The Oblivion Atlas
By Michael Allen Zell, with images by Louviere + Vanessa
Reviewed by Derick Dupre
The only time a movie moves is when a shutter keeps you from seeing the picture change. What you perceive as continuous motion is actually an illusion. Persistence of vision is a tricky theory, which is why some filmmakers believe that film is a fraudulent and deceitful medium, albeit one that serves to bring its audience closer to some universal truths. Stillness, too, has its place in the artistic process, as in Jacques Prévert’s “To Paint A Portrait Of A Bird,” where the reader-as-painter is instructed to draw a cage and remain absolutely still, perhaps for years, until a bird arrives, merges into the canvas, and becomes a thing of beauty.
These notions are explored in what’s called “frozen-image writing” in Michael Allen Zell’s The Oblivion Atlas, a joint project with artist-duo Louviere + Vanessa (L+V), in which we are invited to participate in a thaumatropic investigation of the relationships between stillness and motion, truth and lies, past and present, author and reader.
Zell explained the origin of The Oblivion Atlas on a recent episode of The Reading Life: He had been thinking about developing a writing style inspired by long, uninterrupted takes in film (i.e. the kind of shots seen in Bresson or Tarkovsky). Then, during a visit to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, he was so impressed by some work by L+V that he later contacted them, suggesting a collaboration. The team agreed, and Zell provided them with some short stories for inspiration. The resulting book is a compendium of text and images in hostile array, where the quality of the prose far exceeds that of its visual counterpart.
The book’s first epigraph, “First paint a cage / With an open door,” is borrowed from the aforementioned Prévert poem, and also, according to Zell, serves as a constraint. The motif of imprisonment runs throughout the seven stories, whether it’s a man isolated in a cell, a corpse in a coffin, or a mind confined to the cranium. In the poem, eventually the bars of confinement disappear and the subject is transformed into a state of grace and virtue. Zell’s characters, even after they are allowed their freedom, are often absorbed into oblivion. But oblivion, too, can be beautiful. This is hinted at by the other two epigraphs, which reference Dave Bowman’s perception of the star gate in 2001: A Space Odyssey (“My God, it’s full of stars”), and Buzz Aldrin’s description of the lunar landscape during the Apollo 11 mission (“Beautiful, beautiful. Magnificent desolation.”)
Zell seems to write with a certain reader in mind, maybe the kind who’s a little lonely and kills a lot of time in antiquarian bookshops. The stories in The Oblivion Atlas are atmospheric, mood-altering incidents that plant a flag firmly in the realm of the literary. In the book’s opener, “Port Saints,” a man is imprisoned in a bookshop after being accused of vandalizing it. “The Persistence of Wolves” features a bizarre book club that roams around, naming places after characters in books, “using blood to write with strong serifs and wax to seal clearly upon a piece of wood,” all while led by a German Shepherd named Garamond. “The Recidivist Writer” follows a novelist who, after being sentenced to hard labor for improper storytelling, tries to find his mother’s burial site upon his release.
As a bibliophile’s writer, Zell expects his readers to be absorbed into and transformed by The Oblivion Atlas in the same way Prévert’s bird is absorbed into the canvas. A single footnote spans the entire book, in which Zell proclaims that “the author’s work is done but yours has only begun … if you think you are not in these stories you are mistaken … your part in the stories may also not exist other as illusion, but that is sufficient.” There is also a sort of drinking game described in the footnote. Whenever textuality and drinking games mingle, the reader wins.
The text of The Oblivion Atlas is its greatest strength. L+V’s contribution lessens the impact of what is pretty serious literature. As standalone images, they run from comically garish (a skull vomiting Mardi Gras beads, a desiccated reptile) to cumbrously surreal (a squadron of butterflies tethered to a sabre hovering over a wounded bird). The avian imagery derives from the book’s own tethering to Prévert’s poem—throughout The Oblivion Atlas we see images of creepy parakeets on typewriters and shadow puppets of birds over the chalk outline of a cage. The best way to enjoy L+V’s primitive ornamentalism is hinted at in “Port Saints”: “the random approach of flipping pages until arbitrarily compelled to stop seems effective.” But there should be no compulsion to stop—the illusion of motion better serves the book than do static, discontinuous images. Flip through the entirety of The Oblivion Atlas and you have something that approaches a vivid, continuous nightmare.
The overwrought nature of the photography competes against Zell’s style, which is elegant and fluent, but also carries a studied affectlessness, not unlike Beckett’s or Bernhard’s. As a collection of stories, The Oblivion Atlas is a success—it sings, like Prévert’s bird. But the images from L+V put a stranglehold on the text, and what could’ve been a beautiful song ends up a ghastly warble.
An Oblivion Atlas Happy Hour will take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, at Mimi’s (2601 Royal St.) that will feature projected images from the book as well as readings of the stories by noted local actors Michael Martin and Richard Mayer. An exhibition of images from The Oblivion Atlas is on display at A Gallery for Fine Photography (241 Chartres St.) through the end of January.