“Words are like rollers that spread the emotions around” recalls the narrator of Constance de Jong’s Modern Love, recently reissued by Ugly Duckling Presse. De Jong’s narrator could just as well be describing the author’s own idiosyncratic narrative style, the weft of language threading itself through the warp of structure to unfold a story that seems at once random and chaotic, rigorous and highly ordered. The novel centres around the wanderings of its protagonist and loser-par excellence – who could be De Jong herself or one of her many alter egos we are introduced to: Charlotte, Roderigo or Fifi Corday. As readers its unclear when De Jong-the-author ends and when De Jong-the-narrator begins, if any of the characters are autonomous, or if they are all various iterations of one person: disguising, alchemizing, morphing into each other like liquefying mercury.
De Jong read her work aloud all over New York in the 70s, considering it to be just as much a performance piece as it was a book. Indeed, throughout the experience of reading the novel, its performance and visual elements are at the fore. Our digressive narrator’s recycled thoughts repeat themselves like fugues. These poetic refrains become familiar to the reader, as the novel learns and then forgets itself. They mimic the mistakes I imagine would have been inevitable in De Jong’s renditions. Rather than building towards a cohesive sense of meaning, the words spread emotion across the page like an abstract-expressionist painting, as fluid and diffuse as the characters themselves. As subjectivities shape-shift, the centrifugal force compelling the narrator to explore the depths and distances of human perception takes us to Elizabethan England, Oregon, India, Spain in the time of the Armada and finally back to New York.
The world De Jong creates reminds me of the Japanese expression “ukiyo-e” which means “floating world” and describes the world of play and entertainment that arose during the Edo period. Ukiyo-e prints often play with scale and depict landscapes or erotic scenes from multiple perspectives, casting doubt on the human eye to pin the realm of the visible down. In Modern Love, time, objects and people are loosened from their fixed meanings, giving everything the potential to be connected. The imagination and conspiracy this de-contextualization unlocks provokes suspicion and hyper-stimulation. These are the emotional currents throbbing beneath the sprawling surface of the novel. The narrator struggles to connect to herself and to others, when there are so many points that can be interwoven into a tapestry of ultimately arbitrary and subjective meaning. “Parts of you keep floating by”, she intones.
I can see how some readers could level the accusation that De Jong’s conceptual experiments feel forced. When the novel began jumping between periods, it felt like unnecessary zhuzh introduced into a winding and confusing plot. Those with an aversion to this kind of post-modern whimsy may find themselves to be entrenched in this camp. However, perhaps because of De Jong’s experience as an early progenitor of time-based performance art, I found that these detours ultimately justified themselves, succeeding in going beyond their own quirkiness to hold this reader’s attention.
Modern Love conjures a nostalgia for the spontaneity and collectivity of the late 1970s. Situated at a decisive juncture between the tail-end of the 60s’ mass mobilization and civil rights activism and the increasing individuation driven by consumer capitalism, De Jong paints a portrait of unpredictability and its psychological toll on humans both on a microscopic and macroscopic level. She shows the feverish clinging to one another we depend on when we find ourselves stuck in the fissures between reality and an increasingly uncertain future, in the hopes of arriving at some depiction of modern love. The dawning futility I had been feeling before reading this book was, in the days following, replaced by a kind of absurdist, phantasmagoric cascade of rhythms and associations. I find myself increasingly hopeful that such a modern love can exist, even if we must turn over every rock, look between every crevice, for that untapped connection that has the ability to create a link between at least two floating points.
Modern Love by Constance de Jong is published by Ugly Duckling Presse. To order a copy click here.
Words, Josie Bird