Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Take This Journey

The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman, The Penguin Press HC, 2007

The most elementary form of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle runs essentially that determining a particle’s location in space makes measuring the momentum of the particle uncertain while measuring the particle’s momentum makes determining the particle’s position in space uncertain. If you know where it is, you can’t tell how fast it’s going and, conversely, if you know how fast it’s going, you can’t pin down its location.

Such thoughts must surely have animated the mind of Maira Kalman in her yearlong, illustrated blog for the New York Times Select in which she tackled any number of topics fraught with ambiguity. Primarily a children’s book author and illustrator, Kalman’s work also graced the covers of The New Yorker as well as a recent illustrated edition of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Collected here, she is set loose from expectation and the result is dazzling and moving, even if days later you are at a loss to specifically remember any one specific element.

That’s because what Kalman has created isn’t really a column, isn’t really a journal, a novel, a collection, a graphic novel, or really anything quite like other books. Made up of twelve installments plus an epilogue, the book’s pieces are only connected by the serious and yet whimsical voice of their creator. For example, January of 2007’s blog is made up of photographs of people on the street and in other settings, taken from behind (presumably taken by Ms. Kalman), and accompanied by text that runs much as follows:

The woman walks in the mist. The man wears a mink stole. I run after him. He shakes my hand in such a warm way. My eyes are so tired looking. Tired eyes. But I do not want to have plastic surgery. I wan to grow old gracefully. Naturally. Is such a thing possible? Is such a thing possible? The water sparkled when she walked. The fish swam. I would love to go to Japan tonight. With him. Or maybe Russia. We would read “The Idiot” together. Forever.

And so on.

Each of the month’s entry is different, with different focuses and different topics. In one, we read a bit about Sigmund Freud. In another Gershwin and Louise Bourgeoise. Nietzsche’s preposterous late-life moustache takes us to Paris. And everything deceptively simple carries us along in a rather hallucinatory way. We are as close as possible to being inside the mind of another person as she goes about her day, observing and cataloging gay men in wigs and white wings and the sinks in people’s homes and photographs of beds and all the anxieties of modern life, along with its simpler pleasures.

Part of the truly wonderful thing about what Kalman does is how she innocently, without pretension pulls off this Joycean trick in a completely and likable way. Upon reading her work, the reader likes Kalman immensely (at least this one did), upon looking at her illustrations, you are at times transported back to childhood when you could look and look and look at a picture and never quite grow tired of its subtleties and the fascinating way the artist really and honestly captured some essential living quality. Her drawings and paintings are luminous and exciting, poised and yet shimmering with a vibrancy and alertness to telling suggestion. Her colors range from the sedately muted to a shock of red that is eye-opening in its immediacy.

For herself, Kalman takes us into her home and shows us her collections (such as her beloved postcards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia or her embroideries), but more, she bares for us her soul – as much as such a thing is possible to do. Grand pronouncements like that are rife within the book, couched with a tongue that, if not planted firmly in cheek, is wandering over in that direction.

At times, the reader is in a bit of uncertainty, wondering where all of Kalman’s digressions and lengthy expositions about candy or her and her sister’s trip to Israel are headed, to what point are these curios headed. The, at times, narrative driven quality to some of her work perhaps leads you in the direction of expecting story progression, but it becomes rapidly easier as you move through the work to suspend any desire to “get” somewhere and to simply enjoy the work. It is as if you too were walking beside a very amiable, thoughtful companion who shares her observations with you and you want to be nowhere else at all than right where you are.

The book, in its entirety (almost) still remains online for your enjoyment. The actual physical volume itself is still, however, eminently more enjoyable as it is yours for as long as you keep it, it is accessible anywhere, and it is constantly available for dipping down into anywhere you like. To begin, of course, you need only take the first step.

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