Saturday
May142011

Doing Without

Brian Evenson




I.

Reading Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town in the iBooks app on my iPad, I came across something that startled me. In a chapter late in the book Doctorow begins to splice together a narrative the main character is writing with events in the book's "real" world. On my screen it looked something like this:

       Andrew had noticed the girls in the Market and at Kurt's shop noticing Link, whose spring wardrobe showed off all that new muscle to new effect, and gathered from the various hurt looks and sulks from the various girls that that Link was getting more ass than a toilet-seat.
      Her brother spent the winter turning into the kind of stud that she'd figured out how to avoid before she finished high school, and it pained her to see the hordes of dumb-bunnies making goo-goo eyes at him.
      That would be a good second sentence for his story.
      "You okay, Abby?" Link said, looking concerned.

The first time I read this, I had to go back and read it again. As a reader I don't generally expect a genre book (even a good genre book) a) to jump back and forth between two narrative levels, and b) if it does do so, to do so without giving the reader very clear formal markers that this is happening. Here, you have to piece together the shift in level from what the characters say, after the fact. It's quickly clear what's going on since the novel itself comments on it ("That would be a good second sentence for his story."), but it nevertheless allows for a moment of confusion, of hesitation.

 

Doctorow does at least one thing in his novel that I'd never seen in a genre or literary book before: certain of the characters have a very fluid relation to names. The main character, for instance, is always referred to by names that start with "A", but this name is constantly shifting and changing: in the passage above, "Andrew" and "Abby" both refer to the same person. As a reader you have to make the effort to adapt the way you habitually identify characters.

It wasn't a stretch for me to think that if Doctorow was destabilizing naming in this way he was also destabilizing the relation of different levels of narrative in a way perhaps unheard-of in genre fiction but not uncommon in at least some innovative literary fiction. I went away thinking that Doctorow had written a contemporary fantasy novel in which he teaches urban fantasy readers new strategies of reading, in which he begins to open up a genre to new possibilities.

 

A few weeks later I was in a bookstore, talking with a friend about these gestures in Doctorow's novel, and I found myself going to the SF section, taking the novel from the shelf and paging my way to one of the passages to show what I meant. What I saw was not the same as what I had seen on my iPad. Instead, it looked something like this:

      Andrew had noticed the girls in the Market and at Kurt's shop noticing Link, whose spring wardrobe showed off all that new muscle to new effect, and gathered from the various hurt looks and sulks from the various girls that that Link was getting more ass than a toilet-seat.

Her brother spent the winter turning into the kind of stud that she'd figured out how to avoid before she finished high school, and it pained her to see the hordes of dumb-bunnies making goo-goo eyes at him.

      That would be a good second sentence for his story.
      "You okay, Abby?" Link said, looking concerned. 

In the print version, insistent formal markers are there: a clear space break to show the reader that something new and different is starting, n insetting of the passage and a lack of first line indentation to further stress this, a change to a bolded font to insist upon the shift even further, followed by a space break to indicate when the shift in narrative level is over. All the possible and (for me) productive confusions of that passage that I experienced reading the novel electronically were an unintentional side effect of the electronic reformatting of the novel and will not be experienced by the reader of the approved print version. By moving from one traditional media to another newer one, and by in the process having its spacing, paragraphing, and bolding subtracted, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town becomes, by (happy) accident, a more innovative reading experience.

 

The shift I'm talking about in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town isn't unique: this is a slightly more acute version of what potentially can happen whenever a book moves from print to digital format. In the case of Doctorow's book, there's no reason that the bolding and other markers couldn't be preserved; indeed, it is in many ebooks. So, on one level, it's simply a mistake facilitated by Doctorow's very admirable willingness to allow his fans to code his books in digital formats and make them available for free. And yet I've read enough ebooks, seen enough of the gaps in formatting that something like Project Gutenburg sometimes brings about in, say, what was once an extremely elegant and fluid Henry James text (dropped paragraph breaks, lack of indentation, extra page breaks, etc.), that I should have guessed this aspect of Doctorow's book was a "mistake," and I probably should have stopped short of assigning it a meaning. At the very least, instead of being impressed and elated, I should have been suspicious enough to compare it to the print book right away. Why wasn't I?

Because of the innovation with naming that I mentioned before. The shifting of characters' names was unlike anything I had read before and it marked the text for me as innovative, destabilized the text in a way I liked. That being the case, when a second gesture came along that destabilized it even further, I was already primed to be a productive reader of the gesture.

 

What I'm talking about here is something very minor: formatting changes that are relatively slight. But these slight gestures, these moments of removing or adding formatting, limiting it, can have a massive subterranean effect.

I experienced this in a very different way recently when a magazine sent me a PDF proof of a short, short story of mine they were publishing. The editor was puzzled by the story, had inserted quotation marks at various points, as well as a clarifying word or two. Reading over the proof I had to agree that something was wrong, something just wasn't working. I'd written the story not long after I'd had my appendix out, while I was experiencing a secondary infection that manifested itself as blood and pus building up in my abdomen and periodically gushing out of my belly button; I was taking a lot of antibiotics and painkillers—maybe that was the problem? That I simply hadn't been completely coherent when I wrote the story?

And then I went back and looked at my original file. The problem was that there were a half dozen instances of italics that had been accidentally dropped. With the italics the story was clear; without them, it was a mess. Where in Doctorow's case lack of formatting led to a productive destabilization, in my case there was enough else that was being left out, enough else that I was doing without as a writer, that without the italics the story simply didn't make sense.

 

As we shift formats, there's a struggle between what's gained and what's lost. This is not something exclusive to the shift from print to digital format, but something you can see in different print formats as well. Go back and look at a late eighteenth-century text, one which prints the first few words of the next page at the bottom of the current page, as a way of preparing you for what you will see when you turn the page. That seemed a necessary practice, at least to certain publishers. Now it seems a bother, a kind of textual stutter that is a mild irritant. Or consider the eighteenth-century practice of the publisher sprinkling the text with extra commas, sometimes with dubious connection to usage or grammar. Or go back eight or nine centuries and consider the way that illuminated Bibles both offer a text to be read and through their illuminations create a kind of static that makes it very hard to pay attention to the text at hand. To what degree are these things part of the text, "real" formatting, and to what degree are they supernumerary additions? Or go further back and think about what it's like to read a scroll, in which you never have to turn the page, where you keep winding and unwinding, and how that changes the process of apprehending the text.

Trapped at a bad strip mall, I made my way to a Borders with the intention of finding and continuing to read an Ian Rankin mystery I was in the middle of. I found the book, but instead of being a trade paperback like the one I was reading it was a mass-market paperback. I found where I was, but soon gave up trying to read it because it felt like a different book to me. Where my edition had a lot of space on the pages, allowing things to breathe, this one was dense, with blotchy and difficult to read type, the words tumbling into the gutter and threatening to come off the edge of the page. Where mine started each chapter on a new page, this one barely had two blank lines between chapters. All the words were the same, but the reading experience was absolutely not.

What's different? Certainly not the words. I was assured by a note at the beginning of the book that it contained all the words of the original edition. Nothing had been deleted. Or, rather, "nothing" had been deleted: air, space, looseness of lines, places to breathe and reflect on what has been read, even if only for the time it takes to turn a page, things that exist in a space exterior to meaning—things that are invisible but which have a real role and function in the reading experience. They're what is missing.

This is one of the real strengths of the electronic format (if the coding to get the book into the format doesn't introduce infelicities of the sort I've been mentioning above): it gives the reader control of these invisible—seemingly intangible—elements of reading in a way that no other format before has done. One of the truly great things about iBooks (about almost every reader, actually, but I'll speak about iBooks because that's the one I'm most familiar with), is that you can control how much text is displayed on a page.  If I download the free iBooks copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, iBooks initially offers it to me as a 120-page book. By increasing the font a few times I can double the number of pages, thus halving the amount of text per page—which is something that makes Conrad much easier to take in. As Matt Bell pointed out to me, making me consciously aware of something I implicitly knew, this can have a direct effect on the reader's comprehension of a text. A difficult book with more white space and fewer words per page becomes somehow more manageable; a naturally fast-moving, plot-driven book, on the other hand, isn't aided and might even be impaired by having too little text on a page. There's a reason that I subconsciously had preferred to read old hardback editions of Conrad which give the text more air. And my students struggle with the crowded Dover or Signet editions of Conrad or James not only because the texts are difficult but also because the formatting is claustrophobic. Try reading the first few paragraphs of Heart of Darkness with the font increased to make the book 702 pages long: you take in the information in a much different way. The text still feels complex, but it's neither as dense nor as difficult as it is at 120 pages. Now reduce the text to 66 pages, the lowest that iBooks will let you go. Same words, same text, but the reading experience is not at all the same, and ultimately neither is the book.

Which raises an important question: how does innovative fiction survive such treatment, such a change in medium? If I read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest in a large font on my iPad, does it still feel as innovative or as complex as it does on the uncomfortably crammed pages of the Little, Brown edition? Do I see complexities I didn't see before or do I see the fiction's seams? If I read Beckett's Worstward Ho in his collected writings volume, how different an experience is it for me than reading it in the large-fonted Grove press edition? Does the fiction still hold up? What about Joyce? Burroughs? Woolf? Forget the test of time: in the age of electronic reading, books will first have to survive the test of user-variable font.

 

II.

When people (critics of modern and contemporary poetry and fiction especially) talk about innovation and experimentation, they tend to skew toward its more visible, obvious manifestations, experimentation that is maximal and maximally visible: immediately visible experiments with typologies or the field of the page, maximal and excessive language, language games, encrustrations and elaborations and bloatings of various sorts. It's the reason we hear a great deal more about James Joyce (or even, though she manifests it quite differently, Virginia Woolf) than about someone like the equally brilliant Henry Green, who deliberately restricts his choices (for instance, in his later novels Nothing and Doting he removes almost everything that isn't dialogue). It's the reason we hear a great deal more about maximalists like David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon than about David Markson, whose later novels deliberately have absolutely the minimum of plot and narration needed for them to continue to function as if novels.

Reading Joyce's Ulysses, we soon come to feel we're in the hands of a master, someone whose work is rife with significance and meaning. It is work in which everything "matters." Each page is crammed chock-full of significance. Every name means something, every linguistic gesture is carefully considered. There are many puzzles, but, as dozens of commentators have shown, these puzzles have deliberate, significant solutions. This makes it possible to organize a whole course around Ulysses or a whole course around Finnegans Wake (I took both courses in graduate school).

But I don't particularly want to attack Joyce. Let me take a step back, a step away from the Joyce industry: When I first read Ulysses, I did it at age twenty over a series of days, sitting in the Brown Deer Public Library in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I didn't have Stuart Gilbert's book on Ulysses or Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated or Harry Blamires' The New Bloomsday Book (all recommended and discussed in the grad class I took) or any number of other interpretive guides. What I had was myself and the book. The effect of reading Ulysses that way was very different than studying it in a class: if you don't have a commentator telling you what's "really" happening, you become quite interested in what's being left out, in the gaps and pauses, in what's not said, in the fact that a good part of the time on your first reading you don't have a fucking clue where the characters actually are, who they are, or what's going on. The style or subject or register will suddenly shift without explanation. Generally, these shifts take place without the markers that would make the shifts explicable or safe.

That lack of markers is something at least as important as the more maximal and puzzle-related elements of Ulysses. Indeed, I'd argue that a big part of what makes Ulysses innovative is not its maximal effects but its subtractive gestures: what it refuses to give us, what it leaves out. Its plot, for instance, is so attenuated that it can only be pieced together after multiple readings, or with help from a critic. It refuses to give us explanations for why it switches styles: we might be able to retroactively justify these switches, but the text proper does not do so. Its sense of character and character description is deliberately marginal: indeed, we have a more vivid sense of the appearance of the snot that Stephen picks out of his nose and wipes on a rock (once we get to the point of realizing that's what's being described) than we do of a number of the characters. And, curiously enough, the chapter titles that all Joyce criticism relies on ("Proteus", "Calypso", etc., not to mention the grouping of these chapters into "The Telemachiad," "The Odyssey," and "The Nostos") do not exist in the book itself: they were deliberately left out.

Little of the criticism on Joyce, however, focuses on the usefulness of this leaving out, on what this subtraction itself does to create the reading experience. Indeed, the Ulysses guidebooks seem set on keeping us from having a genuine reading experience, intending to give us information in advance that will help us keep our footing at the very moments when Joyce's text would have us lose it and swim to keep our heads above water. Joyce's mastery is something that is built by taking the techniques and ideas of the nineteenth-century novel and stripping away most of what such novels try to accomplish. However, the experience of reading Joyce unmediated is one that very few readers actually have. Most of us have already strapped on the jetpack of interpretation before the reading itself begins, and we blast past the experience of the subtractive instability at the heart of Joyce's work to go straight to mastery.

Joyce himself seems, perversely enough, to have encouraged this. Subtraction is an important part of Joyce's work, but, unlike in someone like Beckett, it's obscured beneath the noise of the gestures that move in the other direction: his maximalism, his encyclopedism, his love of a good puzzle, his sense of the book having a key, his insistence on intense specific detail, names, accuracy, etc.

When asked by Max Eastman why Finnegans Wake was so difficult, Joyce suggested it was "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years." The question I think we need to ask as writers and readers is whether this is a productive busyness or mere busy work. What, if anything, does keeping the critics busy have to do with a reader's apprehension of a text itself?

Critical apprehension is something that comes from the reading experience, but always comes after. To begin with it is to short-circuit the reading experience in a way that gelds it. The notion of the book as something that contains meanings or as a puzzle to be solved makes a book easy (and fun) to talk about in critical terms, but provides a) a very limited view of what the possibilities of innovative literature are and b) an inaccurate sense of what goes into generating the initial reading experience. To the degree that critics (and Joyce himself) foster this view, they discourage us from seeing any work clearly at all.

 

III.

If I were to indulge myself in a metaphor (something I rarely do in my own work, preferring to do without a device that has been for better or for worse one of the staples of writing in English), I'd say that Joyce's Ulysses strikes me as being fully orchestrated. Reading Joyce, particularly in the company of his annotators and commentators, is a bit like watching a symphony orchestra full of consummate musicians performing in a lovely hall, while the critics stand at the front holding up captions and telling us when to applaud. The acoustics are great, the musicians hit all the right notes and have at their fingertips all the possibilities of their repertoire; the music is impeccable, slick, sometimes even surprising; thanks to the critics we know what to think of each part of the score. Even when he's playing a polka we can't help but think it's the best fucking polka we've ever heard. It's an impressive performance and one very much worth attending—you go away impressed, moved, transformed, informed, and so on. And yet…

On the other end of the spectrum—the end of the spectrum that traditionally gets associated with Beckett since it has become a critical commonplace to see Beckett and Joyce as representing the two poles of possibility for literature—we have a very different musical experience. It is more like stumbling in the dark onto a moribund man lying beside a campfire, holding a guitar with most of its strings broken. If his shoulder is shaken, he rouses himself and starts to play. And even though he has very little to work with and you don't necessarily expect much, the noise that comes out of his guitar is haunting and strange, as weird or weirder than the entrancing music from Isabel's mysterious guitar in Herman Melville's strangest novel, Pierre: or, the Ambiguities. There are no critics to tell you what to think, but it's hard not to think that, if there were, they would just get in the way.

 

The work I'm more interested in is the sort that operates by exclusion and subtraction and, unlike Joyce's work, doesn't try to deny or hide this fact, embracing it instead of obscuring it under layers of games and maximalism. It is work that embraces on some level or another a deliberate poverty but then despite this (or perhaps because of it) gets somewhere unique and original. Work that takes the proposition of doing without very seriously, that brings to life Beckett's notion of writing "without style."

Who does this? Beckett, obviously, with his sometimes nameless characters, his vague spaces, his reduction of character at times to disembodied voices, his stripping of the late stories down to just a few crucial words. Henry Green I've mentioned already: his late novels are pared back in a way that allows us to notice things about spoken language that we generally don't notice either in fiction or in life. Thomas Bernhard does it: his non-paragraphing makes it very difficult for the reader to come up for air. His eccentric use of italics, which at first seems logical and then slowly comes to seem chaotic and arbitrary, does it as well: what's been subtracted in this case is the rationality that makes a certain type of typographical gesture predictable or consistent—the effect of an inconsistent typographical gesture is not unlike the lack of italics in the Doctorow passage above: it doesn't signal in a way that lets us maintain our stability.

Among contemporary writers one might think of Diane Williams' reduction of her prose to gnarled gems, my colleague Renee Gladman's use of only partially differentiated cities, and Gordon Lish's distillation of a story to a series of clichés ("The Merry Chase"). There's Blake Butler's There Is No Year, which deliberately leaves characters unnamed, and then uses repetition to simultaneously double the characters and subtract them. I've mentioned Markson already.  Evan Lavender Smith subtracts in a Marksonian way in From Old Notebooks, in which the gaps/intervals are as important as the words themselves, but does so to reveal a kind of seemingly personal space not nearly so evident in Markson. In Avatar, Smith does without in an entirely different and entirely impressive other way, extending non-paragraphing into a non-differentiated space occupied by an only marginally differentiated voice.

Some writers employ subtraction in regard to form, others in regard to content; most, however, don't seem to differentiate between the two: form and content fade into one another in a way that makes one wonder how we could ever have considered them separate entities. That's the case with Shelley Jackson's The Melancholy of Anatomy, in which the distinction between the spaces inside the body and outside of the body no longer exists, at least not in any way we are used to perceiving it. It's very artfully created in the gaps and holes the narrator experiences in Laird Hunt's The Impossibly. It's the case in Antoine Volodine's Bardo or Not Bardo, which effaces the difference between the living and the dead, its characters at once alive and dead and neither alive nor dead. It's the case with Blake Butler's Ever, which opens a door onto vertiginousness by subtracting the distinction between body and house. Jane Unrue's The Life of a Star reduces a character to acted gesture and pushing this dissolution even further. Roberto Bolaño in 2666 deliberately leaves out whatever it would take to "solve" the mysteries of the murdered women and the vanished writer and make the kind of sense of them that would allow us to put them in a drawer, dismiss them. It does so both through a deliberate paucity of style and by simply leaving out the connecting bits. In Bolaño's case there is an ethics (albeit perhaps a horrifying one) behind this, as well as a world view, as well as a willingness to confront the fact that most of life is precisely that: insoluble.

I'd mention as well Richard Kalich, whose Penthouse F offers a series of fragments and notes, an interrogation, thoughts, etc., concerning a writer named Richard Kalich and his possible role in the suicide of a young man and a young woman. What's removed here, among other things, is a sense of divisions: Kalich (both Kalich the character and Kalich the writer) doesn't make a distinction between a book and the notes leading up to a book, and does away with (paradoxically enough, this is partly through the addition of the author's name) the distinction between life and fiction. The boy and girl remain deliberately unnamed, a gesture that keeps them hesitating between existing and not existing (as the notes of Kalich's "unwritten" novel suggest: "Had he imagined the boy and the girl? Was his encounter with them a fiction? Were they even real…" This ultimately touches on what is at the heart of all subtractions and all blurring of distinctions within this particular aesthetic mode: what is being taken away is stability and certainty. If a game is being played, it is a game which at its core is about the potential dissolution of reality altogether.

In The People Who Watched Her Pass By, Scott Bradfield practices a subtraction that destabilizes the world for the reader in a quiet but stunning way. He offers the story of a three-year-old girl named Salome (Sal) Jensen, kidnapped from her home by the man who fixes her parents' hot water heater—a man she immediately starts to call Daddy. From there she is passed from dubious adult to dubious adult, observing the lives of those around her, as well as her own life, with a cool detachment. What actually happens to her in each set of circumstances is never completely articulated. Instead, it is hinted at, left vague, leaving us, along with the girl herself, often unsure where (or if) caring has ended and abuse has begun.  Though the book is written in third person, the narrative remains so close to Sal's perspective that we are never allowed to occupy a position where we can understand what is happening to her from an adult perspective. As the Los Angeles Times suggested about the reading experience: "When one slips back into adulthood, it is not clear who the victims are, the good guys and bad guys." Add to that Bradfield's remarkable ability to keep Sal hopeful and upbeat despite everything, the lightness of his touch, the refusal to give us any position to sentimentalize her, and we can understand that the genuine subtraction of other perspectives so as to engulf us in the particularities of a single life which is not our own is a very powerful ethical tool.

 

IV.

Not long ago I had an email from a reader which said, in part: "I've been grappling with your short narrative called 'Windeye' for the past week, and I can't seem to get a firm grasp on the true meaning… [A]ll of my interpretations seem to have faults. Is there any way you would be able to shed some light on the meaning of the story?"

I let the email sit a few days. I considered not answering it. The problem was that no, I couldn't really shed light on the meaning, true or not, of the story. I don't think of the story as a container for, or repository of, meaning. My sympathies lie much closer to what I see functioning in Scott Bradfield's novel: such fiction is experiential, and for me it is successful to the degree to which it allows readers to undergo an experience outside their immediate realm of possibility, and to the degree to which that second-level experience in turn functions in relation to the first-level experience that we think of as living. That's not the same thing as a meaning. Nor does it have much in common with information or figuring out a puzzle. Rather, it is a form of affect intensively conveyed by utterance.  Fiction is a set of observable manifestations, as represented and frozen in language, that triggers a profoundly subjective and individual experience.

Ultimately, this is the kind of productive dilemma that can allow fiction to get to places that other media does not. Fiction is exceptionally good at providing models for consciousness, and at putting readers in a position to take upon themselves the structure of another consciousness for a short while. It is better at this than any other genre or media, and can do it in any number of modes (realistic or metafictional, reliably or unreliably, representationally or metafictionally, etc.). But for it to be able to do this as well as it possibly can, it must clear a space. This is where, for me, doing without becomes most crucial.

The subtractions that we find in innovative fictions (even when those subtractions, as in Joyce's work, are followed by further ornamentations and encrustations) are there to facilitate the simulation of consciousness. What is subtracted is the significance and meaning designed to let us classify an experience without entering into it. Doing without such things opens the door wider for experience, putting the reader in a position where they are experiencing fiction in lieu of understanding it.

By paying more attention to what we leave out than to how readers are going to interpret or work after the fact, we refuse to let fiction be assimilable, digestible, and safe. We keep it from being mere fodder for criticism and instead accept it as valid, vital experience.

This willingness to "do without" combined with a faith in the experiential possibilities of fiction strikes me as characterizing the direction that innovative fiction is going, much more so than the maximalism or encyclopedism that characterized the experiments of an earlier generation. No doubt fiction will turn again in that direction at some point, and in all sorts of other directions as well, and no doubt there will continue to be writers who continue to do good, major work in a maximalist vein. But at the moment such work increasingly strikes me as missing the point. We now live in a world inherently and banally maximal: the world of Gaggle™ and Facespace,™ a world where it takes me now four or five seconds to pin down the name of a song whose half-remembered lyrics have been floating unidentified through my head since I was twelve, a world in which I can track down a literary reference in minutes that two decades ago it would have taken a team of librarians a week to discover, a world in which I now employ the internet as my ancillary memory.  In such a world, maximalism and encyclopedism and erudite puzzle solving simply feel like more of the same, and the last thing we need is more of the same. We need less, much less: we don't need fiction that cultivates the general noise in a slightly more erudite way but still plays by the same rules; we need fiction that strips its way down to our nerves and fibers, simulations that are willing to cut enough of our context away to let us step outside of our own increasingly simulated experience and to see it afresh, from without.