Issue No. 101
I’ll confess that when my friend James Hannaham first mentioned that he was writing fiction in the form of art gallery plaques, my reaction was selfish: I wished I’d thought of it. The idea is so clearly excellent, involving the use of a non-literary genre that is textual, but also rich with its own conventions and dramatic possibilities. What more could a fiction writer possibly want?
But a manifestly great idea can be dangerous—as likely to smother as to sustain the fiction we beckon into its midst. In the end, the narrative must be absorbing enough to make us forget about the concept. Hannaham’s “Card Tricks” brilliantly achieves this. Presented first in a gallery space on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Hannaham’s work probes the genre of art gallery plaques from many angles, fabricating them from metal as well as paper, varying their sizes in significant ways, placing a plaque outdoors as well as on gallery walls, and—most powerfully—implicating the viewer directly and playfully. Anyone familiar with Hannaham’s fiction knows already the potent blend of innovation, humor and gravitas that is his trademark. It is exhilarating to see the same qualities at play in three dimensions.
You’re envisioning, perhaps, a collection of plaques that suggest the portrait of a fictional artist who made the art they describe, using an accretion of personal details and revelations. That’s the route I probably would have taken. Which is why it’s a good thing that I didn’t have the idea of using gallery plaques to write fiction, because what Hannaham does is so much more profound. By invoking the existence of artworks involving the gallery space, the people inside it, and the larger world (quite literally), Hannaham performs an ingenious reversal: the subject illuminated by the plaques ends up being us, the reader-viewers. And our experience of reading and viewing them—in what order we choose, in what state we’re in that day or night, in what company, in what mood, in what weather, is the narrative. It’s different for each of us, and it changes every time. The experience has something in common with theater, a medium Hannaham worked in for many years.
“Card Tricks” reminds us that prose fiction was invented to be open, flexible, and provocative, capable of absorbing whatever forms exist in the culture around it, and bending them to the task of high amusement.
Author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
by James Hannaham
Recommended by Jennifer Egan
About the Author
James Hannaham, author of the novel God Says No (McSweeney’s), has published stories in One Story, Fence, Open City, The Literary Review, Story Quarterly, and BOMB. For a long time he has contributed to the Village Voice and other publications. He was a co-founder of the performance group Elevator Repair Service and worked with them from 1992–2002. More recently he has exhibited text-based visual art at Samsøn Projects, Rosalux Gallery, The Center for Emerging Visual Artists, and 490 Atlantic. His second novel, Delicious Foods, will appear from Little, Brown in 2015. He teaches creative writing at The Pratt Institute and Columbia University.
About the Guest Editor
Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco. She is the author of The Invisible Circus, a novel which became a feature film starring Cameron Diaz in 2001, Look at Me, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2001, Emerald City and Other Stories and the bestselling The Keep. Her most recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, McSweeney’s and other magazines. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Her non-fiction articles appear frequently in the New York Times Magazine. Her 2002 cover story on homeless children received the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award, and “The Bipolar Kid” received a 2009 NAMI Outstanding Media Award for Science and Health Reporting from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
About Electric Literature
Electric Literature is an independent publisher working to ensure that literature remains a vibrant presence in popular culture. Electric Literature’s weekly fiction magazine, Recommended Reading, invites established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommended great fiction. Once a month we feature our own recommendation of original, previously unpublished fiction, accompanied by a Single Sentence Animation. Single Sentence Animations are creative collaborations: the author chooses a favorite sentence and we commission an artist to interpret it. Stay connected with us through our eNewsletter (where you can win weekly prizes), Facebook, and Twitter, and find previous Electric Literature picks in the Recommended Reading archives.
Photographs by Ian Douglas.
"Card Tricks" copyright James Hannaham 2014.