Books

Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative

Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative

Lawrence Weschler

Counterpoint, 2011
272 pages, $26.00 (Hardcover)
Purchase (via Amazon)

Editorial Review

“Former New Yorker staff writer Weschler (The Passion of Poland) gathers the finest fruits of the last 15 years in this delectable collection. The title piece, a metaphysical twist on digital animation, discusses reality and trickery with the arbiters of “algorithmic” expressions and deftly reinforces the importance of strong narrative in order to captivate “our ensouled and incarnate natures.” Weschler’s intense allusions are rarely straightforward, as in “Three Improbable Yarns,” a marvelous mesh of Jewish identity, human rights, and past work in the Balkans. An avant-garde Berlin showcase of his grandfather Ernst Toch’s best concerto flows into a discourse on life and death, then inspires a sublime comparative essay of Milosz’s “In Rome” and Szymborska’s “Reality Demands,” with Weschler in his element and the reader under his spell. His regard for visual and performance art proves mesmerizing in an initially unnerving account of the Danish Billedstofteater that morphs into a serene inference to the “current crisis of vision.” Though rambunctious satire sends some adventures off in new directions, Weschler provides elegant and worthwhile conclusions. — Publishers Weekly

An excerpt from The Uncanny Valley: Adventures in Narrative
So the other afternoon I happened to find myself walking the length of the late Donald Judd’s enigmatically posed (if strangely imposing) processional of giant concrete dice, spread out a full (and precise) kilometer across an otherwise empty wildgrass expanse along the periphery of his marvelous Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I say “dice,” though of course the (exactly) sixty-four boxy concrete structures are not exactly mammoth dice: rather, at least dimensionally, think of a pair of dice cubes glued cheek-by-jowl one beside the next and then hollowed out, either lengthwise (five meters long by two and a half high and two and a half meters deep, exactly) or through the narrow core (two and a half meters by two and a half and five meters deep); some of them completely hollow so you can see clean through, others stoppered either at the front or the back (like packing crates, alternately wide or deep, lying on their side); the whole lot of them gathered into (at first) seemingly random clusters, three long see-through boxes in a starlike splay here, and then three wide stoppered boxes one behind the next, and then . . . groups of three or five or six spread one beyond the next (till you have traversed precisely fifteen such groupings) as you tramp the kilometer’s length of the wide wildgrass field.

Open, closed; wide, narrow; three, six, five; radial, side by side, one behind the other: the didactic character of the experience (“Hmm, that’s true, you can try it that way, and then this other, and if you add one more you can do it this way, and now hollow them out the other way, and now stopper the hollows”) gradually giving way to an experience more lyrical, or perhaps poetical (certain effects seeming to repeat themselves like deep tidal refrains, just beyond the reach of conscious apperception) before the whole mad enterprise begins to throb as deeply existential (the sheer absurdity of the effort involved in lugging these huge concrete slabs out onto this godforsaken field, the defiant assertion of value involved, the primordial insistence on a brute human trace across this otherwise barren high desert expanse).

Not bad, not bad, I found myself thrumming as I now doubled back, returning the length of the rutted path, reprising the fifteen groupings in reverse, ambling toward the Foundation’s headquarters compound way up ahead, humming along (didactical poetical existential), my gaze now drifting absentmindedly to the ground before me (churned tire-ruts and dried mud puddles and tufts of dried grass), when—I swear to God—I happened to notice a little ant dragging an improbably long stalk of dried blond wildgrass. And I mean a stalk a good five or six times its own body length. Pulling and pulling on the damn thing, and now laying it down and traipsing back along its length so as to be able instead to push it forward, much of the time (swear to God) tilting the stalk a good 45 degrees into the air, laying it down again, nudging it leftward, going around to the other side, nudging it right, returning to the back to lift it skyward and to shove it forward once again. And so on. And on. Relentlessly.

By this time I was completely absorbed. Minutes passed—the ant, the straw, their rutted course—till finally the ant dragged the thing under and presently around a tuft of wild grass, lay the straw down, pulled back momentarily (seemingly) to appraise the situation, and now began nudging it ever so slightly this way and that, lining it up perfectly (as I now suddenly perceived, astounded) with another length of dry straw which in turn perfectly abutted another length still, the three lengths of identical blond straw now perfectly aligning—nudge, push, nudge, nudge, pull—into one long length. Whereupon, apparently satisfied, the accomplished ant simply wandered off into the gathering evening light.

As, at length, did I, wondering, Had Judd first got it from the ant, or the ant from the Judd, or was it that Judd conditioned me even to be able to notice the ant, or was the ant simply God (or, at very least, God’s high priest), or what?