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Centring the Margins
Essays and Reviews
By Jeff Bursey
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Jeff Bursey
All rights reserved.
Part I: Panorama
[SIC], by Davis Schneiderman QC, 14 March 2014
Davis Schneiderman is a prolific author of conceptual works of fiction, as well as criticism on William Burroughs and surrealism. [SIC] is volume two of his DEAD/BOOKS trilogy, and to help locate his newest fiction work a few words must be said about volume one, Blank (2011), also published by Jaded Ibis Press.
I started reading Blank in August of last year in Ottawa's airport, which turned out to be propitious, alternately thumbing its pages and staring at the wares of the duty-free store. Turning in another direction I could see runways and observe how the sun and sky were very bright. All this while I waited to board my flight to British Columbia, regretting that Air Canada, our excuse for a national airline, had decided the plane should stop in Toronto. Direct flights are preferable. Blank is a direct flight. It takes place in the air, has a small cast of characters (two of whom fall in love, then out), and its activity occurs in a limited span of time.
Usually on planes you have a seatmate who is forgotten soon after you've touched down. But in this novel people insist on knowing each other, and they grow affectionate, and then there occurs a disagreement that sunders everything. I had reached that part by the time my row was called to board. Yet the book had pages to go, and I could hardly wait to see what happened. Normally I don't take page-turners on a trip. Heck, I barely even read books with quotation marks around the speech anymore. But that's a digression, and, as implied, Blank is anything but.
Most books that take place on airplanes focus on characters, frightened ones, supercilious ones stretching their limbs in Business Class and explaining to the man next to them (it's always a man) how their sales trip went, children, the sleepers who snore undeterred by the yaw and pitch of the journey, and those nervous about being right next to the emergency exits. In the chapter "They argue," a terrible and sudden hole in the lead couple's tender and growing spiritual bond is shown, as if a part of the plane's body had been ripped away, and they are exposed to the pitiless cold. Depressurizing occurs, visibly to them, and, if we have allowed ourselves to be engaged, to us as well. The next chapters, "More obstacles" and "They fall apart," further illustrate the decline. Yet, in this case, what we normally get is not present. We don't hear the characters open their saddened hearts, or close them up, or anything. It's not the usual set of noises heard on planes that drowns out their words. What Schneiderman has done, and how it continues in [SIC], is more evocative.
But first let me continue talking about Blank. We associate noise with pandemonium, waterfalls, industrial sites, revolutions, and airplane travel — from the beeps of machinery to the incessant roaring of engines. We have made a special category of white noise. It's that category Schneiderman has given a twist, for, other than the titles to the 20 chapters given in the table of contents, and the author's name and the title of the book at the top of all the pages, in Blank there are no words. Instead there are ragged images of the sky (or many skies), one or maybe two per chapter, and each chapter is 10 pages long. Everything I've imagined that could happen in a chapter called "They encounter an animal" might not be very original, but it springs from and into the space supplied to my mind. Another person reading the same chapter would fill it with different material. Nevertheless, Schneiderman's name and his title top the pages and own the book, the setting, figures, and timeframe (this book adheres to the Aristotelian unities), as well as the impetus for us to re-think the contents.
Blank, the first volume of DEAD/BOOKS, is a bound collection of paper not much at variance from a blank journal empty of thought but full of potential. One can write anything in it, as I wrote a rough draft of the first few paragraphs of this review on that plane trip, but I can see how other readers might view Blank as a con, or a work of cleverness that might at best be witty but, more likely, does not possess value. It could be seen as an unpromising academic exercise.
I didn't make it up that I regarded it as a page-turner, for intellectual audacity can be as stimulating as any plot featuring dames, money, and guns. Blank, in my view (though this may be a wish in excess of what Schneiderman's aiming to achieve), takes minimalism as far as it can go in the hopes that writers will give up on it for-fucking-ever. Yet even with everything removed, save for tiny exceptions, the ghostly trace of the author remains, something addressed by the antepenultimate and penultimate chapters: "You die" and "I die." Yet we don't have the death (or dearth) of the narrator or the author since there's one more chapter and the headers, the word "novel" on the cover, and so on. Plus, I refute the aim of the book, to whittle down what needs to be shown and said (and am encouraged or teased into doing that), by scribbling on those white sheets what can loosely be called my own thoughts.
In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and he mentioned "an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing." We can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith's prefatory essay "Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?" in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (2011) contains these useful lines: "What has happened in the past fifteen years has forced writers to conceive of language in ways unthinkable just a short time ago. With an unprecedented onslaught of the sheer quantity of language ... the writer faces the challenge of exactly how best to respond." In volume one of his trilogy, Schneiderman edged near to muteness, but in [SIC] he has positioned himself, the work, and us in a new spot. His latest book is filled with words. None of them are his.
Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, in his introduction written in 99 notes (riffing on the late Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, where one anecdote is written in 99 ways), states at the outset: "It is not without mixed feelings that I realize I have agreed to write the only original words, so to speak, in this book." Note 12 comments on the exactitude of note 1: "But then of course what is an original word?"
[SIC] proper starts with the table of contents, broken into three sections: "Part 1: From (Pre-1923)"; "Part 2: The Borges Transformations (1939–present)"; "Part 3: @ (Post-1923)". These pages tell us that everything to come is written by someone other than Schneiderman. To choose a few examples, after a definition of the word "from," part 1 opens with Caedmon's Hymn (7-and 8-century), and moves forward in time through Utopia, the journals of Captain Cook, a poem by Keats, The Confidence-Man, and ends with Ulysses. All of these are pre-copyright, while the other parts contain works that rest in the public domain, and Schneiderman has signed his name to each and every item. "Why are so many writers now exploring strategies of copying and appropriation?" Goldsmith asks in the same essay quoted above. "It's simple: the computer encourages us to mimic its workings. If cutting and pasting were integral to the writing process, we would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn't explore and exploit those functions in ways that their creators didn't intend." Further: "When I dump a clipboard's worth of language from somewhere else into my work and massage its formatting and font to look exactly like it's always been there, then, suddenly, it feels like it's mine."
In part 2 Schneiderman does just that by taking "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," by Borges, and running its original Spanish through several language-translation programs, veering from Italian to Estonian, to Japanese, and ending in English. The result is what he did more than what he created, and the product is mostly gibberish that is unlike any text we know, let alone the original (for original, read: the one we may be familiar with), but it does bear certain marks found in what Borges wrote. Part 3 is filled with documents from after 1923, the year of advances (or retardations, depending on the point-of-view) in copyright law, such as chain letters, songs, and recipes that can lead into speeches, a computer virus, and a series of tweets.
Schneiderman says to Levin Becker in the introduction: "'You don't really need to '"read"' it, as it is a work of conceptual literature.'" That's mischievous, a joke on the enterprise, on a reader's abilities, and on the way the book can be approached. (Or perhaps what's also meant is that we can just follow the spectral figure in the black-and-white photographs by Andi Olsen, a white humanoid that has a lot of time to itself, in Paris and other places, and leave the text alone.) Yes, it's more an idea about what to do in literary fiction than something by Jonathan Franzen, but it is an exciting leap, and, from my perspective, it is also an anthology of prose and pros (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Melville, and computer programmers among them), a radical revisioning of the familiar Norton Reader.
The purpose of [SIC] is manifold: to unsettle expectations, to show what we can do to and in the novel, to make us revisit the concept of originality and copying, to transform before our eyes other people's words and conceits into new shapes and designs that, as Goldsmith said, make them "mine." Schneiderman appears to be without illusions as to the uniqueness of this or any work, and the third volume, INK, will carry the project forward into new terrain. As for [SIC], you may think: Why buy this book when I have the originals already? Not in these versions you don't. Try though Davis Schneiderman does to remove himself, something singular about his mind resides in this work of fiction despite and amongst the borrowing, and we can't help but notice it.
* * *
The Sea-God's Herb: Essays & Criticism, 1975–2014, by John Domini TWR, 22 December 2014
In Canada, we lack published collections of essays, reviews, and articles by garlanded fiction writers like Wayne Johnston or Anne-Marie MacDonald on the work of their peers and the state of writing generally. The occasional critical remarks are often confined to media interviews, enthusiastic outpourings on the backs of books, and blogs. There is no one explanation for this awkward silence in the national conversation; rather, there are as many as there are prospective writers. When writers don't assess at length what they and their colleagues do, then there is a loss of sustained and, hopefully, intelligent commentary on the abilities of their fellow practitioners, and the startling self-revelations that can come from a sincere engagement with others' works.
Partly for those reasons I was drawn to John Domini's newest book, and additional reasons can be summed up quickly: his reviews in American Book Review, which are admirable for their concision and insightful, idiosyncratic analysis; his introduction of writers unknown before (to me); and the fact that the table of contents of The Sea-God's Herb reveals interests that overlap partially with mine when it comes to postmodern US fiction. In addition, there are reviews of select figures from other countries. The canvas is broad. Someone might ask: Does this selection of reviews cohere? Do they tell us something about the books and about Domini, too?
Aware of such questions, he addresses them in the opening essay, "The Sea-God's Herb: News About Narrative, 1975–2014." After bringing in examples of previous fiction writers who were also critics, Domini indicates that he wants to "honor my elders," and that it's "the idea of 'help,' you see, that drives the critic and essayist in me ... It keeps yanking me to the desk: a brief on behalf of the most modern and post-modern. Such work has been so badly misunderstood that I feel I can be useful." What he calls help may be termed the desire to incite others to read books that would otherwise be missed or ignored, when not damned by a Dale Peck for their distinction from most fare.
At the risk of putting a word in Domini's mouth, I suggest that some literary critics surprise themselves by assuming the role of pamphleteer for a movement or a subset of authors. There are dangers for creative writers (Domini is a poet and novelist) in being an advocate as they "often grumble about how higher impulses get diffused when they have to generate the low-level noise of a book review," and there is, too, the fact that "any honest writer has to recognize how his or her arguments can become glib, a kind of shrink-wrap that risks suffocating the artwork under consideration." Yet Domini persists, and his book "as a whole amounts to a defense of artists taking chances." This is, simultaneously, also a celebration of those who take risks in imagining and publishing books that are not in the mainstream. Domini does this without pretension and without submitting his likes and dislikes to a critical ideology.
"Against the 'Impossible to Explain:' The Postmodern Novel & Society," the second essay in the collection, expresses his motivations clearly: "Here's the problem. You decide to try some reading outside the ordinary, a novel that doesn't have the usual earmarks, and it proves interesting, satisfying, but you don't entirely understand why, and when you look for help, an illuminating review or something, you can't find any." What this indicates is that in "the millennial US, for those who venture an unconventional approach to book-length fiction, criticism just hasn't been doing its job." The impulse rises to contribute, in however small a way, in whatever discussion is going on about a book or writer, but it's not always easy to be heard when one must fight an inculcated resistance to postmodernism present in "the major review outlets [where] the write-up will be vicious." Domini moves from Carole Maso and William Gass to Richard Powers, Michael Martone and Steve Erickson as he relates how their worth has been overlooked in their homeland. This essay exposes the fondness, laziness and cowardice (my words) exhibited by many critics as they choose to review the same books by the same people every year while ignoring new names and small presses. (That same mentality is behind the surprise, often disguising a mixture of annoyance and incomprehension, one hears when X or Y doesn't appear on award long- or shortlists.) The sharpness of tone is appreciated.
Domini divides the nearly 40 reviews into seven sections: "Early Tide," "Second Tide," "Distant Moons," "Fresh Tide," "Other Gravities," "Coming Tide," and "Galactic Pole." A belief that leaps out of an early review — a consideration, from 1979, of Guy Davenport's short-story collection Da Vinci's Bicycle — is that fiction can have "an impact in the nervous system as well as the centers of cognition," and one sees this conjoined response endure through to the latest review, a sign that Domini has neither become wrapped up in his own work and unable to recognize the importance of what others create, nor is he jaundiced or depressed when reading the works of others (unlike, for example, novelist Tim Parks, resident English sourpuss of the New York Review of Books, who seems despairing of literature). Both new methods of presentation and old favourites appeal to him.
Scattered among the shorter pieces are longer appreciations. Donald Barthelme is the subject of "The Modernist Uprising," and this is preceded by an equally long and even finer appreciation of John Barth's novel LETTERS (both were teachers of Domini; their works, like those of Italo Calvino and Dante, are touchstones in this collection), the second allowing the chance for comparison of a postmodernist master with Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann. Works by John Hawkes and Robert Coover are considered in tandem, resulting in this conclusion: "If these two books wear their ideas on their sleeves more than a popular novel would, it's because they don't want the smug voyeuristic distance a popular novelist maintains, rather pursuing the wholehearted commitment of senses and mind a real artist must have." That sentence illustrates discrimination with a swinging rhythm. Domini can be blunt about writers one would guess he'd approve of; he advises readers to pick up Thomas Pynchon's disappointing Vineland nevertheless "for the occasional winning passages and conflagrations, the few grapes that aren't sour."
After considering progenitors of postmodernism Domini looks at the next generation, in this case, among others, Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Stephen Dixon. When considering foreign writers in "Distant Moons," among the unsurprising names for someone with his tastes (Calvino, W.G. Sebald) is Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. We disagree on the value of Alain Mabanckou's African Psycho, but he has me intrigued by Paul Ableman, whose novel I Hear Voices "stands as another example of the wild freedoms embraced by European fiction since 1945, freedoms still only fitfully understood on this side of the Atlantic."
Excerpted from Centring the Margins by Jeff Bursey. Copyright © 2015 Jeff Bursey. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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