Beyond the Clouds
By Colin Herd.
Bruce Boone, Century of Clouds, Nightboat Books, 2009
Nightboat Books deserve a medal (or at the very least a bear-hug) for reissuing Bruce Boone’s prose memoir Century of Clouds, thirty years after its initial publication. Making this hitherto-impossible-to-find book by the legendary San Francisco based New Narrative writer obtainable and accessible at last is worthy in itself, but to have done so in such a gorgeous edition, with an extremely useful introduction by Rob Halpern that doubles up as one of the best contextual introductions to New Narrative I’ve ever read, and with a new afterword by the author himself, is nothing short of a (erm) boon.
Century of Clouds is a memoir of two summers (’77 & ’78) spent with the Marxist Literary Group at their annual conference and gathering at St. Cloud Minnesota. Fellow travellers included Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Stanley Aronowitz, and all three have walk-on parts in Boone’s memoir, which revolves around entangled experiences at St. Cloud and earlier memories from Boone’s time spent with another social group, “in the novitiate of a religious order”. In the case of both communities, Boone unthreads and teases out their different power structures and constraints through anecdotes, memories and gossip: I say ‘teases out’ because Boone’s book is tremendously funny and warm.
From feeling naughty and distracted during one of ‘Fred’s’ lectures, to dancing in a cowboy-themed bar, to indignation and fear at the actions of a player in a volleyball game, and missing a pass from a sexually frustrated fellow novice, Boone’s narrative is disarmingly frank and good-humoured, easing, almost massaging, the reader into thinking through community politics, sexuality and narratology.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Century of Clouds is the self-examination built into his narrative, a kind of author’s running commentary. Boone’s easy-going, rare frankness, his thoughtfulness and awareness about the act of writing itself, his candidness and inclusivity about his aims and wishes, all make for a delicious and unabashedly charming writing style:
“By writing this story I want to make you think about certain political matters, a praise-worthy objective, no? But I also want to amuse and entertain you, and more. In what I write I would like you to be able to feel pleasure, even joy.
“But may I ask your permission to break off for the time being? I’d like to postpone that particular volleyball game to a later time when I can give you a developed account of my part in it, as well as a larger explanation of the tensions it attempted to cover over but ended up exacerbating. Be patient. I promise you the events in their fullest significance. You’ll hear more of this famous game!”
In his introduction Rob Halpern deftly traces the politics of Boone’s storytelling within the contexts of Gay Liberation and New Left, which come together in the concerns of New Narrative, the writing movement that Boone co-engendered in the late 1970s and 80s in San Francisco along with writers like Steve Abbott, Robert Glück, Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy and Kevin Killian. The movement emphasizes narrative as a critical practice and dealt squarely with emotion and sexuality; in Halpern’s words New Narrative writers “recovered and amplified the otherwise degraded roles of story and emotion as the critical medium through which the volatile and contested material of real communities circulated”.
Boone’s strands and ‘clouds’ of gossip are nimbus-clouds, full-to-precipitation with emotions: love, joy, longing, frustration, anger, determination, anxiety, confusion… In his afterword Boone says “in my book, the alienation that becomes analysis is hardly about words at all, or if it is, it’s only in so far as they convey emotion. In the end it’s emotion that counts. Just emotion.”
How active I feel that ‘just’ is, because in Century of Clouds, emotions are intrinsic to an envisioned better community, a ‘just’ and feeling community. Boone begins his book and ends his afterword thinking about ‘largeness’ and dreams, large dreams we generously gives us the confidence, the hope, the imagination to share.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 4th, 2010.