The Book of Transparencies, a literary detective novel by Jefferson Navicky, reviewed by Laura Nicoara

The Book of Transparencies begins (or does it?) in 2005 when an unnamed narrator, an adjunct professor at a community college, comes across a “slim anomaly of a book with an ash blue cover” in the library. This is the (other) Book of Transparencies, written by William Bolzebados three decades before, an autobiographical “collection of vignettes, poems, letters, drawings and notes.”

The origin of the term “transparency” as used in the title of Bolzebados’ book is explained in one of the vignettes. His lover, Cleo, is a painter who at one point in her life likes to destroy her artworks after they’re completed. But before destroying them, she often places a transparent sheet of paper on top of them and traces their outline with charcoal. Once the picture is destroyed, only its transparent copy remains. On watching Cleo produce this shadowy artform, Bolzebados decides to create its literary equivalent.

The rest of the book delivers on this promise. Nothing fits comfortably into any literary forms. We get a framing device in the form of the biographer (the framing narrator) who seeks to reconstruct the genesis of the Book of Transparencies and its author’s life, some first-personal narration of him doing the research, and some third-personal narration which represents Bolzebados’ loose biography as reconstituted by him. We also get Bolzebados’ first-personal narration (always marked by lack of punctuation save for a double space which signals boundaries between units of thought, closer to a space break in poetry than to any conventional punctuation mark). It is unclear whether all of the latter is part of the unpublished Book of Transparencies and quoted by the framing narrator, or if some of it is simply Bolzebados’ stream of consciousness which can’t fall within the scope of the framing device. Cleo, too, speaks through journal entries, footnotes to Bolzebados’ manuscript, notes on her own paintings.

It is not memories that are recorded, but impressions; not actions, but experiences; and not events, but phenomenologies. Bolzebados’ biography, as reconstituted by the framing narrator, circles back obsessively to a few of the same episodes. In loose chronological order, these are: Bolzebados’ initial relationship with Cleo and their amicable breakup; a mental breakdown which led to hospitalization; his 1972 departure to Europe; a train journey from Paris to Berlin; a productive period in Europe; his return to America in 1973 and his writing of the Book of Transparencies around this time; and his suicide in 1975. The book is published in 1976 in circumstances no one alive in the framing narrator’s time is able to explain. Cleo dies in 2006, at which point the framing narrator enters into the possession of the unpublished manuscript.

But even Bolzebados himself, let alone his biographer, is not able to create a full narrative of Bolzebados’ life: “How did he get from Ohio to New York City to Europe to Maine? […] His life is a page where the white space speaks more than the black marks.” Indeed, the Book of Transparencies is a work of interstices, of blank spaces, hence the jerky, episodic narration, the breakdown of the traditional forms of memoir and biography, and the fragmentation of the text into different voices. On reading this book I could not help but get the feeling that to create narratives about oneself or others is to over-simplify them, to restrict their being to what can be emplotted. But the Book of Transparencies does justice to the fundamental incompleteness of the conscious subject—we are all constantly in flux, even after we cease existing, unfixable, un-summarizable.

The unnamed framing narrator has very little to individuate him; he is mostly a function of his own narrating act, an ontologically incomplete being who only comes into existence with the discovery of the Book of Transparencies and whose sole reason for being present in it seems to be a further voice through which Bolzebados speaks. The biographer speaks of “hearing” or witnessing Bolzebados as if the two had been present at the same time in the same place, and the third-personal biographical narration borrows, itself, much of Bolzebados’ style and tone. Biographer and object of biography merge in the very act of writing: the fictional Book of Transparencies, as the framing narrator mentions, “finished my thoughts so completely and in a voice so close to mine that I began to wonder if I had written the book in some forgotten past life.”

Although description of mental states, not events, is the main aim of narrative in the book, the language used is remarkably non-abstract. External movements and objects are instead the focus, but their presence is not used towards the realization of any coherent, goal-directed, externally-contained “action”. Space is imbued with subjectivity in the sense that the consciousness of the narrators only picks up on those details which somehow respond to something inside, thus realizing a self-portrait out of quick impressions and glimpses out of the corner of the eye of the external environment. Take for instance this fragment from Bolzebados’ unfinished book:

a cat claws the covers of the still-dark bed    canvas leaning against the wall    pink and blue    your coat limp over the back of the chair    the same six songs over and over on the stereo until they seam into the fabric of the nightcolored room   fog for your bare feet    a bookshelf for your sweaters    glass of water when you wake thirsty

The gaze of the looker is always self-preoccupied, but also remarkably unselfaware; indeed, it would seem that rarely is Bolzebados able to look inside himself. The aesthetic of transparencies suits him so well because he seems unable to perceive himself in any way other than externally, through tracing the outlines of his life. Besides this, the other form of self-knowledge that remains possible is seeing oneself in a mirror—and even then, the mirror is no longer a surface that returns the reflection of an object situated at some determinate origin, but only a container of simulacra: “The window reflected his face, beyond it, the city, returned him to the Bibliotheque Nationale and the several times he witnessed, from his seat in its reading room, birds confused in the library’s forest courtyard flying into mirror images of trees in the reading room windows.”

Cleo alone is able to articulate her thoughts in psychological vocabulary, as well as having a voice distinguishable from that of the other two narrators. She carries out a posthumous conversation with Bolzebados by means of the footnotes she adds to his manuscript. This further complicates the self-referential layers of the book: her criticism is addressed to the fictional Book of Transparencies, but may well, with self-conscious irony, work against the real book: “Too uninterestingly self-concerned. Feels more like sketch notes on a painting than a satisfying poem. […] I’m sure, William, you also have no clue what they mean, but you’re determined to include them anyway.”

In one key scene, Bolzebados has an encounter with Djuna Barnes, who is reading a book called The Banks of Bohemia: Paris in 1922. He later looks up the book and can find no trace of record of such a thing. “I shuddered slightly […]” he notes, “at the acknowledgement of my fate that this too would be a book I would have to write.” We recognize here a reduplication of the genesis of the book which the framing narrator is writing (the ‘real’ Book of Transparencies, the one we are reading). The narration incestuously circles back in upon its own fictional universe, like a snake devouring itself, confusing the boundaries between real and fictional.

The Book of Transparencies is a stream-of-consciousness tour de force, created through free association rather than logic. Its content and principles of composition are more aesthetic than reflection-provoking, without this precluding depth: it is not for the story that one reads it, not even for the characters, but for the process of reading itself, and for the insight it gives into the process of writing. Within the book, the distinction between subjective and objective language, between reader, writer and character is effaced—hence, the act of reading about incomplete Others can itself become an exercise in self-understanding.

The Book of Transparencies, by Jefferson Navicky. KERNPUNKT Press, December 2018. 75 pages. $12.99, paper.

Laura Nicoara is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Southern California, with research interests in moral philosophy and the philosophy of literature. Her writing has appeared or will appear in The CollagistNecessary FictionAreo Magazine, and others.

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