Going the distance

Paul Constant

July 17, 2018

Part of the reason I travel is to blur the lines between the world and my self. Here at home, I've developed a very clear sense of who I am and how I interact with the world. That distinction allows me to get through my day-to-day life; I don't have to worry about how to respond to every single interaction with strangers or how to move through public spaces.

Eventually, though, the chitinous shell gets too thick, and I shut out too much of the world. That's why it's important to go somewhere else — somewhere different, somewhere unfamiliar. I have to learn how to be human again.

The Last Mosaic, a new book by adjunct UW professor Elizabeth Cooperman and PageBoy Magazine editor Thomas Walton, is a book about traveling. It's a journal of their visit to Rome, and all the attendant museum visits and walking tours and uncomfortable encounters and overindulgences that typically accompany European trips.

When I call Mosaic a journal, I mean that in the strictest form of the word. It's composed entirely of fragments: observations, quotes, brief city scenes. It rockets forward and backward in time. It meanders in a series of seeming non sequiturs around Rome, seeing and smelling and tasting and thinking.

This kind of patchwork travel narrative — or, more aptly, mosaic — is a fantastic vehicle for describing a trip abroad. When we visit a city, we tend to come unmoored in time and space. We visit museums to learn about the past, we wander into heavily populated nightlife scenes to witness the present. We don't travel to experience a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. We go to become immersed, Vonnegut-like, in a place's past and present and future.

Cooperman and Walton are both artists, and so they're especially interested in the parts of Rome that are built by (and created to sustain) artists. This opening line should give you a sense of the romanticism of the project:

The first conspirator to lunge at Julius Caesar was Tullius Cimber, who yanked at the dictator's toga from behind. Next Casca attacked, but the knife missed, scratching Caesar just beneath the throat. Caesar grabbed Casca's arm, then stabbed him with a pen.

I wonder what he wrote.

That's the entirety of the first fragment. From there, the authors wonder over ants crawling in "ancient sarcophagi." Then they get "completely lost," admiring ruins and flowers along the way. They leave the windows of their hotel room open at night, but the street noise — drunk people chatting all night, recycling trucks shattering bottles at dawn, "a continuous soundtrack of monotonous reggaeton" — is so aggressive that they "never leave the windows open again."

If you've ever traveled, you've made some of these mistakes. You've shown up in an airport with a head full of dreams that bear no relationship to the reality of a destination. You've had plans to immerse yourself in a culture and a people. You've gotten into your own way again and again.

But like any travelers, Walton and Cooperman gradually adjust to the newness of Rome. They admire the historic mosaics everywhere, lament the way mosaics are treated as a second-hand art form, when compared to paintings and sculptures. They decide to build their own mosaic out of their trip.

They paraphrase the poet Sarah Manguso, who...

...says that to compensate for the speed of life — the raw data ceaselessly piling up — the diarist wishes for non-days she could spend recording her yesterdays. That is, non-days between the lived-days. Mortar between the tiles...

But of course those non-days never come — especially when you're an American in Rome, where "The smells alone are enough to cause a riot."

Cooperman and Walton begin to wander through myths, wondering after the mystery of Medusa and reflecting on Hadrian's obsession with a beautiful boy. They find "the best bathrooms in Rome." They realize that immortality is not so special as the legends warned: "Do you expect to be living two thousand years from now? No? Well, too bad. You will be."

Mosaic is a tiny book — it slides comfortably into the back pocket of your most comfortable pair of jeans, with room for a pack of gum left over — and it's deceptively easy to read. You could whip through it over a solo dinner at your favorite Italian restaurant, but you'd be wise to let the book breathe a bit, to allow your mind time and space to wander, the way Walton and Cooperman did.

It's easy to be dazzled by all the shiny fragments, but when you back up and admire Mosaic from a distance, you can see the narrative take shape. An argument forms, and the readers begin to understand what the authors discovered on their trip.

That said, the co-authorship situation did confuse the reading experience a bit for me. The authors refer to themselves as "I" without discerning who is speaking — Cooperman or Walton. Sometimes you can parse from context clues who is narrating, but most of the time, the "I" could just as easily be "we."

It's easy to imagine why they chose not to distinguish between authorial voices — traveling breaks down the self, and traveling with others tends to create powerful bonds. And there's no satisfying way to separate the voices — books with multiple fonts are distracting and flashy, and italicized passages are annoying when they appear with high frequency. But a little bit more conversation between the authors might have added to the investigatory feel of the book.

But maybe that's overthinking it. Mosaic is a journal, and journals are messy. They're early drafts, collections of thoughts and perspectives all crammed between covers without concern for context or credit. (In a bow to more traditional publishing models, Mosaic does have a very useful reference guide in the back explaining the sources of the snatches of poetry throughout the book and pinpointing the historical references.)

As a mimicry of the traveling mindset, I've never seen anything quite like Mosaic. It dissembles the traditional travel narrative and then reinforces it by encouraging the reader to fill in the narrative around the images and scholarship shards. Reading the non-book in the mortar lines between each fragment is far more rewarding than most travel books could ever hope to be.

Books in this review:
  • The Last Mosaic
    by Elizabeth Cooperman, and
    Thomas Walton
    Sagging Shorts
    July 01, 2018
    130 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writers

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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