Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty first struck me as a rather ambitious project. How can uncertainty be given governing rules? If only we could fit the uncertain future into a neat Excel spreadsheet of principles, wouldn’t life be easier? I was suspicious of anyone who claimed to be able to do that. Upon completion of Kalman’s book, however, I began to appreciate her project and direction. She tell us that she is “curious about all the little things that make up a life” (50), and she strings together a collection of random moments, captured in illustration. These moments are indicative of real life. After all, life itself is simply a collection of moments, and it’s up to us to string them together in whatever way we can. Sometimes time is the only thing that connects our random collection of identities together, and I was struck by this thought when reflecting upon Kalman’s book. She asks the big questions outright, and does not pretend to have any answer to “Are things normal?” or “What will happen to us all?” She chalks it all up to life’s uncertainty, but shows us her own methods for getting along anyway.
The illustrations-coupled-with-musings form is one we’ve seen before. Amy Sedaris’ fascinating entertainment guide also matched her own personal anecdotes with a hodgepodge of images, and followed the same kind of wandering plotline. Some of her comments, such as “You cannot order a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich. There are limits to deluxe,” and “I would love you to come to my party. It will be on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s avoid a nighttime party,” even sound like phrases of which Sedaris would approve. Both women break the convention of a normal novel, and personalize their words with their own worldviews.
This book also reminded me a bit of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. It wasn’t the quiet, musing nature of Kalman’s work that brought the rowdy vaudeville troupe to mind, but rather the breaking of convention. The works of the Mark Brothers and Kalman, and, indeed, Sedaris as well, take the form of a collection of moments, only marginally held together by linear time or plot. While the moments are quipping and hilarious for Groucho, Chico and Harpo, and quietly funny and reflective for Kalman, both brands of humor cause the audience to look inward. The plot is not the point of either, but it is the character study that is of most interest. In both instances I wondered whether I was like one of the characters in their stories. The Marx Brothers made me consider whether or not I am also ridiculous in some way, but Kalman made me think about whether or not I am one of the people whose photograph will be discovered on a flea market keychain in a bin in forty years. They are the same question—the question of identity and the way that identity fits into the larger point of life—but asked in different ways. We can never be certain of this identity until it is in retrospect, but, for now, Kalman lends us her worldview to help us get along anyway.