What am I looking at?
Paradise author Greg Boyd releases his multimedia novel The Nambuli Papers
As things go in the art world, the artists and arts movements that have enjoyed the most success during their times were usually informed and influenced by the ideas of lesser known and certainly less well-paid artists. Never celebrated in their own times, these pioneers—from Van Gogh to the Velvet Underground—usually had to wait for hindsight to bring their importance into focus.
It was with great excitement, then, and more than a little confusion that we opened a recent item sent to the CN&R offices by Paradise resident and author Greg Boyd. Peeling back the first shrink-wrap layer revealed a package stuffed with artifacts mined from a vein of art history that had been not so much forgotten as never really acknowledged in the first place.
Under the title The Nambuli Papers, Boyd has assembled a collection of two books, a DVD and even a board game into a multimedia exploration of the life and work of Aristide Nambuli, a turn-of-the-century French magician/escape artist, and the Tide Writers, a forgotten group of international artists inspired by Nambuli’s ideas to gather in the south of France and create temporary pieces of art.
At second glance, that’s not really what it is. It’s actually something even more interesting.
As his bio puts it, the New York-born, Southern California-raised Boyd is not only a writer, but also a painter, poet, landscape sculptor, actor, translator, graphic artist and board game designer. And, he’s used that experience to turn the definition of what a novel can be on its head—in more ways than one.
“There is no correct way to enter into this book,” Boyd explained. “Whatever door or window you want to crawl through is fine—it’s open.”
The different narrative points-of-entry is one multi-faceted aspect to consider. The other is the fact that none of this really happened. There was no Nambuli. The Tide Writers never existed. The books, the game aand the documentary were all created by Boyd. It’s all a “mock hoax,” as the press release suggests, and the blurred lines between reality and fiction stand beside the various media components as another entry point into Boyd’s twisted creation.
The first book in this collection is also called The Nambuli Papers, and it is a compilation of reminiscences on the elusive Nambuli, “a man who loved mystery, practiced deception as a profession, and effectively engaged in an egotistical and systematic program of personal mythbuilding.”
The rest of the collection revolves around the Tide Writers. The centerpiece is the The Lost Reel DVD, 20 minutes of recovered footage from Australian filmmaker George Beedy’s 1963 documentary, which follows Tide Writer leader, “novelist” Edmond Jouvret, and the others in the movement as they travel around France and create their transitory artworks.
When Jouvret and the others get to the Tide Writer commune on the beaches of southern France, we are really able to see their philosophical approach at work: (from Beedy’s narration) “They’d spend hours and hours writing their novels and poems on the sand on the beach, and when the tide came up they’d just walk away.” At this point Jouvret abruptly drops the big stick he’d been writing in the sand with and walks away unconcerned.
In an excerpt from an interview with film critic Robert Silberg (included in the Nambuli Papers collection), Beedy shares the moment that Jouvret says inspired this movement. As a young child, under cover of night, Jouvret met Nambuli at the beach, where the master escape artist was to do the impossible of escaping from burial beneath the sand the following day:
"[Nambuli] made the boy walk down to the water’s edge as the waves receded and write NAMBULI LIVES in the sand. When the next wave came to wash away the message, Nambuli told the boy he should keep in mind the lesson of the tides. Whether the exercise was meant as a threat or an inspiration Jouvret could not say.”
The second book features the poetry of Tide Writer Bertrand Hàbert, as translated by Arthur Crocker, the son of one of the movement’s founders, Dr. Laurence Crocker (featured in the documentary demonstrating the gestural language he invented called NoNohNon). In addition to translating Hàbert’s French work, the young Crocker, currently the leading authority in the field, includes photos of himself displaying some of Hàbert’s pieces in their original NoNohNon form.
Don’t Hate the Game, a game invented by Dr. Crocker and Jouvret and based on their “philosophy of randomness, impermanence and fate,” is what binds the collection together. The game board wraps around the other pieces, providing a sturdy book cover.
“I’m one of these people that it’s hard to for me to focus on one particular work,” confessed Boyd from his breezy Paradise home while giving a tour of his work in the literary field. Shadowed closely by the little, fluffy, black porcupine-shaped Schipperke dog named Skip (or Schip?), Boyd took examples of his early illustrated letter-press books from shelves in his study and began unveiling 20 years of history working in the literary world, throwing in opinions and observations on the corrupt publishing world, the futility of academia and his desire to make literature an exciting form of entertainment.
Beginning with his days attending Cal State Northridge, Boyd designed and published dozens of books for his small press Asylum, as well as the literary magazine/annual Asylum Arts he put out through the 1990s.
The handmade books included beautiful block prints by Boyd, and he continues to do design work—"I’ve designed about 80 books in my career,” he guessed.
He’s also published a dozen of his own works, both on his Asylum imprint as well as other small presses such as Unicorn, Hi Jinx, Red Hen and now, with The Nambuli Papers, Leaping Dog Press. Boyd was also the first to translate one of Baudelaire’s only works of short fiction, La Fanfarlo, from French to English.
Most recently he’s gained recognition in a slightly different area of literature.
“The Shakespeare of pornography” is how infamous erotic writer/publisher Susie Bright described Boyd after receiving his most recent work, the short story “The Widow,” for her new book of three extended erotica pieces, Three the Hard Way (reviewed in the Sept. 26, 2004, New York Times Sunday Book Review, with Boyd’s entry in particular receiving high praise).
Boyd also paints, and walking through the studio behind his home (past dozens of stacked boxes full of Asylum stock) and seeing the volume of work he’s produced, one gets the impression he suffers not at all from his self-described inability to “focus on one particular work.”
From the “viewer configurable paintings” (cut up into nine equal squares with magnets attached to the back that can be rearranged by viewers as they please) to the piles of handmade prints filed away next to the hand-cranked press, one comes away, rather, with the impression that Boyd spends his time producing his ideas, not just talking about them.
Boyd moved to this area with his wife and son after his wife got a job as a landscape architect at Chico State. Shortly after moving into their first home in Magalia a giant cedar fell through the roof and landed in bed next to him, considerably changing how he operated.
“That pretty much changed my life. [I was] living 10 lives simultaneously,” he said. “I needed to concentrate on things that matter.”
Asylum Press is now for sale, and his focus is sharply on The Nambuli Papers, his painting and his writing. There’s even a new novel in the works.
“It’s set in Chico. It’s called The Angel Tree. … It’s about good and evil and angels and devils.”
“Anyone who reads my work should keep in mind that in my view fiction is nothing more and nothing less than funhouse mirror reflections, embellishments and outright lies.” This is advice given by Boyd in an interview with his editor and publisher at Leaping Dog Press a couple years ago, and with the release of Nambuli‘s multimedia “interconnected fictional universe,” it appears that Boyd has created his most realized manifestation of “exploring the boundaries between fiction and reality.”
“This really could have been an aesthetic movement,” Boyd pointed out about his “mock hoax,” adding, “[For the Tide Writers] it’s purely art for art’s sake.”
Tidewriting is at once an honorable gesture of artistic purity as well as a vehicle for spinning great lies—which is the point here. Like his crazy crew of sand novelists, for Boyd the manner of creating—whether it’s blurring lines between “fiction and reality” or blurring lines between the viewer and the artwork (as with the interactive paintings)—carries as much meaning as the work itself.
“Literature and entertainment art not mutually exclusive," Boyd suggested, adding, "Part of what art is for me is having fun. I don’t think artists have fun with their art anymore."