Campfire Orb and Mailbox Ramble

Dear friends—

The Story of Dr. Noving Jumand

Back before the pandemic, I stopped by our beloved local library sale to browse for rare or forgotten books and records. The staff are pretty well informed, so most first editions, cult classics, and valuable oddities get plucked out of the scrum, placed in a special section, and snatched up by well-heeled collectors. But some weird stuff inevitably gets through.

I almost missed the small OCCULT/METAPHYSICS section of the LPs; it was wedged in between jazz and film scores, for some reason, and somebody had flipped over the divider so that it appeared blank. The section was mostly disappointing—a soundtrack album from a TV show about UFOs, some meditation records, Quit Smoking with Hypnosis, that kind of thingbut one little cluster of recordings caught my eye: the psycholiterary works of Dr. Noving Jumand.

Jumand was something of an Ithaca legend back when I first moved here in the nineties, though he’s mostly forgotten now. He’d come to town for a Cornell PhD in psychology, and was teaching as a lecturer, when he got approval for a controversial study involving the effect of narrative on human behavior. A few of his subjects—students, getting paid five dollars an hour—ended up hospitalized, and one was (and perhaps still is) committed to a mental institution. This created all kinds of paranoid rumors about Jumand’s narratives—that they were in some way magical, or had been funded by the defense department—but it turned out that he’d given half of these students an experimental drug cocktail, derived from Phencyclidine, and this is what sent them on their dangerously dissociative journeys.

An investigation followed, during which it was revealed the the subjects knew they might be drugged and had signed release forms saying so; and the ones who were hospitalized already had histories of mental illness and drug addiction that could explain their reaction. As a result, no criminal charges were brought against Jumand—but the University cancelled his research and kicked him off campus. He eventually went on to form a quasi-utopian collective that lived in makeshift geodesic domes on some farmland outside of town, and died at 43 when he—accidentally, it’s believed—drove his bicycle off a cliff and into a waterfall.

Anyway, one extant artifact of his brief period of notoriety is a series of rare recordings of his narratives, made in collaboration with some former Moog employees he met at a swap meet in Trumansburg. (These people are still alive and, having disowned their collaboration with Jumand, now work on the road crew for Kraftwerk.) That’s what I found at the library sale. Since these are hard to come by online, I’ve started to upload them for everyone to hear.

Personally, they didn’t do much for me, but YMMV. Stream or buy a copy on Bandcamp.

Recklessly and as Quickly as Possible

Sometimes, when I’m suffering from a creative block, I try to smash through it by creating something at breakneck speed. My forthcoming novel Subdivision is an example of a positive result from this kind of sprint; I wrote the first draft in just a few months. Of course, the book would undergo another year and a half of revision before it arrived at its final form—but there is something to be said for getting a long work down on paper, a complete if deeply flawed work, so as to have, all at once, your lump of clay or block of marble to poke or chisel at. I guess it depends on whether you like rewriting.

I’ve rarely done this with photography, but perhaps I should more often. Back in the winter of 2009, I drove around the outskirts town photographing every interesting mailbox I passed (you can see my old Volvo, R.I.P., idling on the verge in the background of one of them). One morning, one roll of film. These were shot on Kodachrome (also R.I.P.) with a Contax G2 and 45mm f/2 Planar lens. I was thinking this would be a good poster to sell in the college bookstore: THE MAILBOXES OF ITHACA? But I never did get around to trying to make one.

Also in photography: I encourage you to check out my friend Adalena Kavanagh’s newsletter, Mamiyaroid, which this week features a review of the debut novel of another talented friend, Dan Hornsby. I’ve read this book, too, and agree with Adalena that it is terrific.

Alison Lurie and William Kittredge

The literary world lost two great writers this past week. My friend Alison Lurie was the author of the Pulitzer-Prizewinning Foreign Affairs, among other many comic novels of human error. My favorite is probably The War Between the Tates. She was 94. And William Kittredge, my former teacher at the University of Montana and author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, died at 88. I’m sad, but these writers had great careers and lived long lives, and I’m inclined to celebrate them as much as I am to mourn. If you haven’t read their work, please do!

Thank you for reading, and take care—
John.