A Review of Ink by Angela Woodward

I read Ink by Angela Woodward on my computer in Adobe Acrobat. I don’t usually read books on laptops or phones but I was sent a PDF to review it and I don’t own a printer. Yes, the irony of reading a book that’s ostensibly about ink presented in electronic non-ink, an impermanent impresent impossible catalogue of language…it’s not lost on me. More importantly, it’s not lost on Woodward who doesn’t shy away from the existence of computers. This PDF lives in some metaphysical nowhere space that floats by as illusively as ideas or thoughts or memories. I’ve built no corporal relationship with this book and so as I scroll back after finishing Ink and stumble through all the notations I’ve typed in these digital margins, I find it difficult to recall what inspired them. Reading the book again is a journey of discovery, not re-discovery, as I try to project my mind back into the brief successions of miracles and situations that culminated in an idea. An issue unique to the digital format.

I’m keenly aware of this now thanks to Ink. Outright, Woodward asks us to consider the fact that when we encounter a book, we encounter a thing, and when we interact with language, we are interacting with a substance. With this philosophy at its core, Woodward does a dazzling thing. She writes a novel about writing that doesn’t bow to the struggles of being a writer. Although, in a sense, Woodward the Writer is the true protagonist of the book, Ink is not a lament of the writer’s brutal passion nor a paean that writing exists at all. Rather, it’s simply a book about a writer in the way a geology textbook is a book about rocks. Her appointment of Language as Thing means the novel grapples with it and its production less so as a spiritual endeavour (as many novels about writers do) and more so as a scientific exploration fraught and bursting with emotion held sometimes fruitlessly at bay by the sobriety science writing requires. Ink is about how language is as much of a thing as an igneous rock but fraught with more peril due to its inextricability from the human soul.  Listen to this:

…nouns could be rocks, and verbs, water. The verbs slither past the rocks, pound them, erode them gradually over millennia, go after them with hammers, pierce them with arrows. Nouns lie dead and buried, but also find themselves sitting upright in rocking chairs, or presiding over alpine fields. What the rocks mean might be arbitrary, or shift over time, but nevertheless the verbs are relentless, flowing, scraping, perforating, abrading with all the force imbued in them by their creator. Adjectives wander onto the scene, sunny peacemakers, living in the moment, it will all be okay.

There are maybe three tracts to this book:

         1) The story of Sylvia and Marina, bureaucrat typists transcribing first-hand accounts of the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.

         2) The musings of Angela Woodward herself, how she came to be fascinated by her narrative, pushed away by it, the toils of the life of a writer, her life independent of this novel, her life which is impossible to be independent of this novel.

         3) Somewhat conceptual encyclopedia entries of ink, blood, ice, the poet Francis Ponge, etc. These, I think, are the most powerful segments of the book and imbue it with its unique energy. These tracts are by no means kept separate or used as framing devices for each other. Woodward knits them together into a shaggy scarf and presents you with the whole. These pieces move forward and they don’t. Ink confronts the punishing banality of life and asks you to hold it (or perhaps literature at large) as a physical talisman against the linearity the world expects of good and orderly humans.

Before it is a narrative, Ink is an invocation to recognize books as a conglomerate of physical features. That’s what these encyclopedia sections are for, a call toward the muse of the sciences, not poetry or tragedy or comedy. It’s these historical-scientific sections that draw attention to the conception of the novel as a thing, a physical thing that we encounter with our senses, not our minds or spirits. Woodward is terrific at finding the words to evoke definite sensory memories in the reader: “[Ink] can be eked out of a pen nib, sprayed onto a moving page by tiny, precise nozzles. People or their machines have compacted it into plastic cartridges, or stuffed it down into a bottle, or scraped it from a solid wedge onto stone and then moistened it. The first act of calligraphy is the writer’s rhythmic rubbing of the dry ink across a rough surface. The writer begins by calming the hand, preparing it for its exertions.” Or this one: “Ink can be made from the galls that swell on oaks when certain wasps lay eggs in them. The wasp’s hormones provoke the oak into blistering, and this round protrusion…shelters and feeds them, until at last the larvae change form. They were worms, bound to one spot and now they fly around in the open, graceful bodies ending with a pen-like point.” This seems to be the function of these encyclopedia entries, a reminder that reading a novel can be a physically experiential exercise by both calling forth all the material procedures that go into creating a book and providing that illusion through sensorially provocative language.

Woodward carefully draws attention to the dialectic of scientific fact-gathering and poetic articulation. She is keenly aware that scientific processes precede, inspire, create, and/or make up a narrative. Or perhaps she goes a step further: she sees that personal expression is as much an organic imperative as anything else in this world of biology and chemistry and physics and math. There’s perhaps a twinge of cynicism to this, one gets the feeling through the tacit focus on writer’s block that this novel arrives to its reader after a long painful gestation. And so it arrives to us with the philosophy that testimony and expression are no more special than urination (in another encyclopedia chapter, Woodward actually takes the time to elaborate on the particular potentialities for describing the act of urination: “‘Let’s not say ‘piss’ here…change that to Urine.’ Perhaps this makes it gentler on the reader, who’s now been differed to a scientific, judicial type.”) “The person reading touches the bottom of the screen and the microcapsules fall, turn, twist, and rise into a completely new configuration so quickly the reader doesn’t even notice. This action seems to go on ceaselessly, with ease, like breathing.” Even reading is a biological imperative, not romantic or soul-enforcing. Nature and expression are not symbiotic nor at war, nature just contains the other.

Expression, I think, is the key concept to take with you into Ink, although it’s also key to differentiate the types of expression at play. There are these brief encyclopedia-like articles that I’ve mentioned (which is just as much an act of expression as any other kind of writing, just blatantly scientific. Herein the expresser is a conduit of fact-gathering, editing, and elaborating to put forth an ideology, in this case, of creativity as a biological operation). But there is, of course, the fictional elements of the story—that act of personal creative expression of ingesting reality and broadcasting it out of yourself through the unique prism of your imagination. This would be Marina and Sylvia, whom we meet unpacking typewriters in their office, set to encounter language and expression in their own way. Marina and Sylvia are friends and they aren’t, they orbit around each other in that liminal space of the workplace and they know each other’s world’s only in brief ruptures: stories told during work breaks, a daughter reluctantly brought to the office, complaints and advice. We are strung along through the novel’s rotating focusses on a consistent line of Marina and Sylvia’s banality. That banality is comforting, though, simple and stressful, emotional in its simplicity. They watch Netflix, worry about their children’s extra-curriculars, finances, whether “Mr. Right” actually is.

But this novel isn’t slice-of-life and so the two of them are somewhat devalued through the novel. They are functions of the novel’s true form as a conglomeration of expression. We, like the characters, only get ruptures of this narrative seemingly at random. It gives the idea that Narrative is important to Ink, not this narrative. “I made Sylvia and Marina up or extrapolated their existence,” Woodward says, pulling us back and forth from inside of the narrative to the front lines of the writer’s metacognition, giving her own testimony of the writing experience, of throwing herself into the unstoppable hypertext of a brain short-circuiting in the possibilities of expression, imaginative cataplexy from the sparkling pipeline of information to image, ideal to idea, fact to fiction. She sums up, both the novel and her duties as a writer: “…a narrative is in motion, heading towards something. In this case, though I’ve told you a lot about ink and the poet Ponge, and stopped for a rest with those scenes from Netflix, the two typists of these documents carry the storyline forward. Be sure that Mr. Right is doing wrong, and Marina will be forced to face up to it. Sylvia’s perception of her son will alter at his show choir concert, which will be a mixture of beauty and sadness. That’s where I’m taking you, in hopes that you’ll be changed by it.” I think this is beautiful really even though it is a diminishing of the truth of the narrative by the Beckettian remarking that it is not truth. It makes lucid the Writer’s ambition, the Writer’s belief that their job is a great good in the world.

Woodward isn’t self-aggrandizing though, she is generous with sharing her periodic insecurities regarding her vocation. She tells us of an incident where she was caught editing her novel in the waiting room of a mechanic. She thinks to herself: “He’d never think I’m writing a novel… Even if I could explain it to him—two women typing unbearable transcripts of detained men at Abu Ghraib, and some things that happen to them, and some other things—his eyes would glaze over. Is it a mystery? A romance? he might ask. Then he would tell me about some friend of his who wrote something once, without any more questions for me. It would be easier to pass myself off as a crazy person…” She tells us that the writer in her pleads that “she feels she doesn’t get enough credit for her craft. She claims it’s very difficult, as she has to not only ‘pick the exact right word but to shape the narrative so the reader hangs on.’ She says she’s responsible for ‘sweeping the street as well as conducting a parade over it.’ She’s already been compared to a servant standing at the sideboard. She doesn’t want to be mistaken for a domestic drudge.” In these moments, Woodward gathers together the never-ceasing multiple personalities of the writer, the writer within, the writer without, the writer who must exist in a world that denigrates creativity, the writer who exists in a world that needs it. She asks herself this very question, holding in her hands all the factions of her creative personality, and asks us, them, and herself, “Who am I, the I of this book?”

The modulations between Marina and Sylvia’s narrative and Woodward’s inextricable meta-narrative is moving, inspiring, and important when we look at the form of expression most crucial to Ink: testimony. Marina and Sylvia’s job is to transcribe the testimony of survivors of Abu Ghraib. The excerpts themselves are scattered throughout the novel indiscriminately and always stand alone, phrases flung at the page without context or emotional weight. Quotes are often followed up immediately by whatever thoughts Marina and Sylvia happen to be working through that day: “‘They took me to a closed room and poured water on me,’ she typed, ‘and forced me to put my head….’ She hadn’t gotten around to doing laundry last night.” There is no separation between the horror of the testimony and the banality of their own thoughts, they intermingle as a single volume. More often than not the survivor’s testimony is simply held up as an example of writing in general, a lorem ipsum containing the horrors of human experience. “‘He cuffed my hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window and I was hanging there for about 5 hours…’ The ink on which the final report is printed is called toner. Toner is made of electrostatically sensitive plastic particles, as well as pigment and traces of iron. Toner is safe to ingest in small quantities, though best handled with gloves.” Testimony, perhaps even more than the act of writing, fiction or otherwise, is cynically denigrated, seen as an elemental process through Woodward’s deference to descriptions of the physical and technological process on which it’s recorded. Testimony is simply a symptom of human behaviour and the psychological process of memory.

Woodward at one point beautifully describes the role of the translator as “a vessel for the language of others.” She assumes the same job in this novel. In its frequent summoning of the scientific processes behind language and expression, it does certainly cast a cynical shadow over the value of fiction, history, and testimony but elevates Woodward the Writer herself as the missing piece between the novel’s disparate tracts. She is a vessel for the language of others that have swarmed within her and become her own language. In a sense Ink is a field notebook of the writing process, of the data and natural occurrences Woodward stumbles across in her ventures out into recesses of history, her imagination, and her own life. I think this is the purpose of the lovely sections where she describes the frozen lake behind her house. One image of it seems to me to be the taunt of the empty page: “The sight that’s almost an absence of sight, the total whiteness except for the far horizon, is one part of the experience of walking on the ice. As strong is the sound of flakes from the sky cutting into the flakes already fallen. The crunch of boots. And nothing else.”

Through all these degradations of expression, it is Woodward, the I of this book, who holds them together as is true in all literature. Novels are a massive pile of substance: language, words, ink, pages, and it is the writer that holds them tight, squeezing inside the voids that threaten these pieces from drifting off into incomprehensibility. Ink is a novel about that void between lived experience and memory, memory and testimony, testimony and history, history and narrative, narrative and reader, reader and writer, writer and language, language and the people that take it in. Woodward is singularly capable of holding these disparate pieces together and presenting them to us as a fully formed mandala of the distinct personal effects of a novel. And isn’t that what all writers are supposed to do?

Jacob Pascoe is a writer and filmmaker based in Vancouver. His work spans narrative film and music videos to prose and essays. He studied film production and literature at the University of British Columbia. His website is here.

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