Making Stones Stony: On Jordan Abel’s “Empty Spaces”

Sarah Dowling reviews Jordan Abel’s new novel “Empty Spaces.”

By Sarah DowlingMay 23, 2024

Making Stones Stony: On Jordan Abel’s “Empty Spaces”

Empty Spaces by Jordan Abel. Yale University Press. 224 pages.

ABOUT 100 YEARS AGO, the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky argued that the purpose of art is “to make a stone stony.” He meant something like this: we are easily desensitized to everyday things like the little pebbles that litter our paths. We don’t truly see them, we just recognize them and move on. “A thing passes us as if packaged,” he wrote; “we know of its existence by the space it takes up, but we only see its surface.” For Shklovsky, the radical potential of art lies in the way it slows down and complicates our attention to the world. Routine, automatic perception flattens out our view of “things, clothes, furniture,” even “your wife, and the fear of war.” But art restores “sensation,” showing us the world in a new way. It forces us to reorient ourselves toward and within what is all around us.

I was brought back to Shklovsky’s infamously stony stone in reading Empty Spaces, a new novel by the Nisga’a poet and visual artist Jordan Abel. Empty Spaces opens with “[a] deep, narrow chasm. Black rocks. The river lies still on those black rocks.” The rocks get to take up space—for pages, the narration focuses on them. It pores over “roses and rocks and shrubs in the spring rain” before panning out toward the horizon: “Somewhere there is an islet and another islet and a clear sheet of water and bald rocks just beneath the surface.” Description thickens, repetition intensifies: “The woods are full of sounds and rocks and trees.” Pushing beyond standard, packaged narration, Abel extends and complicates our perception so that these rocks become newly rocky. Empty Spaces awakens us to the sensations of this forest, this river, this beach; it asks us to slow down, to move beyond surface-level engagement and really look.

If Abel’s vivid, lushly detailed opening were a film, here’s what might happen next. The camera would track back again, pulling our gaze away from the jagged outcroppings and sea stacks on the horizon, leading us past the flickers of light on the surfaces of tide pools. We’d be brought to rest at the shoulder or on the face of a human protagonist; we’d be offered an individual someone whose movements we might follow and with whom we might identify. This character would, I think, displace any stony stones within the narrative, drawing us into the familiar, and apparently more important, human realm. But Abel’s descriptions are not establishing shots: “The rocks surround themselves with other rocks.” No protagonist steps in to demand our attention, and the narration is abstracted away from any specific speaking figure. Seemingly character- and narrator-free, Abel’s novel swerves away from the “aggrandizing first-person singular” that Anna Kornbluh has recently described as dominating contemporary fiction. Empty Spaces stands apart—it hardly seems to have any “person” at all.

This isn’t what we usually expect from fiction, but—returning to the rocks again—it is what many people want from nature. Empty Spaces confronts us with our own desires for an encounter with a landscape cleansed of human presence, at first by seeming to fulfill them. It immerses us in the quiet, mossy forests and desolate, stormy beaches of the Pacific Northwest, where Abel’s Nisga’a Nation is located, but where, as he explains, he has been prevented from spending much time. The opening chapters’ pages-long paragraphs transport us to the “[r]ocks and logs and mounds of earth and narrow fissures and bottomland and little ponds and pouring rain and a brook that shoots through the narrow fissures, spreading through moment after moment of stretched light.” The peaceful “vaults of the forest,” the “glassy mirrors,” and the “sound of rushing waters ringing through the deep stillness of the night” align with most people’s surface-level views of what an encounter with nature should be like—solitary, elemental, transcendent.

Although these slowly accreting descriptions make the water, stones, and trees seem newly watery, stony, and tree-y, there’s also something familiar about the “naked rocks” and “bottomland,” something recognizable about the way the brook “shoots through the narrow fissures.” In fact, these are not original phrases written by Abel. They come from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, an 1826 novel that describes the landscapes of what we now know as Upstate New York, imagining what they might have been like in 1757, when the Seven Years’ War (as we call it in Canada) was sowing discord between Indigenous nations, dispossessing them of their lands, and pushing them westward into new conflicts. If these quotations from Cooper sound like obscure references that only the nerdiest readers might catch, they’re not. Abel’s rewriting of The Last of the Mohicans is prominently highlighted in his publisher’s web copy and in the descriptions that appear on and within his novel’s covers. What we’re gradually reattuned to in reading Empty Spaces is not just the beauty of a forest; it’s also our own routine, our automatic perception of a literary classic, and our packaged ideas about who occupies space in North America and how they came to do so.

Reading The Last of the Mohicans is a bitter chore. As the critical ethnic studies scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains, Cooper’s novel puts a “positive twist on genocidal colonialism,” setting “the pattern of narrative for future US writers, poets, and historians.” Cooper’s naked rocks serve as a foundation for the idea that, at some point in the misty, distant past, the landscapes of North America were finally and decisively unpeopled—actually, they were willingly given over!—for the benefit of white settlers. Making a bold claim for the importance of literature, Dunbar-Ortiz argues that Cooper’s novel has been “instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide.” Here is an example: The Last of the Mohicans ends with Tamenund, a wise and ancient Lenni Lenape elder, ordering that the assembled Indigenous characters disperse; “the pale faces,” he tells them, are now the “masters of the earth.” If it weren’t so depressingly well known, so pervasively influential, one could almost laugh at Cooper’s ludicrous and convenient ending.

It may seem odd that Abel, an Indigenous person and an experimental artist, would want to engage with such an establishmentarian novel. But his work has long relied on strategies of rewriting, recontextualizing, and re-presenting existing texts—including politically unsavory fiction. His poetry collections Un/inhabited (2015) and Injun (2016), which won the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize, were composed from fragments of text extracted from nearly 100 pulp paperback novels, all Westerns. Using a simple copy-and-paste process, Abel combined the full text of all these public-domain novels into one enormous document; he then used the search function to isolate fragments of language from them, using these phrases to compose his poems. Un/inhabited and Injun are both explicitly engaged in ideological critique: they aggregate and analyze a large dataset, using poetic techniques like juxtaposition, repetition, and fragmentation to distill and expose important patterns within it.

Empty Spaces emerges from a different but closely related compositional process. While Un/inhabited and Injun stick to direct quotation, Abel takes a much freer approach in Empty Spaces, significantly transforming the material he borrows from The Last of the Mohicans. Reading the two novels alongside one another, I was able to identify numerous short phrases from Cooper that cycle and repeat through Empty Spaces, often changing significantly as they recur. But I far preferred the experience of reading Abel’s novel on its own, watching its landscapes shift and transform, being pulled into its meditative narration, feeling occasionally surprised at the intimacy of a first-person-plural pronoun. Abel’s own patterns of repetition—of Gertrude Stein–like insistence—are far more apparent than his borrowings. As the novel proceeds, its landscape descriptions loop and mutate. Soon, the “clear sheet of water” becomes “an unbroken sheet of pavement covering over the surface of the earth.” If Empty Spaces can be said to have a plot, perhaps the major, consequential change that takes place across its 216 pages is that its landscapes become increasingly populated, increasingly urban, increasingly filled with structures and the people who build them: “In between the streets and the drunken bodies, there are sometimes glittering puddles of brown water that reflect the light of the stars.”

Like Abel’s prior poetry, Empty Spaces highlights the structures and ideologies that determine what we look at and what we look past, what we relegate to the mere, insensible background. The titles of its five sections—“Backscattering,” “Celestial Objects,” “Blue Hour,” “Antisolar Points,” and “Afterglow”—all have to do with light: they point to the movements of particles, to the way illumination bleeds upward from beneath the horizon, to the effects and optical illusions created by moisture in the air and at different times of day or night. These titles call attention to the shaping of perception, encouraging us to think about “what a perceiving self doesn’t first see about itself,” to cite Kornbluh again. Attentive to setting but not to character, Empty Spaces asks that we scale our thinking—that we don’t just look at a single stone but consider the whole, elaborate terrain. This is not a turn away from the human; it’s a reconsideration of our place in the world.

Although Empty Spaces refuses the novelistic imperative to describe individuals, it nevertheless asks what happens when people are reduced to “[c]heeks pressed against floating chunks of concrete. Cheeks split open by broken glass. […] A mound of flesh. A broken river.” Abel’s reworking of The Last of the Mohicans is more than just some triumphant reversal of the past-tense conquest that Cooper imagined and then memorialized. What happens as we step from one to the next of Empty Spaces’ stony stones is that we are confronted with the ongoing progress of genocide, and with the ordinary but horrifying reality of its normalization. Abel shows how the elimination of Indigenous people takes place every day and over time. When he describes how “[s]ome flesh breaks open in this light,” the violence can be stunning:

In the park, there are some trees swaying in the soft, silvery wind. A bridge stretches between cities. A river of light flows through the city and out past the highway and into another city. A hot summer wind and the floating bodies and the low bushes by the ditch and the burning light in the air. As the burning light cuts through the air. As the floating bodies collide. As the air flows up from the city limits. From somewhere deep in the city there are more soft bodies, more sharp objects, more radiating light in the air. The radiating light and the burned bodies and the broken concrete slabs and the cracked beams of wood and the pulsing neon and the sound of wind rushing through the broken windows of the apartment blocks.

This description may not sound like it came from The Last of the Mohicans—that novel doesn’t have highways or city limits or pulsing neon—but it directly references the moment when the antagonist, Magua, is finally vanquished, his body “cutting the air” as he plunges to his death. Abel’s “floating bodies” repeat and intensify Cooper’s image, suggesting the incalculable number of Indigenous people pushed to and over the edge by settlers. These are “soft bodies,” “burned bodies”—what was evil overcome in Cooper’s narrative becomes compounded tragedy in Abel’s, and he writes it in the present tense.

The collapsed “apartment blocks,” the broken slabs of body-crushing concrete, the “sharp objects,” and the “burning light” are very much of our moment. Although Abel began working on Empty Spaces years ago, the situation this passage most immediately summons, at least to me, is the cascading hideousness unfolding in Gaza that now floods every feed on our phones. I say this not to pin Abel’s novel to some set of external events that happen to be contemporaneous with its publication but to explain that the novel slows down and complicates our perception of how spaces are emptied of one population and then filled with another. Rather than let these processes appear to us “as if packaged,” to use Shklovsky’s phrase, Empty Spaces repeats, extends, and thickens moments in Cooper’s novel, turning our attention to an imaginary past that continues to terraform the social and political terrain we live in today, sharpening our sense of how its illusions still shape our world.

Empty Spaces is written against the manifold ways that this violence is minimized, justified, and packaged for storage in the dim recesses of collective memory. It is a book that grounds us in the ongoing reality of displacement and mass killing, which always, in the end, happens one soft body at a time. Empty Spaces reignites the “fear of war,” just as Shklovsky said art should. It restores sensation against stone-faced indifference. Newly attuned to the rocks that lie all around us, awakened to their size, their heft, their solidity, to the way they could cut through the air, Abel acknowledges that his task—as well as ours—is to halt the relentless progress of a plot we’ve seen unfold before. This novel shatters the murderous fantasy of a space that has been emptied just for us.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Dowling is the author of Here Is a Figure: Grounding Literary Form (2024), Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood Under Settler Colonialism (2018), and three poetry collections, Entering Sappho (2020), DOWN (2014), and Security Posture (2009). Sarah teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Toronto.


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