Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eula Biss's ‘perverse’ take on ‘wholesome’ Iowa City

If you miss Eula Biss’s 7 p.m. reading Wednesday at Prairie Lights Books, you can always catch it on CSPAN. That’s just one example of the national attention Biss has attracted since the University of Iowa graduate won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

But Wednesday's reading offers a chance for local residents to ask Biss about the essays on Iowa and Iowa City included in her new collection, “Notes from No Man’s Land.” Both essays describe her experiences teaching in UI’s Department of Rhetoric and earning her MFA in non-fiction, but neither paints a very flattering picture of our community.

“Her voice embraces a devastating mix of insistence and quandary,” Robert Polito observes in his judge’s afterword, “as though she is despairing and pressing on simultaneously.”

That “mix” is most “devastating” in the collection’s opening essay, “Time and Distance Overcome.” In a mere eight pages, Biss condenses a history of telephone poles from the visionary but impractical promise of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, to the efforts of communities to keep the poles from blighting the landscape, to the bridging of the continent through the first New York-San Francisco telephone call, to the horror of when the new poles — high, sturdy and cross-like — began to be used as lynching posts.

Only toward the end of the essay does Biss explain her autobiographical connection to this uncanny history of such familiar objects. Her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a pole fell on him. And her extended family has become racially diverse enough that she’s learned how “nothing is innocent” as well as how “nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

The other essays become more overtly memoir-like as Biss moves through her experiences living in New York, California and the Midwest. But the best essays continue to place Biss’ personal experiences into a history and world beyond what any one person could experience firsthand. She continues to present and to ruminate on familiar objects and concepts until they lose any sense of innocence.

When she describes Iowa in the essays “Back to Buxton” and “Is This Kansas,” she is struck by the ruins of an abandoned early-20th-century black community. She is dumbfounded at how her undergraduate students believe that neither racism nor sexism exist anymore and consider “my interest in these subjects very antiquated.” And she is confounded at “why, of all the subcultures in the United States that are feared and hated, of all the subcultures that are singled out as morally reprehensible or un-American or criminal, student culture is so pardoned.”

The Iowa City she describes is one that features a large pile of 15 couches on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Summit Street — couches scarred with cigarette burns and smelling of vomit. It’s a place where a drunken frat boy broke into her apartment two weekends in a row and refused to leave the second time until the police arrived. It’s a city that remains the only place Biss has lived — a list that includes in New York City, San Diego and Chicago — “where I have had reason to speak with the police with any regularity.”

Biss left Iowa City three months after the 2006 tornado ripped through the downtown. She contrasts that experience of a “small storm” in a “small city” against how her Iowa City students had disparaged New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina. She quotes from a post-tornado column of mine to describe how “the onlookers seemed to view the damaged downtown as an amusement park — walking through the storm’s path of destruction like it was a new adventure ride.”

If Biss had been in Iowa during last year’s floods, her tone might be a little less despairing about how college-age Iowans react to a natural disaster. But her description of Iowa City comes at an opportune time. As the city deals with a growing number of unprovoked assaults on the pedestrian mall and as many residents continue to excuse such excesses of student or college-aged culture, we all could stand to be reminded that “this place was not wholesome, as the Midwest likes to imagine itself, but rather perverse.”

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at jcharisc@press-citizen.com or 319-887-5435.

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