Eric Schmaltz on Stephen Collis: The Red Album

The Red Album by Stephen CollisLet’s pretend: you review me, I review you. We read each other’s poems (barely) and whisper sweet nothings, banal praise. We attend ‘events’ to ‘see’ others and ‘be seen.’ This is all the theatre of criticism. Who did you pretend to be today? What writer did you pretend to read? What was your pretend honest reaction? (Noyes 161)

With these remarks, I set myself to the task of reviewing Stephen Collis’s complex and carefully constructed The Red Album (Book Thug, 2013). Despite the cynicism implied by the words of Alfred Noyes, “his” comments do sincerely draw attention to a gap between author and work, critic and author, author and authority, and imagination and reality. How does one read? How does one write? How does one read then write truthfully about the reading? My answers to these questions are both honest and pretend.

The book makes a significant attempt to trouble the way we read and write. The Red Album denies essential categorization–it is not a singular work. The Red Album denies genre, containablity, and closure. The latter comment reflects both the text’s readability as well as its intellectual challenge. Structurally, the book might most closely resemble a mock critical edition of a novella entitled The Red Album by Gloria Personne, a name that loosely translates as “glorious anybody.” This novella tells the moving story of Dioscoro Galindo who is requested to Catalan by the dubious Department of Historical Memory to attend a ceremony honouring his uncle Ramon Fernandez, a famous but barely published revolutionary poet who Dio never knew existed. While in Catalan, Dio reflects on the absence of his uncle in his family history and the problem he faces when trying to rewrite his own elusive story. These problems resonate on a paratextual level as well.

According to the introduction, Personne’s manuscript came to Collis through email as a PDF sent by Noyes who thought Collis could prepare it for publication. To Collis’s surprise, Chapter 10 was missing from the manuscript and there’s no trace of its existence. Personne has also disappeared. To help fill the lacunae left by Personne’s mysterious absence, her incomplete novella, and Fernandez’s barely established oeuvre, the text is accompanied by pseudo-paratextual elements compiled by Collis and Noyes. These include annotations, one of which extensively imagines the missing content of Chapter 10, as well as an introduction, two critical essays (one of which is partially written in dramatic form), an incomplete autobiography by Personne, a filmography of Eliastreal, a draft film treatment, and two poems. Yet these materials are suspicious, barely offering satisfactory responses to the initial inadequacies, and only leading to further questions. Where is Personne? Her autobiography tells us nothing. Or further, where are the films of avant-garde filmmaker Eliastrel, which are so precisely catalogued? Considering the mysterious circumstances of the novella itself, is any of this real?

At the core of this mysterious, sprawling textual network is a problematization of knowledge and meaning. How is meaning made with the available knowledge? Within the structures perceived to be available? As gaps are filled, more inadequacies are created. At some point, there is a demand to choose to read, think, and write in a particular way and these acts have consequences. This is the familiar postmodern trope of exposing structures of knowledge and how one participates within them–a tradition of writing associated with writers like Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino. However, the text gestures beyond exposure, as invoked by figures like Dio, who peers through the cracks in Catalan’s architecture and imagines a reality between and beyond. In his hotel room, Dio, with a voluminous and theatrical imagination, ponders

…a large crack running from the light towards the side of the room Dio had entered from. It was quite a long and deep crack – an earthquake? – and suggested something of the age of the hotel. Suddenly the entire hotel was divided into two by this vast crack, so that guests looked out from their broken rooms into a gap birds flew through and street noises entered and papers fluttered through the air, sheets billowed, and the clerk looked up at Dio from the lobby, as though to accuse him of creating this vast crevice in the middle of his noble hotel. (16)

In this glimpse of Dio’s reading of architecture, the space between the real and imagined is a bridge upon which other realities are made visible. Perhaps this is a less cynical notion of a theatre of criticism–a way of thinking that is usefully both honest and pretend. The Red Album too–a text about fissures, knowledge, and structures–offers itself as another bridge, an opportunity to think about other realities, and new possibilities within the gaps.


Eschmaltzric Schmaltz is a writer, reviewer, curator, and editor. His work has appeared in various places online and in print including Open LetterRampikePoetry is Deaddead g(end)erfilling station, and ditch. His first chapbook MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems was published by above/ground press in Winter 2014. Eric lives in Toronto where he co-curates the AvantGarden Reading Series.