The Antisocial Butterfly – a review of Jill Rapaport’s “Duchamp et Moi”

It begins with a withered Dadaist and parents.  In the title story of Jill Rapaport’s new collection, Duchamp et Moi, a French-Romanian pop and painter mom learn that their favorite creaking enfant terrible is in town.  Eager to attend his retrospective, they heft their six and nine-year-old daughters into a cab and, once ensconced in a 57th Street gallery, goad the family through the inescapably packed tenth floor en route to scoping out the artist.

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The star of the story is the older daughter they’ve brought.  She sees Marcel Duchamp and is annoyed that his eyes are “lizardlike,” his body, “emaciated and wizened.”  Even at nine years old, she sizes up the Dotard of Mutt from the vantage of a whip-smart prole; we spy this specter of high culture through the squint of a contemptuous kid.  Then a pull-back shot reveals the narrator – an older version of the squinter – who gazes at the child, not the artist, and points out how misguided her contempt really is.

This sense of a poker-faced tergiversation – of casual brazenness countering the relentless inquiry that deflates it – informs the book’s best pieces.

But what about those pieces, anyway?  Are they chessmen in a game involving the narrator’s identity?  Do they form a story collection or cycle?  A memoir descending a staircase, more like.  Duchamp et Moi is a bildungsroman in which the chapters are cards dealt out of sequence.  It’s unified by a common narrator:  the French-born, Brooklyn-raised protagonist who is and isn’t the author.  She likes to speak to us in first person but occasionally appears in third.  Her forename, like that of the author, is “Jill,” but it is used so sparingly that the reader could easily miss it.

Even so, the protag is only partly an autobiographical artifice.  Like “Truman” in Music for Chameleons or “Christopher” in Goodbye to Berlin, “Jill” provides a consistent viewpoint for Rapaport’s seriate vignettes, but the loci of irony and perspective are supposed to be felt, not fixed, and the character does things that the author has only imagined.

Her progression through arbitrary jobs and encounters (the most revealing of which are often with bureaucrats, not lovers) are fueled by the same skeptical intelligence that dismembers every near-transcendent moment in the book.  Mercilessly observed, the fictive self is emotionally off-kilter without ever being oblivious to its subjectivity.  Its progress is the wraith’s, not the rake’s.  It condemns the “snooty” artist in the first story, only to become a spectral miniaturist in the rest of the collection, which is itself a retrospective of victories and gaffes.

This detached mode can give the impression of a journalist navigating through some too-familiar continent while wisecracking about various local spectacles and gambits.  Of course, the narrator is far more insightful than that.  “Jill” visits repeatedly, in the guise of a tourist, the city in which she was born.  A microscope within a microscope, the observed observer returns to Paris, where “Jill” scrutinizes her origins while being seen through the eyes of an older and even more introspective version of herself.

Through her relationship with her perpetually disloyal younger sister and multi-acculturated parents (both poised, like the narrator, at the intersection of lost time and urbane renewal); through entanglements with partners whose faces smear in the memory’s boozy lens; through her descent into Perdition’s city of unexciting positions (as it were – mostly jobs), the character uncovers histories and elisions.  She is the detective in a mystery in which hoaxes and cover-ups conceal not felonies but false certainties.  In the few final stories (especially “Analysand”), she seems to raise her head above the tracery and quilling.  Like Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, Jill’s Duchamp et Moi is a mystery of minutiae.

Having the author double as protagonist and narrator gives the book the feel of an early twentieth century artifact, written at that moment when novelists and journalists often viewed their own personalities as literary constructs. Their characters were “characters” – colorful cynics hurling dispatches from somewhere remote and glamorous. But while Duchamp et Moi seems to fit into that category at first, Rapaport neither adheres to the form with a straight face nor smirks at the camera. She’s later than that – post-ironic – and the mid-twentieth century resonances are more parity than parody.

So many of the stories reference this strategy that you almost want Duchamp et Moi to read like a series of linked stories.  That, too, would be too literal.

In “Pouf Central,” colloquial monosyllables acquire a narrow-eyed punk lyricism.  That could mean glibness as usual if Rapaport were as reverent of the Cult of Studied Immediacy as, say, Dennis Cooper.  Instead, she writes about memorizing Heidegger and appreciating “non-narrative films” when she isn’t enjoying stoned young men.  She understands high culture but remains aporetic even as she absorbs the stylistic tics of a queue of boyfriends while classifying their limitations pitilessly.  She’s part of a generation that saw working-class incoherence as passion, lionizing visceral narcissism as honest just before kicking various human ellipses out of bed.

The wiring of impulse and instinct, attraction and repulsion, has been switched, causing the protag to act out while explaining everything away.  She discards cultural justifications but is still drawn to the mysteries of art and Paris.  It’s the sympathetic role of the predestined émigré.

“The Kinsley Company” begins as good stories often do:  With its prose-rhythms imitating the gait of the narrator.  On a mock-heroic quest for leniency, “Jill” ascends a succession of steps, escalators and walkways that seem intended to intimidate, and the pace of the prose climbs with her until she reaches the ugly summit:  her landlord’s office.  Even as Rapaport’s style evokes motion within that imposing and seemingly respectable setting, she offers insights into the bitter history of the place, and that socioeconomic escalator of betrayal leads to “Jill’s” explosive interaction with a secretary-gatekeeper.  When the story’s failed climax brings ultimate refusal, the pacing slows to a perfect stop.  The momentum of the style follows the story’s form like stairs leading up and down.

The paradox of “The Kinsley Company” is that, like many of the other stories, it reads like a travel piece even though it takes place in Manhattan.  Rapaport seems always to make familiar arrivals feel like explorations.

The sense of the character’s estrangement comes through, but so does her ability to redeem or trash the men she was taught to admire.  In “Tacería,” for example, she takes down a wrong-headed twit without improbable bravado.  Meanwhile, her boyfriend, who doesn’t intervene, and who isn’t threatened or made to seem weak, proves interested and adjuvant.  His supporting role exists in life but is usually written to be either undependable or impossibly empathetic.  Yet in this story, a passive man is an auxiliary to “Jill’s” confrontation with a useless man.  The passive man’s part seems plausible and even welcome.

Of course, travel piece could also imply an escape into the unknown, but Rapaport’s stories are rarely otherworldly or breezy.  A comparatively chatty story like “Job Interview” unravels mummy bandages that conceal the truth behind corporate dynamics.  Intellectual sleuthing redeems the more mundane moments.

The author does her best to mediate the tedium of bureaucracies with momentous rhythms and bitterly nuanced grunts and henchpersons, but sometimes she seems a tad too enthralled with toil.  Do anecdotes about “Jill’s” temp work rise to the same level as Rapaport’s stories about relationships, travel and selfhood?  Is it possible to hold people’s interest simply by expressing – however beautifully – one’s fascination with banal things?

Yes, it is, and that’s part of the fun of the collection:  We know the pain of the protag’s fascination and the thought of that pain is amusing.  And since the secondary characters don’t understand “Jill” or hear her asides, we’re the ones who witness the internal self who writhes with anxiety and silently flings zingers at fools.  We alone find hilarious disdain behind the seemingly eager smile.  In that respect, the work stories, too, deliver a kick.

Rapaport also manages to create bijoux out of temp work as she does out of everything else:  Through intricacies of style and observation that are missing from too much contemporary fiction.  Richly arch and patiently confected, these stories reveal fascinating complexities as they propel the heroine toward diminutive denouements.

All of which is why Duchamp et Moi reads like Nabokov without the adolescent snickering.  When she hands us her flutter-box of Icaricia saepiolus, Rapaport doesn’t smirk and point, and that’s why the delivery works:  Because she isn’t some precious lepidoterist.  Her stories flex breathless wings despite being arranged and pinned.

Duchamp et Moi by Jill Rapaport, (New York: Fly by Night Press, 2014)
reviewed by Rob Hardin