Albert Goldbarth's Adventures of Frustration and Cleverness

The Adventures of Form of Content is filled with exceptional essays for a specific crowd.

The Adventures of Form and Content

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 272 pages
Author: Albert Goldbarth
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-01

For many essayists, striking a balance between wide-spread accessibility and specialized academia can be quite challenging. After all, you have to ensure that your language and focus are dense and scholarly while also being reasonably approachable to your target audience. Of course, you don’t want to simply dumb down your writing too much, either, so it’s no small feat to craft prose that’s both challenging and coherent.

On that end, Albert Goldbarth’s latest collection, The Adventures of Form and Content, only succeeds part of the time, as it’s filled with as many highbrow insider anecdotes and tedious tangents as it is tangible, alluring, and profound concepts. When it works, it’s quite endearing, clever, and insightful; when it doesn’t, it’s monotonous, selective, and perplexing to the point of frustration.

As the press release describes, the book “is a sharply insightful exploration of the dualities of gender and sex, body and mind, youth and old age, health and illness, the hilarious and the grave, and of course, form and content”. Indeed, it touches upon all of these topics with robust wisdom (and many dashes of dry wit); however, it often gets so tangled in its self-indulgent intellectual web (which includes digressions regarding “the checkered history of sci-fi and pulp fictions, the erotic poetry of Catullus, the gravelly songs of Springsteen, the discovery of planets, and encounters prehistoric cave artists and NASA astronauts”, among other things) that it’s difficult to pull yourself out and decipher the author’s point. Those who can follow along with every erudite reference and twisting detour will likely adore his style; however, many will probably feel lost in and excluded by these same qualities.

The main gimmick of the physical product itself is that it “tak[es] shape from the ACE Doubles format of the 1950s ... invit[ing] readers to begin on either end” of the book. Basically, half of it is always upside down, so there’s no front or back cover (or clear starting point). While this certainly doesn’t hurt the experience, it doesn’t help it either; really, it’s a novel idea that serves no major purpose. Still, the section in which he discusses the aforementioned inspiration, “Everybody’s Nickname”, is filled with other intriguing examples of how “we are compounded of halves”.

Likely the most surprising and engaging essay is his exploration of Ray Robinson Jr. who, as a boy, showed great potential and ambition to be something great (such as a mayor); shockingly, however, he wound up raping and murdering his daughter, Chelsea, who was pregnant with his child, about a decade later. Although the form of the book doesn’t require its division, the content within --when manageable -- is ripe with such ethical quandry.

In fact, the strongest thematic juxtaposition in his arsenal is related to the highs and lows of romance. For example the foundation of “Roman Erotic Poetry” revolves around two of Goldbarth’s co-workers, Sweet and Danny, who are both single, desirable, and (according to everyone around them) perfect for each other, yet they never make that initial leap towards possibility. In a way, their tale exemplifies the universal message of Ben Folds’ “From Above”, making it instantly relatable.

Elsewhere, in “Two Characters in Search of an Essay”, there’s an interesting dissection of how John Keats managed being in love (with Frances Brawne) and being deathly ill (with tuberculosis) simultaneously in his early 20s. The entire story is affective and engaging, especially the way the author describes Keats’ passing in Rome: “And at 11:00 p.m. on February 23 [1821], he died in [Joseph] Severn’s arms. His body was wrapped in a winding sheet. His unopened letters from Fanny Brawne -- as if some sonnet was tidily brought to closure in its final line -- were placed above his heart”. It’s surveys like these, with humorous but heartfelt observations on the absurdities of life, that Goldbarth does best.

That said, there’s still the frequent issue of overly lengthy and convoluted explanations and ruminations, which habitually contain allusions that only the most well-read and learned reader can appreciate. As strong as “Roman Erotic Poetry” is for its storytelling, it’s equally bogged down by interruptions related to Catullus and Brancusi, among many other highly cultured associations. To be clear, I’m not arguing that Goldbarth (or any writer) should limit himself to only what a mainstream audience would comprehend, nor am I devaluing any of the figures and texts he reveres; I’m merely saying that by focusing so routinely and extensively on things that only he seems to grasp, he yields tedium and detachment. Don’t be surprised if you skim over these pages while thinking, What the hell is he talking about? When will he get back to his main point?

The Adventures of Form and Content is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in the merger of creative arts and intellectualism. Goldbarth touches on a lot of significant ideas with eloquent phrasing, a personable voice, and plenty of valuable support, making him a distinctive writer and thinker all around. However, he too often interjects anecdotes that feel concurrently extraneous and private. In other words, he’s crafted exceptional essays for a specific crowd, but that crowd is too restricted to offer a widespread recommendation of them.

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