Issue No. 101
I’ll confess that when my friend James Hannaham first mentioned that he was writing fiction in the form of art gallery plaques, my reaction was selfish: I wished I’d thought of it. The idea is so clearly excellent, involving the use of a non-literary genre that is textual, but also rich with its own conventions and dramatic possibilities. What more could a fiction writer possibly want?
But a manifestly great idea can be dangerous—as likely to smother as to sustain the fiction we beckon into its midst. In the end, the narrative must be absorbing enough to make us forget about the concept. Hannaham’s “Card Tricks” brilliantly achieves this. Presented first in a gallery space on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Hannaham’s work probes the genre of art gallery plaques from many angles, fabricating them from metal as well as paper, varying their sizes in significant ways, placing a plaque outdoors as well as on gallery walls, and—most powerfully—implicating the viewer directly and playfully. Anyone familiar with Hannaham’s fiction knows already the potent blend of innovation, humor and gravitas that is his trademark. It is exhilarating to see the same qualities at play in three dimensions.
You’re envisioning, perhaps, a collection of plaques that suggest the portrait of a fictional artist who made the art they describe, using an accretion of personal details and revelations. That’s the route I probably would have taken. Which is why it’s a good thing that I didn’t have the idea of using gallery plaques to write fiction, because what Hannaham does is so much more profound. By invoking the existence of artworks involving the gallery space, the people inside it, and the larger world (quite literally), Hannaham performs an ingenious reversal: the subject illuminated by the plaques ends up being us, the reader-viewers. And our experience of reading and viewing them—in what order we choose, in what state we’re in that day or night, in what company, in what mood, in what weather, is the narrative. It’s different for each of us, and it changes every time. The experience has something in common with theater, a medium Hannaham worked in for many years.
“Card Tricks” reminds us that prose fiction was invented to be open, flexible, and provocative, capable of absorbing whatever forms exist in the culture around it, and bending them to the task of high amusement.
Author of A Visit from the Goon Squad