(This review first appeared in The Kenyon Review Online.)
If any writer deliberately proceeded throughout his career to almost ensure his work would be ignored by critics and publishers, it would have to be Harold Jaffe. Jaffe has steadfastly continued to write fiction that is formally and conceptually adventurous while at the same time advancing a radical sociopolitical critique that portrays US culture in the most starkly unfavorable light. From his first novel, Mole’s Pity (1979), to his newest collection of “docufictions,” Induced Coma, Jaffe has challenged assumptions about fiction as a literary form and enlisted his work in the effort to resist the maleficent influences of America’s “official culture,” a culture that undermines human well-being and despises real human freedom. Since inevitably many readers are uncertain how to respond to these objections, at worst confused about, if not actively hostile toward, the purposes behind them, it is not surprising that Jaffe’s books are seldom reviewed and are usually published by small, even marginal, independent presses.
Even so, Jaffe has a dedicated if small following among proponents of experimental fiction, and his most recent works of fiction, Anti-Twitter (2010), OD (2012) and Induced Coma (a sequel of sorts to Anti-Twitter), are arguably among his most accessible, once the reader has accepted the motive that has produced these hybrid fictions and the principle by which they have been composed. These books present us with “docufictions,” stories that blend fact and fiction in such a way that the factual seems fictional and the fiction is related as if fact. Most of the pieces in these books originate in news reports from disparate sources that Jaffe “treats,” a technique he has described as “inserting a line or two, or rearranging the format, or simply setting the original text in a different context, not altering the figure but the ground.” While the subjects of the news stories vary widely, from the prurient and sensational to the alarming and ominous, they are all, through Jaffe’s treatment, made to reveal another instance of the narcoticization of American culture, a condition imposed not least by the very forms of communication meant to keep us informed. Jaffe’s docufictions show how, through twenty-four hour news coverage and the ubiquity of social media, we have become inured to the grotesquerie our culture is becoming.
Despite its title, Anti-Twitter is not so much a critique of that particular form of social media as it is an appropriation of the rhetorical constraint inherent in that medium for Jaffe’s own structural purposes. He does not limit himself to 140 characters, as users of Twitter must do, but instead composes a series of “150 fifty-word stories,” as the book’s subtitle proclaims. By necessity, these fifty-word stories relate their subjects in an especially blunt, pared-back style:
The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at former US President Bush had his sentence reduced from three years to one.
His lawyer argued that the charge be changed from assault to insulting a foreign leader.
The magistrate concurred.
Shoe hurling is considered a grave insult in Iraqi culture.
Even if the compression of this “tale” is extreme, we might conclude we have after all been told everything we need to know about this episode, except that, of course, all the context is missing, especially the context that could help us better judge the significance of the information we are given in the final sentence. Is shoe hurling really a grave insult? (Apparently it is, and not something Jaffe has invented.) If so, is it an even graver insult to former President Bush that the magistrate reduced the journalist’s sentence? What does this tell us about the legacy of the US invasion of Iraq?
Jaffe surely wants us to ask these questions. Indeed, such a story as this is likely to seem a mere trifle, a curious mimicry of robotic media conventions, unless we do pause to consider what might lie between (and around) the lines. Considered by itself, this piece might not seem to call for such close scrutiny, but collected with other, similarly deadpan but also oddly enigmatic “fifty-word stories,” the effect is cumulative, the underlying strategy more palpable. In the way these stories present some of the strangest and most disturbing “real-life” developments as bite-sized “reports,” they represent Jaffe’s attempt to take the severely reduced mode of discourse associated with Twitter and substitute for its usual vapidity a serious, if implicit, scrutiny of the dominant culture (American, but as the stories reveal, with an increasingly global reach) spawning those developments. This scrutiny requires participation on the reader’s part, who in the process becomes more aware both of the degradation of contemporary culture and the means by which that degradation is perpetuated and reinforced through our prevailing methods of communication.
Or at least this the ideal outcome for Jaffe, who has said in an interview that “I want my reader to walk away pent not purged” so that the reader “ruminates with interest and fretfulness about what he/she has read.” Thus, while the pieces in both Anti-Twitter and Induced Coma incorporate often grave and at times even grotesque subjects, they are designed not to “purge” by depicting these subjects as woeful or shocking but to quicken the reader’s attention through an essentially comic portrayal that leaves the reader dissatisfied with laughter as the primary response. In the first few pages of Induced Coma, we are given a report about a woman “detained after hitting a male in the face with raw steak” (as punishment for his preferring a bread roll over sliced bread), followed by a story of a man confronted with the choice of saving either his son or his wife as they are both drowning. If the contrast between these two pieces is jarring, the immediately following stories themselves yoke together the absurd and the appalling in a way that might indeed make us “fretful.” “Silicon” tells of a Korean couple whose real child starved to death while they were creating a virtual child in an online game. “Freeze-Dry” informs us that
Doctors are attempting to freeze-dry a severely disabled girl, nine years old, to keep her child-size at her parent’s request.
Born with static encephalopathy, she cannot walk or talk and has the mental capacity of a month-old infant.
Watch the child twist her mouth grotesquely and emit animal noises.
These slices of postbiological, techno-enthralled modern life might seem so bizarre and unsettling that we could wonder how thoroughly Jaffe has “treated” his sources, but finally they aren’t so implausible that we can’t imagine coming across them in an actual news report.
In Induced Coma, Jaffe expands his formal scope somewhat, as the book includes stories of up to 100 words, but otherwise still features docufictions drawn from a variety of media sources, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, the New York Daily News, and the Huffington Post. (Jaffe provides a list of his sources at the end of both Anti-Twitter and Induced Coma, although he does not identify the source of individual stories.) The effect of reading Induced Coma is less of receiving a series of twisted tweets than an episodic, highly variegated report on the discouraging state of the world we currently inhabit. Although these are stories that obviously exhibit few if any of the characteristics traditionally associated with narrative fiction, taken together they do provide a kind of realism, albeit a realism that exposes the corruption behind the increasingly digitalized façade of global culture, the inauthenticity of a thoroughly mediated “ordinary life.” While some of the “tales,” such as “Silicon” are more sickening than enjoyable, others could be called entertaining in their status as “found” silliness, whatever additional thematic force they might still potentially retain: “The Pope’s Cologne” mimics an ad for “this historically elite cologne” worn by Pope Pius IX (“we obtained the formula from descendants of Pius’s Papal Guard commander and lifelong companion General Didier Le Grande”), “Hitler’s Fart” informs us that an SS officer preserved some of the flatulent Adolph Hitler’s farts in bottles, one of which is now available on eBay, and in “Coke $$” we learn that “91 percent of dollar bills contain traces of cocaine,” which “points to the increasingly widespread use of cocaine in the US.” The highest number of such bills was found in Washington DC, the lowest in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Perhaps the stories included in Anti-Twitter and Induced Coma could be classified as “flash fiction,” although the only thing they really have in common with most flash fiction—which usually features character, setting, or even a rudimentary version of plot, something that marks it as the product of “invention”—is their brevity. “Docufiction” is a term Jaffe has used since at least False Positive (2002), and encompasses such other collections of longer docufictions as 15 Serial Killers (2003) and OD. Jaffe’s 2009 novel Jesus Coyote, a very thinly disguised portrayal of the Manson Family (Charlie Manson becoming “Jesus Coyote”) also qualifies as a docufiction, so that a work like Induced Coma is best seen as a kind of ultimate refinement of the approach developed in these books, an approach incipient, perhaps, in Jaffe’s early work, but brought to its most salient focus in the more recent books’ representation of media itself as the site where the “real” is determined. Jaffe has been from the beginning of his career a formally adventurous writer, contributing belatedly to the rise of “experimental fiction” as something like an avant-garde in postwar American fiction, but his experiments with the concept of the docufiction arguably now constitute his most distinctive achievement.
Jaffe’s work from the beginning clearly enough has been politically motivated, an attempt to create an iconoclastic fiction that in disrupting conventional discourse (in this case the conventions associated with “normal” fiction) also disrupts the political assumptions and practices that discourse helps to support by implicitly suggesting that the currently “normal” is naturally so. But where the earliest fiction—in addition to Mole’s Pity, such books as Mourning Crazy Horse (1982), Dos Indios (1983), and Beasts (1986)—appears to take somewhat more interest in formal innovation for its own sake (Beasts, for example, comprises a set of stories that parallel the medieval bestiary), Induced Coma and its immediate predecessors are politically “engaged” in a more direct and purposeful way. The aesthetic interest in the fifty and 100 words stories of Anti-Twitter and Induced Coma is mostly conceptual, their success mostly dependent on the reader’s willingness to look “outside the text” to affirm the author’s intent. These stories challenge literary convention, but this is done less in the name of redirecting or refreshing literary practices than of calling attention to the cultural and political depredations of the world we live in, forcing our awareness that they are depredations, so that, presumably, we might do something about them.
This is not to say that the conceptualism of Induced Coma has no aesthetic interest, nor that Jaffe shows no additional concern for aesthetic effect or value. The very first piece in the book, the title story, introduces what will be the underlying metaphorical representation of the book’s portrayal of our wired and networked world as “Coma-land,” a “degraded version of Nirvana” that lulls us into its “sweet spice” of irreality. The pieces are not arranged in a random or a rigidly imposed order but in an effectively understated way, using sequential repetition of subjects and motifs and alternating the stories of outright horror with the stories of absurdity so that the book’s tone remains uneasily (but provocatively) suspended between the two. However, these signs of the writer taking the aesthetic demands of fiction seriously do not displace the overriding ambition of this book, as well as Harold Jaffe’s fiction more generally, to be politically effective, to encourage the reader’s recognition of the oppressive forces shaping (or misshaping) his/her experience of current “reality.”
This is a perfectly fine ambition if you think innovation in fiction is “subversive” only if it subverts not just literary convention but also existing political structures. To the extent that Jaffe himself seems to believe this, perhaps it is ungenerous to say that the ambition is likely to remain unfulfilled, the political structures in question to remain untouched by his literary iconoclasm, and not only because that very iconoclasm helps to account for his small audience and lack of critical attention. Still, it also accounts for the liveliness and originality of his dissident fiction, even if Jaffe himself might not consider his work wholly successful if the readers he does attract find this by itself sufficient reward.