Out of Nothingness, Mina Loy
Critics Say that in Mina Loy's Insel, Loy is the narrator. She's not. She's the Magic.
By Mina Loy
Melville House, 2014
Review by Alan Limnis
Tell yourself you’re creative, tell yourself you’re an artist, tell yourself you’re bold, a searcher, you act on your convictions, read Mina Loy’s life story, sit down, shut up.
nsel does not stand on its own. We read Insel to sense Loy. We read Insel looking for Oelze. The novel is narrated by a woman, Mrs. Jones, telling us about a painter, Insel. It is not linear, does not tell a story. It is circular, pictorial. There are no events other than the event of Mrs. Jones, a gallery director, meeting Insel here and there, again and again:
Whenever I let him in he would halt on the threshold drawing the whole of his luminous life up into his smile. It radiated round his face and formed a halo hovering above the rod of his rigid body. He looked like a lamppost alight. Perhaps in that moment before the door opened he recreated himself out of a nothingness into which he must relapse when being alone his magnetism had no one to contact.
It is language that Loy presses into stunts. In her introduction, Sarah Hayden explains that Loy worked on the manuscript from the 1930s on, and that she sent the manuscript to James Laughlin at New Directions in 1953. He declined it. I don’t hold it against him. We often don’t know where we are or what time it is. Other character names are dropped in or referred to without explanation, and the characters don’t appear in the novel. Scenes don’t advance much beyond the narrator studying Insel. Language pressed into stunts occasionally pulls off the stunts. At other times, however, it is just language:
Summing it up, this unspecific converse whose savor lay in its impress of endlessness has left me an ineradicable visual definition of Insel with his whittled exterior jerking in tics of joy a pate too loosely attached and almost worn down to the skull—and myself expansive in some secondary glow from that icy conflagration strewing gray ashes over his face as it burnt itself out. Always at an instinctive interval of shoulder from shoulder, as two aloft on the same telegraph wire exchange a titter of godforsaken sparrows.
“Die Erwartung,” Richard Oelze, 1935/1936.
nsel can be read not only as an experiment in surrealist narrative, but as a satire on the whole surrealist endeavor,” Elizabeth Arnold notes in the book’s afterword. Arnold closely examines the implications of the Jones-is-Loy, Insel-is-Oelze reading of the book. Mrs. Jones mentions at the beginning of the novel a desire to write about Insel, decides he is too tricky, is beyond her powers, but at book’s end suggests she may be ready. It is easy enough to see the feminist statement to be read in the novel’s Künstlerroman structure.
And yet. In life, Oelze was a generation younger than Loy. In the book, though Mrs. Jones is supposedly too old to be an object of Insel’s lust, Insel himself is a ragged old wretch. Mrs. Jones is presented as fairly conventional, running the gallery and meeting people for tea. Insel just materializes. Mina Loy fucked Marinetti, told him to fuck off, and then wrote an entire manifesto exposing him and his whole movement as full of shit. Mrs. Jones seems smart, seems nice—but she’s no Mina Loy. And the longer we read about Insel, the less possible it seems that Loy’s writing of him serves as a faithful representation of the historical Richard Oelze.
If some argue that Mina Loy is secretly Mrs. Jones, can I argue that Mina Loy is secretly Insel? I’ve read the first paragraph of this review a few times, and that is the biography of a supernatural creature. And she painted. And she knew poverty, and she knew loss. She materialized on multiple continents, acted on her sex drive, and walked away from every organized collective she joined. Because I took my college English classes, I know it’s totally unsophisticated for me to say this, but she also wrote both of these characters. I won’t pretend to know things I can’t know, or the degree to which Loy was or was not conscious of certain implications—I’ll at least be good enough not to indulge the intentional fallacy, though I already know I’m totally getting a C on this review—but Loy wrote two other unpublished novels, both of them about odd or insular artists. If we’re to read this as a roman à clef, I’m sorry, but Mina Loy is Insel. Mrs. Jones is a device.
Something about Insel sticks. If you’re hoping for an “overlooked masterpiece,” though, this is not it, and don’t put that on this. If you’re looking for an entertaining surrealist novel dripping of European sophistication or Daliesque pleasure, this is not it—don’t put that on this. This is a manuscript a woman worked on for decades, in which her reach sometimes exceeds her grasp. Horror of horrors, this is a novel that is not “figured out”—because there is nothing to figure out, because it’s not a story, it’s episodes of odd consciousness. But if we read the broken drafts of male writers, or watch the footage of male directors’ lost films—and I have been required to read Wordsworth’s early drafts; and I have willingly watched Terry Gilliam fail to film Cervantes—then why not direct a bit of that attention Mina Loy’s way? It’s worthy. If you are interested in what we have forgotten, or the beauty to be discovered in broken projects that have materialized regardless of fractures, this is that. That is who Insel is. That is what Insel is.
Alan Limnis is a staff writer. He has recently reviewed 1913: The Year Before the Storm and Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews.