Recall Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. In one early scene of the film when the three men are exploring that seemingly supernatural territory called “the zone” the camera tracks through an open field, then through the window of an abandoned car, until finally the stalker and his two companions pass in front of it. One perceives the shot to be subjective—from the point of view of one of the men. Then who’s perspective is it really?
Renee Gladman, whose 2007 book Newcomer Can’t Swim includes a poem called “Zone” written after the film by Tarkovsky, puts her readers in a position similar to Tarkovsky’s audience with regards to narrative chronology, space, and point of view. And Gladman’s writing is indeed a kind of zone—labyrinthine, looping (“circling” as she refrains throughout all of her books), evental. Where one makes it ‘through’ (as it were) only to not quite know how they got there. (As the narrator of “Untitled Colorado” says, “What happened back there?,” to which her lover replies, “Could have been anything.”)
In the narrative spaces of Gladman’s work one feels one’s self constantly at a horizon of events, jumbled by the dense gravity not of a black hole, but of our own social relations. In Gladman’s 2003 book, The Activist, the map of the activists “mutates” just before they are to deploy their plan. In the second text of Newcomer Can't Swim, the narrator searches for her destination—a hotel where a lover lives—constructing a kind of cognitive map through things she remembers the lover saying about her neighborhood. Cities are not just cities, nor a home simply a residence—but prostheses which extend and point back to ourselves, demarcating boundaries, time-sense, communal thresholds.
Underlying much of the content of Gladman’s texts is a unique sense of skepticism about one’s ability to be in common. This skepticism is a singular one, irreducible to a commentary about “identity.” Through it, Gladman discovers the “subject” in the breakdown of things—and principally of communication itself. But also, particularly in Newcomer Can't Swim, of a body. Throughout the book, Gladman alludes to an accident scene. Her character is lying on the ground, waiting for paramedics to arrive. Yet, as a result of the accident the narrator discovers where it stands in relation to others—lovers, strangers, the French EMT whose English begins to falter at the chaotic accident scene.
What I guess I am trying to say, is that Gladman—through the language forms which she develops in each one of her books—is finding a way to locate the self deictically, in negative; at the various points where a self would seem to be absent, whether negated by physical pain, or exile, or some more obscure, but equally profound, unworlding. In the misunderstandings, the misperceptions, the botched schemes, Gladman defines who her characters ‘really are’ within a set of social relationships.