Review: Sharpen

This is probably the first book I’ve read that falls under the category “experimental literature.” Rich Ives has written what seems to be a series of connected vignettes, each introduced with a diagram by Nils Davey and concluded with an illustration from Jack Callil. Each chapter is named for its diagrams, each of which illustrates a common tool. Even the final chapter, “Ghost Twins” shows a tool, though a more complex one: “the twins may not reveal their purpose easily.”

It’s a strange read if, like me, you’re unaccustomed to such experimentation. After finishing it, I reread it several times, sometimes dividing it into parts: once reading only the chapter text, then only the illustration descriptions.

In each chapter, Ives writes of daughters and granddaughters, and alludes to the ways they grow up. Chapter 3 repeatedly refers to marriage, and the chapter titled “Lactation Dance” ends with the line “she does not know beards year, or even babies […] but already she is leaking.” The final chapter, “Ghost Twins,” suggests that these girls are already gone, and are only present in the pieces the speaker refuses to release.

With this novel, it’s easy to focus on everything but the diagrams and illustrations, and instead try to decode Ives’ poetic chapters. But poetry isn’t mean to be decoded, it’s meant to felt, and this poetry evokes a sense of trying desperately to hold on to something that is already gone. The rest of the novel is a manual for doing just that: several of the tools serve the purpose of clamping and holding in place. But many of the tools listed instead instruct one on how to let go: the witchet, whetstone, and grindstone are all for sharpening and shaping by shaving away the excess.

Many of Ives’ most poignant lines are hidden in the literal subtext that follows each illustration. At the end of chapter 7: Vise, he asks, “Have you forgotten you are composed of devices?” This is one of my favorite lines in the novel, and I like to think that it means both that we are made of many small structures, but also that many devices were put to use in our creation. Not a literal creation, but the making of who we are, which is influenced by parents, peers, leaders, books, TV, internet, and countless other devices. Without knowing, we are also devices in the creation of others. I think Ives hits on this idea as well, as the last line of the novel (also a subtext) says: “You will assemble the parts.” But the parts of what? Of those things we are missing? Or of the thing which we will one day be forced to let go?

This review has traveled far and wide in search of riches, that it may return to Cannonball Read wiser and wealthier.


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