All that Exists for the Audience: On Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeline E.
by Gabriel Blackwell
$16 / 284 pp.
How does one describe a book that masquerades as a work of criticism about Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which becomes a book about writing a book about Vertigo—and is, at first blush, based in fact, reality, or at least memory—which becomes a novel about a man experiencing an ongoing series of waking nightmares eerily similar to those of the characters in the film Vertigo, all the while writing a book about Vertigo, a man who very much resembles and even shares a name with the name printed on the actual spine of the physical book, Madeline E? How to do this? I’m still not sure, and part of what troubles me is that my above description of the book actually oversimplifies the work itself. There is no satisfactory way to summarize Madeline E, no way to describe that won’t reduce the book to sounding like a work of insanity (which it is) or garbled, mangled confusion (which it sometimes is). The best I can come up with: it’s a resounding, powerful addition to the literature of bewilderment. “Everything that is is a record of its process,” writes Blackwell, about halfway through a book simultaneously obsessed with erasing that record.
Perhaps it’s best to simply call Madeline E a novel, even though the book resists that definition at every turn, a novel in the sense of that word’s widest, most all-encompassing and varied form, in the sense of the novel which eats all other prose forms, a Bakhtinian panoply of voices. Yet the book is a work of film criticism; a work of literary theory; a series of seemingly unrelated short stories; a work of philosophy; a philosophical meditation on disguises, doppelgangers, and the self; a David Markson-esque collage; it is all of these things and none of these things, a collection of sharp angles converged in book form, forming the dark, creviced, spike-filled object called Madeline E. Which, if absolutely nothing else, can be more or less accurately described as a book by Gabriel Blackwell, about Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.
Blackwell opens with a quote from Antigone: “We have only a short time to please the living, all eternity to please the dead.” From the start he aims for the dead. It’s a classical move, and one that signals Blackwell’s ambitions for something more. The first sentence in his own hand—and by in his own hand, I mean that which is written by him, for the book is filled with quotations, ranging from sources as widely varied as Slavoj Žižek, Phillip K. Dick, and Rebecca Solnit—is a description of the opening shot of the film: “We open already in pursuit of something ineffable,” he writes, wasting no time in making for that which defies description. “Even after watching Vertigo fifty-plus times, I have no mental picture of [the man Jimmy Stewart is chasing]. Why is Stewart chasing this man? We will never know.” And so Madeline E opens with an unanswerable question.
This proceeding from the unknowable deeper into the unknowable might seem untenable at first, and certainly makes for rough going at times, but it’s the play between the book’s various forms that makes its most engaging through-line. For instance, usually, unless we are reading a rather dry work of academic criticism that assumes expertise amongst its audience, most writers writing about a work of art will trouble themselves to locate the work of art in question in space and time. They will make an effort at orienting the reader to what’s being described. If the work of art in question is a film or book there generally will be some attention paid to the book or film’s plot, its narrative arc. Usually. And if there’s no discernible plot—or a very scanty one—the writer will at least attempt to orient the reader as to the narrative’s main characters, as Geoff Dyer does in Zona, his book-length meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky’s largely plotless Stalker.
Yet Blackwell doesn’t offer the reader a coherent description of the action of Hitchcock’s Vertigo until page 64. This might’ve been unimportant had I a working knowledge of the film. Or, perhaps if I had seen it, like Blackwell, 50-plus times. However, at the time of my reading I’d seen the film only once. There were times, as the book proceeded from fragmentary observation to fragmentary observation that I felt like I was moving from lostness to a deeper lostness. Blackwell follows his lone summary of the film, when he finally gets to it, with a quotation which amounts to the book’s only, singular, extremely deadpan joke: ‘Above all, do not attempt to be exhaustive.’ He attributes this line to Sam Taylor, who claims that Laurent Binet claims that Roland Barthes originally said it. Thus, when we finally get our summary of the film, and feel somewhat oriented, and we’re greeted with a statement denying the legitimacy of summary, which is in fact a commandment against summation, a statement whose source is three-times removed. Blackwell quotes Hitchcock, a few pages later: “All that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen. It doesn’t matter if the set extends no more than six inches beyond what the camera records—it could as well be six miles for all the effect it would have on the audience.” On the page, the effect is practically the inverse. The book is constantly operates around its own margins, folding in on itself.
Threads are picked up only to be dropped a few pages, fifty pages, a hundred pages later. The book’s plot as regards Blackwell himself—or, as it becomes clearer later in the book, the character described in the book as being Gabriel Blackwell, who is also a writer, also writing a book about Vertigo, titled Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo, which, incidentally, is the name of part two of Gabriel Blackwell’s book Madeline E—has become unemployed and has begun to fear his wife is cheating on him. Later on in the book, the character of his wife (who is never named) is replaced by the character of his girlfriend (also never named), who happens to share most of her characteristics with those of the now-disappeared character of his wife. The girlfriend is, for the most part, indistinguishable from the vanished wife. The discrepancy is never explained, a discrepancy those familiar with the film will recognize. The reader is left to wonder whether the girlfriend will later become the wife (that we have gone back in time), or, if the wife herself has simply turned into the girlfriend, as Judy, in the film, becomes Madeline, after the death of Madeline (before the death of the actual Madeline). Too, it is never entirely clear whether or not the book Madeline E is being narrated by Gabriel Blackwell, the character, or Gabriel Blackwell, the writer, who is writing the book Madeline E. Readerly bewilderment proceeds into readerly bewilderment. Yet this bewilderment is also the book’s greatest strength. The book’s intentional inconsistencies, its continual movement into deeper and blurrier opacity, mirrors the workings of the film, taking on the film’s architecture and themes without ever doing so explicitly.
Madeline E’s disorienting effects aren’t relegated only to its plot. Since the book occasionally functions as straight criticism, with sections of very clear and concise ruminations on the film, when the same “I” who is writing critically becomes an “I” who is seeing his own double walking directly towards him across a busy city square, the book’s tether to fiction or nonfiction is never clear. The character—and narrator—Gabriel Blackwell becomes worried that another writer, also named Gabriel Blackwell, has published two books under the name of, you guessed it, Gabriel Blackwell, and that the imposter Blackwell has assumed the real Blackwell’s author page on Amazon.com. The two books listed on Amazon by the imposter Blackwell are actual books published by the ‘real’ Gabriel Blackwell, the Gabriel Blackwell who is the author of Madeline E. Geoff Dyer, in an interview with The Paris Review, has claimed that the only real difference he recognizes between fiction and non-fiction is one of form, but Blackwell, in destroying the distinction between forms, in denying the reader the life preserver of knowing whether or not what she is reading is based in reality or not, treads boldly into the darkness of the unknowable.
I should here be clear that I once met Gabriel Blackwell, at a conference in Seattle. He does exist. I even published a short, very early excerpt of Madeline E in the literary magazine I edit. However, neither of these two facts helped me parse out all of this, as the excerpt of Madeline E that I published dealt almost exclusively with Vertigo (although it did not deal with the Blackwell character’s Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo project), which is, of course, a film about a man who tries to save a woman named Madeline who believes herself to be a woman named Carlotta Valdes who is actually being played by another woman named Judy who actually becomes, and befalls the same fate as, the original Madeline.
Underscoring all of this doubling and tripling lies a very interesting work of criticism. After steadily gaining ground for years, in 2012 Hitchcock’s film replaced Citizen Kane on the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight and Sound list of the greatest all time films. It was the first time a film other than Orson Welles’s classic placed first since polling for the list began in the 1950s. Vertigo’s final attainment of the top spot was symbolic of the steady shift in western notions about art, theory, criticism and politics that has been underway since the beginning of deconstructionism. The book functions as the film’s doppelganger; the plight of Jimmy Stewart becomes the plight of Blackwell. Much of the book’s in-scene moments take place in San Francisco, near or around places where the film was shot. The book’s transition from a series of critical notes to seemingly unrelated pieces of short fiction to, eventually, a novel, makes for jarring reading. But it’s meant to jar. The effect is claustrophobic, airless—and, ultimately, successful.
If it seems implausible for a book’s main character, who seems to be the writer himself, who is in the process of writing a book of nonfiction, to come across his own double—and to accuse that double of having written books bearing the author of the book’s name, that implausibility only serves to underscore the work’s artifice. It’s a tricky line, a line most writers of fiction avoid, because it risks so befuddling or irritating the reader that the work’s inner authority is lost. Blackwell quotes Deleuze: “[M]odern thought is born of the failure of representation, of the loss of identities.” Madeline E is about just this failure of representation, just as Vertigo is about the loss of identities. Blackwell layers over his own artifice: “Why do we find things disguised as other things (even when those disguises actually expose their wearers),” he asks, “more appealing than things left undisguised?” The question points to his own disguising of himself in the work, layering over his own face as the author. Opacity over and through opacity, with a wry nudge.
What Madeline E ultimately serves as, whatever it is—novel or not, study of Vertigo or not—is a work of creative criticism of the highest order. It is a brilliantly flawed book not about Hitchcock’s film, nor of the film, but rather is a true response to it, containing all the madness and torque that Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, claims marked the best works of criticism, wishing for the “lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.” As George Steiner said: “The best readings of art are art.” The book breathes fresh life into both the task of the novelist and critic, resisting interpretation even more fiercely than the uninterpretable film on which it ruminates; its utter refusal to develop the mysterious plotlines it brings forth—and intentional confusion of same—heralds a step forward in the contemporary novel. Yet while every truly new development in a form at first seems like a destruction of that form, at the same time every truly new formal development is borne from the past—even if the unlikely past. The only novel I know of to blur its own lines so thoroughly is Kenneth Patchen’s far too-little read Journal of Albion Moonlight.
A work of meticulous, creeping dread, Madeline E flies in the face of the idea that anyone can be who they say they are, that any claim ultimately leads towards a stable truth. Yet it is no polemic, and Madeline E is far too slippery about its own intentions to be used for anything—which is a comfort in and of itself.
“Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult,” wrote Donald Barthelme, “but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” In Madeline E, Gabriel Blackwell aims for the unspeakable. He strikes the mark dead-center.