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Not So Pointless Pursuits: A review of sorts of a book by C.W. Shain

I feel I must warn my faithful and faithless followers that today’s dose of the Good (and Not So Good) Words may be a bit baroque, an aesthetic that might punish me (and y’all) by not working. If it is baroque, don’t fix it. I can’t fix this, but perhaps we will be transfixed.

Today, I had planned to write inspired by an image of “Bucky Bar” by DUS Architects currently being shown in TRIGGERING REALITY: New conditions for art and architecture in the Netherlands. The exhibit is in Italy, a lovely bit of geographic misdirection apropos points in the right direction. I pass the buck on beautiful, useless structures made out of red umbrellas for now, for now, but have plans to ride that buck at a later date.

I have a similar yet different point to get to today. Today, I offer up a bit of a long overdue book review. Months and months ago, I requested a book through the early reviewer program on Library Thing. I requested Pointless Pursuits: My Year of Picaresque Personal Ads by C.W. Shain, a collection of pieces originally written for and posted on Craigslist Boston and Craigslist New York.

It took over a month for me to get the book, which I understand considering how certain of my own projects are languishing for want of attention. It is hard to get to things when your art projects are on top of an already full to the brim life. By the time the book got to me, my brim was overflowing with a mood state that is not full of vim and vigor. And so the book languished for several moons in a corner of my email box. Then I finally opened it and read a bit, got distracted by life’s necessities and let it lay for a moon or two more. This week, inspired in no small part by my thoughts about “Bucky Bar,” I came back to Pointless Pursuit and read most of it. And now I offer to y’all some thoughts on pointless and pointed performances.

Pointless Pursuit, “an act of petty revenge, a way to reclaim [his] own domain” launched Shain on a year long mission to offer up “byzantine, ridiculously obscure, slapstick” ladles full of laughter and distraction to the readers of personals on Craigslist Boston, and later Craigslist New York.

This collection of absurdist semi-weekly meditations (34 are collected in the book) will delight the reader who enjoys reading and savoring one entry every few days or once a week but prefers confections more than platitudes. Think of it as Weekly Meditations for Absurdists Who Can’t Get Enough. I would not recommend you try to read it in one go, unless you are in serious need of lighthearted, erudite silliness. Pointless Pursuit sustains our scrutiny best when it doesn’t spend too long under our gaze; it is best experienced as a series of fleeting meetings. Catch a flash of red out of the corner of your eye, listen to snatch of children calling come out of an open door as you pass by, exchange a brief hello with a stranger on the bus but do not hold on too tightly. Enjoy it is in quick, brief bursts.

We meet people who are as “handy in the kitchen as Sylvia Plath,” (Ad 6) who love “battleship” but “always will cheat.” (Ad 7). People in search of someone or something; “for a dashing impresario, one capable of breadth and a display of vivid talents, such as gene splicing” (Ad 27) or “looking for a dog but open to a relationship” (Ad 12). The titles also are ornate absurdities. “Seoul City Sue left Montavani broken hearted” (Ad 20) and “Baroness needs help finding her Blitz spot” (Ad 5) and “Lillian Hellman was a habitue of my water closet” are a few of the ones that I liked.

True to forward promises, Shain’s personals are chocked full of obscure references and overdone sentences. As my faithful and faithless followers know, overdone can be done just right. While I would not say that Shain’s overdone is always well done, it gets the job done more often than it leaves it undone. He does provide a helpful index and set of endnotes to help readers who are determined to puzzle out the “real” meaning of these personals.

There are times when his joy in trivia may trivialize the meaning of a particular bit of history. Knowing that Plath ended her life by sticking her head in an oven, I found “handy in the kitchen as Sylvia Plath” a bit too flip. I am not opposed to a bit of flip about a serious subject, but too much flip can flop. What works for a fan who scans the personals for a bit of fun may not work for the careful reader who has not been one of Shain’s weekly followers.

The book blurb on Smashwords claims it to be “genre-breaking.” I have to quibble. The tone and style owes more to a well entrenched tradition of playful, absurdist “postmodern” writers than the blurb author may realize. (See Donald BarthelmeThe first thing the baby did wrong” as an example). But I feel we can excuse any authorial excess in a blurb meant to help promote this small offering of art. $2.99 really is a small price for a tasty bit of art confection.

The book is a set of what I would qualify as performances that were staged on Craigslist. This is what I find most interesting about them, not as personals all collected together in one book, though its collection in a book that allowed me the opportunity to think about Shain’s performance project, but what it means to use a venue like Craigslist to stage episodic work that speaks to a particular audience.

Shain wrote these personals from the perspective of men and women. But oddly, everyone speaks in the same voice, regardless of gender, regardless of life experience, regardless of education, regardless of native language. Shain missed out on an opportunity to explore different characters. His schtick of the clever absurdities full of obscure references overwhelmed some of the glorious creative possibilities available to him. If Shain were ever to re-stage this project, I would challenge him to differentiate his characters more; to allow himself to play with the language more by shifting the tone, the vocabulary and the cadence of each personal.

I would have enjoyed the book more if it collected not only the personals but also some of people’s responses, positive and negative. Shain discusses some the audience response in the Preface, but I would have liked to read a few of the emails that spurred him on, that begged him to keep on writing. I would like to have read a few of the complaints and the notice that he was banishment from Craigslist Boston because of the work of unappreciative ad-flaggers. The richness of this project is the place it was performed and the people for whom it was performed. As a lover of performance, I wanted more of that place, I wanted more of those people.

For lovers of trivia, for lovers of silliness with just a touch of serious longing, Pointless Pursuit is not pointless. You will enjoy these characters’ search for that special someone, for that special something. Pointless Pursuit does stumble a bit, but looking closely at what trips it up is well worth the time of those deeply interested in creating performance work on unconventional stages for specific audiences.

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  1. […] faithful and faithless followers may remember that I, way back in a dose called Not So Pointless Pursuits, mentioned “Bucky Bar,” a piece by DUS Architects shown in TRIGGERING REALITY: New conditions […]

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