepared to receive its lessons or those unfortunately who have been distracted by more worldly concerns. And nowhere else is Porter's light touch, on matters not only of the greatest consequence but at times of the most inscrutable complexity, more perfectly laid out than in this little " cautionary" tale.

But Porter is not all ghostly breezes across the back of the neck. These sentences of abstract perfection are one after another loaded with matter. Open to any page. Porter seems to know things at the farthest just-beyond reaches of our own experiences of knowledge, the details every lover of cultures, and of culture, longs to gain access to but rather only encounters glancingly, or second-hand, or theoretically, or not at all. Porter handles these details like a clockmaker does his cogwheels (not incidentally, some even on horology). He is likely an expert himself in none of these things he writes about, in fact it would seem many of the details are invented out of something closer to a charming innocence than proficiency. Where Porter is expert is in creating a linguistic and imaginative context in which this symbolic cultural knowledge has its richest expression, where it best catches and turns our own imaginations.
One of Porter's most ambitious recent works is the novella " Scrupulous Amedee," from Touch Wood. The remarkably measured pace of this tale is cadenced one sentence after the other by the most perfectly chosen, lightly applied details strung together as on a gently swaying string of lanterns that is tracing, understated and quiet, the very patterns of our most beautiful and unsettling dreams. And within the culture out of which the narrative is drawn, that of French-Tunisian islanders, dreams are spoken of as if reality and reality just as dreams are. Even logic in this story slowly drifts into a very personal, dreamlike configuration, quite sure of itself and yet entirely inaccessible, complete nonsense and yet the truest ordering of things: " If someone else had married Carmen and fathered his children, he thought, and if the allies were the aggressors, he wouldn't have been bound to kill, or to keep from being killed." It would seem this matter-of-fact existence, and its expressions, were Porter's underlying sourcecode for the entire text. Just as one's own lack of awareness is complicit with the uncanniness of dreams, so too here are we drawn into a culture utterly lacking in more worldly contexts by a prose synchronized with and as indeterminate as " the shoreline susurrus" of a dreamscape inseparable from the real, as full of devastating surprise as it is unexpected pleasure, as full of intimations of light as of darkness. When Amedee's blood leaves his body to color his white sheets a " dark and flashing" red, no one can say how it happened. It happened in language. Welcome to Porter's world, the fundamental atomic unit of which is the sentence.
What is the Porter sentence made of? For one, words, some of the most remarkable usages one is likely to find assembled between two covers today anywhere. And for two, mechanics.

Lillian Margiotta nee Valducci blots a fuchsia moue on lilac tissue she then lets eddy through a careless somersault into a receptacle of stiffened lace.

This is as much a lingual arabesque as it is a physical one. The beauty of the sentence, nevermind the image, is so foregrounded that it hardly matters what a " moue" is or what strange course it is taking to what end, the movement is understood. And as in Beckett's or Bernhard's unpunctuated runs the precision of the syntax and the strength of the voice renders all rhythmic nuance as understood. The use of commas would be unsightly. And the fact that the archaic " moue" is used here is not an academic parlor trick, it is essential to the sentence's particular beauty, a function of its strangeness and as well obviously its musicality. More than an interesting word, it is the air the story breathes. Here is the opening sentence of " Reunion Eve," published in an earlier issue of this review:

In darkening blue, serene Venus assumes her place above a sliver of moon, and familiar constellations twinkle one by one above the sand sweeping away forever from the lighted pavilions, the chatter and wail, the laughter, the wraiths conjoining and disjoining perfectly confident in the invisible shield Abu Dhabi has diverted from the military to shelter Engineering University class reunion ceremonies out here in the desert, a killer app.

These are everywhere, just open one of the books. It strikes me in the moment as quite silly to separate out any sentence of Porter's for close reading as they will nearly all require this if one intends to read him. There is no such thing as an exemplary Porter moment. Whereas mining out a handful of such examples might suffice in an attempt to show what is worthwhile in lesser writers, with Porter the uniform exemplariness overwhelms any attempt to single out. What's more, one of the most crucial pleasures of Porter's writing is lost in this process, the element of surprise.

One is continually overwhelmed by the sense of a control that in its essence is not driven by anxiety but by a conscientiousness that almost seems to carry the weight of an ethical pledge. Attitudes, sensibilities are not taken for granted, each situation, indeed each character, is considered anew, untainted, even-handedly, and with a positive expectation. This is the posture of true discovery, of meeting the world on its terms and, as a writer, channeling it to readers. It's rare, and while not always what is called for, at times it has a place in the world that seems positively angelic. Porter is not skimming across the surface of the world as it is, he is, with every choice, plunging into it and in a sense by doing so altering it. There is depth of analysis in Porter, sometimes refreshingly explicit, and at other times through the scrupulous ordering of his narratives which move forward, turning sharply here and there, on imagery and the thought that inhabits that imagery, the language, after all, that creates it. The world for Porter is not a picture to be reconstructed in words, beauty merely a sensation worth repeating. Both the image and its beauty are given their primacy in the world by the human capacity for thought, for grasping, that is at the heart of Porter's use of language, the structures of his narratives, and the particular mental drive of his sentences. This fundamental and unwavering belief in the divinity of the human mind is the strength one feels behind both Porter's control and his well-chosen moments of release. It's this wizened innocence, its general acceptance of the world as it is put forward by the evidence of the lives of its inhabitants, that is also the gateway to Porter's most amusing moments. Porter's subterranean humor is entirely derived from his deep engagement with humanity.

The commitment here is essentially one to a certain humanistic optimism, or as Perec puts it, " an 'open consciousness,' one that abjures myth and bias, while aspiring to make manifest in fiction the possibility, and the necessity, of society's transformation." It is, in addition to this, a simple refusal to collapse into the easy-chair of literature and to showcase prematurely one's own moral failure as consolation and encouragement to others, however alluring this practice can be for a writer, particularly one who has worked in the shadows for over thirty years. Backsliding is a central theme in Porter's work, treating of both those who do and those who don't. Phrases like " there's pleasure to take from casuistry too" and small wistfully pleasant sighs of moving on in spite of imperfection combine with more minor-heroic moments of deflected praise or attention or the almost pastoral-heroic I-think-I'll-stick-to-my-guns-if-you-don't-mind attitudes of some of his characters. Their essential flexibility entwined with their essential good judgment is often the base fabric Porter's writing is woven into. One of the most memorable moments in one of Porter's most notable stories, " Icehouse Burgess," is the infixed parable of A' and B. The story seems to have no context and no clear meaning outside the obvious (" the epitome of banality," the Burgess later refers to it), but it does have a somewhat haunting, elusive climax, that for me is at the heart of all Porter's writerly diligence, his refusal to capitulate on his assumed high standards not only for writing but for humanity:

...I barreled through to the dismaying outcome, how A' had folded—hunkered down, signed on, lowered sights, there are a million names for it. I'd watched A''s face brighten with the relief of letting go—I could see it felt like a renegotiated mortgage, a gusher of means from nowhere. There was but the merest twinge of awareness of another construction for the choice, itself irrevocable and more consequential than A' would now ever be able to know. I told how as I stepped away (B already having bid his avuncular adieu) and watched A' diminish in perspective, a trick of the light made it seem possible for me to glimpse into the thorax and see the heart swell and thin like a paper lantern.

There's ambiguity in the phrase " another construction for the choice." It's a riddle, and a warning, the sort of thing that keeps you coming back to the story, keeps you meditating on the many possible faces of the world a story like " Icehouse Burgess" suggests but does not name. This story, for one, seems to have absolutely no precedent in literature.

But neither Porter's exceptional language nor his upstanding ethic is beating us over the head. Porter's no Jesuit, and one of the most peculiar aspects of his writing is his repeated use of passive constructions, and of gerunds, in depicting actions, environments, sensibilities, musings, and foreign intelligence that seem to have no agency at all. These constructions are prominent and consistent to such a degree through the entirety of Porter's oeuvre that what they amount to is something like a plasmic deity holding in suspension the entire world of Porter's endless imagination. This is the Porter sensibility, the other inhabitant of the Porter sentence. When it wavers, it wavers within itself. When it innovates, it expands the walls of its own container. It is at every point unmistakably its own. From Eelgrass to The Near Future, from 1977 to 2006, this sensibility reigns, and whoever wanders into Porter's world, be it a pear-shaped woman or a fuddy-duddy, Babe the beast or a serial murderer, Zia Lucia or Yves Orvoën, recalcitrant dick or refractory child, Thuggy, Mouse, Avis, Lulu, chicklets or duckwalkers, Masao or Yoji, Cri-Cri the lighthouse keeper, Blanquette the goat, or Oh-oh the dog, A' or Troy Duckworth, or just your everyday K-Mart shopper, is subject to its nudging, prodding, benign and watchful influence. They don't always survive of course, and quite terrible and violent things do befall the occasional Porter character, but it is nonetheless just as though Porter were shepherding or parenting, dutybound and vigilant, by means of the meticulous construction of his sentences—creating as they go the very patterns of consciousness—all of these entities fearlessly through a world whose dangers are readily acknowledged, if not embraced.

Always Porter's fiction seems to be making an argument against what he has called " facile despair" in the face of life's capricious wickedness. Whether it is through the artifice of an absurdly implausible happy ending or a simple impassive sidestepping of terror and destruction, he recognizes and showcases in a highly unusual and original manner, as uncommon in manner as in objective, the charms of our world in ascendance to its curses. This sets his work apart and puts it at some risk for attack. It is not unimaginable that even a supremely initiated, if immature, reader of the world's great fictions' first reaction to encountering Porter's would be one of hostility to a perceived lack of heft, that is to say, of gloom. What a terrible loss to this reader, who has been fatally undone by the Porter ruse. In this way, it is almost possible to say, Porter is choosing his own readers. I count Joe Ashby Porter among the most daring writers at work today not because he goes, heart in hand, deep into our most obscured emotional territory (he doesn't really), nor because he deals unflinchingly with subjects more or less taboo in our society (he does), but because of his commitment to his methods, in particular this misdirection, or certain sleight of hand, which perhaps is no more directed as such than those black arts of literature that turn flawless execution into transcendent experience. The way, in the course of processing language, a feeling of overwhelming agitation can shift ever so slightly into one of profound well-being, and vice-versa.

The jumpy are easily fooled. Just this week I have witnessed in print a cursory dismissal on grounds that it represented its author's capitulation to social and practical pressures, in view of its apparent and disingenuously professed lightness and vapidity, of a book I take to be one of the darkest (even morbid) and most complex, and the single riskiest, in all of American literature, Herman Melville's Pierre. While I see no point in making too much of this intersection, it is nonetheless true that Porter in this same manner as Melville also pulls no punches. His methods, utterly against the grain, are relentlessly sure of themselves and it is clear in the reading that here is a fiction that is not calculating its give and its take with teaspoons of self-conscious appeasement to all who might partake. Like Melville, Porter has other concerns, and sometimes these require a set-up. Just as Melville sets up his reader in the first half of Pierre for one sort of book and delivers in the second half quite another, Porter's work often appears on the surface as a mild and erudite sort of entertainment for all-comers. What he ultimately delivers, however, is a multi-layered, often unsettling confection of penetrating ambiguity. Like the mild-mannered look-on who sees all but passes judgment on none, and who is unwilling to propose answers or give advice, Porter's work can be cause for a user-initiated reevaluation of long-settled patterns of acceptance or rejection. This layering can almost seem incidental, though no less powerful for that, as it may merely be a consequence of Porter's and Melville's other common concern, an overarching obsession with not only the more stylish implementations of language but also with those of its more important corollary: thought. Stylish thought, that is, the simple beauty of a single instance of bright intelligence floated up gently on a bubble of language, materializing out of the protoplasm into its own concrete identity, as if a made object, such that once grasped it is difficult to imagine it had originated out of a soup of mere vocabulary. It is this unassuming intelligence, never forced and never insisting, framed within his own stylish sensibility, that is Porter's one-of-a-kind contribution to literature.

Lately Porter has moved toward a series of small experiments in hanging his explorations and exhaustions of language on the solid and yet reliably banal frameworks of genre fiction, most prominently of the speculative sort, but including action-adventure, erotica, the detective story, spy fiction, the fable, though regrettably not yet the western. It is not new for him, but appears to be still a more concentrated and wider-ranging effort. The results of course look nothing like genre fiction, neither in its pleasures nor its pains, and it is more an amusement perhaps than a serious engagement with these forms, yet what emerges is something surprisingly even more daring than Porter's previous fiction. The instinct seems to arise out of an intensifying conviction that his project, placed now within an even more heightened state of artificiality, and a certain strain of the humor more often resting directly on the surface, provides a contrast so perfectly in opposition to a variety of depth so perfectly subtle that discovering—and masterfully rendering—its exact relief, or mirror image, more and more must seem the only effective, and certainly most radical, way forward. And so what you get is a simultaneous presentation of both his trademark subtlety and its most wooden antidote. Certainly there is something more than a little Shakespearean in this method, and as Porter extends the reach of his language to relating stories that seem less Porter's and more everyone's, the manner in which they are told rises to a point of singularity only a handful of writers, in fact storytellers of all varieties, ever attain.

One's critical engagement with such stories also moves in parallel, and such works can inspire a very different way of thinking about fiction altogether. Essays entitled " Point-of-view in The Sound and the Fury," " The use of character in The Nick Adams Stories," " Setting in The Great Gatsby," have an amusing nostalgic resonance to them and, for me at least, emerge out of a distant critical past that seems to be of no use anymore (if ever it was). I nonetheless am compelled by Porter's recent tales to consider the primacy of just these things, yet in a manner completely at odds with the implied objectives of the investigations mentioned above. These once-basic elements of fictional composition are used in Porter's fictions not as gear for cobbling together the great American novel, nor for taking it apart, but as mechanisms similar to those used by constraint-based writers, most relevantly Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, and by comparison even Guy Davenport and Ben Marcus, though they, like Porter, do not write explicitly constraint-based works. Looking at Porter's work this way prompts in me the desire to compose brief essays entitled, " Point-of-view in 'Reunion Eve,'" " The uses of plot in 'Mr. Seguin's Goat,'" " Character development in The Near Future," which critical concentrations would produce utterly different results than what the application of these diagnostics produces in more recognizable fictional structures. In Porter's case it is easy to see how the systematic use of these elements, rather than reinforcing an attempt at naturalism, in fact heighten the artificiality of that representation. The effect is marvelous, and the intelligence behind their purposeful deployment makes life seem far more bearable than it often is. In " Reunion Eve," for instance, we have a foregrounded point-of-view that is flat-out impossible, shifting, ambiguous, and yet is consistent with the science-fictional set-up of the whole story. There is a simple story of seduction here, but all the while its centerpiece is this remarkable authorial element that is adding a layer of meaning to the story, or a strata of depth, that gives it a certain immortality. The same is true with the ingenious reverse-translation of Daudet, " Mr. Seguin's Goat." Why re-plot this story in reverse? And is it in reverse after all? What is the story after all, apart from Daudet's, that Porter himself is telling? There is an intelligence of composition here that demands reckoning. It's a world of twisted meaning that, similar to Kafka's, keeps you returning over and over again to the same stories. These " constraints" are more and more used by Porter as means by which to create a work of the imagination that has less to do with a representation of the world as we think we see it, or even of our experience within it, and even less of our emotional experience of it, but rather as an expression of the intellect, the imagination, of experimentation and exploration, in a word, consciousness. As Perec scoldingly articulates it, " ...literary history seems deliberately to ignore writing as practice, as work, as play. Systematic artifices, formal mannerisms (that which, in the final analysis, constitutes Rabelais, Sterne, Roussel...) are relegated to the registers of asylums for literary madmen."**

The elements not only of Porter's sentences, but of whole stories, novels, the oeuvre itself, fit together like well-cut puzzle pieces and some of the more complex of these compositions work like insoluble riddles, perhaps one of the highest forms of technical arrangement, and the most eternally interesting. No story of Porter's has yet aged and possibly none is yet exhausted of its thoughts. His deliberate brevity only makes each tale a more essential piece of this puzzle that is so far without edges or corners. One imagines its charms expanding out into eternity and, so long as there is the language—and now there are two as Porter's Touch Wood is set to be released in French next year—there will be Porter's books, the fate of alchemy notwithstanding. But lest I seem too complacent, it is worth noting The Kentucky Stories remains out of print.

*The Perec quotations are from a new translation by Rob Halpern forthcoming in Tripwire: a journal of poetics. Perec's essay, " Pour une litterature realiste," first appeared in Partisans, no. 4, April 1962.

**This last Perec quotation, however, is as quoted in Marjorie Perloff's essay " The Return of the (Numerical) Repressed," and comes from Perec's essay " History of the Lipogram" in Oulipo: A primer of potential literature, edited by Warren Motte.