JULY 3, 2018
MIDWAY THROUGH HER 2015 book Savage Park, Amy Fusselman lays it on the line. “We are only here for a short time,” she writes, “we are going to die. How will you live your life? is really the only important question there is, and playfully is one of the most courageous, most generous, and most fully human ways to answer this question.”
The book, an extended consideration of the questions of play and safety, looks at these issues specifically through the lens of childrearing. When Fusselman and her husband took their children on a long trip to Tokyo, they discovered a place called the Hanegi Playpark where kids are given hammers, saws, and nails, and encouraged to build structures in an atmosphere of freedom and potential danger that would give most American parents fits. By the end of her stay in the Japanese capital, Fusselman had concluded not only that, by setting aside an obsession with safety, the park allows children to express themselves as full-fledged beings but also that such an approach might benefit adults as well, as a kind of defiant gesture in the face of death. Reflecting back on her trip five years later, though, Fusselman admitted that she hadn’t succeeded in “providing any particularly Hanegi Playpark-ian experience for my boys,” even as she tried to instill an openness to play in her family’s everyday life.
This tension — this desire to live a playful, multifarious life tempered by the realities of being a person in the world — is at the heart of Fusselman’s fourth and latest book, the long essay Idiophone. Both her most formally playful and most melancholy volume, Idiophone is structured as a series of short, self-contained sections, most of which consist of long strings of declarative sentences. These sentences, which take on a searching, circular quality due to Fusselman’s skillful repetition of key phrases and motifs, deal with everything from her relationship with her aging mother to the plight of women in the literary world to her conception of The Nutcracker ballet as not a hoary chestnut but a radical work of art.
Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate (2001) and 8 (2007), both published by McSweeney’s, unfolded in the soon-to-become-standard modular style (with a series of short numbered passages separated by lots of white space) and featured a cheeky sense of humor. Savage Park represented something of a retrenchment, with a more conventional chaptered structure and a more measured narrative voice. Idiophone offers a distillation of these methods: intensely concentrated and filled with flights of fancy, the essay proceeds by its own associative logic. Here, for example, is Fusselman musing on her frequent telephone arguments with her mother, who lives in a Florida nursing home:
We fight in the air between New York City and Tampa.
We fight in the air over North Carolina.
We fight like the Wright brothers flying on the beach at Kitty Hawk.
We take turns like the Wright brothers flying that crazy machine we built together in the bicycle shop.
We take turns like the nutcracker brothers standing together backstage.
We take turns like the nutcracker brothers going into the spotlight.
We take turns like the nutcracker brothers being broken and being fixed.
Fusselman makes several imaginative leaps, first picturing her and her mother’s voices meeting up in the phone line at the halfway point between them, North Carolina, a location that conjures up the Wright brothers; she then flashes back to one of the book’s recurrent images, the multiple nutcracker dolls that the New York City Ballet keeps on hand in case one of them breaks. This catalog of images is not simply the outpouring of a fevered mind but rather a collection of motifs that elucidate some of Fusselman’s primary thematic concerns: the sense of play and the desire for other worlds that characterizes the Wright brothers’ mission, the ideal of solidarity amid brokenness represented by the nutcrackers.
This desire for something more in life, which Fusselman, referencing the transformations of The Nutcracker, repeatedly defines as “one world turn[ing] into another,” soon begins to rub up against a very real sense of fatigue. This fatigue occasionally verges on despair, as when Fusselman wonders, more than once, why we “have to be stuck in a horrible world as it plods to its logical end.” If this is the situation she finds herself in, however, it is not one she is prepared to easily accept. In a burst of defiant lyricism, she follows up this acknowledgment of being confined to a dead-end world with a potent outburst:
I want to open the door and get out of the world.
I want to open the door and let more worlds in.
I want to be in two worlds at once.
I want to be in three and four and five worlds at once.
I want to sextuple my worlds.
I want candy and coffee to dance for me.
I want the ancestors to speak through my slit.
I want to transmit their message like Tchaikovsky did.
This passage — which, following the essay’s circular logic, riffs on several of the book’s running motifs, including a slit gong the author sees in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oceania wing — returns us to one of Fusselman’s central concerns, the enduring power of The Nutcracker. Or rather, the enduring weirdness of this ballet, which is studiously ignored by those who would prefer to dismiss it as harmless family entertainment. “That The Nutcracker is thought of as simply a festive holiday ritual is baffling to me,” she writes. “How bold is a work of art in which we laugh at death? How bold is a work of art that doesn’t tie it up neatly at the end — that does something, abandons it, and moves on to something better?”
The popular misunderstanding/co-opting/defanging of The Nutcracker prevents us from seeing it in its proper sense, as a “dance poem about consciousness,” a piece of transformative art that boldly abandons its narrative to present a utopic vision of an imaginative other world. In this way, radical art that is not altogether ignored is, whether intentionally or inadvertently, erased in plain sight, leaving us metaphorically locked into our own dull world. With a sort of touching faith in the transformative power of art, albeit tempered by a strong strain of pessimism, Fusselman sets about, through her own radical art, thinking her way into another world — or, at least, attempting to transform this one. Her goal, though, proves to be tough business — tough because she is constrained by a clumsy body, stuck with hands like “two nibbles of fat” with which to navigate the world; tough because, as a woman writer whose work is hard to categorize, she is often dismissed; tough because, above all, we live in a society that rewards conformity and mediocrity, killing imagination from a very young age.
This last point is one that Fusselman makes forcefully in Savage Park. Objecting to her friends’ use of the word “creative” to describe things like their kids’ making birthday cards on a computer, she admits that she “want[s] to cry” — because, for her, “creativity, in its fullest, most cherry-blossom-ish flowering, wants to piss on your grave.” Her understanding of creativity as a partially destructive force is one that comes to define many of her stances in Idiophone. If the goal of art, of life, is to break through the narrow assumptions that limit our daily existence, to break free to other worlds (as in the transformations of The Nutcracker), then there is an inevitable aspect of destructiveness as well, a need to annihilate the world that keeps us bound.
Fusselman’s desire to imagine her way into a new world finds its clearest expression in a series of passages, interpolated into the essay, in which the author concocts a fanciful scenario involving rodents, magicians, and her mom. The first section of this narrative is sandwiched between two sections discussing The Nutcracker, thus inviting the reader to view the story as her own attempt to duplicate the transformations that are central to Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Spinning a fable-like tale, Fusselman tells the story of two mice and a shrunken version of her mother driving a tiny car through a department store, only to be blindsided by a drunk-driving cockroach and taken into a hospital that suddenly transforms into the site of a magic show. This strange scenario recasts figures and themes from the rest of the essay, illustrating the ways in which the writer draws on the materials of life, altering them into something that bears a tangential relationship to everyday existence, one that is somehow more real, more charged.
In its own grave-pissing creativity, Idiophone is filled with these types of transformations. Staring down the void, Fusselman reaches desperately for whatever will save her from being stuck in this horrible world that can do nothing but plod to its inevitable conclusion. In the end, she works her way through the impasse, leading to a well-earned affirmation, a commitment to multiplicity in the face of the constraints of daily living. She will strive, she concludes, “to see it all at once like in a mirror, to be in one world and to multiply […] to be in one world and to hold all the others.” In this hard-won acknowledgment, Idiophone stands as Fusselman’s boldest reckoning yet.