Pack My Box With Five Dozen Liquor Jugs: Notes from my Grandmother’s Journal

1616 Lower Silver Lake Road
Grandma’s House, Lower Silver Lake Road, Topeka, Kansas

Whether just beneath the surface or explicit, there seems to be a lot of anxiety around what critics and scholars call The Death of the Novel. Of course critics and scholars would put it that way- there seems to be a connection between the way in which things are talked about and the anxiety itself (the novel is obviously a precious thing whose passing should matter to us). Marc McGurl’s 2010 essay in n+1 speaks to this, and in that very same language, while considering the question in light of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. “Perhaps,” he says, “the zombie attack on Austen’s novel is telling us that the novel is neither alive nor dead but undead.” While I find that interesting, I’m not really sure what it means on one hand, and am even more struck by the fact that the question of the state of the novel would’ve never entered my head, were I to have written anything on the topic (which I am, and it won’t).

Part of current trends in literary scholarship, I think, can be linked to this anxiety. Both Genetic Criticism and the closely allied call for a ‘return to The Archives’ seem to attest to either an inability to register the problem, or an active distraction from the question that causes the anxiety in the first place. Personally, while I find Genetic Criticism’s preoccupation with the process of writing and the avant-texte fascinating (part of the fascination that gave birth to this post), I am not too terribly concerned with the critical/ theoretical problem, however real, that it sprang out of: the paradox of the final, finished, static text that can never really be final, finished or static. Similarly I am a little befuddled by the gnostic imperative to return to The Archives (I call it ‘gnostic’ because it feels like an unrevealed truth that is “in the air,” so to speak- at least in my department), mostly because it seems like an oddly explicit move towards making history- and not literature- our primary object of inquiry, but also for the same sort of theoretical reason I’m not concerned about re genetic criticism: it seems funny- ironic, even?- that the explicit placing of a definite article before an object of academic interest, in the name of establishing some concreteness, renders said object impossibly abstract.  Which archive? Whose archive? Where *is* this archive? It’s the same problem that “The Novel” is plagued with, and other biggies in the academy like “The Body.”

Recently my mother transcribed and made copies of a journal that my great grandmother had kept from the late 30’s to the early 80’s.  In it are catalogued, in sparse detail and often with problematic syntax and grammar, the various sorts of things one might expect: my cousin crawling up onto the sofa, my aunt leaving for the east coast, how much a refrigerator she had just bought cost her, miscellaneous (and numerous) trips to the doctor, my aunt having her toenails removed, a dog taking a “hunk” out of another cousin’s ear, etc. I was struck by the gesture and the allure of the artifact even before I read it, and I imagine that this interest is the same one that is generated by enthusiastic literary geneticists- it’s nice to think that an interest can be just that, can be fun, right? And even better: there is no text-texte for this avant-texte to orbit, no author performing her author’s function of producing a problematically static, final piece of something that came to be literature- it’s just my grandmother’s journal.

1975 – April 8. Had heart surgery.

1975 – April 20. Planted Hawthorne tree.

I was even more excited to realize that there was something of [T]he (*New*) Fantastic at play in this attraction, in the forms and logics of the text, and that this played a part in my heretofore unarticulated affective state. When I ask myself in what way is what deviating from what normativity, sure the answer could be that *usually* there is an author figure around which the avant-texte might swirl, or that my grandma’s journal is almost as far from a canonical literary text as one might get- both seen, from the standpoint of a *New* Fantasticist, to be specific forms of deviations from specific forms of normativity, but there is something else at play, something *in* the text: amidst the daily routine of doctor’s visits and home repair bills, there is some really weird shit going on.  Case-in-Point: in a section towards the end of the chronology there is a small heading that reads “Random entries at back of book…….” the second of which tells us the following:

* Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs

contains all the letters of the

alphabet *

What the hell is that all about? Sure I’ve read through the rest of the journal, and there are some truly bizarre and hilarious entries, as well as tricky meaning-muddling grammar and mistakes that I can’t tell are “original” or made by the transcriber (just kidding Mom!), but this? Is this a mid-20th century drunk text (drunk-texte?)? I don’t know except that it’s delightful, and that it presents not a lack of meaning but an overabundance of it, in the form of possibilities: that she was reminding herself to pack said jugs, that we should ask ourselves why she would need so many of them, that maybe she was a Soviet spy passing messages to Cuba via illegally smuggled black-market boo- HOLY CRAP I JUST FIGURED IT OUT. Just *now,* as I was listing off the fantastic possibilities, and therefore thinking of possible new ones, it hit me: the phrase “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs…”- see where this is going?- “contains all the letters of the alphabet.” Though to be fair there are three duplicate vowels: two E’s, three I’s, and two U’s. No I didn’t google it.

Just googled it: it’s a pangram. I don’t remember knowing they existed, but apparently, thanks to Urban Dictionary, which incorrectly cites Mark Dunn’s 2001 novel Ella Minnow Pea (in which said pangram plays an important role) as the phrase’s “first mention,” which is obviously impossible as my grandmother wrote it down in her book no later than 1983. Which makes me wonder if this is gnostic knowledge? Maybe my grandmother’s journal was the only instance of its inscription prior to Dunn’s novel? And what does this do to the possibilities, that over-abundance of meaning I was so highly exalting moments ago? What does it mean that she wasn’t a Soviet spy? I’m not sure, and I’m tired, but I will say that I imagine that it has something to do with the “realness” of possibilities, when compared to something like, say an “actuality.” Analogue: an abstract idea (something like a possibility) is just as “real” as a bullet or a barricade (something like an actuality). I think that my “possibilities” are something like what Deleuze is talking about with his virtuality but I haven’t got there yet so I don’t have the jargon down so either don’t ask or fill me in. But I digress.

Still, that wasn’t the weirdest entry in the journal, but since I kinda depleted my resources with The Case of the Five Dozen Liquor jugs and am not sure how to end this entry, I’ll just leave you with this little jewel, from the illustrious year 1979:

December 19. Door Bell rang.

Boy blood all over face and ear

in Flames.

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