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A Review of Dan Fox’s Limbo

[Criticism and Memoir]
by Daniel Rathburn
September 27th, 2019

Format: French paperback with flaps, 120pp.Price£10.99 Publisher: Fitzcarraldo EditionsAnother book by the author: Pretentiousness; Number of artworks referenced: ninety-seven; Sun Ra albums mentioned: Somebody Else’s World (1971), When Sun Comes Out (1963); Representative Passage: “So. Limbo is the lobby next to the hereafter’s elevator banks. It’s that feeling in the dentist’s waiting room when you don’t know if your destiny lays up Satan’s root canal or ends with a bright white smile. It scales from the minor anxious withdrawal brought about by a broken smartphone device to serious time spent between jobs, and the months, years, letting a past relationship fade so that another can take colour. Limbo is a videogame, pulp fiction, a self-aggrandizing surrealist’s literary fantasy. It’s a way to describe modernist fantasies of cool affect. If you visit Vermont it’s hopped-up pop in a bottle. For Karl it gave him a near-death experience on the ocean, pinned between dangerous weather systems, trying to hide his stage fright from a green crew. It’s also one of the most famous and saddest dances in the world.”

Central Question: Can idleness be useful?

“In 2008,” writes Dan Fox near the end of his new book, Limbo, “I went to sea.” Encouraged by his older brother, Karl, who has spent his whole adult life working and living on ships since leaving England at 25, and a newspaper article about cargo ship travel, Fox took the sabbatical awarded to him by his bosses at frieze and spent six weeks sailing from Thamesport to Shanghai on a container ship. Aboard the Ital Contessa, “a machine three and a half football pitches long and some forty storeys high,” Fox found pleasure in unvariegated routine. In the mornings, he would walk the ship’s perimeter, use the rowing machine for exercise, and watch the crew play basketball from the stern. Afternoons were spent reading, working from the Teach Yourself Mandarin course Fox brought along for his arrival in Shanghai, while evenings were for journaling and dinner. A beer from the tuck box secured a pleasant night’s sleep. When crew members asked about his profession, Fox told them he was writing a science-fiction novel; he felt “no desire to talk about art.”

Limbo, Fox explains, was initially meant to be another book, “a collection of travel essays designed to shed light on Important Topics to be divined later.” This project was axed because after “a lurch of personal crises,” Fox felt little urgency to recount his travels. So, he took to playing DeBussy compositions on the piano, painted images of plant foliage and rough portraits based on pictures in his iPhone, which “offered oxygen when the 1:1 scale reproduction of words from mind to page was suffocating,” and decided to cannibalize some parts of the travel book to begin what would become Limbo.

The result is composed essentially of two competing modes: the forthright tone in which Fox speaks about his own life, and the more dubious style he uses to reflect on “limbo” writ large. An example of the latter tendency appears early in the text, when Fox is describing his writer’s block:

I felt I was in No-Man’s Land, the Twilight Zone, the Upside Down, the wasteland, the badlands and the boonies. On the side-lines, on the bench, on hold, on standby, out-of-sync, in the wings, up the creek, in a ditch, in a fix, in a funk, in stasis, in suspended animation. Muddled and moribund, mudbound in muddy waters. Clogged, congested, confounded, choked-off, jammed, stumped, stonewalled and stymied. Flummoxed, bamboozled and blocked. Frog in the throat. Bone in the gullet. Crashed into a wall. Also: dithering, floating, unanchored, unmoored, untethered, blown on the breeze. Caught between a rocky trope and a hard cliche. Stuck in limbo.

When I sent a friend who reviewed Fox’s first book this paragraph, he suggested that Fox might be purposefully piling on synonyms in an effort to mimic the feeling of writer’s block. Perhaps this could be true of the above passage; but how does one justify all the other times Fox leans into this kind of associative sequencing of not just synonyms but quotations, characters, and plot lines from pieces of limbo-related culture? Perhaps if someone were to argue that Limbo’s slipperiness is actually intended, that it is merely form embodying its subject, well, they may have a point, but that doesn’t make these sections of the book any less frustrating to the reader.

Fox begins one section of the book, “For the medieval Catholic Church, limbo… was a place for the church to dump bodies that did not carry the correct paperwork.” Which is immediately followed with “C.S. Lewis described purgatory as an astringent mouthwash” and “…in the fourth canto of his Inferno, Dante” and “…in his fifteenth century painting, Christ in Limbo Fra Angelico.…” It’s not incorrect that the well-placed citation can be useful in providing the proper context for readers. Grounding one’s argument in the history of its subject is a welcome practice. But what purpose is served by providing a reference without any explication? Why, as in another section, after spending a paragraph summarizing the plot of Get Out, should Fox reference Stranger Things, Being John Malkovich, JG Ballard’s Concrete Island, Twin Peaks, and three more pieces of limbo-adjacent art all in just one paragraph? At this point my friend might point to the two decades Fox has spent as an art critic, implying that it’s appropriate for someone who has made their living thinking and writing about art to mention various artworks more casually than other writers, because it’s central to his way of understanding the world. A fair point. It’s only that in these sections of the book, unlike Fox’s other criticism, no real argument is being put forth; each reference is strung into a chorus of citations, building to a crescendo that is never resolved.

The counterpoint to this ambiguity, however, which dwarfs the rest of the text, is Fox’s refreshingly straight-forward reflections on his brother.   

“If I’d stayed in Wheatley and gotten married,” Karl tells Fox, beginning a section which feels like the crux of the book, “that’s all there would have been and that’s wh­y I wanted out….You might get a new car at some point, or a raise, little things might change, but nothing big does. At that point there is an end and you can see you’ve reached it. That’s your life. That wasn’t for me.” The Headington Shark, a twenty-five-foot fiberglass sculpture which was installed in the roof of a home in an Oxford suburb on August 9, 1986, the forty-first anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, became deeply tied in Fox’s head with Karl and his rejection of domestic life. Not only was the sculpture installed almost one year to the day that Karl left England, the owner of the house it was built into, Bill Heine, explained that for him the shark expressed the “sense of impotence and anger and desperation” one feels when faced with harsh, banal realities of life as an average citizen. For Fox, who grew up in Wheatley, a few miles east from Oxford and passed the structure regularly on his commute into town, “the power of Untitled 1986 was in its obduracy.” Although his position on the sculpture has changed over time with new personal and aesthetic developments, the sculpture itself always remains the same, sticking stubbornly out of a roof, “tail cursing the sky.” Fox elaborates:

The shark contradicted a cliché we are told about life, that it is a ‘journey’. That your project is progress. What was once a religious metaphor has turned managerial, better suited to a capitalist model of life that demands perpetual motion. Go forward. Hit the ground running with actionables and deliverables. Grow through teachable moments. But why?

“Buckley’s sculpture,” writes Fox, “disturbed…domestic stability, but also represented a living thing stripped of its agency to roam and live where it wants.” In these sentences the influence of Untitled 1986 on Fox’s essay of “feeling adrift” is well-understood. The unsightly sculpture considered alongside the homogenous Oxford homes, which appeared overnight and remained—stuck—amidst the busy lives of Oxford residents is a disruptive refusal not just of zoning regulations but, like Karl, of materialist progress, of England, of normative bourgeois life. Distracting, stubborn, suspended in air, Fox places Untitled 1986 as an ally for the shiftless, an emblem of the power of indolence.

Just as Fox is beginning to strike a meaningful chord, however, the ink disappears, a page is turned, and a handsome geometric shape establishes the beginning of a new section. This happens again and again. Finally, realizing they are reading the book’s final pages, one hopes for Fox to reconcile all of the book’s digressions with a unifying argument. Unfortunately, this never comes. Again, while it’s perhaps appropriate for an essay on being in a state of suspension to never consummate its discussion, this doesn’t make the text any more satisfying.

In one of the most famous texts about limbo, Dante’s Purgatorio, the narrator hesitates while listening to a crowd of souls gossiping about him. Virgil quickly warns him, “Come after me, and let the people talk… for evermore the man in whom is springing thought upon thought, removes from him the mark, because the force of one the other weakens.” Of course, there’s nothing categorically wrong with referencing Virginia Woolf or Spike Jonze or Sun Ra or Andrei Tarkovsky (I could—but won’t—go on), it’s that, with Limbo running a little over one-hundred pages, Fox can’t afford to interrogate these sources with the same penetrating insight he uses to dissect his feelings toward his brother. One wishes the crowd of citations included in Limbo left more room for Fox himself. As the contemporary “memoir” seems to enter into its own state of structural limbo, being dismembered and recategorized as criticism, (auto)fiction, or “a spellbinding blend” of all sorts of things, this reader, at least, still longs for a shameless lucidity.

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