(Brooklyn, NY: Primary Information & Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017)
“I’ve been seeing too many artists,” Constance DeJong tells us at the beginning of Modern Love. “I can’t go through life looking at how objects are colored, cut out and arranged. I’m no painter.”
It felt like a living paradox, a wink from page seven as I was just beginning. Modern Love was considered a piece of visual art upon its first publication in 1977 due to elements of the visual art movement it reflected, seen in performances of the text by DeJong around New York City. It was originally written in installments, assembled in booklets by DeJong herself, and mailed to 500 people with the envelopes ordered by zip code. The writing and sending spanned from ’75-’77, and here I was in ‘17, reading inside this historic, artistic feat, “I’m no painter.”
What DeJong means by “painter” is eclipsed by writing that expands and contracts, falling in on itself as it sings and breathes. We travel to India and Paris, through time and into the past, as DeJong develops a narrative form that is raw in both story and feeling, that doesn’t question its logic, that indeed forms its own sense of logic.
Modern Love has been hailed as a contributor to post-modern thought and as an emblem of the artistic movements of the late 70’s. It crosses and obliterates genre, forming its own idea of how to tell a sort of limitless story. DeJong read it aloud at readings and considered it performance, realizing that she had the words memorized as she practiced. She wanted it to exist in the present, rather than as a book written in the past, and to this day, it comes alive on the page – reaching into the mind and wrestling with the senses.
The story begins in a dream-like state of unfocused focus, as DeJong weaves through observations of self-worth and the suspicion that she recognizes the people who walk past her. In the first paragraph, she tells us, “I’ve started seeing the same people. I think I’m seeing the same people. I wander around staring at strangers thinking I know you from somewhere.” We plunge into a world of vivid, unbridled thought, of analysis and memory and lack thereof. “I think I have to have a past,” she begins to muse at one point. “I think too much. A common malady.”
The first character we meet is a man she names Roderigo, because Roderigo is her “favorite romantic name.” We go on to meet more characters, people she admits to becoming, people she doesn’t just write about but embodies and lives with. She writes,
People used to tell me, if you keep on writing maybe you’ll make a name for yourself. They were right: My name’s Constance DeJong. My name’s Fifi Corday. My name’s Lady Mirabelle, Monseiur Le Prince and Roderigo, Roderigo’s my favorite name.
We meet all of these characters, and more, in different times and places. We meet them in the past and then they show up in our present. The story of Fifi Corday takes place in Paris – a sweeping, involved tale of her time as a performer studying under Marcel Marceu – and then transfers to DeJong’s apartment in New York City, where we find Fifi fast asleep in a corner. Monsieur Le Prince plays a strange, enchanting role, giving DeJong portals to the past from his home inside an ice cream store, only to show up in that past as both a villain and a lover. Roderigo’s story is the most consistent: he’s a piano player with various romantic interests, but even he is thrown between lucid and trance-like prose. DeJong’s characters are people and ideas all at once. She lifts the veil to show us where they come from: her. They are her.
The power of this novel is a power DeJong flexes, showing her control over the narrative circumstances in the most metafictional of ways. It’s confessional, in a sense—DeJong fesses up to her own power as the writer of this world, along with the options she has in wielding it:
[Something] tells me if I continue turning my insights into adjectives I’ll turn into a criminal. I’ll steal the splendor of this moment and commit it to a long, sorry sentence. I’ll murder people and bury them in gorgeous metaphors. I’ll mutilate events and objects, cut and arrange everything into pretty patterns. Into spectacular but empty images.
It’s the prerogative of the writer, and DeJong is frank about that. She can do whatever she wants, because this is all hers.
Modern Love is not just a book. It is its own form of art, one that pushes against the barriers of time and space. It’s an ode to creation, chaotic in formation, clashing and clanging as it whirls around itself. It’s a behind-the-scenes look, a broken fourth wall, a naked actor who is telling the story of their own life. It’s funny, it’s repetitive, it’s engaging, it’s dizzying – an experimental force that is, at once, all things.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo‘s fiction, reviews and interviews have appeared in H.O.W. Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, The Literary Review, Bort Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn.