Literature can be one of the fine arts. (Given the current state of publishing, the operative ‘can be’ is preferred to ‘is’). Yet it is far from first on the list when one mentions gallery exhibits. The novel an art whose value is intrinsic to the meaning of words on a page rather than something nominally visual, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art nevertheless commissioned Paul Park to write a novel based on the theme of an industrial exhibit by Stephen Vitiello called All Those Vanished Engines (details here). Park one of the more literary-minded speculative fiction authors working today (this means you won’t find him on the Hugo ballot), the resulting novel is what one would expect with such an impetus: experi-meta-ness. Featuring alternate history, near-future, and present day storylines, and occasionally Paul Park himself, the three interlinked novellas that form the work All Those Vanished Engines (2014, Macmillan-Tor/Forge) are an artistic vision about the meaning of writing, fiction, art, history, and the self in an interconnected form that extends well beyond orthodox storytelling.
All Those Vanished Engines, the Vitiello project, is an old factory that has been cleaned up, doctored with a sound system emitting industrial noises, and opened to the public as an audio-visual experience. The pipes, valves, hoppers, scaffolding—all of which remain concatenated in production line fashion, provides the metaphorical structure of the novel. As such, All Those Vanished Engines the novel, only begins in linearly coherent form. Soon thereafter it fragments as images from the other timelines and locations begin to pop in and out. This offers a strong sense of the randomly surreal when, for example, an alien appears in the middle of a paragraph which began as a scene from post-Civil War America. The intrusions continuing, the second novella twists the reality of the narrative further by opening as the first-person narrative of what is ostensibly Paul Park the writer. Visiting an old age home, he hears the stories told by a former factory worker. (This account has been made publicly available here as both an excerpt from the novel and background info to the art exhibit.) The setup of the factory explained, and historical motif introduced, thereafter Park switches to personal matters, including the novel he is working on, as well as bits about relationships, memories, and ideas.
The third novella further spinning the real, the fictional, and the three times/storylines into a thicker melange, All Those Vanished Engines should face readers at the door with a choice: a pencil to take notes such that the inter-stories connect with more coherency, or a pillow to sit back and simply enjoy the ebb and flow of ideas, thoughts, and visuals. Fully a work of abstract art, Park eschewss standard storytelling in favor of experimentation with form and representation of ideas. Placing few barriers and limitations upon the work, the larger concepts of writing, history, and the self are what seem to be at play.
It is thus easy to get lost tracking the network of literary ‘pipes’ and ‘valves’ in All Those Vanished Engines—to think Park over-complicated the book. Certainly there are readers who will enjoy teasing out the storylines, pondering over the inclusion of certain scenes, reflecting with Park on life that occurs in the middle of the creative process, etc. But there are others which will find the sheer instability, the ice-like slipperiness of the narrative, to be pretentious, and therefore unpalatable. There’s no doubt some forms of art appeal more to some than others.
In the end, All Those Vanished Engines is a book that Park always seemed he could, or wanted to write, but without commercial incentive, didn’t. Commissioned by a gallery and limited only by the factory art project, his creative self was set free. Like the Jimi Hendrix concert poster here, the resulting story and its inherent ideas are like cables wired into a motherboard only Park has the schematic of. As such, the novel will not win any genre awards, will probably leave casual readers reeling, and will not be a market success. But, for that slice of speculative fiction readers who seek to engage with books on multiple levels—connecting fragmented storylines, pondering meanings, digginf at recurring symbols, and ruminating upon the creative process—Park’s literature—as art—may be for them.