The New Spectator

The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions (Semiotext(e)) BY Rebekah Rutkoff. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 104 pages. $14.

Gifts can be difficult propositions. They ask some sorry object—poor thing—to bear the weight of an entire relationship. Is this what I mean to you?

Gifts can also be magical, offering us bouquets of unexpected pleasures. Rebekah Rutkoff’s collection of essays and fictions, The Irresponsible Magician, is full of both kinds of gift, and captures some of the ways a gift can slip from one category to the other. The book’s signal feat is to take encounters of the awkward variety—unreciprocated attentions, a disappointing brush with an idol, having your life saved by a doctor who is later arrested for molesting his patients—and transform them into welcome gifts on the page.

In sentences dry as matzo, Rutkoff pivots from personal anecdote to the analysis of mostly male artists—Jim Dine, Stan Brakhage—who draw her sometimes ambivalent attention. Near the end of the essay “Firsts & Seconds,” Rutkoff chides herself: “I shouldn’t pretend that things only happen where men are concerned.” She then recounts how a woman “with a great big personality and a modest apartment” lost a book containing a year’s worth of Rutkoff’s drawings. This, after a male gallery owner lost her negatives! In a world of equal-opportunity negligence, can anyone be trusted?

The gift makes another key appearance in Rutkoff’s account of a thwarted affair with a Parisian named Edouard. On their first date, the couple visited a Picabia exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. “On our final meeting,” Rutkoff writes, “we went to a bookstore to find a French copy of Goodbye, Columbus. When we walked out, Edouard said ‘Bye, baby,’ as if he were trying out a new American phrase. He kissed me with great noise and motion on both cheeks, as one would a small child. My gift of a small orange and cream-colored F. Picabia book . . . suddenly seemed wrong, but I gave it to him all the same.”

Almost every anecdote in the book depicts a failure to connect. But Rutkoff does not wallow in this state of affairs. Instead, she ices her disappointment and displays it ironically, as a commentary on sex and cultural privilege. (At the very least, Rutkoff seems to indict the bad taste of men who would seek out a Philip Roth novel on a date—and the Jewish women who fall for them.) Rutkoff intersperses her own photographs among the texts, and the writing, too, possesses a photographic logic. Every fragment is carefully composed, but without advancing a bossy program. The pleasure of detail itself reigns.

The subtitle of the book, “Essays and Fictions,” encapsulates Rutkoff’s subversive play with genre. Although she makes frequent use of the personal, Rutkoff veers off the straight road of autobiography into the richer precincts of dream and fantasy. Readers tempted to parse the admixture of fact and fiction in these essays may consider the following passage a caution: “In the early eighties Mary Boone refused to represent my great aunt, an abstract painter who works mostly in acrylics, after she learned that Sylvia perceived an amorphous blue spot in one of her own paintings as a female figure. ‘I don’t do representational,’ Mary said.” The lesson: Beware taxonomists. Remain slippery. Scramble the categories so that they can’t put you—or your work—in either bin.

The book also includes several fictional dialogues with female “headliners” like Carolee Schneemann and Oprah—another innovative crisscrossing of genre. In the “interview” closing the book, a flamboyantly fictionalized Oprah takes a sidelong glance at her rival Diane Sawyer and delivers this trenchant critique: “I think, wow—you won the lottery. The rushing around to meet world leaders in pants over hose, skimming the producer’s notes in a plush leather binder on the way to the UN.” Oprah notes how Sawyer “leans forward in the chair, savoring the outpouring of words: this is as close as you can get to being present while remaining totally blind.” Rutkoff uses these fantasy projections to measure the too-powerful charisma of celebrity, how its gravitational pull often distorts the orbits of surrounding bodies.

Much of the second half of the book is taken up with longer essays on the video artist Michel Auder and the filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos. Essays with a capital E, their sober tone marks a shift from the earlier fact-fancy hybrids. At first I missed the thrill of not knowing whether to take a sentence straight or with a twist. But the essay on Markopoulos won me over, pushing the book’s sustained analysis of spectator enthrallment into new territory. While the earlier pieces express a cool resignation toward our society of the spectacle, these essays make a more hopeful wager: that the difficult work of aesthetic affiliation may offer the viewer a way out.

Markopoulos was a gay avant-garde filmmaker, friendly with Warhol and Jack Smith, who grew frustrated with the US film scene and decamped to Europe in 1967. Ensconced there, he worked on his eighty-hour epic Eniaios for a decade until his death in 1992. Rutkoff’s essay describes her pilgrimage to a remote mountain location in Greece that Markopoulos christened “Temenos,” the site of extended outdoor screenings of the film. Viewers watch portions of the movie for four hours every evening and are encouraged to let their minds wander and give in to boredom. “One evening, I sat next to a woman who snored for three hours,” Rutkoff writes. “When the last reel ended, she promptly awoke and turned to me: ‘There were a lot fewer people snoring tonight, weren’t there?’”

As before, Rutkoff zeroes in on the foibles of her fellow travelers with acuity. But a charm suffuses their doings, and I wanted to hunker down with them for the long haul. Rutkoff shows us how intimacy can arise when a mix of strangers unite on a quest, Chaucer-style. In search of the sublime, we fumble, and instead encounter ourselves. This is the difficult gift of art: not wisdom but an arena. Rutkoff writes, “As any good magician or psychoanalyst knows, it’s the deliberate chalking of a particular square that allows for the discovery of personal order and private mythology.” There, in a sentence, is the book—its compass and its gift.

Christopher Schmidt’s most recent book is The Poetics of Waste (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).