Lifelike Living: Blair Austin's inventive new book, "Dioramas," defies easy categorization


Blair Austin by Mark Ostow

Blair Austin by Mark Ostow

Blair Austin's Dioramas, which won the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, is described by the publisher as “part essay, part prose poem, part travel narrative.” 

The author—an Ann Arbor native and University of Michigan MFA alum—describes dioramas to “view” through the eyes of the main character, Wiggins, whose stream-of-consciousness narration means that the reader must piece his world together as the book progresses.

Austin creates a semblance of beauty in the slow-growing shock of what is contained in the dioramas' preserved scenes.

Wiggins, a lecturer, is a scholar of dioramas and builds them, too, even in retirement. He studies the works of experts Michaux and Goll, both of whom made dioramas and contributed their theories about the art form to the field. Regarding Michaux, Wiggins reveals: 

In fact, Michaux was the very first instance of a person, an actual person, appearing by consent in a diorama. Or, at least, so went the mythology, and thus Michaux popularized the practice of Voluntary Entry into the diorama. He insisted on this in his will, and due to his prominence the thing went forward. 

Yet, Goll takes the diorama even further, if not too far, as Wiggins narrates:

It is not known how Minister Goll came to the attention of dioramas. We say “came to the attention of dioramas” because the medium seemed to call to him, to take him over, to enchant him completely. Dioramas were a “geography of the soul,” according to his speechwriter, “a duplicate vision,” and a replacement for what their opponents “refuse to see”: the real world. At the height of his prominence, a diorama was completed every hour in the great workshops. This went on for years, at “the edge of the human story.” 

Many of the early descriptions of dioramas in the book are of flora and fauna, but the focus turns to Goll’s (in)famous diorama that is somehow more than a diorama. The characters can neither look away from or at Goll’s masterpiece.

The brief chapters or prose poems lead up to Wiggins’ visit to this diorama of all dioramas: Goll’s “Diorama of the Town.” On a 10-day tour that Wiggins applied to go on for years before he was accepted as an attendee, he reveals the scale and extent of the place, detail by gruesome detail. Though the displays may be as commonplace as someone eating or relieving themselves, the reality of all the taxidermied humans contained there becomes almost demoralizing at the same time as it is fascinating. The diorama raises numerous ethical and moral dilemmas, from whether it should even exist at all to whether it should be expanded. 

Dioramas' resistance to categorization as one form parallels the dioramas, which are not just the scene that they portray but also what is not seen and how they are interpreted. The focus on the visual in the text places a greater demand on the language, which is precise and descriptive without being heavy-handed. The prose poem characteristic of the chapters/poems lends a sparseness that describes just enough to place an image in the reader’s mind without editorializing about the intensity of the dioramas, aside from Wiggins’ distress.

Pulp caught up with Austin, who now lives in Massachusetts, and we talked about his connection to Ann Arbor, time at the U-M, new book, and writing. 

Q: How did you decide to go to the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and what did you learn there?
A: I had lost my career as a librarian due to chronic illness, and I determined I had nothing to lose by applying to Michigan. There was, however, a certain psychological hump to get over because—as someone who was born in Ann Arbor—I had always seen myself as a nonstudent on the outside, looking in. This is because I and my family had always been support staff at U of M. My grandma was an administrative assistant in the now-closed Medical Illustration Department. My mom was a secretary at the hospital, then a unit clerk, then a supervisor, and finally a manager. My dad worked as a hospital janitor for a short time, and my brother was a patient transporter—for patients both alive and dead. I myself had been a dishwasher in the cafeteria at the hospital and a groundskeeper on North Campus. I thought it was an error when I was accepted to the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and I phoned them to check that I was seeing things straight.

When I was in Ann Arbor, I decided to experiment with modes of writing new to me. The environment was supportive even though I was writing things that didn’t workshop well. I feel sorry for my peers, having to slog through some of that early stuff, but they were gracious. I was 40 when I got there and had been writing my whole life—in an unpublished, consistent, yet unfocused mode. Certainly, while in workshops, I got a sense of how my work might be received out there in the world. I gained a certain amount of confidence, and my daily practice, always consistent, gained a clear focus. I lucked into a heavy vein of material that I was unable to fully mine while there. All in all, a certain hope came in, I guess you’d say; hope that I was lacking before, vis-à-vis the possibility of writing itself. That vein of work I uncovered is with me to this day.

Q: I’m a librarian, too, so I am curious about this! What did your work as a correctional librarian involve? 
A: I worked in prisons all over Colorado—minimum centers for men and women, prisons for children adjudicated as adults, and a prison for people suffering from mental illness. I also worked in one of the more notorious, Level IV facilities out on the plains. I started working in prisons after completing my master's because this was the job available to me; loans were coming due. I went in with illusions—I was going to help people. 

If you picture a media center in a small high school, you get a picture of the physical environment: its institutional feel, its globe on the top of a shelf—with the U.S.S.R. depicted 25 years after its demise—its wire glass, and eyelines, et cetera. The job was like that of a librarian in a small town in, say, the mid-to-late-'80s. The technology was maybe 25 years behind. When I first started, we used computers without a graphical user interface. At one point, we lost a server in a library and had to switch to a card catalog. You used all the little affordances we’ve since left behind: inside jacket due date slips, book cards in a box with the patron’s name written in, stamp pads, and others. You got to wear all the hats, though: cataloger, programs coordinator, book repairer, reader advisor, reference librarian, clerk, page, supervisor—I hired and supervised prisoner clerks. There was also a security component, of course. We were trained as correctional officers first, librarians second. Security always came first, and you had to run a gap between the blue line and your role in the helping professions. We would respond to staff support calls and fights; we carried OC—mace—and a radio. You would see difficult things, blood all over; there are a lot of people suffering in prisons and all the while an undercurrent of watchfulness going both ways. When I was working, prisoners made between $0.38 and $0.42 an hour. I had to get out. The institution itself is structurally broken, untenable, and unjust.   

Q: Dioramas is “part essay, part prose poem, part travel narrative.” Did your book start out as one form and become all of these other forms as you went, or did you always know it would be a hybrid?
A: Dioramas began as an experiment in ekphrasis. It became clear early on that there were possibilities here. Could a book be told in dioramas? I found myself asking. The book’s form came about as a result of the grave limitations of the conceit. Early drafts ran aground but quick. I asked myself, how do you move beyond a mere conceit into a mode that can bloom outward in a kind of shell structure? It was like setting a novel inside a soap bubble using traditional laws of physics. What gets in, what is left out? Are you hamstringing yourself? Are you writing a completely inhuman monstrosity? This kind of thing. So yes, the book determined its own form.

Q: Do you identify with any one form more than another for your book?
A: Without doubt, I still pine after that first vision of a cold, clear book, all prose poetry, all mysterious and exquisitely dioramic, that builds and builds. 

Q: Relatedly, the book defies genre. Dioramas could be categorized as fiction, a collection of short stories, possibly even horror, and perhaps others. What genre do you say that it is and why?
A: Edward Dorn, a teacher of mine, was a master of the hybrid form in poetry. He wrote Gunslinger, an epic poem with a time-traveling cowboy as its point of departure that mashes up science fiction, the old Western, Middle English tales like Sir Gawain, and much more. I learned many things from that poem: among them, any conceit must be a point of departure rather than a thing unto itself. We begin with the conceit, we end in the realm of hybridity. The whole way with Dioramas, across seven to 10 years, I told myself, “I’m writing science fiction. It may not be clear at first, but that’s what I’m doing.” When of course that was just one sliver of the whole. If I were up against the wall and had to decide, I’d maybe say “speculative” fiction is as good a label as any. But I wrote the book outside those categories.

Q: The study of dioramas in the book is meticulous and also theoretical. The narrator Wiggins makes many assertions about dioramas. “Conservation is an act of despair and also an act of faith.” Or, “The diorama’s chief contribution to the world is silence.” How did you build this world? Are you interested in dioramas yourself, and do you construct them outside of writing?
A: The mock theory terrified me. I tended to approach it as a joke, at first. Wiggins would say some outrageous things that bent physics and rearranged logic and his fussy likeability lets him get away with it. But then I had to make it real, a plausible metaphysic. I myself am fascinated with dioramas, but I do not build them myself. It is accurate to say, however, that I see them everywhere. They are a convenient stand-in for the moral horror of the project of fiction-making itself. Whose lives get mined? Consider the horrifying budget of a blockbuster movie. Consider the things that get built on a studio lot, are filmed and are then discarded. Think of the vast prop houses that cluster like dry islands around Hollywood, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Seoul, and elsewhere.

I simply built the world one block at a time, one window at a time. What would get revealed behind each window was the city’s entire scape both in and out of the museum, but what is ultimately revealed—because many of us speak to one another through the things we see, explaining them as a kind of cry toward affection and understanding—is the inner world of the narrator Wiggins: his mental, physical, and spiritual crisis. We are seeing his curation, and curation always tells us about the person—and the culture—doing the choosing. What makes a novel an engine of curation is what it can reveal about the inside: the place toward which all the details point, which always lies beyond language and must be felt.

Q: The book builds up to Wiggins’ tour of the Diorama of the Town and its failures to bring a second life to its “inhabitants” given the ignominious reason that they lost their lives and wound up inside of the diorama. In what ways do you think the Diorama of the Town fails and succeeds ethically and/or morally?
A: The tension between the Diorama of the Town’s detail—its “beauty,” the sheer wonder of craftspeople spending so much time and getting each little thing right—and its moral disaster is what strikes me most. It is care, but it is a monstrous care. There are people in the fictional city of Dioramas, for example, who feel the project did not go far enough. Why, they want to know, couldn’t it have gone further still? What is the limit—and is there one—to any project built minutely, grain by grain, upon monstrosity? They feel an ache that the budget was not infinite. They blame the museum’s critics for what is an imperfect enumeration of all life—which in this case is composed entirely of the dead. They want to bring it back, full force, toward Minister Goll’s “original purity.” The tragedy of the Town is that its “success” is in the very details that have caused so much pain to the people inside. But all of this could not be thrust upon the reader—it had to be presented as if it were neutral. Wiggins’s suffering had to be silent, and the consequent vacuum would demand language—and a moral response—from the reader.

Q: Speaking of the reader, what is on your stack to read this summer?
A: I’m reading Middle English at the moment. The Canterbury TalesSir Gawain and the Green KnightPiers Plowman. Also, At-Swim-Two-Birds, and Tales of the Dying Earth.

Q: Where are you going with your writing next?
A: I’m working on several novellas at once that will make up a long work entitled Syphilis Please. It is set in the same city as Dioramas, only in the parts that have gone off the rails. Wiggins, the narrator of Dioramas, and Jeffrey, his assistant, may have a cameo or two, though they are not the characters that drive this new work.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.