Raymond Federman was generally associated with those American writers who in the 1960s and 70s began writing what is now called "metafiction," but there was always something about Federman's work that seemed different, its self-reflexivity even more radical and enacted in a more aggressive way. Where Barth and Coover laid bare the devices of fiction allegorically (J. Henry Waugh as "author" of his fictional baseball world) or through the occasional narrative disruption (the "author" making his presence known, as in Barth's "Life-Story"), Federman's fiction was more direct and unremitting in its undermining of narrative illusion. With its prose freed from the constraints of typographical bondage, climbing up, down, across, and around the page, and its "stories" of writers attempting to tell a story without quite succeeding, Federman's fiction as represented in Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976), still his most important books, challenged not only reader's preconceptions about fiction but also basic assumptions about reading itself.
Federman rejected both "metafiction" and "experimental fiction" more broadly as labels accurately describing his work, instead coining the term "surfiction" to sum up what he—aswell as other innovative writers, such as Ronald Sukenick—was after. In his essay, "Surfiction--Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction," Federman defines the term:
. . .the only fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it: the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man's imagination and not in man's distorted vision of reality—that reveals man's irrationality rather than man's rationality. This I call SURFICTION. However, not because it imitates reality, but because it exposes the fictionality of reality. Just as the Surrealists called that level of man's experience that functions in the subconscious SURREALITY, I call that level of man's activity that reveals life as a fiction SURFICTION.
It is not altogether clear what Federman mean by the last part of this formulation, that surfiction "reveals life as fiction." In the next paragraph, he adds: "fiction can no longer be reality or a representation of reality, or an imitation, or even a recreation of reality; it can only be A REALITY—an autonomous reality whose only relation to the real world is to improve that world. To create fiction is, in fact, a way to abolish reality, and especially to abolish the notion that reality is truth." To "abolish the notion that reality is truth" is not, it seems to me, the same thing as revealing "life as a fiction." Denying that reality is the arbiter of "truth" does help to preserve the "autonomous reality" of fiction, but for fiction to be "a" reality, it would seem necessary that "reality" itself exist, to which fiction provides an alternative or a complement. If fiction is reality and life a fiction, then Federman is paradoxically valorizing realism after all, though not for "recreating" reality. Fiction is its own arbiter of truth, the realm where "life" is really to be found. This all seems a rather byzantine way to arrive at the conclusion that fiction is a creation, not a recreation of anything.
Indeed, if fiction is an act that "renews our faith in man's imagination," then it largely undermines the appeal to imagination to burden it with the task of rendering itself reality—unless you simply want to defend imagination as a process that's as real as any other human activity, and perhaps as revelatory of "life" as documentary-style realism. Certainly neither Double or Nothing nor Take It or Leave It themselves do very much to expose life as fiction, or, for that matter, "abolish reality." But they both do display the literary imagination at its most adventurous through exploring "the possibilities of fiction" and by challenging " the tradition that governs it." It seems to me that these are impressive enough accomplishments that asking them further to disclose "man's irrationality" or to abolish reality only threatens to saddle them with extra philosophical weight they don't really need to bear.
The reader encountering Double or Nothing for the first time surely becomes most immediately aware of its inherent playfulness. Riffling through the book, one finds pages arranged in multiple shapes and irregular spacings, its words cascading here and there, printed in various fonts and shadings. Some pages don't so much contain writing as words arranged into images and pictographs. It is apparent right from the start that this is a work that challenges our assumption that when we pick up a novel we will be reading "prose" that unfolds through the usual, orderly blocks of print that define the reading experience in its most fundamental form. Both Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It, which is also typographically adventurous, can be read as prose narratives of a sort—albeit narratives preoccupied with their own narration—but they at a minimum require the reader to reconsider his/her expectations of reading and to forsake dependence on the usual and the ordinary.
If the reader begins with the impression that Double or Nothing will be a mischievous, thoroughgoing challenge to the conventions that dominate the writing and reading of fiction, this impression should only be reinforced by the experience of the text itself, although that experience will surely exceed in its realization the pallid generalization of this description. The challenge of the novel is such that attentive readers will find it invigorating, an invitation to revise their notion of the reading experience as an essentially passive activity but also to find the kind of active reading it encourages a rewarding alternative. Above all, Double or Nothing is an entertaining novel, enjoyable to read in its very refusal to play by the rules.
The "plot" of Double or Nothing is announced--and more or less completed--in its opening lines:
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lack himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facililities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York city, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man of about 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities, from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who had himself come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established, sometime during the war after a series of gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned. . . .
Immediately we are introduced in this passage to the structure and strategies that will be further elaborated throughout the text that is Double or Nothing. Though initially less radical than the typographical play still to come, the use of bold type and italics here still seems disruptive, even arbitrary, although, as with all the other graphic devices in this novel, they actually work in part to substitute for more conventional grammatical and syntactical markers. The first boldfacing—“two or three weeks ago"—is clearly employed for humorous effect, but in general these interruptions provide a kind of rhythm and a different sort of visual orientation for a prose that otherwise abandons the traditional mechanics of prose.
The discursive situation set up here—a narrator relating the story of a writer preparing to write a story—is by now a recognizable move in postmodern writing, but in both Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It Federman uses this trope more thoroughly than almost any other postmodern writer, and in addition integrates it more seamlessly with the theme motivating his narrative maneuvers. Each of these novels takes as its secondary subject—the primary subject being writing itself—episodes in the life of a French immigrant to America whose biography in most ways mirrors Raymond Federman's. In Double or Nothing, this character's story is being told, or being attempted, by a second character, the "rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man" who is also a seeming facsimile of Raymond Federman in his later incarnation as writer. The difficulty of "getting it right" in recounting the experiences of the "shy young man" becomes the novel's central conflict, memory and fiction unavoidably merging as the middle-aged author struggles to get the story told. The story of the story is not just self-reflexive sport (although it is that) but also the most honest opportunity to get at something close to "truth."
This is perhaps the truth that fiction can provide, but ultimately what a work like Double or Nothing dramatizes is that the "truth" of fiction lies not in its fidelity to external events but to its own necessities. Federman uses his "life experiences" as material on which to perform the imaginative turns fiction always performs, but in Federman's case the performance is made "concrete," conducted on the page without disguise. Double or Nothing is the epitome of that modern/postmodern text that, in Jerzy Kutnik's words, "not so much says something about reality but, by its occurrence and presence, does something as a reality in its own right." I would add to this that it is a literary text that is allowed to "be something" as well. In both its emphasis on "performance" and its ultimate status as an object of aesthetic perception, Double or Nothing is less a rendering of experience (at least as a realistic representation of "life") than it is an experience "in its own right." In its very refusal to accept the established practices determining where the "art" of fiction is to be found, Double or Nothing establishes itself as art in the most compelling way possible, by providing the reader with a unique aesthetic experience.
Although Take It or Leave It continues to experiment with the dynamics of the printed page in an approach similar to Double or Nothing, it is both more and less radical than its predecessor. It contains fewer word-pictures and other extreme acrobatic notational flourishes, but it also takes the self-reflexive portrayal of the fiction-writing process even farther. Kutnik begins to get at this feature of Take It or Leave It when he notes of the twentieth century novel in general that often "the question 'What does fiction say (mean)?' was replaced by the question 'How is fiction constituted?' as the focus of the writer's attention" (37). Take It or Leave It moves ahead in the life of the "shy young man" to a period in which he is serving in the U.S. military and focuses on a single episode in which he drives from North Carolina to upstate New York to collect his misdirected pay and from which he intends to drive across the country for further deployment. Although he does finally make it to the first destination, the relation of the second leg of the journey is permanently deferred as the narrative is punctuated by various digressions and a kind of internal drama carried out by multiple versions of the author, in this case split into three roles, as well as the implied reader.
In addition to the fictionalized Federman (for the purposes of this novel named "Frenchy") whose story is the ostensible subject of the novel, we are confronted with two different "tellers" of the story, one presumably an older Federman/Frenchy, who conveys the younger Frenchy's adventures to a second teller, who takes on the job of official narrator and who is the stand-in for Raymond Federman, author of Take It or Leave It. Later, the second teller leaves the narrative for a while, so that Federman/Frenchy must temporarily tell the story himself, and at another point the novel’s implied readers (residing in the future) intrude on the narrative by sending a proxy to see for himself what the young Frenchy is really up to.
In this way the actual reader of Take It or Leave It is exposed to a representation of "how fiction is constituted," or, as Kutnik puts it, to "the novel's internal space as the place where the text gets written, where it performs its own self" (202). Yet, this evocation of the "inner space" is also wildly funny, making Take It or Leave It in its way one of the most entertaining novels of its time. It stands with Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew as a great "postmodern" novel that is great because, while rejecting the elements of fiction writing most familiar to most readers, it manages to substitute for those elements a strategy that such readers could still enjoy if they gave themselves over to its alternative logic. Like Mulligan Stew, Take It or Leave It provides readers with a "good read" that is "good" both because it makes for a pleasurable reading experience and because in the process it stimulates the reader to reflect on the conventions of reading—conventions that might otherwise exclude novels like these as simply curiosities.
At the same time that Take It or Leave It attempts to undermine the authority of conventional approaches to the writing and reading of fiction, it also evokes one of the first great novels in the tradition, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Both are narratives about the impossibility of producing a narrative that doesn't leave out everything that's important. Both illustrate this dilemma by hilariously interrupting the narrative in progress through seemingly endless diversions and divagations. Sterne's novel at the very beginning of the modern history of fiction questioned the adequacy of "telling a story" as the justification of the form, and Take It Or Leave It renews that effort as provocatively as any work of fiction since.
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