Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mathias Svalina, _I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur_

THE TITLE REFERS not to Mathias Svalina, I take it, but to the speaker of the 44 prose poems herein, but Svalina can fairly be called productive: he published his first book in 2009, this his second in 2011, and just published his third at the end of 2012.  That's not even mentioning the chapbooks. What's more, they're all very good.

According to its cover, I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur is a novella, but, as noted above, it registered on me more as a collection of related prose poems.  Each section begins, "I started this one business that..." and goes on to give a brief history of the business, sometimes two or three pages long, sometimes only a sentence:

I started this one business that opened up everything that is closed & held it up in front of the gathered public one time & with great ceremony before closing it up again & burying it forever.

I started this one business that allowed children to remain children for their entire lives.

Is the speaker the same in each prose poem, or chapter? Maybe--the narrator twice mentions having a son who died--but it's hard to say. We do not have a plot so much as a loop, in which our narrator again and again starts a business and recounts its fortunes, which unfold more like surreal lyrical explorations of the labyrinth of capitalism than like narratives.

For instance, one business "installed rustic, old-fashioned stone wells inside people's bodies." Recounting this particular business's history, the speaker observes, "When you stand next to another person you begin to absorb them, which is why lovers have only three legs between them. Love depends on the separating skin, otherwise sex would be a mess of blood and broken windows." Furthermore, "The inside of a person is like patricide, but when you pull the bucket up it becomes just another show in an all-white gallery space with a vague smell of citrus."

I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur often made me laugh--it would be more strictly accurate to say it made me emit a chortling bark of horrified recognition, as Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz often do--but I suspect the book has a dark heart. It concerns what we desire and what is commodifiable, and the dialogue of the deaf between the two.  There is what we need and long for, which is one thing, and there is what we can buy, which is quite another, although what we can buy has a well-developed knack for disguising itself as what we desire.

"I started this one business that rented out parts of people's lives to other people," one section begins. If you were, the speaker explains, writing a novel about caves, but had never been in a cave, you could rent the memories of someone who had. This example seems whimsical, but speaks to anyone's desire to escape solipsism, for connection to others...which is unobtainable, the text cruelly reminds us, but it can sell us something to take the edge off that pain:

You can never know the mind of another person, even in the moment someone's sweat mingles with yours. Empathy is a convenient fable of morality. But for a small fee we could change that.

As Zizek pointed out some while back, the basic logic of the commodity is to offer itself as the remedy for lacks we cannot name or even acknowledge. Svalina's entrepreneur thus hits on the most potent commodity of all when s/he "started this one business that discovered one new thing every day but never told anyone about any of these things, never ever ever." Let's see--how large would the market be for vague, inchoate hopes in a somehow transformed future?  Very large, could we say? "What a perfect commodity is mystery!" Svalina's speaker exclaims.

Having read the book in a big gulp, I wonder if I would have done better to spread it out--one business per day, say.  Hmm, could we add 321 businesses and market this as the "I Started This One Business" desk calendar?

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