BASS 2022: Greg Jackson, “The Hollow” from TNY, 11/29/21

Van Gogh: Sheet with Numerous Figure Sketches, 1890
I usually have an idea for a story rattling around in my head, which I return to over a period of months, often in those moments just before sleep. If I keep coming back to it, I know there’s something to it, a latent energy or bottled meaning. The premise of the house with an unexplained hollow seems, in retrospect, like a literalization of this maxim…. The characters’ catalytic volatility blasted the path forward, and slowly the life force in Valente overwhelmed the donnée, the hollow, fastening the story with progressive firmness to his peculiar magnetism. That I didn’t anticipate! But it’s nice to be surprised.

Greg Jackson, Contributor Note BASS 2022

This fifth story in this year’s BASS breaks with the first four in that it has nothing to do with trauma or with storytelling as a way of creating history. I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed. It did, however, share something in common, for me at least, with the third story, Foote’s “Man of the House,” in that I found a great many interesting ideas, but in the end was puzzled by the whole of the story. Instead of fighting it, I’m going to go with it, starting with the word “donnée” from Jackson’s Contributor Note. I’d never heard it before, had no idea what it meant. Merriam-Webster tells mit it’s “the set of assumptions on which a work of fiction or drama proceeds.” In this story, it seems, the donnée is the hollow itself.

And there’s my second issue. It took me a while to figure out just what the hollow literally is. I finally came up with: if my closet had a wall instead of a door, there’d be a walled-off, inaccessible space in the house. I might not notice it, at least, until a Jonah came along and pointed it out to me. It might be a place where once there was a fireplace and chimney, or maybe there’s a dead body in there. Metaphorically, I’m seeing it as a space we all might have inside us where we can’t really see, possibly because we’ve just never noticed it, or because we’re scared to look that closely. Here be dragons, perchance.

Jack had intended to get past the hollow, but he found that he couldn’t. At night, before falling asleep, or having awoken to darkness, he felt the eerie, mystical nearness of it, and this unsettled him. He started, without realizing it at first, to orient himself in the house and on the property in relation to the hollow. “Like Mecca, or Jerusalem,” he said, chuckling to himself as if the joke would rob the hollow of its power.

Here’s where I turned to Jake Weber’s post, which helped me get a grip on the hollow’s part in the story. He suggests comparing and contrasting how the three primary characters each regard the hollow: Jonah instantly notices it and is intrigued by the possibilities; Jack never noticed it before but then became obsessed, and Sophie… shrugs. Sophie does a lot of shrugging. What Jack sees in her, why he’s waiting for her to realize she made a mistake leaving him, is beyond me. But he waits, and she returns, shrugging. Turns out Jonah and Jack both forget about the hollow at various times. You can forget about the hollow, but it doesn’t forget about you. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds appropriate here.

Sophie is, perhaps, the human embodiment of a hollow:

Jack soothed his hot cheeks and brow against the cool wood of the door frame. “Do you remember that concert we went to over the holidays, Soph? Somewhere uptown, off Park maybe. There were these trucks moving in the street. You could hear them through the walls while the music played.”
She didn’t respond for so long Jack thought the line had gone dead. “I remember the concert,” she said finally. “I don’t remember the trucks.”
“There were trucks.”
“All right, there were trucks.”
“And the sound of the music…” He no longer knew what he meant to say. The scope of something inexpressible, a mammoth, ungraspable intimation, had overtaken him.

Here’s Jack, wrestling with something profound, trying to peer into his hollow, and she’s shrugging, an impenetrable hollow, nothing there, so nothing it can’t even be visualized.

What really grabs me about that scene, however, isn’t about the story, but about John Cage. You know, the guy who wrote 4:33, a concert piece of silence, who debated the idea of what music was, what it might be, who asked, “Which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” Turns out, Cage had a thing about trucks:

For many years, the composer John Cage lived in a building on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan where, even with the windows closed, his apartment filled with the loud and ever-present hum of traffic. At first Cage considered the sound annoying but then he decided to change how he received or perceived the noise. By remaining present with it, he discovered that the constant sound rising from the avenue through his window subtly changed but nevertheless had a sort of homogeneity that he could enjoy. “If you listen to Mozart and Beethoven, it’s always the same,” he claimed. “But if you listen to the traffic here on Sixth Avenue, it’s always different.”

“John Cage – Manhattan Music” from Gramophone magazine

I have no idea what intimation Jack was grasping for, but I’m betting he would’ve loved Cage.

Jack and Jonah were acquaintances in high school, but they have very different recollections of that time. I get the sense neither of them is a totally reliable narrator, each curating his own memories to guard their personal hollows. Jonah’s most salient characteristic at the time was that he gave up football to study art.

“Tell me more about Van Gogh,” he said. And Valente spoke, of wheat fields and flowers and crows and turbulent skies, of painting loneliness and sorrow and anguish, of moments when the veil of time and of inevitability (to use the painter’s own words) seems to open for the blink of an eye…. Valente described an impossible person, a scoundrel, a tramp, difficult and gruff, prone to fighting, taking up with prostitutes, rejected by everyone, repulsive even to his parents, unlovable, homeless, driven by inexpressible love, or love that was expressible only in a particular form that did not allow it to be shared between two people, and that was therefore cursed, above that was refused while he was alive, and only, when this cretin, this parasite, offensive to every standard of good taste, was gone, did everyone see how much they did want his peculiar, displaced, and overripe love, and the same respectable people who had found him so revolting now clutched him to their breast with the fiercest longing, because a certain intensity of color reminded them, or so then he said in his own way, of intimations of such intensity in moments of their own that they had forgotten or suppressed.

As it happens, I’ve recently become obsessed with Van Gogh myself via an artbot on Twitter. In the past six months I’ve discovered how well he could do realism, yet chose something else; how amazingly he could sketch a few lines that created a woman or a farmer; and I’ve become fascinated with the way he drew and painted old beat-up shoes – damn, those paintings, they smell like old beat-up shoes right through my computer screen. And sure, the Starry Night which I’ve loved since I was a depressed teenager in about 1972 and Don McLean let me know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and ok, Sunflowers is nice and it’s my favorite Dr. Who episode, but it’s Hannah Gadsby who brought it home much more recently via her comedy special Nanette on Netflix:

Vincent van Gogh. The way we tell his story… it’s no good. It’s destructive. Because we’ve reduced it to a tale of rags to riches. He only sold one painting in his life…. And people believe, with that story, that van Gogh was this misunderstood genius. You know, he was born ahead of his time…. He was not ahead of his time. He was a Post-Impressionist painter, painting at the peak of Post-Impressionism,… He wasn’t born ahead of his time. He couldn’t network. ‘Cause he was mental. He was… crazy. He had unstable energy. People would cross the street to avoid him. That’s why he didn’t sell any more than one painting in his lifetime. He couldn’t network. This whole idea, this romanticizing of mental illness, is ridiculous. It is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to fucking nowhere.

Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Jack and Jonah lose touch again when Jonah goes into some kind of unspecified mental health treatment. They cross paths years later, with Jack and Sophie back together, at an art fair. Jonah denies the art is his;

I have my suspicions, but no evidence. They discuss the hollow, start laughing, and when Sophie asks what’s going on, Jack “was about to shrug” when Jonah names it: Sadness.

Jack makes a choice that passes for an epiphany:

Valente was smiling broadly, entirely in earnest. It was the earnestness of a large, clumsy person, crashing through a world of glass doors and gossamer screens. Jack realized that he was waiting for Sophie to suggest that she had misheard, but she said nothing. Only pursed her lips. He breathed quietly. The day was crystalline, blue, touched by clouds. Cool. A light breeze. The market hummed. A burble of chatter. Dogs’ barks. The smell of cut flowers, of burning. Colors. Crushed leaves. Exhaust. A chime, tinkling. A yellow shawl. Time pooling. Opening. A moment, before anyone spoke.

As I’ve said, I’m incredibly stupid about art, but I like to look things up. So I looked up post-impressionism, which Hannah Gadsby taught me (she has a degree in art history) is Van Gogh’s world. And I looked up the difference between impressionism and post-impressionism.

Impressionists…painted contemporary landscapes and scenes of modern life, especially of bourgeois leisure and recreation, instead of drawing on past art or historical and mythological narrative for their inspiration. Interested in capturing transitory moments, the Impressionists paid attention to the fleeting effect of light, atmosphere and movement…. the Impressionists differed from their antecedents because they painted en plein air (in the open air) and used a palette of pure colors. Post-Impressionism is a term used to describe the reaction in the 1880s against Impressionism…. The Post-Impressionists rejected Impressionism’s concern with the spontaneous and naturalistic rendering of light and color. Instead they favored an emphasis on more symbolic content, formal order and structure. Similar to the Impressionists, however, they stressed the artificiality of the picture. The Post-Impressionists also believed that color could be independent from form and composition as an emotional and aesthetic bearer of meaning.

Impressionism vs post-impressionism via OxfordArtOnline

It seems to me (take this with a grain of salt; I am, remember, art-challenged) that Jack is having an Impressionist experience, both visually and aurally, combining plein-air naturalism with Cage’s sense of music in ordinary sound. It’s quite beautiful, this aesthetic experience, in someone who hasn’t shown a whole lot of interest in aesthetics until now. He’s about to shrug – to stand with Sophie – but when Jonah in all his earnestness, this earnestness that crashes into hollows, into Jack’s hollow, he instead joins with Jonah and experiences something he’s never experienced before. He lets down his own barriers and feels, rather than shrugging and pursing his lips. He chooses authenticity over cynicism. It’s a bumpier ride, maybe, all that feeling and seeing and hearing, but he gets inside his hollow at last.

Then you have to wonder, when the moment was over, who spoke, and what they said. Do you want it to be Jack, revealing his experience and keeping the moment in play? Or will he revert to cool? Will it be Jonah? Or, lord forbid, Sophie, with some kind of verbal shrug (“I’m going to find some chai”)? In any case, there’s a momentum that allows – that begs – the reader to take the story in whatever direction seems warranted at the moment.

Andrew Sean Greer focuses on the stylistic change here, from long complex sentences to these short fragments, in his Introduction; it’s a sign of change in the character. I’m thinking that’s why I’m struggling with this story: it’s a writer’s story, rather than a reader’s story. When I used to follow figure skating, every once in a while there’s be a skater who didn’t have the fancy quad jumps or even a full arsenal of triples, but who had deep edges and perfect technique and form on every move. A skater’s skater. They didn’t get the high scores or have the fan clubs, but they were admired by those who could tell they were superb at their craft. In the same way, maybe this story grabs Greer’s attention because of its attention to technique and form, rather than its flashy emotional outlays and clever phraseology.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a clue what’s actually going on here, but I too have had an experience made up of bits and pieces, like Jack noticing the colors and sounds, resulting in my impression. Yours is for you to create.

  *   *   *

  • Greg Jackson reads his story at WNYC.
  • Jake Weber’s post on Workshop Heretic gives a handy guide to compare/contrast analysis.
  • The transcript from Hannah Gadsby’s comedy show Nanette is available online at Scraps From the Loft
  • Gramophone Magazine provides the synopsis of John Cage’s New York experience in the article “John Cage – Manhattan Music.”
  • Oxford Art Online writes about the differences between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

4 responses to “BASS 2022: Greg Jackson, “The Hollow” from TNY, 11/29/21

  1. Thank you. I read your commentary and Jake’s, and am still pretty puzzled by the story. Just embarrassed laughter at the end. That’s me. We all have a hollow? Or we don’t? And what does it mean if we do or don’t? And then even Jack stops thinking about it. So maybe it’s not important after all?

    • I recently took a mooc on various metaphysics issues, one of the most interesting being… nothing. Does nothing exist? There’s a handy-dandy little quip called Plato’s Beard: “Nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?” However, a guy named Quine went to a lot of trouble – in the 20th century, this isn’t ancient wisdom – to determine that one should use Russel’s Theory of Definite Description and came up with a counter-quip: “To be is to be the value of a bound variable.” That lets us come up with an answer to the paradoxical question, “Is the current King of France bald?” And a couple of real pranksters used a dialog between Argle and Bargle to investigate whether holes exist, coming up with both paraphrase (not “the cheese has holes in it” but “the cheese is perforated”) and conservative reduction (a hole is the lining of the hole, not the absence itself) as techniques that can be used, though they don’t work in all cases.
      Once you’ve done this sort of thing, stories like this are mere bagatelles, to quote the Philosopher from Sophie’s World.

  2. You kind of dunked on your own reading here, but I liked it, particularly picking up on calling Sophie a hollow herself. What does that make of her name, then. Is she wise to be a hollow? Is it better than either falling into a hollow like Jonah or obsessing about the hollow like Jack? Interesting reading.

    • I’m going to call Sophie’s name irony. I spent some time trying to work out Jonah – the prophet who ran away, who sulked under the vine, who eventually got where he was supposed to go – but gave up on it.

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