November 2013

Nic Grosso

nonfiction

Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow by Andy Sturdevant

When Jorge Luis Borges first read T. S. Eliot's criticism, he found him first-rate, but over time something changed: "If you take the great critic, let's say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel that he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think -- at least I always feel -- that he's agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another." His criticism, his reading, his understanding of literature or whatever the topic of review, seems to just be a rewording, a regurgitation of well-known facts and opinions. He brings nothing of himself to his understanding of the subject and instead allows his criticism to be the setting where he may choose sides in an ongoing, way-in-the-back-of-the-fridge-with-possible-signs-of-mold debate.

Borges is interested in the critic who does not rehash arguments or picks sides but rather uses criticism as an approach to creation.

[A]fter reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet had been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation.

It is a waste of time to simply read for the point of drawing distinctions, amounting to no more than lines in the sand. In reading, in criticism, the critic should breathe new life into his subject, put on display his subjectivity, a perspective that is one of a kind. In Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow, Andy Sturdevant offers just such a unique outlook, to varying degrees of success. His subject is Minnesota, and more often than not, the Twin Cities, and over the course of this collection of essays, he deconstructs and recreates them, praising and lampooning them though always with hope for what the place could be.

The collection opens with "The Artificial Heart: Visualizing the Midwestern Vernacular," which brings readers into a familiar panorama of the region:

That's the line you generally hear. It's really flat. You can see for miles. The landscape goes on forever. (One also hears, "It's empty," which is a no-less-important and very closely related point we'll touch on momentarily.) The flatness is what people refer to about the Midwest when they drive through from the East, or the South, or the West -- from the mountain ranges, or the towering, ancient forests, or the canyons or the cliffs, or the lolling bluegrass hills.

We are eased in, introduced to the side of the region we recognize, those well-trodden frames of reference to soothe tensions, whispering in our ears, "Yes, nothing's out of order here. You know this place of well-mannered strip malls and easygoing restaurant chains." Except Sturdevant quickly pulls out the rug, turning it all on its head, as his next essay describes the correspondence between him and a representative from the restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings. The representative reached out after reading some dismissive comment Sturdevant had posted online, airing his longing for what once was (the Buffalo Wild Wings was once a community center and music venue). And from there we are thrown headlong into this battle of perceptions, accepted notions, and the drive to look deeper into this place, this place made up of a bustling underground art scene, curious gubernatorial portraits, futuristic neighborhoods, drive-by public art, and so much more.

Though, working one's way through this collection, something seems to be slightly off. Maybe it is the size of the physical book or the design and presentation on the page that leads one to expect something more, something different, perhaps something with more emotional heft or insight. We are quickly made aware of how knowledgeable Andy Sturdevant is of the art scene and cultural history in Minnesota, a knowledge magnified by his love and enthusiasm for the region, but it calls into question the inclusion of such essays as "America's Historic Flag" (a brief glimpse into the history and current usage of particular flags), "Fictitious Times" (an assortment of films Sturdevant claims capture the times we live in), "'Retiree from birth': A Short Personal History of the Trust-Fund Kid," among a handful of others that offer connections and insight into the region in only the most secondary of fashions while bringing us no closer to their author (except to further catalogue his interests and knowledge of the odd, the curious, and the unconventional). Which is not to say they are bad -- no, not in the least, but it throws the otherwise cohesive thread of Minnesota to the wind. What could otherwise serve as an alternative travel guide to the region becomes more of a hodgepodge of the author's varying hobbies, pastimes, and passions.

The collection ends, though, with Sturdevant at his finest. In both "The Season and the Condition of the Viewer" and "A Beacon for All Twin Citians," he returns to his muse, the essence and drive behind this collection converging here. In "A Beacon," he sends out a historical note, a reminder, a battle cry to the writers and artists of the Twin Cities, and the greater Midwest.

Celebrate the histories and heritages you find, but be disrespectful -- be contemptuous, even! -- of the received wisdom that this is a nice, quiet, modest little prairie town... This is a sprawling, multifaceted pair of quietly bustling, weird American cities with millions of stories between the two of them.

There are stories to be told, features and details too readily overlooked. The prompt is directed at creatives, but the appeal applies to all. Urging people to not simply accept the impressions of another but to pick at it, challenge it, grapple with it, try to take it apart and make it your own because, as Sturdevant writes, quoting Borges's description of a mythical creatures from the region, "'the color of its plumage would change, depending on the season and the condition of the observer.'"

Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow by Andy Sturdevant
Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566893374
224 Pages