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The Lobster’s Tale by Chris Price and Bruce Foster

Reviewed by Ian Wedde

By October 20, 2021April 9th, 2024No Comments

This book, combining texts by Chris Price and images by Bruce Foster, is the third in the korero series from Massey University Press edited by Lloyd Jones. The series ‘invites new and exciting collaborations for two different kinds of artistic intelligence to work away at a shared topic’. The first two in the series were High Wire, a collaboration between Jones himself and the artist Euan Macleod, and Shining Land by Paula Morris and photographer Haru Sameshima. I had the pleasure of reviewing High Wire, and wrote that ‘The Jones/Macleod korero debut is an ambitious place to start and on the strength of this launch we can look forward to the series.’ The Morris/Sameshima book was another ambitious collaboration, not least because like its predecessor it challenged assumptions of easy compliance or partnership in the ‘collaborations’. In neither case were the images just illustrations serving a text; nor were the texts extended captions or commentaries on the images. What made both books fascinating to engage with was the complex interplay of narrative and tonal distinctions between text and image; of individual sensibilities whose ‘collaboration’ often involved a mutual reveal of differences: not just the obvious differences between visual and written representations, but differences of perception and interpretation, of individual ‘takes’ on the situation.

The Lobster’s Tale press release uses the term ‘conversation’ in preference to ‘collaboration’, and in addition notes that ‘below the waterline of text and images, a modest voice can be overheard whispering’. This refers to the italic ribbon of text, Price’s ‘material adapted from’  the American naturalist William Beebe (1877-1962), that begins on the bottom of the first page of text and image and continues through to page 88. This running sotto voce, in effect a found poem, is a third component in the complex of elements in this conversation.

In addition to the sotto voce Price-Beebe ribbon, with its quotes from others. including Ursula K. Le Guin, the total complex conversation incorporates Foster’s visual plays across and between acutely observed details for example a tree’s spiney branches enveloped in windblown plastic sheeting; his richly textured close-up of what appears to be discarded plastic sheeting that might, at first glance, read as a ‘natural’ form; and his impressionistic patterning of light and textures in the ‘natural world’ that can appear artificial or at very least artfully composed. Other photographs are more straightforwardly documentary, for example a double page black-and-white spread of people fishing from a jetty; there are a number of what appear to be sea-wrack formations and materials; then there’s the black-and-white cover image in which a person walking across wet sand towards the sea leaves behind a footprint trail that resembles a lobster tail.

Price’s substantial prose body text is in conversation with the running bottom-of-page text ribbon, and with Foster’s tonally complex images that comment in diverse ways on the instability or vulnerability of the ‘natural world’. The body text has an overall modest tone, that of a carefully correct commentary, organised in short sections, methodical and elegantly low key. This punctilious, straightforward tone and style operate rather like the deadpan expression of a ‘you’re not going to believe this’ tall story or joke. In this principal text, ‘the lobster’s tale’ (or tall story) is told with narrative and documentary details incorporating and interweaving astonishing and surprising natural and cultural histories; like Foster’s photographs, they destabilise distinctions between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’. These combinations include literary references, etymology, and the diverse lexica in which the lobster’s many names and descriptions are listed on one page, Price gathers (by my count) fifty names for the lobster, not including our familiar ‘crayfish’, a term most often associated with freshwater, claw-less varieties.

This principal body-text is rich in references indexed in two pages of notes at the end of the book. By my count there are twenty-four of these citation references; they include several natural historians (John Booth et al), poets (including Beddoes, also a physician; Nerval, Pindar, Donne, Creeley), novelists (David Foster Wallace, Camus, Franzen), artists (for example Karen Green, the widow of David Foster Wallace), philosophers (for example Camus again, the English critic-philosopher Cyril Connolly), and a variety of others fascinated by the tale of the lobster, and tale-tellers themselves in diverse ways.

In weaving these diverse voices and presences into her text, Price adroitly links them in ways that accumulate a number of running intertext narratives, as for example when she associates the novelist Jonathan Franzen’s account of David Foster Wallace’s suicide with the fact that Wallace ‘was reading Camus shortly before he deserted his post or was swept overboard’. This link is echoed when Price tells the story of the nineteenth century French poet Gérard de Nerval, who famously walked his pet lobster Thibault in the streets of Paris and ‘chose to take the same exit as Wallace, as it happens, at about the same age, and for similar reasons.’

There are a number of guides in the underworld Price negotiates, and the thread associated with Jonathan Franzen is one of the most adroitly sympathetic. In 2012, Franzen travelled to the island of Alejandro Selkirk, off the Chilean coast, to recover from the effects of  ‘a soul-leaching book tour and to deal with the loss of his friend David Foster Wallace’. He travels there aboard a lobster boat and arrives among a ‘dozen or so lobsterman shacks’ from which he hikes to one of the island’s highest points. Price notes that the lobsters of the region are Jasus frontalis and silentes, like their New Zealand relatives, and that in Selkirk’s day ‘they were three feet long’. She also records that Franzen took some of his friend David Foster Wallace’s ashes with him to the island of Alejandro Selkirk, known to the locals as Isla Más Afuera, or The Island Further Away. He scattered the ashes into the wind there, and Price suggests that, ‘This is as close to the Romantic sublime as Wallace will get, vanishing into infinity on Earth.’

In its understated way, this ‘tale’ of the lobster or of where the quest for it might end up is typical of Price’s engrossing and distinctive interweaving of anecdote, of histories both natural and cultural; and of a fabulous cast of characters gathered together around the edges or shorelines of Bruce Foster’s visual field, all under the lobster’s 180º field of x-ray scanner vision.

This review was originally published on the Academy of NZ Literature site.

The Lobster’s Tale

by Chris Price and Bruce Foster

Massey University Press

ISBN: 9780995137813

Published: October 2021

Format: Hardcover, 96 pages

Ian Wedde

Ian Wedde is a poet, fiction writer, critic, and art curator, and the recipient of well over 30 major awards, including New Zealand Poet Laureate and Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. His latest novel The Reed Warbler was published in May 2020, through Victoria University Press.