Laura Mullen, Murmur
Readers who would expect from Laura Mullen's Murmur (Futurepoem Books) a "plot" of the sort we usually expect from a work designated a "novel" (even if the plot is deliberately fragmented or only cursorily developed) would certainly be considerably disappointed. What we get instead is a rudimentary situation--a dead woman is found on a beach--that is either real or is the beginning of the plot of a book a woman is reading and that is repeated, in different iterations, over and over.
Readers who would expect well-developed "characters" (as Gilbert Sorrentino would have it, characters who "jump off the page") would also be sorely disappointed. The woman, a detective, potential killers appear and re-appear, changing places with one another so that, as one of the blurbs on the jacket flap describes it, we get "all possible events, all murderers and all murdered, so that, at any point in the narrative, everything has happened and everyone has done it." There are voices, drifting in and out, but no characters.
Thus the reader who would seek a stable point of view, from which we can coherently make sense of the "action," would also be frustrated, especially since the book is offered to us as, ostensibly, a crime novel, or a pastiche of one. Murmur doesn't lead us, as in most detective novels, on an epistemological journey culiminating in knowledge (who done it) but instead renders up a world of epistemological chaos, by which all our ways of knowing are mocked and travestied. Still, we keep reading (or at least I did), not to find out who did what but to find out what new obstacle to our desire for such knowledge (which has us "reading for the plot" and ignoring the means by which it is presented to us) the author will introduce. (Our tendency to read in this way is further mocked at the level of sentence and paragraph; many sentences break off at the margin, left unfinished, the connection to the line that follows short-circuited so that we must bear down even harder and search for the missing sense.)
In short, readers who would expect Murmur to be a recognizable kind of novel in any way other than the most elemental--its 151 pages seem to be related to one another, and we are encouraged through style and imagery to take it as a coherent whole--will probably not enjoy it. It seems to me the very embodiment of John Hawkes's dictum that "the true enemies of the novel [are] plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure [is] really all that remain[s]" If anything, Mullen's book is even more combative against the conventional strategies of fiction, more reliant on "totality of vision," than Hawkes's, even, perhaps, more than Beckett's. I liked it, and intend to read it again.
Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Starcherone Books) would seemingly qualify as a "novel" only if we define the form in the barest possible terms: a lengthy composition in prose. Purporting to be a decoded translation of a series of "extra" episodes of The Odyssey (decoded because, according to the translator, who provides an introduction to the book that has now been made of them, they have existed as an encrypted manuscript the means of decrypting which has only recently been discovered), it bears no resemblance to the sort of unified narrative most readers expect to find in a novel. There is no plot other than the preexisting plot of the Odyssey, on which the "lost books" perform multiple variations. Similarly, while Odysseus is presumably the protagonist (if it isn't the "translator"), many different versions of Odysseus, assuming many different roles, are presented in the 46 episodes comprising The Lost Books. The stories are told from many different points of view, both first-person and third-person (one of the most affecting of the tales is told by the Cyclops, lamenting his blindness at the hands of Odysseus (and for whom he expresses great hatred)), and while one might read the tales simply as a collection of stories, this would rob them of the coherence they ultimately attain as a set of imaginative supplements to the Odyssey narrative--taken together, they form a kind of anti-Odyssey, an implicit commentary on the Homeric version of the story achieved by highlighting its elisions and sounding out its interstices.
Such a strategy does require some familiarity on the reader's part with the Odyssey itself, since the effects created by this sort of rewriting and rearranging to an extent do depend on our recognition that an episode from Homer's text has been recast--Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find his people "all astonishment and delight" and Penelope dead, Achilles abandons the Green encampment to do good works in the world, perhaps to spend "a year in contemplation in the shadow of a tree"--or a character or episode has been enhanced or freshly emphasized. While it is certainly possible that the reader only minimally acquainted with both The Iliad and The Odyssey would still find Mason's alternative versions diverting enough, the humor and the wit embodied in Mason's counter-narratives, as well as the cleverness of their construction, will surely strike the Odyssey-literate with more force and efficacy than those who know Homer's epic only in its barest outlines, if at all. By no means is The Lost Books of the Odyssey a book to be enjoyed only by classicists, but it helps to be a reader with an interest in literature, and The Odyssey's role in its history, that overshadows whatever interest most readers of novels profess to have in encountering "real life" in fiction.
Despite these potential obstacles to a broad audience for a book like The Lost Books of the Odyssey, it is, in my opinion, nevertheless a work of "experimental" fiction that many readers would find enjoyable if they were to give it a chance. Not only are many of the invented episodes entertaining in their own right, but gradually one comes to anticipate what new twist on the Odysseus story Mason will offer, in a way that is almost analogous to the pleasurable anticipation readers feel when looking forward to the next turn of plot in a conventional narrative. Equally rewarding is the opportunity to reflect further on the Homeric themes of war, honor, leadership, and sacrifice, which, if anything, are accentuated even more intensely (if at times ironically) through the liberties taken with the story of the Trojan War (e.g., the chapter narrated by Odysseus that begins, "I have often wondered whether all men are cowards like I am") and through the parallels that might be drawn between this re-told Odyssey and our own ongoing, ill-conceived war. The Borgesian frame provided by the translator's introduction and an appendix relating the history of the lost books contributes an additional tongue-in-cheek element that completes the novel's masquerade as a feat of "scholarship."
For me, the most successful works of experimental fiction always "entertain," even when they reject or subvert the usual devices conventionally considered the source of fiction's ability to entertain--the devices that create "compelling characters," dramatic narratives, "vivid" settings, etc. (Gilbert Sorrentino's novels provide a good example of this ability to entertain while dispensing with the standard accoutrements of entertainment.) In experimental fiction of the postmodern kind, this is frequently accomplished through comedy and satire. In the case of The Lost Books of the Odyssey it is achieved through what might simply be called ingenuity, along with a certain amount of chutzpah. This may or may not be an approach all readers can appreciate, but I found this novel a pleasure to read nevertheless, and I highly recommend it.
Che Elias, West Virginia
One hesitates to "review" a book like Che Elias's West Virginia (Six Gallery Press), since the conventions of reviewing require a focus on what a book is "about," where fiction is concerned on recapitulating the "story" (which, unfortunately, most newspaper book reviews emphasize most directly and at greatest length), as well as summing up the characters and situation motivating the story. Such reviews assume a shared, stable definition of "fiction" or "novel" in which these elements predominate, and to give an account of a particular novel using them is to position this novel--as well as the reviewer--in the recognizable, respectable space devoted to "literary fiction."
When confronted with a work that doesn't itself assume the stability of definition used by book reviewers, that is manifestly unconventional or "experimental," the temptation is to either label it so and let readers reach their own (usually unfavorable) conclusion about whether it's a book they'll want to read or to find a way to describe the work in such a way that it to some degree does incorporate the conventional elements--"the setting is indefinite and shifting, but nevertheless evokes a world of dreamlike dimensions," etc. I myself generally adopt the latter strategy when attempting a review of an unconventional work, although I don't so much try to make the work fit the existing categories as to explicate what it seems to me to be doing that effectively replaces or substitutes for those categories.
Even so, a descriptive review of this sort can still impose an appearance of normative coherence that the work doesn't really express, sometimes actively resists. This kind of review also risks misleading the reader, who might give the book a chance, hoping to find enough of the conventional pleasures to make it worthwhile in those terms only to find it remains alien and "difficult." Such a review does a disservice both to the reader and to the work in question, the latter of which ought somehow to be given the opportunity to be approached on its own terms. The effort to "dumb down" fiction so that it appeals to the widest possible audience is in general misguided and counterproductive, and even an unwitting distortion of a challenging novel's discernible features also does the cause of experimental fiction no favors at all, if anything drives the "ordinary" reader even farther away.
Thus I will not attempt to recover West Virginia for the casual reader who knows he/she will not find enjoyable a novel--albeit a relatively brief one--whose prose style might be captured in a passage such as this:
Now I can only listen to the smile that killed me before, to the time that ran away and the days where they say they've all left me. And the time now, the room indefinite, and the room now, the place where you were next to me, and the room said, well, you got some things you can think of being the only ones that exist, and the days being the only men you can say were human. And the people, down to the point in Wheeling, they will all say yes, we're those people, and the men, too, the ones who killed us, and the ones who only held one thing against us in Wheeling, there was just a time when we knew they were all through. And I had to walk down steps in Wheeling too, think I crossed halls and fields as well, guess these are the worst people I know, guess that I should get used to them.
I enjoyed West Virginia--in fact, read it twice--but I can't finally say what the book is "about," although the above-quoted passage does invoke several of the motifs and images that recur throughout the text: a room, "the people," an incident in Wheeling, which may have involved a rape, a killing, child abuse, a fire. There are several named characters, Andy Reed, Amber Reed (the latter of whom may have betrayed the former), Lynda Cleary, but they are hardly "characters" of the sort most readers expect to find in novels. They are essentially the locus around which the motifs and images swirl in a montage of repetition and variation. The effect is often hypnotic and sometimes dramatic--a revelation of sorts seems on the verge of materializing only to become lost again in the swirl--and the reader willing to suspend expectations of character continuity, of narrative "arc" and resolution, of style as a source of information, with the occasional rhetorical flourish, might well find the pull of language itself an adequate substitute for the narrative devices most writers still cling to, as did I.
But I don't think many readers will be willing to suspend these expectations, especially not as radically as a work like West Virginia solicits us to do. Those who consider the usual narrative devices to be the essence of fiction would surely put the book aside in confusion after a page or two. To some extent one might say that West Virginia is a "novel" that takes "psychological realism" to its most insular extreme: We are trapped inside the memories and/or perceptions of the narrator, who is unable to exteriorize these perceptions into what most readers of fiction would consider appropriate discourse. If you want access to "mind" in its rawest precincts, this is it. I don't think too many readers, even readers ostensibly committed to realism, would find much solace in this, either. Nor would it suffice to call this text "poetry" rather than fiction (a hybrid, perhaps), as most readers already avoid poetry because it's "just language," arranged in ways these readers don't "get." To urge such readers to try West Virginia because it's in some deep sense "poetic" might get us over the obstacle posed by "difficulty" in fiction but doesn't get us over the remaining obstacle that poses the poetic as difficult in the first place.
Thus, if you think you might like a book that requires a different kind of reading from you, reading that asks you to avoid the paths of comprehension you've always trod, by all means read West Virginia. If you're comfortable on those paths, and think a book like this would just get you lost, you probably should avoid it.
Peter Markus, Bob, or Man on Boat
On the one hand, Peter Markus's Bob, or Man on Boat is a welcome departure from most debut novels in that it is not some form of bildungsroman, or more loosely a disguised memoir, a perfunctorily fictionalized version of the author's youthful experiences (more precisely, of the author's experience of youth). Nor is it, like most literary fiction, whether a first novel or the latest mid-career production, a mostly recognizable variation on conventional narrative or psychological realism.
Indeed, a reader expecting a conventional first novel will surely realize after only a few pages of Bob that this is not one, that, in terms of plot development, it is a novel that isn't going to go much beyond the delineation of the character and situation named in the title. The portrayal of Bob and his boat could perhaps be said to reach inward--although this is done through concentration and indirection, not through the tedium of the "free indirect" method--as well as to expand outward and around Bob in concentric circles of thinly-layered exposition, but it could hardly be said to ever really push forward into a plotted narrative. Just as Bob himself, a fisherman, generally sticks to one spot, where he knows the fishing is good, this novel remains anchored in its narrator's mostly static perceptions of Bob, with whose piecemeal revelations we will have to be content.
On the other hand, experimental fictions that try to dispense with story and character development in their conventional form run the risk of simply alienating the reader if they don't substitute for them some alternative strategy or technique that engages the reader's attention and to an extent, at least, satisfies the need for "entertainment," if only in the narrowest sense as "interest," most readers bring to works of fiction. Often this substitution takes place as the manipulation of language in odd or surprising ways, the use of "style" to create or even replace "form." Bob, or Man on Boat is a novel of this kind, but, unfortunately, in my view it doesn't really manage to play its language game with sufficient vigor or dexterity to redeem its otherwise commendable resolve to avoid the usual practices associated with fiction. It is, on the most immediate level, not much fun to read, and this problem originates not from the novel being "difficult"--it is in fact a very quick read--but from its rather unimaginative simplicity.
Although practically any brief excerpt from the book would do as illustration, this passage does exemplify both its stylistic approach and the limitations of that approach:
The fish, unlike the sun, listen to Bob.
When the fish hear Bob singing to them, singing to them through the darkness of the river, the fish can't help but take a bite: of Bob's son, of the bait that Bob is fishing with.
Sometimes, Bob takes his fishing hook and Bob digs out the eye of a fish to use this fish's eye for bait.
Most of the time, though, Bob baits his hooks with mud.
Bob is a mud man.
Some men who fish for fish fish with minnows or worms.
We call these fishing men worm men and minnow men.
We call this kind of bait live bait.
But live bait never lives long.
Live bait usually dies before it's eaten.
Which is why Bob fishes with mud.
The most obvious features of such writing are, of course, the arrangement of sentences into what seem at first to be something closer to lines of verse than to prose, the deliberate repetion of words--Bob, fish, bait, mud--the simplicity of word choice in general. It is somewhat reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, but where Stein's sentences break down syntactical sense, and in doing so paradoxically draw more attention to the sentence as sentence, as a unit of composition, Markus's approach simply breaks down the paragraph into its individual sentences without otherwise questioning their ultimate connections in an expository chain. Combined with its focus of attention--baiting a hook--such language is not only more prosaic than poetic, it winds up emphasizing the least compelling element of traditional prose fiction, namely exposition and its obsessive scene-setting, which in this novel threatens to become almost endless. It might be possible to focus on exposition as a substitute for narrative and still make such a work lively, but in this case the information we are gradually provided about Bob and his life as a fisherman just isn't of sufficient interest to keep the fiction afloat (so to speak).
In this context, the repletion of words comes off as labored, the unstudied syntax robotic and enervating, making even such a short novel something of a chore to read. In his review of Bob at The Brooklyn Rail, Joseph Salvatore claims of Markus's work that
The integrity inherent in Markus’s simple structure. . .is deceptively powerful, often leaving the reader in a hypnotic swoon. It is through the accumulation of so few words, their repetition and syntactic arrangement and re-arrangement that a kind of linguistic alchemy takes place. Inside the blast furnace of Markus’s prose, language gets smelted down and reconstituted. Words we assumed to have fixed meaning slowly begin to lose meaning, begin to take on new sound and new sense, and, finally, return to a meaning that has been enriched with new alloying elements, both uncanny and astounding.
All I can say is that although this might sound good in theory, in practice, at least as embodied in Bob, or Man on Boat, it doesn't quite work out. The arrangements and re-arrangements just get bogged down in their own aimlessness and the "alchemy" never happens. Words don't so much get "smelted down" as lost in a processing loop, and they don't really enrich themselves through repetition but simply become repetitive and don't accumulate as much as they cancel themselves out in a linguistic haze. Sometimes the postulate through which a work of experimental fiction is supposedly to be understood just can't overcome the ennui with which the work is actually experienced.
Unlike Che Elias's West Virginia, a novel which also strips fiction down to the effects of language and its rearrangements, and in which language truly does get "smelted down and reconstituted," Bob, or Man on Boat isn't going to transform anyone's expectations of what fiction might be like if taken beyond the conventional. The language of West Virginia roils in conflict with itself, setting off sparks of energy. For the most part, Bob's language just hangs there limply.
Paul Griffiths, Let Me Tell You
The Oulipian strategy behind Paul Griffiths' short novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street) is made plain on the book's back cover:
So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know.... These are the words of Ophelia at the beginning of this short novel: literally her words, in that her narrative is composed entirely of the vocabulary she is allotted in Hamlet.
If it is true that fictional characters are literally no more than the words they are assigned in the text that gives them "life," Let Me Tell You illustrates that those words can go a long way. Through creative reshuffling and inconspicuous repetition Griffiths takes the fewer than 500 words Ophelia speaks (or sings) in Hamlet and fashions them into a convincing first-person account (with an interpolated play, several sonnets, and a soliloquy or two) of Ophelia's life before the events portrayed in the play, although in the words following those quoted on the back cover, she in effect acknowledges the difficulties of being liberated from the script she has until now always followed and that has set the terms of her existence:
. . .I was deceived to think I could not do this. I have the powers; I take them here. I have the right. I have the means. My words may be poor, but they will have to do.
What words do I have? Where do they come from? How is it that I speak?
Very rarely do Ophelia's words seem obviously contrived to fit the new circumstances of their utterance, and as the text unfolds Ophelia convinces us she has the right and the means to speak for herself and that the origin of her words is secondary to her often affecting repossession of them.
At the same time, one can never quite "lose" oneself in Ophelia's narrative. Its origin in the recycling of a precursor text, one that is no doubt well known to most who might read Let Me Tell You, must remain a manifest reality in the experience of reading the novel; it has very little claim on our attention, in fact, independent of its source in Hamlet and in Ophelia's role in the play. Admiration for the skill with which Griffiths rings changes on those 500 words is an unavoidable part of the reading experience. Indeed, the pleasure one takes in a work like Let Me Tell You is precisely the pleasure of witnessing in a particularly intent way the way a writer is using a structural device to bring character and event into existence.
In an interview with Mark Thwaite, Griffiths himself comments on the utility of his structural device: "If you keep to some form—some command, if you like—you come up with things you could never come up with by yourself." Griffiths' initial decision to write under the "constraint" imposed by sticking to the text of Hamlet--what he has "come up with" by himself--allows him, or forces him, to invest form with the duty to produce "content." This is what fiction writers who fancy themselves as having something "to say" are rarely able to do. For them, form is mostly an inconvenience, the bare minimal means to be enlisted in the grander act of saying something. Their work is thus formally unimaginative and, usually, thematically banal. In Let Me Tell You, Griffiths trusts that his form will effect its own kind of "saying." That it results in a character with emotional depth and a narrative that plausibly develops a life story about which Hamlet is otherwise silent only validates the wisdom of the author's commitment to that form.
Ultimately, Let Me Tell You seems to me one of those experimental fictions that straddles the line between narrative fiction and poetry, although by "poetry" we now mean only one of the modes that was included under that heading prior to the emergence of the novel as a separate literary form ("prose fiction"). Before then, "poetry" essentially included all modes of literary expression. If it is often the case that, as Brian Phillips has it, poets who write fiction often tend to exhibit a "powerful narrative impulse" that "refashions fiction with fiction’s own materials, not with transposed notes of poetry," writers of fiction who challenge what Phillips calls "narrative straightforwardness" often create works of "prose fiction" that remain more or less identifiably in "prose"--they are not "poetic" because they indulge in flights of figurative language similar to what is found in an older mode of lyric poetry--but that challenge the equation of "fiction" with narrative, refashioning fiction by aligning it with the structural imperatives of poetry but leaving the "lyrical" elements of verse aside. Such a move still puts more emphasis on language, as the reader must focus more squarely on the writer's effort to turn prose to account for purposes other than "telling a story," but it represents an approach to prose fiction that might re-establish it as a "poetic" genre alongside lyric poetry.
Near the end of Let Me Tell You, Ophelia, on the cusp of her fatal madness, laments to an absent Hamlet that "I cannot tell you what I most wish to tell you, for there are no words for what I would say." This is at the same time a playful reference to the conditions imposed on Ophelia's speech by the text itself and an honest statement of the unavoidable conditions imposed upon all poetic saying: the urge to express is quickly confronted with the actuality that all such expression will be incomplete, that the substance of what would be said is always escaping between the words. But, as Let Me Tell You demonstrates, what can be done with those words is sometimes almost sufficient compensation.