Models of Compression

June 3, 2012

Recent readings: three very different works that use compression to good advantage.

1. Larry Loebell’s short play Will and the Code, just performed by F. Murray Abraham in NYC as part of Resonance Ensemble’s 10th anniversary celebration.

The monologue presents one side of a telephone conversation: theatrical agent Phil O. Strait speaking to his client, Will, about changes Will needs to make in a script to accommodate the new theatrical code. It seems that Will’s play features fairies, enchantment, consciousness-altering substances, a character named Puck, and worst of all, explicit lust. Will gets livid about the recommended rewrites, but Phil, a true professional, handles him smoothly. Loebell, no stranger to politically inspired theater, has posted the entire hilarious piece online at http://loebell.com/will-and-the-code/.

2. Hugh Nissenson’s first novel, My Own Ground (1976), a 181-page tale of a 15-year-old orphaned immigrant, Jake, in the Lower East Side of 1912.

I first discovered Nissenson through The Tree of Life, his amazing 1985 novel of the Ohio frontier. Since then I’ve read Days of Awe, a tender 9/11 novel, and The Song of the Earth, a futuristic fable about a genetically engineered artist. Nissenson’s books roam through time and place. He’s deliberately, perhaps obsessively, innovative, so that he’ll take you into what seems like a generic tale and then bend all of the conventions. Two of his major works include his own strange illustrations, supposedly created by the protagonist. Yet, through all these experiments and variations, his preoccupation with morality and violence remains constant.

In My Own Ground, Jake gets involved with protecting beautiful young Hannele, a rabbi’s daughter, from the pimp who is after her; but Hannele’s self-destructiveness complicates matters. Other characters include a Russian revolutionary who tries to raise Jake’s political consciousness. Though there are plenty of vivid details about immigrant life on the Lower East Side, and even time for a digression or two, Nissenson compresses transitions and omits nearly all of Jake’s self-reflection. For a first-person narrative there’s surprisingly little of the personal in Jake’s fact-driven account; author and narrator let us draw the conclusions ourselves, as in this simple description of Jake’s job and his coworker:

I got eight cents for pressing a tweed jacket and a woolen skirt. The iron weighed fourteen pounds; it was one of those things you knew. I used two of them. There was always one heating up on the stove. I worked at a big table opposite Spiegel, another presser, who’d been at it for six years. His right shoulder was three inches lower than his left; the forefinger of his right hand reached his knee.

“What is it?” he asked me Wednesday afternoon. “What’s the matter with you?”


I’d been staring at him. He turned a skirt without pleats inside out, spread it on his board, covered the seam with a strip of canvas, and then reached into the tin pail on his right, squeezed the water from the brown sponge and swept it up and halfway down the canvas, leaving a wet trail. It went on and on: a continuous movement of the lowered shoulder, the elongated arm, the hand wrapped in a wet rag. I saw the swollen blue veins on the inside of his wrist as he tossed the sponge back into the pail. When he picked up the iron, he grunted “Oy” under his breath, and a drop of sweat from his temple ran down the left side of his face; another hung from the tip of his nose.

On the way home, I bought a pack of Tolstoys—ten cigarettes for a nickel…

No comment on the implications of Spiegel’s work, minimal transition away from the scene. Perfect. Nissenson deserves more attention as one of our best novelists; I’m eager to read his latest, The Pilgrim, set in 1622.

3. Farthest North by Todd Balf, a short digital history of Elisha Kane’s disastrous 1853 Arctic voyage in search of the lost Franklin expedition of the 1840s.

As a committed armchair adventurer, I enjoyed this brief—and cheap ($1.99!)—tale of derring-do and unlikely heroes. A sickly sort from a prominent family, Kane drove himself to extraordinary feats. Balf writes some crystal-sharp prose in describing the otherworldly Arctic landscape, the jagged cliffs of ice, the myth of an Open Polar Sea to the north beyond the claustrophobic bergs. Here, though, the need for compression—the publisher’s requirement, I suppose—means that Kane’s background and psychology receive less development than I would have liked. I’m curious to learn more about his love affair with Maggie Fox, one of the three spiritualist Fox sisters of the mid-nineteenth century. Maggie was the one who renounced her séances as fake, and then, after Kane’s death, retracted her confession and went back to conning people. I’d also like to know more about some of the subsidiary characters on the expedition, both those who survived and those who didn’t. But for $1.99, I’m not complaining; Balf has done a fine job with this short-form bio-saga.