- I Is Already Another
Constance De Jong
Ugly Duckling Press
224 Pages; Print, $18.00
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In a 1978 performance of Modern Love, available on Vimeo, we see Constance De Jong seated on a stool, spotlighted, telling a story about a girl looking through dirty magazines in the “back of the shop where they kept the dirty books.” De Jong is holding a notebook, but not referring to it; she seems to have her story memorized, or perhaps she’s speaking extemporaneously. After a little while she opens the notebook, and begins to glance down at it as she speaks, as though to refresh her memory. After a few pages she closes it, casually tosses it aside, all without interruption in the story she’s been telling us. It’s a move that seems to prefigure the moment in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) when the singer collapses on stage and the song continues; or to look back, to Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928–1929), the pipe that is not a pipe.
The book, we realize, isn’t the story: it’s a prop.
Modern Love, which has been reissued as a novel by Ugly Duckling Press after thirty years out of print, began as a series of chapbooks titled The Complete Works of Constance De Jong, handmade and mailed by De Jong in the years 1975–1977. During this time Modern Love also existed as a series of performance pieces, often remixed from various parts of the written text(s). In 1977, with the financial aid of the surrealist painter and poet Dorothea Tanning, De Jong published the collected Complete Works as the book Modern Love. In the same year, Modern Love became an hour-long radio production with music by Phillip Glass, which De Jong later performed live.
To call any of these manifestations “adaptations” raises the question of what is being adapted, and what is primary. What, in other words, is the work Modern Love? And what do we hold in our hands when we read Ugly Duckling’s reissue: a script? Documentation for a work of performance art? A collection of shorter works? A novel?
Such ontological slipperiness is not confined to the work’s publication history. The work begins in seemingly straightforward, first-person, autobiographical mode, with a young woman approximately De Jong’s age hooking up with a stranger in New York. We quickly learn, however, that any biographical details we assign to the pronoun “I” might be shaken off in the next paragraph, even the next sentence. “My name’s Constance De Jong,” the narrator tells us. “My name’s Fifi Corday. My name’s Lady Mirabelle, Monsieur Le Prince and Rodrigo, Rodrigo’s my favorite name.” At times, we learn who (or perhaps in scare quotes: “who”) the “I” corresponds to only when another character names them:
Tap. Tap. Tap.“Lady Mirabelle?”“Why yes,” I answered.
There are stretches in which we’re not quite sure who is referring to themself as “I.” The story about the girl looking through dirty magazines occurs twice in Modern Love (time, like the self, is slippery). After the first version of the story, the narrator meets a mysterious character named Monsieur Le Prince, to whom she admits that she’s “obsessed with the past.” “You think too much,” he replies:
“Come back when you have more experience Apple Face. Make use of your disguise.”
My disguise? He hands me a mirror: a typical show biz tactic. I look in the mirror anyway.
What she sees, arguably, constitutes the rest of this section, if not in fact the rest of the book itself: another self who she slips into, without renouncing her previous self. She will slip from this self to another, and again, until we are back to the girl “in the back of the shop where they kept the dirty books.” The words, when they reappear, are the same: but is it the same girl, or her reflection—an artifice, a “show biz tactic”?
At other times, the narration will...