James Agee's and Walker Evan's book is one of the best books I've ever read. It's also the book, next to Tina Fey's Bossypants, that I'm the least likely to finish. This book does everything I want to do in my Microproject--focus on an organism's small adaptations to their environmental challenge. In this case, the organism is the tenant farmer in 1936. James Agge's microscopic attention to these farmer's circumstances is as wondrous as it is meticulous and yet, as it sometimes also is, tedious. The first part of the book is wild, but not so wild as to distance the reader. Agee explains his ambition for the book. He recognizes its weirdness. He talks to the reader. He calls the wild and the weirdness "curious." "I spoke of this piece of work we were doing as 'curious.' I had better amplify this." He writes. "It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of 'honest journalism' (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money..." This self-consciousness, coupled with Agee's respectfulness, carries him far into the reader's attention span and far into the lives of these lives he so thoroughly puts on display. In order to satisfy his notion of honesty and reality, Agee does not objectively describe these peoples' clothes, houses, foods, sex lives. He describes them in complete detail. The honorable story is nothing less than the whole story. The whole story includes the amount of money the farmer makes each month and how much he pays back to his landlord, the lack of planing on the boards on the porch, the number and style of castiron pans hanging on the kitchen while, the number of unfinished sewing projects in a drawer, the clippings of advertisements from magazines of products that these families will never afford. Hundreds of pages of honorable detail.
Not a mote of dust goes unremarked upon. The fireplace that falls down. The stain on the pillows that suggest urine but Agee knows is only the manner in which sweat stains cotton. The lumpiness of beds. The distance between the dirt floor and the wood floor of the house. Agee knows that to create any sense of 'reality' every element of that reality has to be displayed. And yet, even he wonders if in any way he can accurately portray anything with words. What he says the camera, "solves simply" (208), he regrets the complication of words: "But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of records and communication," (209). But still he piles word upon word in this 390 page portrayal of three tenant families. Walker Evans records these same families with his simple solution, the camera. Why doesn't Agee just let Evans' photos do the talking, if they're so successful in solving the problem of accuracy.
But maybe accuracy isn't what Agee's really going for. Perhaps the minutia aren't rendered detail for detail in an attempt to get it right. Agee's spins the detail through his opinionated lens, giving the detail context and texture. Reality is one thing. An argument about the cruelty of this life is another. The tiny detail-as-list isn't the point. The tiny detail-as-argument is. A detail isn't objective in words as it may be in silver. Some of the plainer assertions are still that, assertions: "They yellow and green checked oilcloth is worn thin and through at the corners and along the edges of the table and along the ridged edges of boards in the table surface, and in one or two places, where elbows have rested a great deal, it is rubbed through in a wide hole" (159). "The iron bed is so weak in its joints that Woods has nailed it into the wall" (167). But sometimes the assertions turn to full blown argument about the house and the understood purpose of the house. "It is put together out of the cheapest available pine lumber, and the least of this is used which shall stretch a skin of one thickness alone against the earth and air; and this is all done according to one of the three or four simplest, stingiest, and thus most classical plans contrivable, which are all traditional to that country: and the work is done by half-skilled, half-paid men under no need to do well, who therefore take such vengeance on the world as they may in a cynical and part willful apathy; and this is what comes of it: Most naive, most massive symmetry and simpleness" (126). The house itself, plank by plank, suffers from being written-off, even before the house is built. In a book about write-offs, even the sawdust must be written. Someone needs to see it or it doesn't even exist. "I lie where I lay this dawn.) If I were not here; and I am alien; a bodyless eye; this would never have existence in human perception" (165).
The "I" is important here. The writer's discomfort with his own position, with his own subjective eyesight, with his own body interfering in the matter at hand, which, were at not at hand would be no matter, makes his attempt to get every detail right feel like it's a desperate one. "I am being made witness to matters no human being may see" (120) or "Make no mistake in this, though: I am under no illusion that I am writing this piece of experience dry. or do I even want to wring it dry. There are reasons of time, judgement and plain desire or, if you like, whim" (214). Agee is conflicted. Honored to be welcomed by this family. In tune with the hew of the house. In love with the way these people manage, despite, despite, despite. ""The lucky situation of joy, this at least illusion of personal wholeness or integrity, can overome one suddenly by any one of any number of unpredictable changes: the fracture of sunlight on the facade and traffic of a street; the sleaving up of chimneysmoke; the rich lifting of the voice of a train along the darkness; the memory of a phrase of an inspired trumpet; the odor of scorched cloth, of a car's exhaust, of a girl, of pork, of beeswax of on iron," (200) Of of of of he goes on. It's not just in the details that he makes an argument that this life sucks hard. He also makes a pretty good argument that there's joy to be found everywhere. The details aren't aesthetic signposts. They are maps to life--joy and horror--itself.
I wonder as I do not read every single word of the book, when it's late at night and I am making one page of progress on the book at night, if I am missing something. I am and I am not. The book is making me realize, by length and detail and time spent reading, that I will live this book, maybe the rest of my life, which is the point, I think of the minutia. Not reality but perspected life.