New York

“Hotel,” edited by Reese Williams

Hotel, a collection of writing by eight artists, is a sampling of the ways artists have used words—and word-image combinations—to express their perceptions of contemporary experience. According to Williams, the title was chosen because it seemed an appropriate metaphor for a book that brings together such a diverse group of people and works. “It wasn’t until later,” Williams told me, “that I also realized that a number of the pieces refer to rooms.” Almost all of the works are about transience—a rootlessness that is not geographical, but spiritual.

A typically modern malaise permeates most of these pieces, which are reminiscent of Joan Didion’s work in their tone (though not in their structure or their use of narrative). Many describe a world with no emotional center—a world in which experiences are disjointed and fragmented, in which the unconscious and conscious mind don’t quite connect, and in which shifts in time and space reflect the instability of the psychological landscape. The work most successfully expressing this feeling of dislocation is Reese Williams’ “A Study of Leonardo,” a fragmented narrative based on a passage about “particles” taken from Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. “A Study of Leonardo” is about the making of a movie, and it describes a voyeuristic relationship to the world using cinematic devices—most notably rapid shifts of focus, and cross-cutting among seemingly unrelated themes (the circus, war, New York street life)—to build up a string of verbal images that culminates in a parable about the fall of Inca civilization. The piece is beautifully written, and seamless in the interweaving of its disparate parts. On the other hand, Mike Roddy’s “Frost Fun Fiction Fall Forest” juxtaposes incidents from the past and present life of a male character with a recurring photographic image of a shadowy figure, but the piece never quite comes together into a satisfying whole.

More integrated is Michael Meyers’ “A Smaller History,” a series of short pieces, many of them written from the point of view of a narrator whose alienation and detachment shape his perception of the details of his life. The two works in Hotel which are based on historical figures—“The Teachings of John Brown in Florida” and “The Letter to Buzz” [Aldrin]—use experimental styles to re-create their protagonists’ sense of isolation and disconnectedness. In a similar way, the fluid style of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s extended prose poems, “Exilée” and “Temps Morts,” also work to break down the boundaries between internal and external experience.

In “Exilée,” a full-page drawing of an X, which appears at various points heightens the sense of anomie suggested by the prose poem. Jenny Holzer and Peter Nadin, in a piece called “Living,” repeatedly counterpoint a bland, detailless drawing of Everyman—with short passages about the tensions and injustices of our society. And Laurie Anderson, in a version of “Dark Dogs, American Dreams,” juxtaposes blurred photographs of “everyday people”—a waitress, a student, a dentist, a cashier—with accounts of bizarre dreams; this work is far more effective here, in the intimate format of a book, than when it was exhibited on the walls of a gallery.

Richard Nonas’ “Montezuma’s Last Dead Breakfast in Mexico” also juxtaposes words and photographs, but his use of them is far more metaphoric than Anderson’s. The photographs are of an old man pointing a stick at the ground, and fiddlers playing their instruments. These images alternate in rhythmic sequences with short passages in which the narrator describes Montezuma at the end of his life, beginning to write, beginning to sum up the “fat Mexico of his mind.” Montezuma’s writing takes on the air of a ritual activity, a last assertion of a life that is slipping away. The tension builds as the narrator begins to seem more and more like the personification of Death, advancing steadily on the Mexican leader. “Montezuma’s Last Dead Breakfast in Mexico” is a fast-moving and brilliant work, and a powerful conclusion to a very worthwhile book.

Shelly Rice