When I finally managed to get my hands on Where the North Sea Touches Alabama, the second novel (though I am hesitant to call it that) by Allen Shelton, an associate professor of sociology at the SUNY Buffalo State, the first thing I noticed was the familiar script that adorns the cover. I recognized it as Allen’s own, which I had seen many times covering from edge to edge the large sheets of graph paper on which Allen composes, often at a table in Caffè Aroma facing the door. On the title page, Allen had inscribed my copy with a sort of demented compass rose: arrows labeled W and S both point left, a jagged line marked N points right, and E is straight down.
That is as good a guide to this strange, beautiful text as any. It is a powerful, deeply original, and deftly constructed combination of fiction, readings of the work and lives of everyone from Walter Benjamin to Franza Kafka, and contemplations of artist Patrik Keim’s departure from this world and the violent, beautiful artwork he left in the hands of the book’s narrator. The universe of Where the North Sea Touches Alabama is an uncanny iteration of our own; as its title implies, the text is born of a world in which familiar landmarks (e.g. the North Sea, Alabama) interact unfamiliarly, according to a subterranean logic that makes a certain kind of unknowable sense.
Patrik Keim was an artist who lived in Georgia with whom the author (and the narrator) enjoyed a friendship that eventually resulted in Shelton collecting a large portion of Patrik’s artwork. Keim shot himself in the head in 1998. His suicide generates the text as a whole as well as some of its most beautiful passages: “He stuck the pistol into his mouth and shot himself. The bullet penetrated through the brain and out the top of the skull. He fell, however, just off from the open piece of flooring, obscuring various images with his torso and hips, the blood pooling in the slight dip in the floor. Still, the result was surprising and very reminiscent of his early work. His body was found two days later, making it irrelevant that he had showered and shaved minutes before his departure. That Patrik would leave like this I had known for years.”
Shelton’s text is certainly successful, but in order to appreciate that, the reader needs to understand that the author’s goals have less in common with commercial fiction than they do with the fictocriticism of Roland Barthes and Joan Didion. Searching for a term to refer to literature like Shelton’s, Jacques Derrida once said, “We must invent a name for those ‘critical’ inventions which belong to literature while deforming its limits.” Where the North Sea Touches Alabama certainly deforms the limits of literature with its interdisciplinary scope and difficult, rewarding prose style.
The text tends to ask more questions than it answers (this, for the record, is a really good thing). I sat down with Shelton—who will give a reading and discussion at Talking Leaves on Wednesday, April 2, at 7pm—to discuss his work, both critical and creative, and how it led to a book as unique as this.
AV: I want to talk about [philosopher Walter] Benjamin.
AV: I want you to talk about Benjamin. Benjamin the person, Benjamin the corpus; Benjamin pervades your work like a sort of wire lattice almost. I was wondering what sort of role Benjamin has in your text and in your mental life?
ACS: I first found him in a New York Review of Books essay by Susan Sontag. I maybe was 19, 20 years old. I read this essay and I was mesmerized. So I checked out some of his books (and there were very few at the time), and I didn’t understand him but I was still fascinated. I remember in graduate school trying to talk about Benjamin in a class. No one knew who I was talking about. I had no one to speak about him with. But for me he was this allegory, this great, failed, brilliant figure. He has always been a kind of saint or a comfort to me in my own, smaller exiles, and I’ve always come back to read him. Early on I read his essay on Kafka which is just so, so beautiful and smart. When Benjamin’s at his best I think he resembles Kafka.
But so I’m just writing today, trying to write something, and almost inevitably Benjamin is the allegory or the weight that’s pressing on me as I fashion it around his life and try to find meaning in my own life.
AV: Something about Benjamin is almost like a mannequin on which you can drape clothes you’ve made?
ACS: I wouldn’t say “mannequin”—it’s far more animate than that. I think of him almost like my dead grandmother.
AV: Is she animate?
ACS: Well my dead grandmother’s quite animate: I just dreamt of her last night. I think with her. You know, I read [Karl Marx’s] Capital on my own, and when you read things like that on your own you are walking across terrain without a map or a compass. But my guide, and this sounds kind of silly, my guide was my grandmother, a librarian. And my other grandmother and my mother. These were my guides. I used their ghosts and their stories to do something to Marx, or to Benjamin. Benjamin has joined them now—I could’ve added him to that list of dead people that I think with and owe a debt to. Benjamin would be a part of that, as would Geronimo and Kafka.
AV: I want to ask you about, “great, failed, brilliant,” the words you just used to describe Benjamin. Now I’m thinking they can be used to describe Patrik Keim.
ACS: The odd thing about Patrik is that a lot of his work I don’t think holds up. In some ways quite literally—he put it together so shoddily. It’s coming apart in my house. But he left this mark on people. I’ve gotten two or three e-mails from people who have no idea who I am but they’ve run across my book because they’ve looked up Patrik and they’ve just now found out that he’s dead. While I was in [Athens, GA] I visited one of his professors at his studio which is this renovated barn with maybe a million dollars worth of art just stacked in there, and he’s on an oxygen tank, and he’s all alone and he’s going through his files pulling out things about Patrik, talking about his collaboration with Patrik, how much he misses Patrik, how talented Patrik was, how unique he was. So there was something about him that was beyond just being an artist. Though I found out that he may also have been a con man.
AV: Who did he con?
ACS: It turns out that he stole thousands and thousands of dollars from the bar that he worked at, and just before his death he sort of hemmed himself in a corner because he sent out in hundred-dollar increments this money all across the country. To friends, acquaintances. And then he killed himself. And the bar owner still loves Patrik. I did a reading in his bar (by the way, it’s an incredible bar—it’s called The Globe).
AV: You mentioned when you were describing the people who serve as your guides or compasses, you describe traveling across a vast blank map. There is some sort of geography but it’s not yet charted. It occurs to me that that is clearly a preoccupation or focus of yours: cartographies and sort of messing with them.
ACS: I have drawn maps, crazy maps, unusual maps, not-quite-right maps, for a long time, and I never thought of them analytically until I read Raymond Roussel. I started realizing that maps could be divining tools. Particularly the kind of map I was interested in is this folded or double map that has the natural and the supernatural folded together. My whole book is constructed like the very landscape I just described. Hence the endnotes are actually a third of the book and they read as a second book. The endnotes are actually written in a different voice. They function as the underground world, and so the book is really a giant concrete poem in which you have the surface and then this underground and these things going back and forth between them. I have two endings to the book. I have the ending in the endnotes, which is an ending, and then I have the ending on the surface part of the text. They’re almost the same but they’re very different.
AV: “Almost the same but very different.” Let’s talk about the uncanny.
ACS: That was another organizing motif of this book—the whole notion of the underworld and literally having an underworld to the book. That is the uncanny. I’m using it as an analytical device, not as a descriptor. To let things come up.
AV: You describe Patrik’s work as a “view into a different kind of supernatural.” What has so fixated you on Patrik’s work and Patrik’s work on you?
ACS: It goes back to when I first went to graduate school. I leave rural Alabama, go to Athens, GA, which is this spectacular place for me. I see protesters, anti-nuclear protesters, I see the early days of punk, Michael Stipe is there walking around in a blanket and carrying a dead woodpecker on a stick.
AV: What more could you ask for?
ACS: Right. I had never seen this. It was this incredible, stimulating world—movies, my first cappuccino. And then, art. I had never seen art like Patrik’s. I had never seen art that was ugly and yet beautiful. I found his work to be challenging and stimulating. He rearranged how I thought, he concretized how I thought. He gave me a way of expressing the ruins I saw in rural Alabama. Patrik was the key.
AV: Patrik’s work has built into it a certain kind of impermanence, as if each piece is both itself and a demonstration of entropy.
ACS: In my home is one of my favorite pieces. It shows him in this black turtleneck with a large pair of scissors and then next to it is a front piece from Otto Rank’s The Doppelganger, in German, and his image is cutting through the page, it’s falling out of its housing and it’s slicing like a very slow guillotine through the piece. It’s going to cut it in half eventually. It’s even beautiful like that. It becomes more beautiful over time. Unhinged, it’s even more beautiful. Other pieces are still disturbing—this dirty drinking glass with a pair of dentures in it and this weird straight edge razor that’s nearby is still disturbing to me.
AV: I keep hearing expressions and turns of phrase that I feel like you might also use to describe Patrik.
ACS: I just found—my son sent me a little image for Christmas late that night. He had collected some of his children’s books and one of them was a Chris Van Allsburg book, The Wreck of the Zephyr. In the image I’m sitting at a café talking with a friend of mine about his art. It’s Patrik. I imagine that I’m about to get my PhD. I don’t. And I’m talking to him and I tell him I love him and I hope he will grow to love this book. But the other part of that was me with Patrik at a café talking about art. Patrik’s sort of not shown in [Where the North Sea Touches Alabama], but you know the original press that wanted to do this book wanted to bill it as Queer Studies. My editor was convinced that Patrik and I were lovers and this was a love story. Which it’s not. But Laurence Shine was really perceptive. He said this book is really about why I don’t kill myself. So it’s not so much about Patrik. It’s about our relationship, but it’s about why I don’t kill myself after he dies.
Allen Shelton will give a reading and discussion at Talking Leaves on Wednesday, April 2, at 7pm.