The succinct, topical, and obvious choice is Review: Tom Lutz’s Aimlessness. It works just fine. But I am not taken with it. I shall come back to this.
by Akim Reinhardt
I don’t know how well Abbas knows me. Of course one can never really know how well someone else knows them. It’s a second degree of mystical confusion flowing the first: how well can you really know anyone else? [here]
How well do I know Abbas? Kinda. But more. Or less. I’m not sure. Over the last decade there have been email exchanges and the roughly biennial meet up for drinks. Our mutual friends have described him to me, and likely me to him.
How well does Abbas know me? Not at all in some ways. Very well in others. As 3QD editor he’s been reading my essays for over a decade. Is that what led him to suggest I review Lutz’s book on aimlessness? Certainly some of my own work here has broached the topic in various ways without ever using the word. There was the three-part essay from 2014 that chronicled my rambling 7,500 mile drive around the United States. And there was the book manuscript that I serialized at 3QD in 2019–2020. Ostensibly about songs that got stuck in my head, it was really about whatever mental and emotional meanderings those songs led my head to follow.
Is this why Abbas, who may or may not really know me, asked if I would like to review Tom Lutz’s new book about aimlessness?
The thing about books is, they’re very static. Yes, the way you read one can be dynamic, experiencing it differently each time you read it, or even within the same reading. Maybe read the sentences backwards. I’ve heard some proofreaders do that.
However, the book itself? The pages won’t be changing unless you change them. Perhaps with a highlighter or a pencil or a razor blade or a match. But barring your study notes or art project or vandalism, the exact order of letters and punctuation marks and images on each page is printed and sealed. That will never change no matter how many times however many people open and close those pages.
Thus, a physical book cannot be entirely aimless. It can be random, I suppose. You could write all the letters and punctuation marks of a book, then have a computer program randomize them all, or maybe print them out, cut them up with a scissors, and recombine them randomly.
Didn’t William Burroughs do something like that?
But that’s not aimlessness. That’s randomness. Not the same thing, as Lutz is careful to point out.
It’s a conundrum. How does one intentionally and permanently structure a book about aimlessness? I suspect this gnawed at Lutz. But maybe not. How could I know? I know Lutz even less than I know Abbas. Only through this one book. But whether it led him to wail at the heavens, or to marvel at the impossibility of human endeavors, he dealt with it. How? In many ways. For starters, there are two versions of the table of contents. The first one is standard, arranging chapters in the order they appear. The second is thematic. Pairs and triplets of thematically related chapters are chopped up and sprinkled throughout the book. The alternative contents reassemble them thematically. And so the two versions of contents suggest two different ways you can dynamically read the static book.
N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) is similar. Each open spread of two pages has three different narratives. One is his family memoir. One is old Kiowa folk tales. One is Kiowa history. You can read the book straight through, from page to page with all three narratives running simultaneously, or you can read one narrative thread through, say the history first, then another, perhaps the folk tales, and then finish with the memoir. Or in a different order. It’s up to you.
In Aimlessness, Lutz’s discussion of literature and philosophy is widespread and masterful in many ways. However, he never mentioned Momaday or The Way to Rainy Mountain. It’s a shame. But though we often define the journey by what we find, perhaps it’s mostly about what we miss.
It is quite possible that I will never settle on a title for this essay that satisfies me. Long after it is published on Monday, July 19, 2021 and then forever forgotten, perhaps as far ahead as my nineties, which, given my health and family history I have a fair chance of reaching, I shall breath my last never having conjured a title that really captures it, or at least offers up a slight complement, like the random bird feather my father would occasionally adorn his weathered, wide-brimmed hat with.
I learned Lutz does not discuss Momaday or The Way to Rainy Mountain before I finished reading Aimlessness. I was beginning page 63 when it occurred to me how nicely Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain would fit in Aimlessness. And I’m a bit of a gambler; more than a third of the way through Lutz’s short book, I thought it was a good bet that neither Momaday nor The Way to Rainy Mountain would be appearing if they had not already done so. So I went ahead and wrote the section saying they do not while not knowing for sure.
But to sate my curiosity (and hedge my bet), I then went to the index and checked. Neither are there. After finishing Aimlessness, I will verify the absence, just in case either Momaday or The Way to Rainy Mountain is there, but were somehow left out of the index, which I very much doubt, but cannot be sure of because I’ve just discovered that Lutz does mention Jackie Chan and the film Drunken Master in the book (80), but neither appear in the index.
I’m not sure about the were in the above sentence that reads, in part: “but were somehow left out of the index.” The either/or construction seems to demand the third person singular was. But I really meant to imply this or that or both of them. And both would take were. So which way to go? In the end I told myself that the sentence in question might be one of those conditionals that takes the subjunctive. I can’t really tell you what the subjunctive is, but somewhere in the back of my head I think it transforms was to were. As in, If I were a rich man, Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
Wait. I had to stop typing and get up to look through my front door’s nine-panes of glass because there is a horse trailer hitched to a pickup truck parked outside my house. In many parts of America this would not be a terribly unusual thing, perhaps not enough to prompt curious investigation. But I live in a Baltimore rowhome, so it is very unusual. And it turns out this trailer is not being used to cart horses around, but rather, it seems, as a portable tool shed for a contractor. What kind of contacting demands such a large contraption in addition to the standard American pickup truck? I cannot tell from my behind-the-door glancing. There is not a large crew involved, just two people as best I can tell. But that is enough for now. I don’t need to find out. Maybe I will later.
Speaking of horses, Lutz doesn’t talk much (at all? I can’t remember) about horses and cowboys aimlessly roaming the range. Thank god. As someone whose secondary doctoral field was the American West, and who still occasionally teaches a subversive course on the American West, I can’t describe how goddamned tired I am of those old clichés, of which I was never enamored in the first place. Lutz avoided that low-hanging fruit. Good for him.
Which is not to say he avoids horses. To ignore horses altogether in a book on aimlessness might be negligible. He has an interesting and somewhat problematic discussion on nomadism, and he does a fair bit with Mongols who still live in tents on the Asian steppes and raise animals such as camels, sheep, and of course horses.
It turns out they don’t live exactly the way you expect, which, here in 2021, is exactly what you expect.
What am I doing? What exactly am I trying to accomplish with this book? Is this nonorganization, this collection of random and contradictory thoughts and comments and anecdotes—is it all just a disguise for me not knowing what, exactly, I am up to?
That interjection about the horse trailer? It didn’t happen when it appeared to happen. Meaning, it didn’t occur where I placed it in the essay. The urge to investigate grabbed me way too early in the process of writing this essay, and I felt that if I placed the horse trailer section in it’s true chronological spot, the essay would suffer. It needed to come later in the essay so as to keep my structured wandering coherent. If you want to know when I actually got up to peer out my door’s window panes, go back to the paragraph near the essay’s beginning, just below the contrivance of my misplaced by-line, and note the square brackets containing the word “here,” like this: [here]
So many people have written original pieces for 3QD that when these authors are listed alphabetically by first name, I am 15th. This bothers me. Not because I have written more pieces for 3QD, I believe, than any of the many others. But because my last name is Reinhardt, and so when we were subdivided into various groups or waited to hear our names when they called attendance or once even had the first little league baseball lineup of the season assembled alphabetically because the coach didn’t know anyone yet, I was always near the end. Nearer the end, actually, than you might guess given that nearly one-third of the alphabet comes after R. Having perused alphabetical class rosters for many years now, it occurs to me that, in the United States, there really aren’t that many surnames beginning with U, V, W, X, Y, Z, or, quite surprisingly, even S. Though there are a fair amount of T names.
But of course my first name starts with an A, which left me to always wonder how my life would be different if common nominal alphabetization went by first name instead of last. To be first or maybe second all the time? What a luxury! What privilege! What couldn’t I accomplish!
But now that it’s finally happened, I’m 15th.
Well fuck me.
Lutz’s books is both delightful and thought provoking. It is rare that a book, at least in my readings, has both qualities. It too is a rare combination in people. However, when you do meet such a person, avoid the temptation to preserve them the way you would a bright autumn leaf that you press tightly between the pages of book. For if you do press them, they will no longer be delightful.
That car, the 1998 Honda Accord described and pictured in the three-part essay about driving 7,500 miles around America? It died last Wednesday. I never liked that car. I have no children, so it’s rather silly for me to drive around in a large sedan. But the price was right (free), and the sonofabitch just wouldn’t die. Until it did. A dozen years and ninety-thousand miles after I got it.
I was coming back home from a godforsaken suburb and it began to gradually lose power, like a toilet that doesn’t swirl enough water to flush forcefully. Probably the alternator, I later learned. So I kept downshifting the automatic transmission in an effort to procure every last bit of umph. Eventually I was barely chugging along in 1st gear when I pulled into my mechanic’s gravel lot, and just as I reached the last available parking spot, I swear, at that very moment, it died. And would not startup again.
I like my mechanic. Mike from Clipper Mill Automotive. There’s your free plug, I say here to Mike, knowing that he will never read this, and that almost no one, perhaps absolutely no one, who does read this and has a car not under warrantee lives within a reasonable distance of his shop. So instead of this empty plug, I did something else. I offered Mike’s assistant my Accord carcass. I could’ve gotten $400–500 from the junkyard. However, I’m fortunate enough that $500 isn’t gonna make or break me, and I’d seen Mike’s assistant eyeing my mangled, rusty car sometimes when I wasn’t even getting it serviced.
“Do you want it?” I asked him after explaining that it had just died in their lot across the street. (It’s not really their lot, just a vacant lot they use during the day.)
I could see the mild surprise in his eyes, but he didn’t hesitate. “Sure.”
It’s his now.
Akim Reinhardt’s website, which he has not updated in far too long, is ThePublicProfessor.com
I have finished Aimlessness and can now confirm that neither N. Scott Momaday nor The Way to Rainy Mountain appear in it. Or perhaps one of them was mentioned, in an earlier section in the book I read a week back while on a train headed south from New York City, and I have since forgotten. Either way, I am on to other things.
Writers and artists trust randomness, but we eventually make choices: this word, not that; this story, not that; this image, not that. And how do we make that choice? One of the two, one of the array, feels right. One of the options moves us and has emotional resonance . . . we don’t want pure aimlessness, we want a degree of aimlessness. Some of us just use aimlessness to find what feels right.
Do you know me better now, Abbas?