As If We Were Here Already: A review of Are We Here Yet? Questions + Answers + Drawings by Aevi

Reviewed by Melanie Fisher

Are We Here Yet? Questions + Answers + Drawings by Aevi (4 ½ Years Old)
Already Not Yet
2017, ISBN-13: 978-0996944212
http://alreadynotyet.org/03.html

Why do we read books? That question has always lurked at the back of my mind since I was a child, as my mother flipped through the pages of my bedtime books, through the years I learned to read on my own and immersed myself in the worlds I could transport myself via the printed letters, and even to this day as I write books I call my own. Of course, there are always easy answers: to gain knowledge, to expand your worldview—in short, to educate yourself. But these stereotype answers, utterly practical and pragmatic, never seemed to succeed in explaining the fundamental reason we read books and the profound value we attach to that experience. If anything, they only triggered the next question—“why does one educate oneself?”—whose various answers invariably appeared to embrace the desire for “making a difference” in the social sphere, in comparison to other, less-educated souls. For me, therefore, these facile answers pertained to “adults,” to those people who had accepted the existence of society, the existence of the world, and the existence of many other things in the world, as a matter of course, as something to be taken for granted and not questioned—adults who had learned to stop asking questions. The mundane teleology embedded in answers of this kind eschewed two important feelings that for me, being the “child” that I was, lay at the dear heart of my reading experience: the utter amazement for how things are, and the vast possibility for how things can be otherwise.

So why do we read books? What I sought was an answer that did justice to myself and my feelings as a child, when I was happily oblivious to the pursuit of knowledge, let alone a career, and innocently careless about what other people expected or demanded of me (of course, I was lucky that I could afford being a “child,” which unfortunately is not a truism in this world). Even then, I read books feverishly. So there had to be a better answer than what adults were telling me. Over the years I managed to formulate a reason that satisfies me. It is this: “we read books to find ourselves already written in them.” Or more accurately, we read books to be changed, only to find our changed selves already written in them. A book, regardless of genre, thus conditions both the adventure of transformation and an assured return home. It is in order to explore again and again to the primordial enigma of what we are, by taking recourse to the vast possibilities of what we can be, that we open one book after another. We lose ourselves in books in order to find ourselves anew—albeit transformed—in them.

What did you just read? I asked a question and answered it on my own. The question and answer revolved around the act of reading, but the very act of asking a question and answering it myself is perhaps more akin to the act of writing a book. For as all writers know, writing a book consists in nothing other than wrestling with the mirage of a giant question mark that is the text you are to produce. If you are lucky, you succeed in mobilizing the question—delineating it, turning it inside-out, shuffling it, dismantling it—so that you could get somewhere with it. The book is finished when it becomes the answer. Of course, the answer is always foreign to the question—it is this gap that justifies the length of the book; the time it takes to tell a story—but the book is itself both the question asked and the answer obtained. That’s why a good ending is always a bit like déjà vu: it makes us feel as if we were here already, though we also know for sure that that is not the case.

Why did I write that? I wanted to set a discursive context to talk about Are We Here Yet? Questions + Answers + Drawings by Aevi (4 ½ Years Old), released by Already Not Yet (alreadynotyet.org), the New York based independent press ran by the members of the prominent experimental music/dance/theatre troupe No Collective. Are We Here Yet? is the first book in the new series “Works on Progress” which collects “books created by children in which the author’s own pedagogical process of articulating the world/word(s) informs the narrative and structure of the work.” (1) This description alone hints at the conceptual methodology at work in this publication. But it seems to me that without setting an appropriate platform, this complex and beautiful book could easily be reduced to its surface simplicity and naiveté—its profundity mistaken for frivolous groundlessness. And that would be a shame. For some time now, I have been interested in the activities of Already Not Yet, for it seemed to me that they aimed to do in the domain of publication what No Collective has been doing in the field of music, dance, and theatre for almost a decade: to explore, examine, and experiment with the infrastructures that condition various forms of expression pertaining to each discipline (for details on No Collective’s work see their website: http://nocollective.com). The outcome has naturally been experimental in form and controversial in content. In their output as Already Not Yet, however, the radical experimentalism of No Collective appears to have been toned down: their books retain conventional form and structure without delving into the elaborate mannerisms and precarious deconstruction of the book format that one usually finds in the variety of so-called “artist books.” Nevertheless, I think it is more accurate to say that the focus of experiment has been displaced from form to content (in broad sense) in the endeavor of Already Not Yet. The conventional format of the book is preserved as a “found object,” so to speak, in order to package radical experiments concentrating on narrative and fiction in the form of marketable products. Sometimes the nature of experimentation calls for the output to not appear as experimental at all. I have already written a detailed review of Already Not Yet’s previous publication Museum of Unheard (of) Things (2), but their new release Are We Here Yet? further develops and truly brings home the inquiry into the nature of reading and writing books that lies at the core of this idiosyncratic publisher.

How did Aevi write? Are We Here Yet? assembles 26 sets of questions and answers and drawings that Aevi, born in December 2010, created when he was four-and-a-half-year old. It starts with the question “Why is your hair stuck into your brain?” and goes through a series of fantastic conundrums that ranges—in the eyes of grown-up readers—from cute and funny (“Why do chickens want to fly a bit?” “Why do crayons have color?”) to philosophical and even scientific (“What happens when you die?” “Why do fingers get wrinkled when you stay in the water for a long time?”). According to the newsletter from Already Not Yet/No Collective, a simple yet ingenious method allowed the boy to write the book on his own (3): faced with constant questioning from his son, Aevi’s father—You Nakai from No Collective/Already Not Yet—wrote down the ones he could not answer himself, waited for a couple of days until the boy forgot about them, and then asked the questions back to him. Now Aevi tried hard to answer his own questions to the best of his ability. After that, he proceeded to make a drawing for each question and answer. Therefore, as the subtitle encapsulates, there are three elements to this book: question, answer, and drawing—created in this sequence. The order is critical here, since the transition from one element to the next entailed a shift of the boy author’s position to the very material he produced—first becoming the answerer to his own question, and then an illustrator of his own questions and answers. I believe that it is this shift and the accompanying struggle that produced the magical disjuncture that characterizes Are We Here Yet? In other words, the book documents the four-and-a-half-year old boy’s own process of constantly reading what he wrote and trying to identify himself in what he read. It is in this sense that Are We Here Yet? is a book about the act of writing and reading books. It is a book that could only be written by a child, to be read by “children” of any age—those readers who have not yet learned to stop asking questions. Let me provide some specific examples to make this point clear.

What are questions and what are answers? Let’s start with the questions. Upon my first reading, I was struck by how all the questions in this book stem from Aevi’s dedicated “reading” of the world. Their profound simplicity is a product of his intensely keen observation, always guided by the utter amazement for how things are, and the vast possibility for how things can be otherwise—exactly parallel to how I read books. Aevi is therefore, first of all, an avid and brilliant reader—this is what conditions his extraordinary ability to ask excellent questions. It is interesting note that the majority of the 26 questions are “why” questions. In fact, there are only four exceptions (“What is the last number?” “What am I thinking?” “Who made god?” and “What happens when you die?”). “Why” questions ask for reasons that lie beyond the perceived phenomena. If this “reason” is taken to be synonymous with “cause,” perhaps one may be tempted to categorize the respective answers according to Aristotle’s argument of the four causes: material (components), formal (design), efficient (agent), and final (goal). Thus, the pair of “Why do fingers get wrinkled when you are in the water for a long time? / Because there’s tiny waves in the water” could be seen as a reasoning based on material cause; “Why do some bugs wake up in the night and some bugs wake up in the morning? / Because some can see in the dark and some in the light” leans towards formal cause; “Why do chickens want to fly a bit? / Because people made them like that” is an example of efficient cause; “Why do doors open? / So you can close them” would belong to the category of final cause, and so on.

What are questions and what are answers? The limitation of this pedantic approach is quickly revealed, however. For not only the classification into the four causes remain ambiguous in most cases (isn’t the question about bugs an instance of material cause?), but there are also at least three types of questions and answers that do not fit the philosopher’s typology at all. The first of these is reasoning that proceeds negatively, for instance: “Why is the sea so wild? / Because if it wasn’t wild, it would die.” Then there is at least one answer which erases the very premise of the question: “Why do clouds get closer and closer? / They don’t get closer.” And finally, there are many instances of what I can only call poetic leap, where the connection between the answer and the question is not immediately clear: “Why do I like things? / Because I miss them” (my favorite set of question and answer in the entire book, by the way). In all these three deviations from Aristotelean causality—negative reasoning, erasure of premise, poetic leap—the answer disrupts the imagery of causality that we expect and project upon the questions. This rupture forces the reader to reconsider the relationship between the answer and question, and we consequently realize that the question itself wasn’t as obvious (or “normal”) as we had initially thought. In short, we are compelled to question our own act of reading. The specific form of disjuncture between the questions and answers that characterizes the entire book is, without a doubt, a record of Aevi’s own switching of position in relation to the question he posited and then forgot. So the same mechanism naturally extends to his drawings as well. Many of the illustrations are truly remarkable, especially given the illustrator’s age, in their abstract quality—an idiosyncrasy only explained by the nature of what Aevi was trying to depict: his equally abstract question and answer. Just imagine what kind of drawing you would make of, say, the question, “Why are there many countries in the world?” and its corresponding answer, “So that everyone can go to different places?”

What is a book? In all this, Are We Here Yet? presents a strong refutation of the theory of child development proposed and made famous by Jean Piaget. The problematic teleology embedded in Piagetian view of development—which aligns perfectly with the above-mentioned “adult” way of answering the question of why we read books—is dismantled here through the setting of specific task-demands: to answer a question you forgot you asked; to make a drawing about highly abstract and disjunctive set of questions and answers. Not only Aevi switched from one position to another, but every time he did so, he had to account for the resulting gap. These task-demands both constrain Aevi’s capabilities, while allowing him to deploy the same capacities to their full extent—or more accurately, beyond their extent. Curiously, this procedure corresponds exactly to the methodology psychologists have been employing to criticize Piaget’s stale teleology. Through various experiments, it has been proven that “task-demands” displace and complicate the simplistic schema of developmental stages. (4) It is all the more telling, therefore, that one of the next projects for the “Works on Progress” series will be a book report of Jean Piaget’s works by the now-six-year-old Aevi. We could expect some harsh criticisms. But my point for the time being is this: what are books if not such “task-demands” that arrest the reader’s capabilities only to enhance them beyond what was deemed possible? One finds oneself anew, transformed, through the task of reading oneself in what others have written. And as Aevi demonstrated, what is written is always read as written by an other. Books are task-demands turned into objects.

How does one end? Are We Here Yet? has a magnificent ending: the very last question is directed at the nature of reading books—obviously triggering a sense of déjà vu for me. It is as if I have been missing this book without knowing so (and Aevi is again right—that is precisely why I like it so much). Aevi’s answer is different from mine, of course, although I feel our reasons could be nicely aligned. I will not spoil your experience of reading this miracle of a book by revealing that answer here. In time, you will see that you were there already. For now, writing down his question would suffice, not the least because I also feel that this book is in itself the perfect answer to this age-old conundrum: Why do you have books?

Reference:

  • Aevi, Are We Here Yet? Questions + Answers + Drawings by Aevi (4 ½ Years Old), New York: Already Not Yet, 2017.
  • Melanie Fisher, “Review of Museum of Unheard (of) Things,” Compulsive Reader, http://www.compulsivereader.com/2016/07/10/museumofunheardofthings/
  • “FYI: No Collective | Already Not Yet, News Letter,” e-mail received March 19, 2017.
  • Martyn D. Barrett, “The study of children’s drawings: Piagetian and experimental approaches,” Early Child Development and Care, 12:1, 19-28, 1983.

About the reviewer: Melanie Fisher is a novelist and creator of Fictional Speculation. Her writing and speculative skills were honed by her father, an obscure performance artist, who spent his life fighting against what he called “the tyranny of age specificity” (i.e. the ideology that people only have one age and should act and think according to it), and made Melanie write as herself of different age from very early on (e.g. as a 50 year old Melanie when she was 8). Melanie is currently preparing her first and only novel “The Ages of Melanie Fisher,” a pseudo-auto-biography whose chapters, though proceeding chronologically, are each narrated by a Melanie of different age. Now that the written chapters of the book have caught up with her present life, she intends to work on one chapter every year until her death. Melanie is a very critical reader of Marcel Proust.