JULY 21, 2018
IN HIS CELEBRATED 2005 book-length essay, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti drew attention to the relevance of diagrams and graphs for understanding the larger forces that shape literature. Such models, Moretti argued, can provide us with quantitatively supported insights into the emergence (and fall) of literary genres across vast expanses of time and space. Consider the rise of the novel — not just Ian Watt’s 18th-century British tradition but the narrative genre in late-18th-century Japan, in mid-19th-century Spain, or in mid-20th-century Nigeria. What might computer-generated models teach us about the historical behavior of a corpus so enormous and diverse that it exceeds the ability of a single reader to navigate it?
As it turns out, quite a lot. For the “rise of the novel” follows a pattern that is at once stunningly predictable and revelatory of the broader market forces shaping literary history. A rapid growth in the number of book publications produces a reorientation of the reading public toward contemporary titles, which in turn gives rise to a balkanization of literature into genre niches (detective novels, sporting novels, school stories, et cetera). That pattern, however, only becomes visible from the panoramic vantage point of computer-generated graphs. Hence the need for “distant reading” — and, with it, the return to structure and form as central preoccupations of literary criticism.
Increasingly, literary fiction and nonfiction have made explicit use of graphs, maps, and diagrams. Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad includes a chapter in PowerPoint; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2016) features a zoning map drawn up by the novel’s main protagonist; Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018) charts tree rings, nature’s own way of diagramming time. There is, of course, nothing new about this literary interest in maps and diagrams. Authors such as Borges, Joyce, and Faulkner first made maps a central thematic for modern literature, as in the well-known Borges fable of an emperor ordering a map so detailed and precise that it ends up covering the very terrain that it charts. Yet, whereas these modernist writers still presumed a more or less stable reality underpinning their representations of it, the diagrams haunting contemporary writing are, more often than not, born simultaneously with the text.
Such is the case with the diagrams and images in Dustin Parsons’s Exploded View, a volume of essays loosely structured around the theme of fatherhood. If Moretti’s graphs afford an insight into the vast and global, then the diagrams featured in Exploded View constitute something of a dialectical opposite: here, the humdrum reality of domestic life is revealed to be filled with unexpected complexities and life lessons.
The “exploded view” alluded to in the title refers to the diagrams in machinery manuals, where all the parts of a to-be-assembled object are “blown up” into a single image. Parsons’s father, a Kansas oilfield worker, had many such manuals in his shop, and several of the essays in Exploded View are devoted to childhood reminiscences of the author assisting him on the job. As with Seamus Heaney’s father poem “Digging,” Exploded View is driven, in part, by a homology between the manual labor of the father and the writing labor of the son. Throughout the volume, one gets the sense of being inside the author’s shop, complete with rhetorical tools and other such machinery lying about, all as magical as the paternal equipment he describes.
Moreover, by opening each of these essays with “exploded view” diagrams of machinery, Parsons renders visible the fact that so much of our childhood experience exists for us as images. Our personal narratives emerge from the stimulus of a single snapshot, a single scene, a particular visual image, lodged in our brains and just waiting to be seized and (re)assembled. The author’s father, a taciturn man, speaks to him in such images, more so than he does in words. The son, meanwhile, seems to have inherited at least some of that quietude — for, although a man of words, he, too, is taciturn (“[s]ome of my greatest regrets are my ill-advised silences”).
The book features other diagrams as well. A childhood reminiscence of a tornado touchdown in Western Kansas is juxtaposed with an image of a Fujita scale, the metric used to measure tornadoes. This scale, Parsons observes, registers the “force” that a tornado has, not its size or velocity: “The funnel size or speed of the storm does not matter. We measure a tornado by its damage.” One is inclined to use this method to evaluate the author’s own writing: most of these essays owe their appeal not to their breadth or flow but rather to the “damage” they do — that is to say, to their uncanny ability to move readers, leaving us with a lingering impression of a figure, a landscape, an object. None of these essays are very long, and most explore thematic material that is quite ordinary, even mundane in character. Yet by the time you are finished with them, something about that ordinariness has been revealed in a novel way, the components fully laid out, as if in an exploded view.
Take the essay “Harvest,” which describes the planting season in an unnamed rural town. Not until the end does the narrator truly reveal his personal involvement, as he watches in awe, from atop a grain elevator, the field hands’ celebration of the Fourth of July. “It was a first job, and I thought they’d all be like that,” Parsons writes. “Thought they’d all end in such billows.” The point, for the adult writer looking back, seems to be that work, in the present, is all too often a daily grind devoid of such spectacle and show. But to adopt such a nostalgic reading is to miss the fact that this first job, too, is already mired in routine. This, at least, is what the hum of anaphoras steering the essay seems to suggest: “The grain is planted by tractor, tucked in with a prow and a drop and a grating for cover. There is nitrogen. There is water. More than once there are prayers.”
Neither, for that matter, does the Fourth of July spectacle, upon a second reading, carry all that much hallowing weight. Or, better put, the glimmer of the festivities is partially obscured. Along the way, the essay introduces us to two unnamed characters who are briefly lifted above the undifferentiated crowd of field hands: there is “the classmate who is a fuckup” and the “older kid,” who “graduated a few years ago but will never leave town.” When Parsons returns to these two figures later in the essay, it is in the midst of his description of the fireworks finale. “Later,” Parsons writes with a sudden leap in time that gives so many of these essays their volume and depth, “the older kid is convicted of rape, the fuckup is killed on his motorcycle, and there is a realization that their fate wasn’t so clear.”
Exploded View registers, throughout, an awareness of the relative insufficiency — even futility — of words. The proliferation of diagrams seems to suggest that words will somehow always fall short of the image, that — to evoke Keats’s urn — the “unheard melodies” of the image or art object will forever be “sweeter” than what words can articulate. Time and again in these essays, as if to capture that point, the image precedes the text. Before we begin reading the essay “Pumpjack,” for example, we are given the exploded view of an actual pumpjack, with the text skirting the image in numbered sentences as if listing various assembly parts:
This is the doghouse, this is the pipe rack, so on and so forth, and we walked through the field naming things that sounded like the things they were. […] Why suddenly did every signifier sound and look like its signified?
The pumpjack becomes a symbol for childhood itself, a time when there is as yet no dislocation between signifier and signified, when life can still be experienced with an image-like holism, as in the exploded-view diagram that precedes the essay. The very act of naming, the emergence of language, is already what puts us at a remove from things. Such is the burden shouldered by every writer: like Adam naming the animals in Eden, he understands that there is no writing without loss — indeed, that writing itself is the agent of loss.
It is no surprise, then, that death, both symbolic and real, hovers like a shadow over these essays. A coyote is beheaded by the pumpjack’s counterweights (“The enduring image I will always have of the pumpjack is how it takes life”); a street dog appears one day and then disappears for good; the neighbor across the street dies in sweltering India. And, finally, the son faces the mortality of the parent: “My greatest fear for my father is that he never reaches that age where he is able to retire. My greatest fear is that my time to turn over his shop will be postmortem.”
Time and again in these essays, the simultaneity of text and diagram generates a rhetorical and emotional weight. But it is not until the closing essay that we witness the full effect. As the author comments on his relative inability to “see” color, the silhouette of a cardinal is drawn on the opposite page. “Your sons have known their colors for as long as they could talk,” Parsons writes. “Your wife shares their names with the boys: periwinkle, magenta, coral, café au lait.” At first, the reader is unsure what “color” in this context means. Surely, the choice of a bird on the opposite page would suggest something without ties to racial identity and/or politics. There is no “color line” in the natural world, only color. But, as the essay takes you deeper into its subject, and as the cardinal silhouette assumes greater shape, the political and racial stakes become clearer. “Your entire family has an eye for color that you simply don’t have,” Parsons observes. “Obviously it is because it never has had to.” By the time the reader reaches the end of the essay, he understands that the hand-drawn silhouette of the cardinal is not meant to be an illustration at all. Indeed, as a silhouette, it does not even have color. Instead, what Parsons seems to be asking readers — and, indeed, himself — is something like this: Have you ever pictured what it means to be of color? Are you able to draw the fault lines of racism and bigotry? Can you imagine what this does to others?
Such are the explosive questions with which Exploded View ends. It is difficult, upon closing this book, not to feel a sense of sadness when seeing how far the contemporary political climate has drifted away from the kind of empathy Parsons elicits and displays. That he does so with unwavering minimalist precision and a keen sense for the rhythms of everyday life puts him in the tradition of lyrical poets such as Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. As the latter knew, so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, or a red cardinal for that matter — that is, on our ability to imagine the strain (and pain) of others.