Reading the surrealist essays in Adam Tipps Weinstein’s Some Versions of the Ice, one is quick to make comparisons. The most obvious is to magical realist writers such as Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, but there are many other resonances. His essay “The False Pigeon: A History”—a fictional account of a natural history museum—reads like it dropped straight from the pages of George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the deceptively straightforward expositional tone that he employs throughout—which Michael Martone mentions in his wonderful blurb as a “hyper-rational empiricism [running] stoically and joyfully amok”—often echoes Lydia Davis. Reading the surrealist essays in Adam Tipps Weinstein’s Some Versions of the Ice, one is quick to make comparisons. The most obvious is to magical realist writers such as Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, but there are many other resonances. His essay “The False Pigeon: A History”—a fictional account of a natural history museum—reads like it dropped straight from the pages of George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the deceptively straightforward expositional tone that he employs throughout—which Michael Martone mentions in his wonderful blurb as a “hyper-rational empiricism [running] stoically and joyfully amok”—often echoes Lydia Davis.
These are, of course, imperfect comparisons, and any reader might have his or her own. If there is one comparison I would be steadfast to make, it’s to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project for the way that it anchors itself in a sprawling and impressively synthesizing collection of quotes. In Weinstein’s case, these range from Aristotle to Agamben, a choice that Weinstein explains in his afterword with yet further quotations, notably from William Gass: that citation “is an attempt to use a phrase, a line, a paragraph, like a word, and lend it further uses, another identity, apart from the hometown it hails from.” He goes on to explain that his quotes can be “borrowed, quoted, misquoted, or appropriated.”
I belabor these side-points because they really cast the book’s central quality in stark relief: these are essays of extraordinarily convincing exposition and erudition—nearly rapturous in their historical, material, or textual analysis—yet we can never be fully certain what exactly is true and what is false. Weinstein slips so effortlessly between the real and the fantastic that we often don’t realize how mired in confabulation we are until it’s too late, until we have accepted his version of the world and really, in some ways, can’t mentally go back.
In “Heaven-Seeking or Collars,” Weinstein offers this historical description:
The corrected collar, then, is a tremendous gain in heaven-seeking. By manipulating the collarbone—composed of the right and left clavicle (from Latin, clavicular, “little key”), which act as struts between the scapula and the shoulders, allowing the shoulders to rotate freely—the collar may be shaped and molded into finger-like supports for the chin, pointing the head upwards, rectifying that deficiency of gaze, and allowing one to live at ease in permanent, star-struck awe.
He goes on to describe the history: the Finger Collar, the Maxima, the Detachable Collar, all with the same acute detail, whether this sort of excruciating medical description, a recounting of the historical adoption (along with named historical figures), or a cultural analysis, all the while peppering the piece with quotes from Othello, Revelations, William James, Matthew, Dorothy Haddox (fictional?), and so on. For twenty minutes after reading the essay I was on the internet looking this up—did we really train our clavicles? Was this really a thing?
Apart from deft prose, another crucial way that Weinstein convinces is by mixing familiar but equally detailed general knowledge in with his confabulation. “Graveyard Shoes (Pulque)” is ostensibly about the production of pulque—a Mexican fermented beverage that many people are familiar with as a rustic precursor to mescal—but rather than coming from the agave plant, pulque, in Weinstein’s account, is derived from seemingly real shoes that surface overnight in graveyards, complete, at times, with leather, nylon, shoelaces, and so forth, and whose graveyard terroir can consist of “rusted nails, bits of natural bone, torn scraps of paper or clothing, and hat bands.” In “Small Fingers: A Report,” Weinstein describes the eradication of the pest-like small fingers (think “Thing” from the Addams Family): “Heavy trucks arrived nightly, spraying dangerous purple gasses and green perfumes. One heard them thundering down the streets, underscored by the persistent hum of the sprayers.” Weinstein is careful to unveil only as much as he needs, but what he does unveil has such detail and familiarity that it feels empirically true.
There is already value in the way these essays leave the reader in a sustained liminal space. They are mind-expanding works less in the sense of broadening outward horizons and more in the sense of making us rethink our own structures of cognition, our deeply-etched categorical orders, which, as we read, begin to slip like giant floes, indeed, of ice. These are unsettling and uncanny pieces, and that alone is worth the read. But Weinstein also finds profound moments of beauty and truth. In “Scenting Braille”—which is exactly as it sounds, a history of the development of a scent-based braille—Weinstein slowly builds on a passion for scents and scent combinations as a kind of perfect alphabet, until we get this astonishingly lyrical paragraph:
You are belly-full with the exhaustive scents, drifting into moments conjured by associative memory, until, having read for much too long, you are overtaken, no longer paying the carefulest attention. You are sleepy. You are dreamy. And the scents being to jumble. They are as a single word, and suddenly, another world is conjured before you. It is an impossible world, and yet fathomable.
It is moments like these—and there are many—when it doesn’t matter what ways we are being put on, what histories are false, what stories fabulous—Weinstein is getting at something psychically real—and it’s often profound. Let’s close with one other short example, from the title essay:
In Aristotle’s metaphysics, the arctic regions become grammatei, the unwritten. Suspended between the earth’s poles we are coming-to-be (genesis) and ceasing-to-be (phthoras). Thus mankind is entelecheia, the expression and realization of unwritten potential. . . . The nature of potential is that it has no end. Thus we are the unceasing perfection of the ice, a perfection that is always already deferred.
These are strange, at-times bewildering essays, and for as much as they may remind us of other works and other authors, there is yet nothing quite like them.