Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.

arts Home > Book Reviews


Limits of Vision

Robert Irwin

Limits of Vision

Author:Robert Irwin
Publisher:Overlook Press

By John Barry | Posted 12/3/2003

For Americans who confuse surreal literature with acid-soaked anarchy, Robert Irwin is an eyeopener. Although his recently reissued 1986 novel Limits of Vision is a strange trip, it's carefully, painstakingly mapped out, complete with sociological and philosophical references. William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon (at his weirdest) may dazzle; Irwin politely asks you to hop aboard. And while the foundation for Limits of Vision is about as basic as you can get--it's literally floor-level--the imagination that powers it takes leaps and bounds that are worth following carefully.

From dust you come, to dust you shall return. That's the plot, simply put, and it takes us through a day in the life of an obsessive middle-class housewife. The story begins as Marcia notices flecks of silvery dust on her bathroom mirror, dabs at the surface, and through the rest of the story descends into an entropic, degenerative trip into the lowest common denominator of housewifery: dust. In case anyone misses that significance of the medium itself, Irwin prefaces with an entry from Darwin's journal describing a mysterious cloud of dust encountered in the middle of the ocean: "The circumstance of common household dust being deposited so far out in the Atlantic is mysterious, nevertheless it is plainly a manifestation of the material world and partakes of nothing of the supernatural."

That pretty much defines Irwin's surrealism: mysterious if not certifiably insane, but tightly grounded. When the reader starts looking for a thematic compass, Limits of Vision also supplies the comfort of major cultural icons: Blake, Darwin, and Dickens. These featured guests provide a philosophical map for Marcia's fevered journey through the world of mites, mold, dandruff flakes, and carpet threads. As fictional elements they seem a little gratuitous, almost excuses for some of Irwin's more obscure pronouncements: "Our problem is due to an insufficiently dynamic definition, for, yes, dirt has its own concealed dynamic." Irwin the Oxford University professor sometimes gets a little tangled up with Irwin the writer, but even so, he's got a lot to say.

This reissue brings Irwin's oeuvre to our shores nearly two decades after its initial British publication. It's a still breath of fresh air. Though his frame of reference can get almost impossibly microscopic, in a literary marketplace that encourages us to take reality for granted, it's worth the exercise.

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter