This is not a book of surfaces

A review of 'The Book of Beginnings and Endings'

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

by Jenny Boully

Sarabande 2007, 128 pages, $14.95 ISBN 9781932511550

The Book of Beginnings and Endings by Jenny Boully is a deceptively straightforward book that poses a number of fascinating questions for the literary imagination to grapple with. Although the book is ostensibly made up of just what the title implies, beginnings and endings, when an entire book “consists” of beginnings and endings, it necessarily brings up the question about what a beginning or ending actually is, since, from a certain perspective, beginnings are not beginnings if they do not have endings, and vice versa. As a result, especially during a first reading, one has the desire to assert that the texts in this book are not really “beginnings” or “endings” at all, but simply fragments, and that there is something overly stylistic in claiming to make a book entirely of beginnings and endings. After all, why not tie up the syntax; bring those “beginnings” to a close? But the reason for the eponymous formal assertion becomes clearer and more powerful the deeper one reads. For this is not a book of surfaces, and the confusion and discomfort of a reader’s initial confrontation with these abbreviated chronologies is at the heart of what is at stake in this intriguing work.

In its most visible textual condition, The Book of Beginnings and Endings is comprised of fifty-two “beginnings” and “endings.” The length of these texts seems to be largely determined by the size of the pages upon which they are printed. The “beginnings” almost always break off midsentence at the very bottom of the paper, while the “endings" almost always begin at midsentence at the top left corner of the paper (although the “endings” do not always go to the end of the page — their end points seem determined more by syntax. Nevertheless, like the “beginnings,” they are never longer than one page.) So what are these abbreviated texts about? Many things, as it turns out. Some of the texts seem like excerpts from essays in literary criticism, some from texts of prose poetry, some seem to be cut from edgier descendants of naturalist writing, and still others even seem like confessions, or personal recounts of love or a favored rumination. But these texts, incomplete as they are, are not unconsidered. On the contrary, Boully’s language is dazzling, and there is not a word that does not feel certain.  

Most of the sections are markedly dense, often conjuring huge worlds or sensations within the space of a few sentences.

In order to make art, we triangulate our thoughts from the body, to the otherworldly, and then to the worldly (i.e. parchment and pigments, the materials with which to accomplish the transcription of the physical representation of the invisible or metaphysical existences that live above and beyond our earthbound view). Think then of the Biblical verse that states, “I am

But of course there it ends: a deeply considered meditation on the palimpsestic orders of artistic production evaporates right in front of us like footprints in the sand. But it wasn’t the water that came in and washed the trail away. If we look behind us the footprints are still there, leading right to where we are standing. It is only what was “yet to be said” that is gone, or that was “never-there-to-begin-with.” So what happened? Well, it seems our expectations tripped us up.

The “endings” function rather similarly. Instead of starting somewhere and then breaking off, the endings seem to arrive from someplace that the reader has not been privy to, thus forcing the reader, sometimes infuriatingly, to have to guess at what may have preceded these moments. Although the beginnings may never have been finished, the endings, by contrast, feel as if a whole world is lurking somehow behind these textual terminations. However, during the course of reading this book, something happens to the effect of these chronological gaps, and the initial feeling that the texts are unfinished is instead replaced with a sort of realization (or even a more sanguinary resignation) that the “unfinished” parts of the texts are not at all unfinished, but merely obfuscated from the reader’s view. It is a resignation induced by textual boundaries, but it is also a resignation that every human being knows only too well in their own lives: the limits of perception, the limits of knowledge. Indeed, it is the same limit on life, the same type of chronological abbreviation that is insisted upon by death: every situation is fleeting and temporary; every moment in life is a constant reminder of our own unyielding inability to perceive anything beyond mere abbreviations of experience. It is like watching a city pass by through a car’s window: you see snippets of thought, faces and movement, and you contextualize them as best you can. But you can never know the childhood of the man walking along the sidewalk; you can never know the path the bird took before it perched atop that tree branch. It is a truly remarkable thing to realize, as you move through the pages of this book, that not only are you reading about life’s haunting lacunae, but through a poignant formal allegory, you are actually experiencing the same sense of longing, loss, and frustration as you do during their vital counterpart. The “missing texts” come to feel less “missing” and instead more like the ghosts lurking on the other side of every door one never went through in life.

So too do I keep espying lunamoths, a familiar sliver of an old moon, a letter I had thought I had long since discarded, the dress I will never wear, a certain photograph, the signpost that spells out what never was.

In addition to the portions of “missing” text, the extant text of the various “beginnings” and “endings” are suffused with residues, situations of bereavement, ulterior storylines, and absence in general. In one of the “beginnings” titled “The Care and Repair of Books,” the narrator suggests that one of the primary functions of bookshelves is not to hold the books, but rather to act as a sort of columbarium for all the receipts and ticket stubs that one inserted in the books in the past, thus “containing our lost lives, our former selves.” In one of her “endings,” Boully writes of an artist who has offered a monetary reward for a journal that the artist had lost earlier in life. It turns out, however, that the fact of this journal’s ever having existed at all is suspect, thus presenting an affecting situation of a woman longing for something she believes was once real, but which may never have really existed. Another “ending” focuses on the heartwrenching image of a mother gorilla mourning the death of her child by screaming for days on end “moans of lamentation” across the jungle, causing a far-reaching “collective mourning.” Poignantly, the mother guerrilla’s pain is described as being directed not only at having lost her child, but also from knowing that — echoing the textual allegory of the book’s “missing texts” — “there is a whole vast and infinite universe of which her tiny organism, so insubstantial, will never know.”

It would be possible to read this text — especially in light of the reading I have presented here — as being a stark, pessimistic view on life’s (or literature’s) ability to present the sort of wholeness that people are accustomed to looking for in narrative. But tragedy should not necessarily be seen as depressing. Although this book does not offer the type of psychological assuagement readers may be accustomed to from “chronological completeness,” neither is it a harsh antithesis to the Aristotelian narrative. Instead, Boully finds something of a middle ground between those poles, offering an emotional, trenchant prose and a charged, structural metaphor to mine the richness of time’s intransigent mysteries.