To read Eugene Wildman’s new short story collection, The World of Glass, you’d never guess that he once considered plot the bane of literary fiction. Hot on the heels of the 1967 appearance of the Anthology of Concretism, the first American collection of visual poetry, which he compiled as editor of the Chicago Review, Wildman published Experiments in Prose, a 1969 anthology of early mixed-media texts, and two well-regarded novels–Montezuma’s Ball and Nuclear Love–all put out by Chicago’s seminal Swallow Press. By his early 30s he’d made his name as an experimentalist; he landed a job in the English department at UIC, and became a tenured professor of writing there in 1975.
In the 60s Wildman gravitated to forms like guerrilla theater and concrete poetry, which uses the graphic patterns of letters and words as much as their meaning to convey the poet’s intent, out of a political idealism that conflated Western aesthetics and imperialism and out of a rejection of the gimmickry of the traditional narrative forms of conventional literature. “I disliked the artifice of literary craftsmanship,” Wildman says. “There’s no plot in life, except very, very rarely. And when writers put a plot in [their stories] it’s a gimmick, nine times out of ten. I did think experimental fiction was in some ways more true to life.”
But as his career gained momentum, Wildman became disillusioned by the self-absorption of the literary avant-garde and by the limitations of his own aesthetic preoccupations. “I was barking up the wrong tree,” he says. “Experimentalism started to seem twice as gimmicky. It took you away from the pure essence of story and character, which it seemed to me was the heart and soul of everything. At some point it seemed clear as a bell that fish swim, birds fly, and writers write stories. Experimental stuff didn’t care about that, and so at some point I just definitively walked away from it.”
His rejection of the avant-garde wasn’t exactly an auspicious career move. “It was a bullet in the foot,” he says. “I walked away from every contact and whatever limited constituency I had.” While other experimentalists of Wildman’s generation–Raymond Federman, Harry Mathews, Gilbert Sorrentino–have made it into old age plying their trade, by the late 70s Wildman was looking back on his early work only to wince at the choices he’d made.
While he continued to teach, he passed much of the 80s and 90s writing stories and then tearing them up. Struggling with depression, he tried his hand at genre fiction but couldn’t bring himself to finish anything. He’d start a novel and then lose interest. “Those were real low points,” he says. “And they went on for longer than I’d like to say.”
Then about five years ago, he says, the depression “cut me some slack.” Returning to material he’d been kicking around for years, he started to write, “punching through the things that were inhibiting the process.” The World of Glass, his first book in almost three decades, was published in October by the University of Notre Dame Press. A collection of loosely connected stories, it marks a return in some respects to his earlier aesthetic. Moving achronologically through the last decades of the 20th century, the pieces are snapshots of the life of a single protagonist and the people and events in his orbit. By and large the book sticks close to conventional storytelling strategies, and if at times the writing betrays the writer’s labor, at others it smolders with quiet grandeur. At their best–as in “Songbird,” a bittersweet account of the main character’s divorce–his characters and scenes have the crisp immediacy of a photograph.
Wildman, who was named director of UIC’s creative writing program in 1996, says he’s never seriously considered another profession, despite his years of frustration. “The only thing I ever wanted to do was write,” he says. “Either I will do it or I won’t do it. You can say it’s lousy writing, or failed writing, but that’s the wall I want to beat my head against.”
Wildman will read from The World of Glass at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, January 21, at Barnes and Noble, 1441 W. Webster. Call 773-871-3610 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.