Review: Transitivity and Shifting Identity in The Art of Fugue

The Art of Fugue by Will Clattenburg

Uncollected Press, 2020. $20.90


Will Clattenburg examines the distance between the past and the nothingness of transitivity in his collection of short stories, The Art of Fugue. Clattenburg details a set of different lives in his collection through various syntactical forms, beginning with a frantic sentence that spans three pages and ending with the simple word “unknown.” The Art of Fugue folds in upon itself, joining the cacophony of other lives, other stories, and modern mythologies. Many of the narratives in this collection center on transplantation—whether to college, new marriages, old homes, or a foreboding friend group of imposters. Others center upon the visitation of old relationships, digging up realities triggered by a fugue.


According to Oxford Languages, the word fugue has two definitions:

  1. A contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts.

  2. A period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment.

As a composition, Clattenburg’s collection of stories contain quiet and surging movements. At the same time, each individual narrative represents a varied journey to and/or through fugue. “The Art of...” entails not only a dissection of a particular act but the process of how we embody certain events, and how they change us.

As a rising college sophomore awaiting transplantation to an unknown environment, The Art of Fugue deeply resonated with me regarding its honest grappling with shifting identity. Environments shape identity, as do transitions. So leaving my childhood home to live, study, and work in a new location with strangers is a warping shift on my sense of personal groundedness. Though most stories in Clattenburg’s collection focus on the aftermath of university, he frames college as a stepping stone from youth to adulthood, a second adolescence where family, school friends, items from home, even the familiarity of a welcome disappear in an instant. Fluidity is central in The Art of Fugue, as Clattenburg blurs the lines of past and present, showing life like a rush where identity or sense of self is slippery.

The Art of Fugue immerses the reader into the very perception of self as a transient crisis, spelling out the hypocrisy of humanity’s need for order and chaos. The story "Wallace Made Good" uses third-person close narration to follow an aspiring artist named Wallace, who dreams of gallery features and recognition of her creative brilliance. Wallace is ruminating on an art project she plans to make about the dual concepts of art and intimacy through a series of portraits on nude women completing mundane tasks. Wallace ponders her project, which exists only in her mind, as a dichotomy of choice:

However, the genius of the project was not even in the drawings—the genius was in the choice each viewer would have to make between staring at the intricate details of Wallace’s drawings or staring inches away at breasts, buttocks and genitalia. The exhibition would create a fundamental crisis between these two desires, these two aesthetics—art or intimate body parts. The title was going to be “Façade.” (17)

By depicting this three-page flight of fancy through close third-person narration, Clattenburg’s story creates tension between these two conflicting realities of the grotesquely real and elegant falsehoods of identity. The third-person narration offers the idealized version of Wallace’s life through her own eyes, projected outward. She wants others to see her and, by extension, her art as a genius flight of fancy. She goes on to project voices of imaginary art critics responding to her hypothetical art. Wallace’s inability to achieve her dreams, yet her insistence upon their viability results in an inharmonious pairing. Wallace’s state of mind, always future, always constructing self through the imagined voices of others, could be thought of as a fugue-state. Her art project is an imagined self-actualization trying to reconcile the beautiful and the gross in a liminal, daydreamed, space.

Liminality—characters caught in various real or projected states of undefinability—is vital to the cacophony in The Art of Fugue, weaving the first definition of this specific art into the collection. “The Mannerists” specifically focuses on a young girl named Jessica transplanted into a new school, unraveling the complicated friendships that leave her ostracized yet communalized. Upon ruminating on her crush’s appearance, Jessica professes that she “liked that she’d kept the color of his eyes vague.” (27) Though her crush ends up showing his true malevolence, Jessica prematurely yearns for nostalgia and adolescence well spent; not tied to any obligation or romance. The idea of indecision runs through the whole narrative, as Jessica’s need for vagueness manifests in lukewarm friendships; she cannot commit to any singular girl out of uncertainty and insecurity. After Jessica’s friend divulges her genuine opinions on their group, Jessica re-thinks:

But now, after hearing Sybil call them “two-faced,” she asked herself what she really liked about them. What had been so appealing about them from the first? Was it their popularity? The fact that they seemed to exist at the epicenter of the class, with everyone else spinning around them, either pulled toward them like her or trying unsuccessfully to get away from them, like Sybil? (34)

The use of internal dialogue as a mechanism for vagueness is frequent and effective in the story, as Jessica’s suspicions about the validity behind her friends’ statements are colloquial and emotionally connect to readers—especially those who remember high school cliques well. She is unable to decide who is honest and who is utilizing her kindness to their advantage, which adds an uneasy element of the fugue to “The Mannerists.” This vagueness, the inability to pin down the color of an eye, much less a feeling or honest opinion, translates to the story’s realistic portrait of rightful indecision in youth.

“The Mannerists” is one of several narratives that focus on the internal struggles of childhood, young adulthood, and the first inkling of choice. Later in the collection, we read stories that focus on adult situations of upheaval, generally dealing with the restructuring of home and an aching for a past that did not exist. In “Prelude to a Housewarming,” after a family’s new house is mysteriously robbed, leaving their psyches and safety in turmoil, Clattenburg writes, “But to list them now would have sounded like complaining, like bringing out old grievances. Instead he let the night air and his hazy drunkenness carry him to a place of nostalgia.” (79) The emphasis on the fugue state that comes with being drunk turns the story toward the similar theme of reminiscence. The protagonist’s active decision to leave his sharp but painful reality and enter a wistful blur highlights the problematic positive allure of the unknown—a fragile optimism.

Reading “Prelude to a Housewarming” caused me to reflect upon how turmoil, and general times of danger such as changes brought upon by Covid-19, can cause shifts and growth in how we imagine ourselves. The precarious state of safety, and the impending upheaval that malign a false sense of protection, relate to these shifts, whether it is leaving a hometown for the first time, or facing a robbery, death in the family, or health scare. A loss, whether it be of property, safety, or relationships, triggers cloudiness in Clattenburg’s characters that adds to the collection’s orchestrated cacophony.

In “Loss” the protagonist ruminates on his past possessions and the abject horror of losing childhood. Clattenburg writes, “He missed the old books he would never read, the yellowing T-shirts he would never wear, the letters and notebooks that contained an earlier version of himself delineated in handwriting he would never duplicate.” (111) As The Art of Fugue moves from losing romance, to losing friendships, to losing a home, Clattenburg troubles the question of whether childhood experiences cement identity, or whether identity is a constantly shifting force that relies on thought, not physicality. In “Loss,” Clattenburg raises intangible and romantic questions that linger long after the book is over. Is childhood stored in dusty possessions, scrawled notes, and attic toys? Or is it stored in your favorite flavor of ice cream, your nostalgic middle school playlists, and your buried dreams? The essence of you and the importance of identification ring through each of Clattenburg’s narratives while simultaneously coaxing the idea that fugue is okay. Fugue is normal. Fugue is what seeps into the crevices of life.

Clattenburg’s meaningful, colloquial narratives that transcribe the forgotten moments in life—moments that are not shiny and packaged but mundane and honest—add to the gorgeous, timeless mythos of The Art of Fugue. The prevalence of conflicting messages, for example the two chords played at once in “Wallace Made Good,” adds to the realism in each narrative. Blue can be orange, the sky can be sea, and something can be nothing simultaneously. Though this leads to an “uncanny valley” of thematic messaging, it is a comforting notion that confusion and doubt are normal. Fugue is what makes us alive.

Julie A. Larick is a poet, student, and environmental activist from Cleveland, Ohio. She studies English and Environmental Science at The College of Wooster. Julie manages the creative writing team for The Incandescent Review, reads prose for GASHER Journal, and interns at Girls’ Life Magazine. She has poems forthcoming or published in perhappened mag, Blue Marble Review, NECTAR Poetry, and others. Julie loves to sew, thrift, and experiment with matcha. Her portfolio is http://www.julielarickwriting.com and her Twitter is @crookyshanks