Diane Williams

A current writer whose work in its sensitivity to the syntactic and auditory intricacies of the sentence can invite comparison with Gary Lutz is Diane Williams. Williams works primarily in what is usually categorized as “flash fiction,” as did Lutz early in his career, but in his later work he has combined a focus on the sentence as center of interest with a fuller exploration of character and narrative. In doing so Lutz may have sacrificed some of the nonlinear purity and hallucinatory intensity found in Williams’s fiction, and her stories are also more highly wrought, with a greater focus on the possibilities of the form as a means of foregrounding language itself, than most flash fiction has become. They do not settle for snapshot realism, and, despite their length, they in fact encourage slower, more careful reading. If flash fiction potentially appeals to a new, attenuated attention span among some readers, Diane Williams’s stories reward expanded attention and encourage rereading. One could spend as much time lingering over her brief fictions as reading much longer stories by more conventional writers, too many of which require too little of the reader’s close attention.

“My Defects,” the first story in Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, might serve not just as an introduction to this book but also to Williams’s work as a whole:

I’m happy at least to do without a sexual relation and I have this fabulous reputation and how did I get that in the first place? I am proud enough of this reputation and it stands to reason there’s a lot that’s secret that I don’t tell anyone.

I want to end this at the flabber, although I am flabbergasted.

I opened the cupboard, where the treats are stored, and helped myself and made a big mess, by the lakeshore, of the food, of the rest of my life, eventually.

Michelle, the doctor’s nurse, showed me a photograph of her cats. The smart cat opens the cupboard, Michelle says, where the treats are stored, and she can help herself, and she makes a big mess!

I crossed the street to survey the lake and I heard crepitations–three little girls bouncing their ball. I used to see them in perspective–my children–young people, one clearly unsuitable. She can’t help herself–she makes a big mess.

With my insight and skill–what do I search for at the shore?–the repose of the lake But sadly, although it does have a dreamy look, it is so prone to covering familiar ground.

On first encountering Diane Williams’s fiction, readers are likely to puzzle over the classification of such a condensed and often enigmatic work (“My Defects” is quoted here in full, and it is typical Williams in its length) as a short story. Short, yes, but story? Prose poem, maybe? Prose fragment? Surreal reverie? Williams’s stories have characters, but they hardly “develop” in any conventionally recognizable way. Sometimes a story seems to be advancing a plot only to abandon it or veer off in an apparently new direction. Most of the stories are too brief to evoke many details of setting, and while Williams does return to particular themes– especially sex–the stories are generally too elusive for the reader to conclude they are attempting to “say something.”

In “My Defects,” we are introduced to a character whose identity seems continuous enough but who is never really developed beyond her initial assertion that “I am happy at least to do without a sexual relation” and her accompanying puzzlement that “I have this fabulous reputation and how did I get that in the first place?” It could be said that the story is essentially an illustration of the narrator’s declaration of her circumstances in the first paragraph. To adequately discern the nature of the story’s portrayal of the narrator’s situation, however, we must understand the extent to which her initial words are both completely truthful and disingenuous. She doesn’t tell us why she is without a sexual relationship or why she is happy about this, nor what precisely her “reputation” is. (Perhaps she speaks for the author, who certainly does have a “fabulous reputation” among her admirers?) Yet at the same time, the narrator expresses in the first paragraph what surely does seem to her a literally accurate account of her life’s circumstances, however elliptical the reader might find it.

In a sense, the narrator tries to clarify what she means by this initial statement in the following paragraphs, which at least appear to present a semblance of plot and action. As is usual in a Williams story, the transition is abrupt, the connection at first obscure, facilitated only by some characteristic Williams wordplay. We might all along think that the narrator is speaking from her kitchen, except for the abrupt shift to the doctor’s office, which suggests that these scene changes may just be arbitrary. However, the parallel invocation of “a big mess” encourage us to find continuity after all, naturally enough inviting us to wonder what the mess might be. (Are all references to the “mess” just versions of the narrator’s?)

That the next paragraph finds the narrator watching children at the lake, imagining her children, “one clearly unsuitable,” along with a general air of regret perhaps unavoidably leads us to suspect that the narrator’s visit to the doctor might have been to seek an abortion, although the visit could be simply an implication that she is pregnant. The syntax and transitions are opaque enough that perhaps neither of these scenarios apply, however, and we are probably best advised not to try pinning down the story to its particulars at all. The unanswerable questions persist in the final paragraph. Is the narrator being ironic or sarcastic in referring to her “insight” and “skill,” since she ultimately gives us little reason to think she believes herself to possess much of either? Does the “dreamy look” of the lake coincide with the “repose” she seeks there, and wouldn’t “familiar ground” actually contribute to repose? And we should again be attentive to the wordplay: a lake by its nature covers unfamiliar ground, although it could also be just a continuation of the ground the narrator currently finds frustratingly familiar.

 A story like “My Defects” seems designed–and both its radical compression and its oblique structural devices certainly appear to be products of design–to unavoidably provoke the reader into looking for coherence and continuity while also frustrating any attempts to collapse the story into a too-facile coherence or to find continuity too readily. Like many of Diane Williams’s stories, it suspends the reader in its own dreamlike shifts and playful language such that the most satisfying response may be to relax the demand that the story yield up its meaning immediately, to perhaps be willing to tolerate indeterminacy. This would not really mean conceding the story is meaningless, a conclusion reached by too many readers when encountering “difficult” fiction, but rather accepting that its meaning (even at the level of “following” the plot) is suggestive rather than certain, including even the possibility of overlapping, multiple meanings.

Not all of Williams’s stories are as compressed as “My Defects” (although some are even briefer and more compressed). The title story provides a character study of sorts of Vicky Swanky, who, “years ago,” was a beauty. Now, “her breasts were flat. Her hips were flat. She looked older than her forty years.” The first part of the story offers a reasonably cohesive portrait of Vicky Swanky, whom the male narrator announces as an “old friend” who is “going through a divorce” and who invites the narrator over to her house. What the two do together is suggested in typical Williams ambiguity: “In connection with sex, we lightened up a little then and we dumped some of it off the edge at a minimum.” The second half of the story introduces elements that seem to develop the situation: the narrator brings over a dog; it snows; Vicky Swanky serves food. The narrator expresses his own uncertainties about the situation: “It was getting busy concerning the basic meaning, the degree, and the quality.” In the story’s final paragraph, a plumber arrives and indicates that he will need “to remove everything from the nipple in the wall to the toilet.”

“Vicky Swanky,” although still very short, is nevertheless characteristic of Williams’s more extended fictions. Such stories appear to progress by accumulating incidents, but these incidents lead the reader on paths that inexorably wander in uncharted directions, sometimes changing tack altogether. This is especially true in the novellas Williams has written, such as On Sexual Strength and Romance Erector. In these longest stories, something like a narrative does develop, but the reader should not expect its episodes to be related through their logical coherence, even if they do unfold in what seems a kind of progression. The narrative is built up out of the same sort of accumulation of smaller units of exposition and “action” we find in the briefer fictions, but if anything the effect over the course of the story is even more digressive than in the flash fictions, as the narrative oddities have more space in which to proliferate.

Thus Romance Erector tells the kind of story, about love and sex, the confusions in the former caused by the latter, one would expect from the title, but while it does feature recognizable characters experiencing those confusions, their actions are sufficiently ambiguous, at times almost arbitrary, that the reader might share their confusions. But the practiced reader of Williams’s signature short pieces will surely note the metafictional implications of the narrator’s words in Chapter 7, which opens with the narrator telling us “The real story begins on Thursday—pungent, warming—the translucent tale.” At the end she admits, however, that “I have storyish ideas but no story in me. This is the row of empty marks. These are the signs of what is next.” This of course applies to all of Diane Williams’s fictions—they embody “storyish ideas” but relate stories only in the sense that things seem to happen, even if we don’t quite know how or why.

In both her longest and shortest fictions, Williams fashions a kind of “story” that proceeds entirely from the “empty marks”—words—that are made into the “signs” that determine “what is next,” the sentences that in the intricate process of their unfolding work to shape narrative and character development. The result is indeed “translucent” prose compositions with enough of the familiar features of a “tale” to be recognized as a story but also cloaked in enough shadow and distortion as to remain mysterious.


Noy Holland

Although the influence of Gordon Lish as editor and teacher has extended to a wide range of seemingly disparate writers, one group seems to be especially sensitive to Lish’s influence. Writers such as Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, and Noy Holland palpably employ, in somewhat different but observable ways, the strategy Lish calls “consecution,” the focus on constructing and linking sentences by considering sound and rhythm as well as sense. Indeed, these writers no doubt take the strategy farther than Lish himself even envisioned, at least in their intensive focus on the sonic qualities of language, resulting in short stories (all but Schutt work almost exclusively in the short story, but her best work may also be her short fiction) using an alternative  mode of composition through which “character” and “story” are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement.

From this shared commitment to more fully exploring the linguistic resources of the sentence as a literary device, each of these writers draws on those resources in their own way, with different stylistic signatures that also create divergent larger-scale formal effects. Although all four writers work in narrative fragments, Williams’s stories are both the most highly compressed and the most elliptical. Her brief fictions especially require very close attention to the materiality of their sentences (including their sound), each one of which might be an episode in itself, the interval between them a leap in time or place. The same is true of Lutz’s early work, although more recently his stories have gotten longer, even if Lutz’s sentences are more notable for their utterly singular wordplay than for advancing clearly discernible plots. Lutz is perhaps the writer among this group who has most assiduously developed the strategy of consecution taken from Lish, while Christine Schutt might be described as the most “lyrical” prose stylist (although her prose is ultimately not so conventional in its carefully cadenced lyricism, which in its way is as sensitive to the intricacies of sound and syntax as Lutz’s more unpredictable sentences). Schutt’s novels in particular come closest to fulfilling traditional expectations of plot and character, but the reader who approaches her fiction simply for its narrative interest and who fails to appreciate what Lutz, in his essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” calls the “page hugging” appeal of Schutt’s writing will surely miss out on a significant element of its achievement and effect.

The stories in Noy Holland’s, Swim for the Little One First, are not as brief as Williams’s pieces, although they do have something of their enigmatic quality; they are not as verbally adventurous as Lutz’s stories, which does not mean they are less scrupulous in their attention to language; they do not develop plot and character as transparently as Schutt’s fiction does, but Holland incorporates linear narrative more than either Williams or Lutz. While such short pieces as “Blood Country” and “The Last Doll Never Opens” could be described as closer to surreal fables (or even prose poems), the most evocative and most compelling of the stories in Swim for the Little One First are the longer ones, generally both more extended in time and more specific to place. In these stories, a cogent narrative generally does emerge, unfolding as well in a recognizable setting, often the American West. However, because they are developed through extremely truncated fragments (sometimes only a single sentence), containing little in the way of direct exposition, the stories can seem impressionistic and elusive. With some, it is only after coming to the end of the story that one realizes Holland’s individually arresting sentences have told us a story after all.

The book’s first story, “Pachysandra,” works in this way. We track the narrator as she returns to her girlhood desert home to care for Rose (presumably her sister, although the relationship remains somewhat oblique). While there, she begins a sexual relationship with Rudy—“the help”—by whom she becomes pregnant, but subsequently she terminates the pregnancy (“I went to the hospital and had them scrape what Rudy gave me out”), even though at the beginning of the story she had been trying to become pregnant with her boyfriend, Tonto. We are not likely to forget this introductory episode, since the narrator’s activity is presented to us in an especially memorable formulation:

Rose called.

I said, “Hello, Rose.”

“You sound funny.”

I was lying on my back with my legs in the air trying to make a baby with my mister. I had his seed in there. My poor egg had stepped out to meet it.

By the end, the narrator has changed her mind about this effort:

I would not have been much of a mother. I went for shitbags. I liked to sleep late. I liked people who could work their own spoon.

While sentences like these do not exhibit the breaks in logic or continuity that frequently make Williams’s sentences so startling, or lead to the radical linguistic transformations that make us stop and linger over Lutz’s, they are surely not submerged into the ordinary flow of expository discourse characterizing most conventional narratives. They indeed ask us to pause and appreciate the way they avoid familiar phrasing and routine idioms in favor of a directness of expression both trenchant (“I liked people who could work their own spoon”) and almost ingenuous (“I had his seed in there”) but that also encompass unorthodox but quite satisfying figurative turns (“My poor egg had stepped out to meet it”). Because it does seem the expected sort of invisible prose has been deliberately avoided, passages such as these can seem odd or eccentric, but upon reflection they are in fact quite precise and evocative, fully coherent, if self-enclosed, in their fidelity to the isolated moments they attempt to invoke.

Since they provide us with more such moments, the longer stories afford us greater opportunity to appreciate what such passages are up to, as well as the way Holland assembles them into narratives in which much of the story occurs in the gaps between these articulated moments but are if anything more powerful because of that. “Luckies Like Us” ultimately relates the story of a family that has suffered devastating misfortune, focusing on the aftermath of an automobile accident that has left a son in a vegetative state. The story alternates between moments centered on the perspectives of the mother (who feels responsible for the accident), the father, and a daughter. The overlapping of perspectives allows us to integrate the characters’ ongoing attempt to cope with their situation with the “backstory” that has produced it, a strategy that, along with Holland’s stark and pointed language, makes what could be a potentially sentimentalized, emotionally facile story resonate through an emotional restraint that is ultimately all the more effective in conveying the family’s desperate plight. Indeed, Holland’s stories do not indulge in easy emotions, even if the bleak emotional atmosphere in many of them can be chilling. The characters face difficult circumstances and often suffer grim fates, but they neither struggle heroically to overcome their difficulties and thus inspire our admiration nor merely succumb to them passively and provoke mere pity. They do what they can, which more than anything else also makes them seem intensely human.

“Merengue” presents a decidedly non-sentimental portrait of a senior citizen community in Florida whose residents once led vital lives, but

Now they went about on tricycles and wheelchairs, the want to drift still in them. The old women played bridge and bickered by day and by nightfall slept with the louvers pinched shut. The old toms howled on the beach at night. The old men fished with kittens.

The area itself has seen better days as well. Once “starlets arrived in gold lame with their hair heaped up on their heads,” but then “the young went elsewhere. The sea ate the beach. Hotels were looted, emptied out but for squatters with their shopping carts and rags.” Two wandering lovers, Jack and Mary, arrive “from the land of head-high corn.” Mary is pregnant, about which Jack is, to say the least, ambivalent. Jack eventually becomes impatient with his new surroundings as well, which seem to him “like a nursing home without nurses,” but Mary is taken up by the old men, on whom she does seem to have a softening effect. Mary is subsequently gang-raped by local teenagers, and not only loses her baby but is told she will no longer be able to have children (her fate inviting a contrast with that of the narrator of “Pachysandra”). The story is the longest in the book, and it shows how Holland’s sentence-based fragments can very effectively expand over a larger canvas, creating an ultimate depth of character and situation that, in this case, makes the story’s somber conclusion affecting without descending into melodrama. “Merengue” has the length of a short story, but some of the scope and density of a novel.

The best story in the book, the title story, has a similar scope and density, although it is about half as long. It is also the most formally interesting work in this collection. At first we are tempted to think the narrator is addressing us in the story’s first few lines:

How nice you could come to visit. See our home, how we live, how the leaves sweep down. The fields green still.

We turned out clocks back. I brought squash in, tossed a sheet across the withering vines. We’re to expect a frost once the wind quits, wind from the north, flurries. A chance.

We’ll move the rabbits in the morning, light the stove. Chicory in your coffee, honey how you like. On the radio the news.

It becomes apparent, however, that the narrator is addressing her father, who has come to live with her. The story continues to be told as a direct address to the father, during which his frayed relations with his family are revealed to us, including a troubled relationship with his only son, the narrator’s brother, which culminated in the son’s suicide. In the compressed time of its telling, as the father is moving in, we nevertheless learn much about the family history and especially about the brother’s suicide, the details of which seem irrepressibly to emerge as the narrator speaks on, showing the father around the house. The family’s life is nicely captured in the story’s final lines:

If there is anything you want — someone will get it for you.

My daughter will. Your wife will, or I will. Somebody always has.

Even as the narrator summons up the past and evokes the present, her words come to us shaped by Holland’s attention to the rhythms her sentences set up both within and among themselves (and to which she clearly pays great attention), as well as to such auditory qualities as alliteration (“Chicory in your coffee, honey how you’d like”) and to rhetorical devices such as repetition. Swim for the Little One First confirms Noy Holland to be a writer who can start with this sensitivity to language and use it to build formally intricate fictions that are also a great pleasure to read.


Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel is now probably best known for her 2012 book, The Secret Life of Objects, an unorthodox memoir in which the author invokes her past through reflections prompted by various objects she still possesses. While this book succeeds on its own terms, offering a concise but affecting account of the writer's relationships with family and friends, it would be an injustice if its relative success came to overshadow the accomplishments of her fiction, which are numerous and distinctive.

If Raffel's fiction is in danger of being overlooked, this admittedly might be due to its rather infrequent appearance. Her first book, the story collection In the Year of Long Division, came out in 1995, her first novel, Carrying the Body, was published in 2002, while a second collection of stories, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, appeared in 2010. The long intervals between books apparently comes not from wavering ambition but an overabundance of care, as Raffel has spoken in interviews of taking up to a year on one of her stories, most of which are seldom more than a half-dozen pages long.

Although Raffel is a former student of Gordon Lish, and thus could loosely be grouped among those current writers influenced by his notion of "consecution" (writers such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt), the care that she takes is as much with the intervals and silences between sentences as it is in the construction and linking of sentences, the strategies for which have been adopted by most of Lish's acolytes. Certainly Raffel takes pains over the rhythms and tonalities of her sentences, as we can plainly see in the very first story of In the Year of Long Division:

Fishing was the only sport in our town. How it was. Pick. Any house in our town was any house in our town. Any wind in our town was the wind in our town. Down was down. Queasy was a way of life. Bored to crackers, snap, kerplunk. ("We Were Our Age")

If some readers might find Raffel's prose "difficult," its difficulty arises first of all from primacy of sound over sense. The stop-and-start rhythm, the strategic repetition, the assonance modifying into outright rhyme (our-house-town-down)--these are the most immediate qualities of a passage such as this, and whatever narrative or descriptive work they also do must accommodate itself to the intonations of Raffel's language. That language does indeed perform this other work, however, in its own unorthodox but ultimately compelling way. "Any house in our town was any house in our town" tells us almost all we need to know about this town, making any further sensory description superfluous. "Down was down," in addition to providing Raffel's signature wordplay, also clues us in on the type of wind pervading the town, the kind ensuring that "Queasy was a way of life."

But Raffel's attention to the lacunae between and among these sentences, to what needn't or perhaps even can't be said, is just as painstaking. So ruthless is she in eliminating the unnecessary, in fact, trusting in the reader to bridge the gaps and to acknowledge the unstated, that some readers might feel disoriented from the lack of expository directions and situational detail. This feature of Raffel's fiction is perhaps what has encouraged the view that it is a version of "minimalism" (for example, in John Domini's review of Restless Universe reprinted in his book The Sea-God's Herb), but while Raffel's work does to some extent recall the similarly reduced fictions of Mary Robison, her stories rely even less on narrative than most minimalist fiction, in which conventional "drama" is often missing but things happen nevertheless. Raffel's stories convey something closer to a literary impressionism, a blurry but distinguishable evocation of a scene or episode, often, as in "We Were Our Age," an exercise in memory more than storytelling.

A more conventionally recognizable feature of Raffel's fiction is her extensive use of dialogue, which is in fact the dominant mode in some stories. (Perhaps reflecting the influence of Harold Pinter and Edward Albee, whom Raffel has identified as among her earliest inspirations.) One of the stories in Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, "The Myth of Drowning," is entirely a dialogue set-piece, and its development is typical, as a man and a woman before sleep talk about a story the woman had told:

"How was it that she drowned?"

"Who knows," she said. "She couldn't swim. Or cramps. Maybe undertow. The undertow was wicked"

 "You know what I mean."

 "No, what do you mean?"

 "I mean people were there," he said. "That's how you told it. A crowd on the shore."

"That's what the myth is: Drowning is noisy. It isn't," she said.

"It isn't," she said.

"I heard you the first time."

"Tired, I said."

"Broad daylight," he said.

"And shallow," he said. "No one could see her?"

Although by the end of this brief exchange (around two pages long) we can piece together what must be the context of the conversation (the couple have had a tense evening, the man believes the woman sees herself as the drowning woman), the absence of authorial assistance is made even more acute by the abbreviated, discontinuous nature of the dialogue itself. But that comes not from a distortion of human speech patterns but an affirmation of it, an attempt to capture the way we actually talk to each other with fidelity. As David Winters says of Raffel's dialogue, "This is speech as it is spoken in life, not in literature: shorn of explanatory apparatus, driven more by conflicting agendas than by semantics, and, in its resultant asymmetry, rife with abrupt about-faces and non sequiturs."

Consistent with the strategies of her prose style more generally, Raffel's dialogue calls on the reader's capacity to infer the not-said from the said, the encompassing context from the fleeting clues we do get. In asking us to read closely and carefully, she also suggests that reading fiction is not merely the registering of the words on the page but also remaining alert to their subtler intimations, the discursive and aesthetic reverberations created by the tension between what those words signify and what they leave unexpressed. The reader's experience will be incomplete without this sort of attentiveness, but this doesn't make her work truly difficult or inaccessible. Only readers who close themselves off to the possibility of a more expansive reading experience, expansive in the sense that reading is more than gliding along the surface of words but can be provisional and recursive, will find Raffel's fiction perplexing. Patient readers will find it enlivening.

It might seem that Raffel's aesthetic strategy would work best in short fiction (and some of her stories are short enough to be called "flash fiction"), but her only novel, Carrying the Body, is also quite good as well. It shares with Raffel's stories a focus on family relations, although where many of the stories focus on relationships between parents and children, Carrying the Body portrays family drama more broadly, beginning with a pair of estranged sisters, one of whom left home young to experience life more fully, while the older sister remained in the home to care for their debilitated father. The younger sister returns to the home with her young son and eventually leaves again, abandoning the child, who becomes increasingly ill, to the ministrations of the older sister, a job for which she is clearly not prepared. The novel traces the development of the relationship between the older sister (referred to throughout as "the aunt") and the child, using the same elliptical methods as in the stories, which prove to work very well in evoking the hesitant, tentative growth of the aunt's concern for the child, as well as her increasing desperation about her own inadequacy in dealing with the situation she finds herself confronting.

Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (2010) is the most recent fiction (in book form) Raffel has published, and while the stories in this collection are generally similar in approach to those in her first book, a few of them, such as "The Air and Its Relatives," although still fragmented and conducted largely in dialogue, are arguably somewhat more conventional. The focus is even more resolutely on parent-children relationships. "The Air and Its Relatives" is a memory story about the narrator and her father, framed by a series of scenes in which the father is teaching the daughter how to drive. The fragmentation of the story serves to emphasize the episodic quality of memory, so that the story coheres in a readily perceptible way. The story's elegiac tone is consistent with many of the other stories in the book as well, and the book is further unified by a motif provided by the book's title, itself a reference to Max Born's The Restless Universe, which is explicitly identified in "The Air and Its Relatives" as a book the daughter and the father would read aloud together. We live in a "restless" universe of change and ineffable mystery, not least in the human experience of love and loss this book explores.

Further Adventures in The Restless Universe begins with an epigraph from Born that not only applies to this book but could also serve metaphorically as an apt description of Raffel's fiction as a whole: "Visible light covers only about one octave, speaking in musical terms." It is certainly appropriate to think of Raffel's work "in musical terms," even if it is a music, like that of, say, John Cage or Morton Feldman, that keenly exploits absence and quiet as part of its musical scheme. And if visible light is only one part of the spectrum, and not the largest, so too does Raffel's fiction make explicitly visible only a sampling of the world in which its characters act, talk, and subsist. With the reader's help, it manages to strongly illuminate, nonetheless.


Gordon Lish

If, as Jonathan Sturgeon has suggested, we have entered an era dominated by “autofiction,” in which “the life of the author is now the novel’s organizing principle,” then in the search for progenitors of this literary phenomenon we might consider the fiction of Gordon Lish. Indeed, a common reaction to Lish’s books, at least since Peru (which may be his last work of fiction to predominantly feature a main character who can, to some degree at least, be separated from “Gordon Lish”) is to question whether Lish is writing fiction at all rather than some sort of free-form (some would say self-indulgent) autobiography. However, the wary reader would be just as mistaken to trust Lish’s writing to provide reliable accounts of the author’s actual experiences as to expect his “stories” to bear much resemblance to the traditional well-made short story.

That Lish’s fiction is not at all the sort of thing we would expect to emerge from most creative writing workshops, or most conventional short fiction anthologies, is perhaps surprising to readers, given Lish’s prominence as a creative writing teacher and as an editor of writers known for their short stories (most prominently, of course, Raymond Carver). It may in fact be the case that this gap between pre-established expectation and Lish’s own actual practice is wide enough to partly explain his relatively small audience, small even for avant-garde writers. Lish has published eight novels and seven collections of short fiction, in addition to his Collected Fictions (published in 2010 at a hefty 546 pages), but it is likely most readers are familiar only with Dear Mr. Capote (1983), his first novel, and Peru (1986), although occasionally reviewers have taken note of one or another of his subsequent books, mostly to remark upon their oddities, revisit the Ray Carver editing controversy, or rehearse gossip about Lish as a teacher and publishing figure. What this focus on Lish’s public persona obscures is that over the last 30 years few writers have as consistently challenged both the formal and stylistic assumptions that still govern American literary fiction.

Happily, for readers curious to at least sample Lish the experimental writer, his most recent book, White Plains, is one of his best and most adventurous collections of short fiction. Although Lish identifies the selections in the book as “pieces and witherlings,” taken together they are substantial fictions that now make the Collected Fictions seriously incomplete. Since 2014 Lish has in fact published, in addition to White Plains, two other books, the story collection Goings and Cess: A Spokening (a mostly indescribable hybrid of novel and a kind of verbal puzzle) that would seem to represent a late renaissance in Lish’s attention to and inspiration for writing fiction. They could certainly be identified as “late” in their concern with the hardships and limitations of old age, but they exhibit no diminution at all in the boldness of Lish’s repudiation of conventional form or the consistency with which he pursues his fundamental stylistic strategy, the strategy for which he has become well-known through its influence on many of his students, some of whom, such as Gary Lutz and Christine Schutt, have themselves become among the most accomplished current American writers in the way they have adapted the strategy for their own audacious purposes.

“Consecution” is a concept probably best known through its iteration in Lutz’s essay, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” Lutz quite cogently explicates the general principle behind the notion of consecution—that the writer’s philosophy of composition should begin with sentences and the consecutive effects to be created by the linking up of sentences throughout a work of fiction—and explains his own use of the strategy, primarily for its sonic effects. Lish as well is attuned to the sounds of his sentences, and views the consecution of sentences as the essential aesthetic precept of fiction, but as well takes consecution as the source of form and theme more broadly, arguably using it more comprehensively than most of his acolytes. In his fiction, consecution frequently prompts recursion and repetition, so that the story or situation (often the former never quite departs from the elaboration of the latter) seems to remain static or to encircle itself (Lish’s own favored description of his method). No doubt readers expecting “normal” narrative development are frustrated by what seems to be Lish’s refusal to get a story told through anything like a conventionally efficient narrative, but those readers are missing the alternative story he is telling: the story of the story’s own composition as it comes into being.

In “Unstory,” a dialogue set-piece included in White Plains, one of the speakers responds to the other speaker’s comment “I thought the idea of speech was to get something said” by replying: “God gave man speech to give him the means to get himself lost. Whereas you stay on track, you run smack into death.” Lish’s fiction has been death-haunted since his first novel narrated by a purported serial killer, but this caution against running “smack into death” perhaps reveals to us that Lish has not only depicted characters obsessing about or confronting death (Peru depicts a man convinced that when he was a child he killed another child), but the literary strategy Lish has long employed itself embodies the imperative to get “lost” as the way to avoid the “death” represented by conventional fiction. Thus what some critics have taken as indulgence or merely antic provocation in Lish’s fiction is actually a profoundly serious—though never solemn—project in which the artistic stakes could not be higher.

Both Dear Mr. Capote and Peru effectively integrate Lish’s focus on the literal proximity of death and its representation in their formal and stylistic methods. In each case, the narrator-protagonist both wants to tell his tale (in the former he wants to sell it), but also simultaneously wants to withhold the story, to circle around the important events, to retreat and advance. In each as well we can’t ultimately be certain that the deadly events around which the narrators’ confessions are organized actually happened: the unnamed killer may be imagining, or just fabricating, his crimes, while the narrator of Peru is convinced that at age six he did indeed kill a neighbor child while the two were playing in a sandbox, but there is sufficient ambiguity in his account that we can finally doubt the extent of its accuracy. Still, if these two narrators could be called potentially unreliable, this effect cannot be attributed to the ease with which they relate to us a story that is too transparently suspicious. Indeed, both of them struggle to bring their stories together in a way that prefigures Lish’s later work, as they pause and backtrack, caught up in their own semantic webs, not in an apparent effort to conceal but to find the right language to express their experiences.

The narrator of Peru is named “Gordon,” but this character is not so obviously a version of Lish himself as we find in the later fiction. By 1991’s My Romance, the narrative voice has been turned over fully to a persona that seems as closely identical to the novel’s author as it is finally possible to be  while still making a claim on the readers as a fictional device, the means to creating a work of fiction. One of Lish’s most unfortunately neglected works, My Romance announces itself as a transcription of a reading given by Gordon Lish, who begins by noting, “What a difficulty it must be for us all that it was destined to be such a long walk and, as you can now hear, applauseless walk for me to make it up here at the lectern.” The difficulties invoked certainly don’t end with this initial perception of some tension in the room as the narrator begins his presentation. Indeed, this will not at all be the kind of reading his audience no doubt expects, despite the books that he has carried with him to the lectern, as almost immediately Gordon begins to divert attention from the literary matters at hand and to relate a series of his own personal travails, starting with his drinking problem but focusing mostly on his father’s death (for which Gordon believes he is responsible), his wife’s crippling illness, and, most centrally, his lifelong struggle with psoriasis, and the extreme measures he must take to protect his skin.

Although we can see even in the brief passage quoted Lish’s sensitivity to the sonic, sensory qualities of language—the assonance of “applauseless walk,” the alliteration of “difficulty” and “destined, the homophonous rhyme of “hear” and “here,” not to mention the additional repetition “up here to here”), the effects of consecution are much broader in a work like My Romance. The underlying conceit, that this is a novel in the form of a spontaneously composed lecture, of course allows Lish great latitude for digression, but the digressiveness is not random but associative, united most immediately by a set of brief cues Gordon tells us he has written down on four business cards, while also cogently braided together through a few in-common images or motifs, illness in particular connecting many of the episodes. Thus Lish’s method of correlative seriality determines not only the character of Lish’s prose—how things are said—but also the content of his fictions—what ultimately gets said. Such is the artistic strategy at work in most of Lish’s stories, before and after My Romance, and the reader encountering Lish’s fiction for the first time with White Plains will find a very worthy representation of the strategy. Although in many ways this book has the same sort of coherence we find in a book like My Romance, in its focus on the life circumstances of “Gordon Lish” White Plains does offer more variety in its realization of the strategy.

Such variety is provided, for example, by the several stories composed mostly or entirely in dialogue, stories in which it might seem that the sort of consecution possible in conventional prose would be less achievable or apparent. Yet in a story such as Naugahyde” presenting a series of phone conversations between a man and a woman, the conversation that unfolds seems unmistakably Lishian:

He said, ‘You know what I think of when I think of us?’

            She said, ‘Tell me.’

                    He said, ‘The chair.’

                    She said, ‘Us in the chair.’

                    ‘You with your leg up,’ he said.

                    ‘My left leg,’ she said.

                    He said, ‘Right. I mean your left leg—right.’

                    She said, ‘I’ll think about this tonight.’

                   ‘The chair,’ he said. ‘Our time in the chair?’

                    ‘No,’ she said. ‘The way you said it,’ she said.

                    He said, ‘How I said it was how it came to me to say.’

                    She said, ‘Nothing just comes. It’s all rehearsed.’

Because of the relative brevity of the talk, the chain of associations animating this conversation are clear enough: After the repetition of “think”/“think of us,” echoed in the woman’s second comment, we move through the introduction of the chair and the woman’s leg, the two dominant images in this initial part of the exchange, the counterpoint of left and right, and the final ostinato flourish on “said” (with the fortuitous rhyme of “right” and “tonight” as a bonus). Both of these voices emerge from this story as belonging to separable characters with distinct personalities, but at the same time they both speak in recognizable Gordon Lish prose.

            It is also true that Gordon Lish’s prose frequently sounds like someone speaking (and not just when used as a trope as in My Romance), especially when Lish’s narrator seems to be obsessing about his present circumstances: “Okay, granted, granted, I’m sitting here horsing around a little bit. Guilty. I’m pleading guilty—so sue me. Because, buster, I’m leveling with you. I’m taking you into my fucken confidence as a person I can go ahead and open my heart to. . . ” (“Jelly Apple”). Still there are times when this “spokening” effect is possible only in Lish’s version of expository prose, not actual dialogue:

            So Father (the father in the unwriteable—unwritable?—piece), he, the man, decides (in his mind) the fish shall be taken from their habitat and placed indoors, this in a tank (a pretty biggish ‘object’) brought into the house for said purpose, conveyed (the fish, that is—or, viz. the fish) thereto or therein, as it would turn out, if it were, or was, to turn out, by means of many family-sized mayonnaise jars, or by one such jar, several trips (circuits?), from the far reaches of the backyard (back yard? yard out back? rear-yard?) to inside the house, therefore required. (“Make Night: Heidegger”)

If such a passage does evoke a process of thinking aloud, of going over a memory in the presence of a listener, the full impact of its radical digressions, diversions, and asides can really only be registered as writing, as words read. Certainly this is not a conventionally lucid prose style, but Lish writes prose that resembles the writing of no one else, and it is not as frivolous or capricious as its surface eccentricities might make it seem.

In my view Lish’s critics overlook the extent to which he is attempting to create a certain sort of comedy, a particularly outrageous sort that burlesques the very notion of linearity and unity that ordinarily predicate our expectations of fiction. Readers who are impatient with this element of Lish’s work ultimately are rejecting the implication that these expectations should be held in abeyance, that works of fiction can offer aesthetic satisfactions that do not depend on previously fixed conceptions of narrative continuity or formal unity. Yet if Lish’s fictions are often funny, and can simply be appreciated for the audacity of their execution, there is also something very earnest about Lish’s compositions, an impression that all the hesitations, reiterations, sudden reversals, and insistent clarifications are a sincere attempt to get it right, to find the words and formulations that will signify what his narrators seek to express. Of course, in the end they don’t quite know what they want to express, sure only of the need to express it and an ineluctable sense they can’t elude what’s already been said.

As if to underscore the slippage between speech and writing characteristic of Lish’s work, “Mr. Dictaphone” purports to be the testimony of one of these machines, but of course the dictaphone is surely the voice of the author of the story in the process of creating it (Mr. Dictaphone calls him “Georgie”). The story is relatively brief (as are many of stories in White Plains), and so we are able to enjoy the humor of the conceit before it perhaps wears out its welcome, although the story also affords us the opportunity to consider explicitly the fundamental assumptions behind Lish’s strategies, as the story essentially records Mr. Dictaphone’s reflections on the conditions of his own existence (“One is trapped in the trap of the trap,” he says near the end of the story, “lest one not speak.”) “Levitation, or, My Career as a Pensioner” is one of several stories that seem straightforwardly autobiographical, in this case relating the particulars of Lish’s firing from Esquire magazine, but like the others, it finally serves more to reinforce an overarching contemplation of decline and old age, a theme that emerges from White Plains with a clarity and consistency (beginning with a Wayne Hogan cartoon included in the book’s front matter) that could presumably satisfy the most traditional of readerly expectations. The longest story in the book, “Begging the Question,” shares with “Levitation” a depiction of the circumstances of Lish’s life as an elderly man living alone—in the latter case, the streetwork going on outside his building, in the former, conflict with his neighbors—again a palpable setting that ought to act as a kind of perceptual anchor for readers who might feel lost amid the stylistic eccentricities of the stories in this book.

In other stories we learn more about Lish’s stays in mental hospitals (brought on by the powerful medications he takes), as well as details about his wife’s illness and death. The final story in the book, “Afterword,” is a surprisingly touching (if not without some of those eccentricities) tribute of sorts to his first writing teacher, whose influence set “Gordon Lish” onto his journey in literature. Lish even gives the man the book’s final words, quoting from his short story that, we are told, is the only work of fiction to ever make Lish cry. Suffice it to say that if the more accessible elements of tone, setting, character, and subject in White Plains were to be found in a book more easily identified as “literary fiction,” most readers would likely find it altogether familiar. It is the singular and, in retrospect, revolutionary departure from the norms of prose style in fiction that makes Lish’s work seem, to some, alien and peculiar. But without the alien and peculiar, fiction as a form would stagnate and die.


Steve Tomasula

In many ways Steve Tomasula’s Once Human (FC2) is a very good introduction to the work of this conspicuously unconventional writer for those who are either unfamiliar with his previous work or have shied away from it because it promised to depart too radically from the conventions of “normal” fiction. Venturesome readers with find that this book indeed exhibits Tomasula’s trademark assimilation of visual elements—photos, illustrations, graphs and charts, drawings— into the verbal “text,” as well as the inveterate manipulation of typography and page design. However, encountering these devices through a selection of stories allows the reader to contemplate Tomasula’s strategies in shorter samples, while the selection also provides some variety, perhaps encouraging readers to appreciate that these strategies are both purposeful and ultimately accessible.

Tomasula’s approach is evident in the book’s first story, “The Color of Flesh.” The story of protagonist Yumi’s discovery that her boyfriend may be attracted to her not despite the fact she has a prosthetic limb but because of it and his pornographic obsession with disfigured female bodies is enhanced by drawings that give the story most immediately the look of a graphic novel. But the story actually contains plenty of text, and the drawings are not themselves the medium through which the narrative is presented.  Neither are they merely decorative, although they are certainly well-rendered. So striking are they, in fact, that it soon enough becomes clear we are meant to do more than just glance at the drawings as a kind of accompaniment to the written text but to consider them a constituent part of a reconceived “text” that integrates writing and visual devices, with each contributing its own effect to the new, hybrid text. Thus, in “The Color of Flesh” the illustrations impress as more than ornamental, a drawing of prosthetic limbs “dangling from the ceiling” of a “shop that sold such things” in particular adding a spooky (if stylized) palpability that isn’t quite achieved by the prose description alone, not even the comparison to “Gepetto’s workshop.” 

It might be tempting to call Tomasula’s approach “multi-media,” especially since he has produced one “book,” TOC, that can only really be described as multi-media, as it is not published as a book at all but on DVD and predominantly takes visual form, but the goal does not seem to be to blend prose fiction and visual media as much as to extend our conception of what prose fiction might be. Is it the case, a story like “The Color of Flesh” asks us, that when visual art is added to literary art a work of fiction becomes something else, no longer fiction but precisely a hybrid, something separate that should be judged by standards other than those traditionally applied to fiction, or does it remain within the boundaries of that form as historically established, albeit questioning where those boundaries should lie? Readers could come to different conclusions about this, but arguably Tomasula’s fiction is most consequential if we think of it as still belonging to literature, as an attempt to reckon with the status of fiction at a time when visual representations are more pervasive than ever.

Tomasula has cited the influence on his work of such writers as Raymond Federman, Gilbert Sorrentino, and William Gass, all of whom similarly unsettle our usual way of reading— on pages with blocks of text, read sequentially from top to bottom—although none of these writers (aside from Gass in his novella Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife) really included pictorial elements. Tomasula’s own work is thus perhaps best understood as extending their experiments, proceeding under the fundamental assumption that the page (and all of his books aside from TOC do take the printed page as fiction’s native medium) is infinitely pliable, a site where the literary artist might create aesthetic effects not confined to the usual felicities of prose style, and might also contribute to a reconception of form that includes but goes beyond sole reliance on traditional verbal narrative. If we judge much conventional fiction by the degree to which it encourages us to transcend the page, to give ourselves over to the illusion good writing is supposed to cast, Tomasula’s stories and novels keep us firmly rooted to the page, refusing to let us forget the materiality of the medium.

Although the drawings and photographs in Once Human—some of which are quite complex and detailed—are the most conspicuous illusion-suspending elements, Tomasula’s attention to the dynamics of the page is also manifest in typography and typeface. No two stories come in the same font size, and the page layouts follow no rules of prose composition other than those the author has invented. The pages of some of the stories often shift in appearance, in some cases multiple times. The text of “The Color of Flesh” begins in a single column, switches to double columns, and in the second half of the story kaleidoscopically changes fonts, page color (black on white to white on black), and page design (the text presented in something resembling thought balloons). “Self-Portrait” at first seems a more or less conventionally printed story, free of both visual aids and typographical oddities, except that a closer look reveals a column of words running down each of the inner margins, one column repeating the work “stroke,” the other “snap,” the two actions performed by the story’s protagonist, a lab technician responsible for euthanizing mice for testing.

If at first this might seem a random, even frivolous gesture, ultimately it does have the effect of continually reminding us of the “work” the technician carries out, which presumably we are to consider important to the story’s explication, even as the story appears to develop the situation in other, tangential directions (the protagonist’s romantic involvement with his coworker, for example). This sort of literalization of motif or image can perhaps be seen most clearly in stories such as “The Atlas of Man” and “The Risk-Taking Gene as Expressed by Some Asian Subjects.” The narrator of the first is a researcher who collects data on human body shape. He falls in love with a fellow researcher (unhappily). The text of this story includes several illustrations of bodies and body types, as well as various graphs representing the work the narrator has done in studying the human body. Together, these visual elements reinforce the contrast between the narrator’s usual impassive approach to the world as filtered through his work and his growing self-awareness of the implications of that work in relation to himself, a contrast that ultimately works to create some sympathy for the man’s emotional confusion.

“The Risk-Taking Gene” again focuses on a researcher, in this case studying the purported “risk-taking gene,” the “genetic propensity discovered by Cloninger, Adolfsson, and Svrakic for some people to put themselves at risk in order to feel the level of arousal most of us get from the petty concerns of our day.” The narrator in this story is conducting interviews in an Asian-American neighborhood (or trying to), and winds up being surprised by the identity of the “subject” who is indeed most willing to take risks. The story relies less on pictorial devices and more on page design and typography for its effects. Reflecting the narrator’s line of work, some of the pages are printed on a facsimile of a questionnaire, others on what appears to be a representation of a DNA gel. Both of these stories employ a non-conventional fusion of text and visuals, each playing off of the other, that typifies Tomasula’s literary method. Since finally his fiction does not at all abandon narrative—some of these stories have rather dramatic plots—it offers not an alternative to “story” but an alternative way of telling a story still anchored to the printed page.

Both “The Atlas of Man” and “The Risk-Taking Gene” are also obviously related in their focus on a character doing “research” on the human body. In this they share a dominant theme of Tomasula’s work, exemplified most notably in VAS, his best-known novel and probably greatest achievement to date. Subtitled “An Opera in Flatland,” the novel is first of all a kind of pastiche of a previous novel, Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a geometry-based science fiction “romance” published in 1885. Tomasula takes over the premise of “people” living in a two-dimensional “flatland,” people who are themselves geometrical figures. Thus the main characters of VAS are “Square” and his wife, “Circle.” The plot of this novel is minimal but, narratively speaking, straightforward. After a series of failed pregnancies (resulting in miscarriage or abortion), Circle has asked Square to get a vasectomy, to which he has agreed, although as the novel begins he has not yet signed the consent form required. Most of the rest of the novel follows Square as he ponders the implications of his decision and the state of his relationships both with Circle and his daughter, Oval. 

VAS becomes “operatic” in the way it illustrates and embodies the story of Square reckoning with his situation by depicting it through very elaborate drawings, photographs, and other visual elements comprising a large portion of the text, these elements becoming something like the music that transforms a play into an opera. The novel is an “opera in Flatland,” of course, because it takes place not in the three-dimensional space of theatrical operas, or even the simulated space of film, video, or cyberspace, but on the page, through the “flat” surfaces of text and graphic image. Thus VAS is still dedicated to literary experiment, to testing the limits of the page as literature’s traditional medium. Online publication has obviously challenged the seemingly necessary connection between literary works and the printed page, but Tomasula continues to take the page as his focus, aside from TOC. Indeed, most of his published fiction depends on its realization on pages, and its effects would be almost totally lost on, say, a Kindle.

Tomasula employs his effects in part to fulfill one of the most traditional of literary goals, developing “theme.” If anything, Tomasula’s fiction is even more devoted to communicating theme than most mainstream literary fiction. The researchers and scientists in his fiction are engaged in work ultimately intended to help overcome the supposed limitations of human biology and genetics, to remake our physical existence. VAS is probably the work in which Tomasula most intensively explores the implications of the scientific intervention into nature as represented by the human body (one thinks of Hawthorne’s stories about human beings “playing God”) and the creation of a “postbiological” future. Square familiarizes himself with the history of eugenics, human experimentation, genetic engineering, and various other “advances” in medical science, his contemplation of these subjects accompanied by an almost dizzying variety of visual and typographical devices that make the motives behind and ultimate consequences of the rise of the “postbiological” even more disturbing.

Remaking reality is of course the ambition of fiction as well, and Tomasula’s work can also be taken as variant of metafiction, subjecting fiction to the same scrutiny as these other efforts to reshape and reorder the world. The representations of the body offered by the scientific methods of mapping and measuring it are themselves represented literally in Tomasula’s pictorial imagery, provoking us to reflect on the extent to which literature aspires to the pictorial even while doing so through the descriptive and figural powers of language. Similarly, his typographical variations insistently remind us that the arrangement of print on the page has also always reinforced a particular way of organizing literary representation, one that is assumed to be the “natural” form that reading takes but that Tomasula’s work proceeds to show can be altered. 

“Representation” is itself the subject of his 2006 novel The Book of Portraiture, the title of which is taken from the supposed journal of the painter Velasquez, which among other things chronicles the creation of Velasquez’s “The Maids of Honor,” a notoriously self-reflexive painting that depicts the painter himself among the other subjects of the painting, standing at his easel and apparently staring outside the painting at the viewer. The other sections of the book (including a reworked version of “Self-Portrait”) also invoke the human urge to re-present reality, to both productive and destructive effect, making The Book of Portraiture the most avowedly metafictional of Tomasula’s books, but one that doesn’t just expose the inherent artifice of narrative but reveals the transformative effects, potentially liberating but also potentially dangerous, of human beings’ capacity to reimagine themselves.

Once Human is not as intently focused either on the scientific and technological manipulation of nature as VAS or the implications of representation as The Book of Portraiture. The most explicitly metafictional story in the book is probably “Farewell to Kilimanjaro,” which is finally more conventional parody than metafictional self-reflection in its “what if” story of an elderly Ernest Hemingway (in the story simply called “E”) experiencing degradation in an old folks home. Among the remaining stories in the book, “Medieval Times” has a family resemblance to one of George Saunders’s theme-park stories (“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline”), although it ultimately satirizes current events through analogy more directly than Saunders does. “The Color of Pain and Suffering” is of a piece with “Self-Portrait” and “The Atlas of Man” in its focus on the romantic travails of a medical illustrator. If ultimately Once Human could be described as something of a miscellany collecting Tomasula’s shorter fiction, that very quality nevertheless gives readers a valuable sampling of the work of a compelling and genuinely experimental writer.

Steve Tomasula's work expands our awareness of the boundaries fiction might still challenge while remaining true to the form. It makes readers consider how rigidly they should adhere to inherited assumptions about these boundaries, at the same time continuing to provide a satisfying reading experience. Tomasula tells stories, but they are narratives with intrinsic interest in and of themselves, not rehearsals of familiar plots.


Evan Dara

Although the term “postmodern” is still used often enough by critics as a convenient label for certain works of fiction that are considered out of the “mainstream” of current literary fiction, and descriptions of new books ladled with adjectives such as “unconventional,” “original,” or “innovative” are quite common, the era of “experimental” postmodern American fiction—when experimental fiction could be said to have any kind of real cultural salience—was in fact relatively short-lived: 10-15 years, from the mid-1960s to about 1980. This is not to say there were no formally or stylistically adventurous writers of fiction before this period, nor necessarily that no comparably adventurous writers at all have appeared in the years since. But writers willing to jettison all assumptions about the formal properties of novels and attempt building something entirely new in their place have been relatively few and far between in the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first two of the twenty-first.

One such writer, however, is Evan Dara. (Or at least the writer presenting his work under that name, since so little is known about him beyond the work—he makes the elusiveness of Thomas Pynchon seem like a craving for celebrity in comparison—we can’t be sure this is other than a pseudonym.) Dara’s first novel, The Lost Scrapbook, was published in 1995, and has been followed by two other novels, The Easy Chain (2007) and Flee (2013), as well as a play, Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins (2018), all of them published by Aurora, a press apparently owned and administered by Dara himself. All three of the novels challenge the expectations of readers accustomed to fiction that observes the post-postmodern consensus that novels need not scrupulously follow entrenched conventions of linear narrative and the kind of expository prose associated with it, but should otherwise still offer readers some recognizable variant of the form historically tied to works of fiction: an invoked world in which created characters engage in observable human activities (even if they might be subject to various departures from strict realism), activities that follow some version of narrative logic. Dara’s novels, especially the first two, instead present us with disembodied voices in place of characters and events that seem to arise arbitrarily and to bleed into each other without warning—or any immediately apparent purpose.

If nothing else, it is obvious once one begins reading these novels that the author wants to subvert any presumptions we might have that the novel we are reading will bear enough family resemblance to those we have read before that it will be explicable according to the “rules” we believe we have learned about how novels should proceed. Clearly it intends to replace those rules with others applicable only to this work (although any one of Dara’s novels certainly does then provide direction in reading the others), rules that we will have to learn as we read. In this way, Dara’s novels work like all of their predecessors in the lineage of “experimental” fiction, presenting the reader with a heterodox formal arrangement the reader must learn to assimilate by attending closely to the new patterns the work establishes as alternatives to those patterns more conventional fiction has predisposed us to expect. Indeed, in the challenge they pose to the assumption that the conventional patterns define the novel as a form, Dara’s novels are arguably the most radically disruptive books in American fiction since, say, Gilbert Sorrentino in a work like Mulligan Stew (1979).

The most formally radical of the novels is The Lost Scrapbook. The initial readers of this book might understandably have thought it is in fact essentially formless, although eventually the formal logic of the novel does become more discernible. The first half or so of what is a very long book (a little under 500 pages) seems to consist of a series of disconnected episodes (some longer than others) leaning heavily on interior monologue and introducing “characters” whose relationships to each other are not immediately apparent. Moreover, these self-standing scenes don’t merely succeed each other but at times appear to merge, one dissolving into the other, as if the novel’s discourse represents a radio set whose dial is being tuned, bringing in one station before moving on to another. Ultimately we reach a program to which presumably the search has been dedicated: most of the remaining part of the novel focuses on the plight of Isaura, a town in Missouri on which an ecological catastrophe has been inflicted by a chemical company that has exploited the forbearance of the community for many years (as the narrative reveals).

This relatively extended narrative focusing on the depredations of the Ozark Chemical Company and their effect on the citizens of Isaura—by no means related in straightforward expository prose but narratively coherent nevertheless—of course inevitably prompts the reader to ponder the structural connections between it and the concatenation of voices and episodes preceding it. In the only contemporaneous review of The Lost Scrapbook (really the only review of Dara’s work to appear in a “major” American publication—the Washington Post—at all), Tom LeClair suggests that all of the prior voices are displaced victims, “literal and figurative,” from the calamity at Isaura. Perhaps this is a fruitful way of considering the structural integrity of The Lost Scrapbook, although too much emphasis on the “literal” connections among the characters and events threatens to impute a more seamless structure to the novel than it actually contains: to an extent, its most radically adventurous quality is the absence of an ultimate integration of its parts, the possibility that a novel might still achieve authentic thematic and aesthetic coherence even when connections are left unmade and conventional unity disregarded, even deliberately undermined.

This sort of comprehensive fragmentation makes The Lost Scrapbook more audacious than most of the other works over the past twenty-five years received as “experimental, which in comparison still seem more faithful to the norms of current literary culture. (Perhaps books like David Markson’s Readers Block and This is Not a Novel might rival Dara’s novel in its claim to be “something new”—certainly the more flamboyantly experimental novels of a writer such as Mark Danielewski are just gimmicky when judged next to either The Lost Scrapbook or The Easy Chain.) Dara appears to trust the reader’s ability to infer connections and notice implicit patterns of situation and reference, to tolerate the ambiguities and uncertainties in which the novel persists without necessarily expecting the writer to remove them through any contrived devices. The rhetorical irresolution created by the novel’s extreme fragmentation is reinforced within the discrete narrative fragments (and most of them do relate a story or scene) by the emphasis on speech—both in monologue and dialogue—rather than expository prose, which further requires the reader to discern continuity in the various episodes by carefully registering what the voices are talking about absent direct description. Luckily Dara proves himself exceptionally adept at rendering contemporary American speech, making the task enjoyable in itself, and the enactment of this strategy in the rendition of Isaura’s ordeal is especially impressive.

Unfortunately, this concluding story also works to produce what is ultimately the most significant weakness of The Lost Scrapbook. It is not inaccurate to call this final section of the novel an expose of entities like the Ozark Chemical Company, companies that in carrying out the prescribed mission of American capitalism are in the process of degrading and despoiling the natural environment, apparently without compunction. When we recall the scenes that have come before, we can see that the depiction of the ruin of Isaura is the culmination of a portrayal of America in all its social, cultural, and economic dysfunction—an America in which the atomizing effects of capitalism have spread to all features of ordinary life. In this way, it seems to me, The Lost Scrapbook in effect neutralizes its own formal audacity by making it too easy for the reader to resolve (at least in retrospect) the interpretive dilemma posed by the seemingly dissociated episodes that have brought us to the Isaura narrative, to integrate all of the novel’s parts in what turns out to be an unorthodox but finally structurally harmonious story about the baneful influences of late twentieth century American capitalism, its elevation of profit to preeminent value and disregard for the common good determining the shape of human interaction and inhibiting even our ability to communicate (a motif to which Dara returns in his most recent work). However accurate this vision of the degeneracy of current reality might be (and I for one accept its accuracy), ultimately it comes close to undercutting the novel’s integrity as experimental fiction, arguably converting it to a work of realism by other means.

Although The Lost Scrapbook is often quite funny, it would not really be appropriate to call it satire. The humor is not of the regenerative kind that implies the offenses portrayed might be ameliorated. It does indeed provoke the more corrosive kind of laughter associated with postmodern writers such as DeLillo, Pynchon, and Gaddis, or even the “black humor” of Vonnegut or Heller. But finally the humor seems part of the larger effort to critique, to “say something” about the dismal state of American culture and the dangers of unchecked capitalism. Dara’s critique is perhaps more vehement than most, and offers no false hope that the conditions imposed by advanced capitalism will be overcome any time soon, but in its substance it hardly differs much from similar critiques increasingly to be found in mainstream literary fiction. What makes The Lost Scrapbook distinctive, of course, is its formal innovation, the quality that presumably has also caused readers to balk at the “difficulty” such a work is presumed to pose. While these readers would find The Lost Scrapbook in fact to be an invigorating reading experience that rewards the effort to meet its challenge, they might also finally be disappointed that the ingenuity the novel exhibits seems to be employed in support of a conventionally polemical purpose.

Still, if a writer’s commitment to a theme or idea (political or otherwise) inspires a genuinely adventurous approach to form or style—that is, serves the ultimate purpose of experimental fiction to revitalize the form itself—probably we ought to grant that writer his subject. Some might say that the novel’s length does not justify the thematic payoff, but I would contend that such length is required for the formal effect to be adequately felt: if The Lost Scrapbook could be regarded as a version of a picaresque narrative, the journey taken is by the reader in the experience of reading, and as with all picaresque narratives, much of the interest lies in the journey itself, not the destination. However, both Dara’s aesthetic approach and his political critique are more effectively realized in his second novel, The Easy Chain. In some ways it is surprising that this novel did not win Dara a somewhat larger audience and more attention from critics (again only one review, again by LeClair, in Bookforum), since, while it is hardly a conventional narrative, something like a recognizable story “arc” can be perceived behind the multiple registers of talk and shifts of setting. It even has a kind of mystery plot (actually several mysteries), even if those mysteries never quite get resolved.

Perhaps the most significant departure in The Easy Chain from the strategies employed  in The Lost Scrapbook is that it features a protagonist—albeit one who is present only fleetingly (most directly at the novel’s beginning) and is depicted in a mosaic-like fashion, from a multitude of perspectives, so that we cannot really say we have a very firm grasp on his personal qualities or his motivations. In this novel, Dara takes the method introduced in The Lost Scrapbook, its emphasis on speech and soliloquy, and applies it to the development of the main character. We know Lincoln Selwyn mostly from what others say about him—although we often don’t know who these others are beyond their disembodied voices. The outline, if not all the details, of Lincoln’s story is clear enough: The son of English parents but raised in the Netherlands, Lincoln emigrates to the United States to attend college (the University of Chicago), but instead finds himself, through mechanisms that often remain shrouded from our direct observation, a wildly successful entrepreneur and man about town, steadily accruing admirers and gaining influence. Then, apparently Selwyn disappears. (Later we learn he probably gained much of his success through shady means, although the investigators from whom we get this information are themselves not altogether reliable.) After a break in the narrative (represented in the text by a series of blank pages), we encounter Lincoln back in Holland, where he seems to be trying to fill in lacunae in his own knowledge about his family, including his mother and an aunt who had emigrated to the United States before him and whose whereabouts he has unsuccessfully tried to uncover. Next we discover that Lincoln has returned to the U.S., where at the novel’s conclusion we are shocked to find him preparing to blow up the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and, when the attempt fails, to shoot the private investigator he had tasked with finding the aunt.

The story, of course, does not come as an uninterrupted linear narrative. Not only are we sometimes not aware of Lincoln’s specific activities, but the interruptions in the story of Lincoln Selwyn are often filled with other, seemingly unrelated stories featuring independent characters, such as the story about a Boulder, Colorado restaurant forced out of business when the rent on their building is arbitrarily raised. As with The Lost Scrapbook, these set-pieces are thematically related to Lincoln’s story: the restaurant’s plight turns into an apocalyptic narrative about the collapse of civilization itself and the reversion of the land to nature. The Easy Chain is ultimately centered around the same concern animating the previous novel, the ravages of advanced capitalism, but Lincoln Selwyn’s life provides a more consistent, and more compelling, unity in the novel’s aesthetic design. Indeed, it seems more fitting to speak about “design” in The Easy Chain than in The Lost Scrapbook (which does not mean the latter is simply chaotic). We see in The Easy Chain similar disruptions of narrative continuity and conventional prose (variations in textual arrangement, graphical effects such as those in the novel’s final section, with its seemingly random divergences in capitalization, punctuation, and spelling), yet here they more readily seem part of the novel’s unified portrayal of Lincoln Selwy, his elusiveness, his contradictory impulses, his lack of a core identity we can easily recognize.

This does not mean that The Easy Chain abandons experiment for convention or too comfortably courts facile accessibility. Readers not familiar with The Lost Scrapbook are unlikely to think it too conspicuously conforms to expectations of conventional literary fiction. Its achievement consists not simply of the application of “craft,” but from a successful attempt to bring artistic coherence to a work that doesn’t settle for familiar means of character development or rely on a stable point of view. “Experimental” is not synonymous with “anarchic” when applied to formal innovations in fiction, and The Easy Chain adeptly achieves a totality of vision in a way that is perhaps more acutely visible than in The Lost Scrapbook. The balance between invention and design in The Easy Chain is the most finely measured among Dara’s novels.

If that balance skews somewhat to the former in The Lost Scrapbook, it skews more decidedly to the latter in Dara’s third novel, Flee. Certainly to readers for whom it might be their introduction to Dara (especially because it is the briefest of the three), this novel again would hardly seem a mainstream literary novel, but its more unconventional strategies—which are largely the same ones introduced in the first two novels—are employed to limited enough effect that it is more apparent they are designed to support the novel’s quasi-absurdist story. In Flee it is the story that is emphasized through the novel’s strategies of indirection and omission much as the character of Lincoln Selwyn is evoked in The Easy Chain. However, a story about the gradual abandonment of a good-sized city (most likely based on Burlington, Vermont) after its university shuts down due to it its own malfeasance is inherently improbable and incongruous, and these qualities are only heightened through Dara’s by now signature methods—sudden discontinuities, multiple voices, etc. So compatible are form and content in Flee, in fact, that this novel can indeed be accurately described as satire, allowing Dara’s recurrent focus on capitalist values acting to impede human flourishing to be rendered more distinctly as satirical judgment.

In its more compact form, Flee demonstrates that Dara’s invocation of multiple voices and perspectives can operate to relate a story that doesn’t flash the usual narrative signals and create characters that are shorn of information beyond the clues offered in their talk—a local couple attempting to profit from the emptying out of their town are tracked throughout the novel and act, if not as protagonists, as narrative anchors, individual representatives of the broader dilemma facing the town whose particular experiences the reader can follow for continuity—but for the first time in Dara’s fiction the strategy seems overly familiar, too derivative of the work of William Gaddis, whose voice- and dialogue-centered novels provide the primary touchstone for Dara’s fiction. Ironically, Flee seems a bit too much like Gaddis’s JR in miniature, even though it is The Easy Chain that is more reminiscent of Gaddis’s novel in its subject and featured protagonist.

Perhaps it is a realization that this method has become somewhat perfunctory that led Dara to offer as his most recent work not a novel, but a play, the Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, available as a download on the Aurora website. Here, of course, human speech is the form’s natural medium, and the play is stripped down to just characters and talk, the stage “As bare as you can stand it.” (It has something of the feel of a Greek drama, individual characters set off against a chorus-like group called “the Swirl.”) Mose Eakins is (as described by one of the Swirl) “an American field-risk analyst working for Concord Oil.” He is introduced to us speaking to various co-workers—none of them actually present on stage—in a briskly efficient  but largely supercilious manner. Not long afterward, Mose begins to notice that people are beginning to react strangely in his presence: they seem not to hear what he is saying and instead speak about themselves in ways that strike Mose as wholly inappropriate, as if he is overhearing them reveal their unguarded thoughts. Eventually, Mose is informed he suffers from “imparlance,” a disorder that causes people to “lose the capacity to infuse their words with intelligible significance.” As a side effect, those to whom the sufferer speaks “often give voice to thoughts they usually keep hidden.” Mose’s life steadily deteriorates, and even though he comes to recognize that he himself has participated in the degradation of language, its reduction to utilitarian exchange and self-advancement, his ultimate fate is not a happy one.

Although Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins focuses on a theme central to much postmodern fiction, the failures of language to “communicate” reliably, that failure is tied to the debasement of language inflicted by society under capitalism, situating the play squarely among the three novels as cultural critique. (There may also be a sly dig at the incomprehension with which the literary establishment has greeted Dara’s novels, as many readers and critics profess that such works lack “the capacity to infuse their words with intelligible significance.”) The novels as well concern themselves, both implicitly and explicitly, with the obstacles language must overcome in order to be intelligible, but they do achieve their own kind of cogency. As does Mose Eakins, suggesting that finally Evan Dara belongs with the original generation of postmodernists in the audacity of his invention but doesn’t really seem to share the postmodernist skepticism about language as a representational medium. In Mose Eakins, he memorably represents the corruption of language by forces that have emptied it of all but the most crudely functional signifying potential, the destruction of literary power it would otherwise possess. Ultimately Dara is a moralist, not an aesthete.


Shelley Jackson

For all of her experiments with divergent media that are ultimately impalpable (her e-lit hypertext, Patchwork Girl, which is also essentially inaccessible unless you have the equipment to play a CD-ROM, on which the novel is now exclusively available), hypothetical (Skin, a “story” inscribed on human skin a letter at a time and that ultimately can never be read), or ephemeral (“Snow,” a story written on fallen snow — although it is being presented more permanently through photography), her conventionally printed novels are quite corporeal and amply realized. Half Life (2006) and her most recent novel, Riddance, are both long and comprehensively developed novels that allow the reader to settle in for a comfortable enough read, although in each case the story must be pieced together, and is not merely offered to us from a unified narrative perspective.

It might be most appropriate to describe both books as epistolary novels, albeit of the modern sort that extends beyond simply the exchange of letters as a narrative device to include other kinds of interpolated documents as well (additionally integrating visual effects, especially in Riddance), resulting in a form of collage as presumably Jackson’s preferred method of composing traditional prose fiction. (Likewise, her 2002 book, The Melancholy of Anatomy, is ostensibly a collection of short stories, but the stories are associated in a collage-like fashion, a series of vignettes organized by grouping them into sections representing the four humors and their respective origins in parts of the human body.) Thus these books are by no means regressively conventional in either form or subject — their subjects are in fact distinctly unusual — but they do adapt a formal strategy frequently enough employed previously by modern writers, in various permutations, that its use in both Half Life and Riddance is not disruptive of an “immersive” reading experience but really only adds a kind of mystery element to the novels’ quasi-horror plots: in addition to questions about how the extraordinary circumstances portrayed will develop and be resolved, questions pertaining to the exposition of those circumstances — how do the pieces fit together, how are they working to conceal as much as reveal? — become central to the narratives as well.

To describe these narratives as horror plots is not to classify them as genre fiction nor to denigrate horror elements as somehow unworthy in a properly experimental fiction. Jackson uses the tropes and trappings of horror lightly, adopting them not for atmosphere or specific plot devices but because the horror narrative prominently focuses attention on the human body, its traits and transformations, which has also proven to be Shelley Jackson’s most abiding preoccupation as a writer of fiction. Half Life borrows the imagery from a “mutation” film (“the incredible two-headed woman!”), but Jackson is not interested in exploiting this imagery for shock effects. Instead, she takes the potentially grotesque situation the novel depicts — an alternate reality in which atomic testing has created a substantial spike in the birthrate of conjoined twins — all essentially born with two heads on one body — as an opportunity to provoke reflection on our facile concepts of identity. In resolving to surgically remove the head of her sister, Blanche, who (she believes) has long been in a kind of coma, a prolonged state of uninterrupted slumber, is the novel’s protagonist, Nora, really proposing to murder another person, who, after all, shares one body with Nora, or is it merely the equivalent of amputation? Are Blanche and Nora actually two people? If so, which one gets to claim rights to their in-common body? For that matter, is it really “Nora” who speaks to us as the protagonist of Half Life, or is she at least as much Blanche, even before we learn that the latter has probably been more active all along than we realized?

Many readers of Half Life probably suspect all along that Blanche is likely not merely “dead weight.” Luckily, the novel doesn’t really depend on a surprise or trick ending. The narrative itself is insidiously humorous, despite the nature of the subject, and at times seems outright a satire of the rigid protocols of identity politics. (“Twofers” have become militant in defense of their rights, and demand observance of the proprieties in speech and behavior that uphold their status.) If it is relevant to the accomplishments of Half Life to call it an “experimental” novel, it is not because of its formal design but its creation of a “character” who complicates the very notion of unitary character in fiction — although its formal strategies certainly work effectively to help produce this effect. If printed fiction cannot attain the same degree of contingency and nonlinearity as hypertext, in Half Life Jackson nevertheless creates a character whose “true” identity may be whatever we decide it to be, and ultimately turns the narrative back on itself, encouraging us to perhaps reconsider everything we have read.

Riddance has its share of slippages and ambiguities, but while the story it tells is even more gothic than Half Life — set in a school for stuttering children in the early part of the 20th century, the school, we are told by the initial narrator, the “editor” of a scholarly compendium about it (the book we are about to read), “may have appeared on county maps in the vicinity of Cheesehill, Massachusetts, [but] its real address was in the crepuscular zone” — it is also more recognizable in its formal structure, a novel masquerading as another kind of text (Nabokov’s Pale Fire being just one example of this sort of fabrication, although the use of supposedly pre-existing documents as a formal device is a common enough strategy in horror fiction more generally). The editor, who at least fancies himself a scholar, offers us a collection of documents related to the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost-Speakers and Hearing-Mouth Children, located in Cheesehill, the hometown of Sybil Joines, the founder and proprietor (although later directors of the school apparently also assume the founder’s name). It is called a school for “ghost-speakers” because Sybil Joines, herself a stutterer, believes that the dead make their presence known to the living in the speech — or non-speech — of those who stutter.

Although numerous kinds of found texts (as well as many photos and other graphic illustrations) are included in the editor’s collection, the two most important are undoubtedly the series entitled “The Final Dispatch,” which purports to be Sybil Joines’s own last communique, sent from the land of the dead, and “The Stenographer’s Story,” which tells us of the experiences of Sybil Joines’s assistant, an African-American student at the school named Jane Grandison, who transcribes the dispatch. (Jane Grandison eventually becomes the second Sybil Joines, although her status as an African-American at first leads her to express some skepticism about some of the assumptions at the school — how thoroughly white “the dead” seem to be, for example.) The circumstances surrounding Sybil Joines’s journey to the “land of the dead” eventually emerge — she claims in the dispatch to be pursuing a recalcitrant student she wants to bring back to the school — but the central interest of the novel surely lies in the exposition of Sybil Joines’s final encounter with this nebulous realm of paranormal existence she has spent her life — which the other entries in the collection work to elaborate — seeking to understand. The editor remarks in his introduction that through its layered organization, “this book can be entered at any point” (marking the printed text’s closest potential resemblance to a hypertext, although “The Final Dispatch” itself evokes hypertext in Sybil Joines’s descriptions of the fluidity of her surroundings), but this possibility is itself mostly virtual, since to approach Riddance in this way would really rob it of a forward momentum that clearly seems to be intentional.

Sybil Joines’s dispatch is the main attraction in Riddance as well because it features much of the novel’s best and most imaginative writing. “White everywhere,” she writes (or speaks, while Jane Grandison writes it down), in describing what she sees while pursuing Eve Finster, the errant student,

complicating into color, into form, fading again to white. White sky. White plains onto which white cataracts thunder down from an impossible height: souls pouring without surcease into death and roaring as they fall. The cataracts — the one stable landmark, the one feature on which all travelers report — one in such incessant motion that they seem immobile: one immense hoary figure, frozen in place, head bowed. Sometimes a bridge travels down the length of it: a fire in a shirtwaist factory, great ship sinking in icy waters. . . .

For all the apparent predisposition for the visual evidenced in her hypertext and alternative-media works (as well as the visual orientation of the passage above), both Half Life and Riddance show Shelley Jackson to be a poised and evocative stylist, one of the reasons both of these quite long books remain pleasurable to read.

A little later Sybil Joines tells us:

Now I shall have to start all over again, trumping up a world to catch her in! Only a moment ago, as it seems, I was hurrying down a familiar road. For all its spectral dogs and rabbits, it was, as near as I could make it, the way home. The girl was in my sights! And then my heart flared up white inside me, and road and ravine and crowding hills all blanched and raveled into filaments like the thread-thin hyphae of a fungus. The girl is gone. I am alone on a blank page.

The “white” that confronts Sybil Joines so implacably, we discover, is the white of the page on which she is composing the reality of the land of the dead as she speaks. Riddance, it turns out, is not simply (or even primarily) a gothic fantasy about communing with the dead but an allegory about writing, or, more precisely about language. Indeed, making a metaphorical connection between the human body and writing has been a preoccupation of Jackson’s in all of her work. (The Melancholy of Anatomy, she has said, was conceived as “a kind of body” to be “read.”) However, Riddance arguably works out the metafictional implications of this trope most abundantly. It is Sybil Joines’s belief that the presence of the dead is a manifestation of language — specifically human speech — but they are most sensitive to the silences and hesitations of stutterers, through which the dead might speak and into which the stutterer might be able to enter and encounter the dead (thus some students actually disappear into their own mouths).

Many of the students at the Joines Vocational School also produce “mouth objects,” ectoplasmic emanations in various shapes that are then intensively studied for their possible meaning. An illustrated collection of these objects is offered in the book’s appendices where, lined up side-by-side, they look conspicuously like letters in an alphabet. To be alive, it would seem, means having access to language, and thus the ghostly presences of the dead make themselves known not through apparitions but through the palpable medium of language. If Riddance is truly a book about the paranormal (“necrophysics,” as Sybil Joines would have it), we could say it implicitly portrays the way language is haunted by its own ghostly origins and the now-spectral uses to which it has been put in the past. The same is true, of course, of literature itself, which continues to embody a living force only after the writer’s reckoning with all of the dead forms it has assumed in the past.

However much Jackson has experimented with hypertext and other unorthodox media, both Half Life and Riddance show that her work is firmly situated in established literary history— perhaps we could say it, too, emerges from the silences and gaps lurking in that history.


Lance Olsen 

In a career that now includes 14 novels and 4 collections of short fiction (as well as 7 works of nonfiction), Lance Olsen has produced an admirable variety of experimental fictions, no one of which seems merely a repetition of any of the others. There are identifiable tendencies and gestures in his work, to be sure, all of which are designed to redirect the reader’s attention to the page itself, to the graphic embodiment of language, rather to the “story” or “content” to which language is presumed to be pointing by many (if not most) readers of fiction, even so-called literary fiction. But the strategies by which Olsen accomplishes this larger goal are multifarious, especially in the context of such an abundant and still-accumulating body of work.

Of course, such variety is almost certain to result in some books that are less successful than others, a phenomenon unsurprising in what is after all “experimental” fiction. If not all experiments succeed, books as resolutely unconventional as Olsen’s, dedicated to sounding out alternatives to those practices that presume “form” in fiction to be synonymous with narrative, should be valued simply for their efforts to provide such alternatives to “exhausted” presumptions, as John Barth might put it. Still, the reading experiences afforded by Olsen’s novels and story collections themselves vary in the degree to which they manage to both effect an inventive formal strategy and to make that strategy an engrossing substitute for conventional narrative. Achieving this sort of synthesis of sheer technique and aesthetic gratification (not an easy task, to be sure) seems to me the fundamental accomplishment of the best experimental fiction, since a work that merely signals a break with traditional practices but doesn’t use such a rupture as an opportunity to then offer the reader a fulfilling reading experience, one that renews the aesthetic possibilities of fiction as more than “a story,” will surely not survive as much more than a literary curiosity. An honorable effort, perhaps, but ultimately indeed a failure.

Olsen actually began his career as an academic critic, most prominently, perhaps, as the author of Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision, but also books on “postmodern fantasy” and the science fiction writer William Gibson. His earliest novels are themselves most categorizable as fantasy and science fiction, although they could also be described simply as punkish provocation (with titles like Tonguing the Zeitgeist and Freaknest). These books rely more on extreme situations than on formal experiment per se, and, given the genre, are also more dependent on narrative than Olsen’s later novels would be. They are not without a certain kind of cheeky interest, but they aren’t likely to retain much future interest apart from their place in Lance Olsen’s development as a writer of unorthodox fiction.

With Girl Imagined by Chance (2002) and 10:01 (2005), Olsen began writing more straightforwardly experimental fiction, although each of these novels in their own way retain more connections to established narrative practices than will his subsequent even more adventurous work. Girl Imagined by Chance, while incorporating photographs as a structural device, tells an unusual story—a married couple pretend to have a baby in order to satisfy friends and family pressuring them to have children—but it relates the story in a relatively linear way, and the novel would probably remain accessible to readers not otherwise accustomed to experimental fiction. 10:01 is a highly fragmented novel that is held together by the conceit provided by its setting—a movie theater in the Mall of America. Thus we are given a montage of sorts tracing the passing thoughts of a large group of people waiting in line for the next show. The result is essentially an exercise in “psychological realism,” a shifting set of vignettes that evoke the Mall of America as a metaphorical container of consciousness.

Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006) really marks the emergence of motifs, situations, and procedures that together have now come to seem Lance Olsen’s signature approach. Here and in the following books, Olsen takes historical figures, primarily writers and artists, as subjects, thereby making writing (language more generally) and artistic creation a central focus of attention. By and large, the depiction of such figures—Nietzsche, Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh—is accurate to the historical reality in most particulars, but Olsen fills in gaps, speculates about states of mind, uses these figures as quasi-allegorical characters illustrating the precarious position of art and intellect in the world at large. He does not employ these characters merely as subjects of historical or biographical re-creation: they are in a sense the vehicle for Olsen’s formal transformations and typographical pyrotechnics, which almost unavoidably become the point of interest, although at their best in these later novels character and event are revealed through form, and vice versa. The primary structural device in most of these novels is collage, but this relatively familiar method is itself further disrupted by the frequent unfastening of the text’s language from its accustomed place in the linear flow of the printed page through spacing or the unusual placement of words.

While experiment in Olsen’s fiction is quite apparent in the liberties taken with the traditional protocols of reading, a significant element in his audacious challenge to narrative-as-usual is less conspicuous although just as important in its effect. Olsen’s attention to form goes beyond merely devising some altered species of narrative, but involves replacing narrative with formal arrangements that are often more spatial than chronological. Collage itself in Olsen’s novels work spatially through juxtaposition and suggestion, frequently moving freely back and forth in time, as in Nietzsche’ Kisses and 2009’s Head in Flames (the latter moving from passages about Van Gogh to episodes concerning Theo Van Gogh, great-grandson of Vincent’s brother, and the man who ultimately assassinates him). Calendar of Regrets (2010) seems to invoke a chronological structure, but it too moves both forward and backward—its separate strands, set in disparate times and places, moves first forward through the calendar year and then back again—and Olsen has said that at the most general level he was trying to closely echo the layout of an Hieronymus Bosch painting. (Bosch is the subject of one of the narrative strands.) Theories of Forgetting (2014) similarly echoes Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty, about which one of the novel’s characters is attempting (or was attempting, since we discover she is now dead) to make a film. Designs of Debris (2017), a surrealist retelling of the Minotaur myth, uses the monster’s labyrinth as its underlying architectural principle, again an attempt to bring form and subject into a kind of aesthetic equilibrium.

My Red Heaven is the most intricately formalist, and also most successful, of Olsen’s novels to date. A kind of panoramic tour of Berlin, Germany in 1927, its fixed time and place creates more unity among its episodes and perspectives than in, say, Calendar of Regrets, where the variety of narrative strands (and the novel’s length) can at times make the text seem overly diffuse. If the audacious manipulation of the printed page is somewhat less insistent than in Theories of ForgettingMy Red Heaven nevertheless displays the sort of verbal and discursive heterogeneity (including the use of photos) we would expect in a Lance Olsen novel. In this case, however, Olsen has fully enlisted his graphical variations as a kind of representational device as well, working to evoke the historical and cultural degeneration that this moment in the life of Belin (at least retrospectively) portends.

As we might expect from the previous novels, many (not all) of the characters in My Red Heaven are artists, writers, and other intellectual figures prominent in Germany in 1927 (as well as one deceased famous figure—Rosa Luxemburg—now reincarnated as a butterfly). The novel weaves portrayals of these characters and their actions throughout the 24-hour period it records, usually through transitional markers that put one character in the proximity of the next or that otherwise associate the two. The gallery of characters shows Berlin in the 1920s to be a culturally dynamic place (characters include the artist Otto Dix, émigré writers Robert Musil and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the physicist Werner Heisenberg), although the novel also features the underside of Berlin life, the drug addiction, violence, and poverty that made this “modern” German society so vulnerable to the predations of the Nazis, who also make their appearance, including Hitler himself.

While the primary structural device in My Red Heaven again appears to be collage, this surface feature is actually secondary to the novel’s controlling formal scheme. The novel’s title echoes that of the painting by the abstractionist painter Otto Freundlich. The painting is designed as irregular blocks of color (black, white, shades of gray, blue, green, and red), all of which are used as section names in Olsen’s novel, presumably linking in some way the episodes included to the color’s corresponding contribution to the painting’s overall aesthetic effect. Further, the painting’s colors are assembled in a grid-like assortment of rectilinear cells. The novel’s collage method, then, ultimately seems to be a progressive filling-in of these cells as rendered into literary form. This procedure is never intrusive, but it gives the novel an implicit shape that again governs “content.” The verbal mosaic that emerges in the depiction of 1927 Berlin is the product of form’s inherent artifice, but the depiction is no less vivid and no less faithful to the historical circumstances obtaining in Germany (and by extension European culture in general) during this between-wars interregnum.

In what is in part clearly an homage to 20th century modernism (including brief interchapters very close to the “newsreel” sections of Dos Passos’s USA trilogy), My Red Heaven thus both provides an historical panorama capturing the tenor of the period, while also embodying in its own departures from convention an extension of the modernist exploration of alternative styles and strategies. Although it might be tempting to think of a text such as My Red Heaven as a pastiche of modernism, and thus arguably more appropriately categorized as postmodern, neither this novel nor most of Olsen’s previous work seem accurately described as postmodern, except in the sense that Olsen is now about a century removed from the era of high modernism. Indeed, in Circus of the Mind in Motion, Olsen himself posits that postmodernism—which Olsen closely associates with a type of iconoclastic humor—was relatively short-lived and began to be replaced with a less radical kind of fiction after 1980. The radicalism of Olsen’s fiction might then be seen less as an attempt to revive postmodernism and more to validate the original experimental impulse animating modernism, which was also the inspiration, after all, for the postmodernists themselves.

Regardless of the label we might want to assign it, My Red Heaven fulfills the promise of experimental fiction: it challenges complacent reading habits at the same time it also offers to renew the conceptual resources upon which fiction might draw to engage the reader in new and myriad ways. Although Nietzsche’s Kisses and Head in Flames also employ an unorthodox approach to effectively integrate method and matter, My Red Heaven might be the sort of book that convinces skeptical readers experimental fiction can be compelling reading even if it does not complacently fall back on the most comfortable modes of storytelling.


Carole Maso

Carole Maso has never tried to avoid the label, “experimental writer.” Indeed, in interviews and essays she has often advocated on behalf of experimental fiction, lamenting the lack of critical attention it receives and excoriating big publishers for their commercial fixations at the expense of the literary. In her essay, “Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose,” she critiques the conditions that prevail in contemporary writing:

Together, many novelists, now commodity makers, have agreed on a recognizable reality, which they are all too happy to impart as if it were true. Filled with hackneyed ways of perceiving, cliched, old sensibilities, they and the publishing houses create traditions which have gradually been locked into place. They take for granted: the line, the paragraph, the chapter, the story, the storyteller, character.

Here, Maso presumably gives us not only a general description of the ambitions to which experimental fiction ought to aspire (or, more precisely, of those it ought to reject), but also an explicit signal of what we might expect to find in her own work. And indeed, we do find in Maso’s novels and stories an exploration of the possibilities of unorthodox structural and stylistic devices beyond those associated with conventional narratives. Still, it can’t really be said that Maso’s fiction ultimately abandons either “story” or “character.” While her novels are sufficiently different from each other that their formal qualities can be described only in reference to their specific effect in the work at hand, each of them could be said to elicit these effects as an alternative means — alternative to the “traditions” that most literary fiction continues to unreflectively reproduce — of presenting characters, specifically the narrator-protagonists whose efforts to relate their experiences (and sometimes to imagine the experiences of others) serve as a substitute for “narrative” in the conventional sense, but each certainly does finally offer a story encompassing, in most cases, the character’s whole life.

Some of the novels, such as The Art Lover (1990), employ a collage-like method, in this case exemplified by a dual-stranded sequence of events (the narrator’s own past and the version of it presented in the novel she is writing) and supplemented by a variety of graphic and pictorial elements. Defiance (1998), perhaps Maso’s most well-known novel, also uses the collage method, except here the fragmentation arises from the narrator’s fragmented consciousness, as she records her experiences in a journal (while awaiting execution for double murder, no less). Of the two, The Art Lover seems the most purely motivated simply by a desire to experiment with form, while the extremity of form in Defiance seems determined by the extremity of the subject and situation, all working not really to solve a mystery — why did the narrator murder her young students? — but to depict a woman exploring the peripheries of her own psychic trauma. Something like this is also featured in Ava (1993), although in this novel the situation is even more extreme: literally from her deathbed, suffering the final stage of cancer and in a coma, the protagonist cycles through her life experiences in a series of mostly brief images and recalled moments.

These novels admirably maintain an alternative practice outside the conventions “locked into place” that have turned writers into “commodity makers,” but that is not to say they are inaccessible for readers open to unorthodox strategies that nevertheless lead to fulfilling familiar goals grounding fiction in character (as well as narrative in the broadest sense). Indeed, novels like The Art Lover and Defiance surely do at the least eventually cohere as stories of women’s lives of the sort feminist criticism especially helps us in reading, and Defiance in particular seems a deliberate attempt to shock through its content, its fragmented form actually serving to create a kind of traditional dramatic tension through ellipsis, understatement, and delay. Even Ava is not quite the radical experiment in discontinuous, even random, expression it might at first appear to be. Once we have adjusted to the situation and sampled enough of the at times near-musical flow of language as it cycles through Ava’s not-quite-consciousness, we can more readily accept the novel’s apparent formal and discursive disorder as a radical invocation of the stream-of-consciousness strategy, taken, perhaps, to its plausible limit, but surely a recognizable method with an established history.

Maso’s most thoroughly adventurous work may be the short story collection, Aureole (1996). In her preface to the book, Maso says she is attempting to discover “ways in language to express the extreme, the fleeting, the fugitive states that hover at the outermost boundaries of speech.” In this case, the “fugitive” state explored is sexual desire, the ineffability of which is represented in the “sexual energy” Maso has attempted to infuse into her sentences. Few of the stories are explicit (at least in their language, which instead is metaphorical and suggestive), and in fact description of the particulars of a sexual encounter is not at all the Aureole’s, ambition but rather the invocation of the exigencies of desire in both the stylistic and formal features of the stories. Thus they are shaped less by concerns of narrative than of tracking the unpredictable, shifting movements of desire as might be registered in language.

If Aureole most directly forwards an approach attempting to fuse style and form (in a way that again most approximates music), this sort of motive seems to inform most of Maso’s fiction, including the novels, which, if not so removed from conventional practices as to be forbidding, nevertheless succeed in exploring “ways of perceiving” — both experience and fiction itself as literary art — that are not hackneyed and that resist being themselves perceived as commodities. That Maso was a writer likely to be engaged in such a project was clear enough in her debut novel, Ghost Dance (1986), now offered in a reprint edition by Counterpoint Press. Perhaps the first challenge posed to the reader in this novel is to appropriately perceive its protagonist: We are initially presented with the image of a woman “standing under the great clock in Grand Central Station,” who is, the narrator tells us, “waiting for me.” The woman is revealed as the narrator’s mother, and the first scene introduces us to this character whose enigmatic absence  (except in the narrator’s memories of her) paradoxically makes her the novel’s most vivid presence. Even so, she retains the element of mystery established by the narrator’s account in this first, extended memory of a woman on the edge of madness — although, as we discover throughout the novel, whether her madness is the source of her gift — she is a renowned poet, as it turns out — or whether the gift itself impels her disordered habits is never made definitively clear.

The narrator, Vanessa, does not seem quite sure about this herself, although what follows our first acquaintance with her mother, Christine is essentially Vanessa’s attempt to reckon with the loss of the mother, as well as the overwhelming effect Christine has had on her, which arises as much from the mother’s persistent absences as her direct acts of parenting. This Vanessa does obliquely, however, through a kaleidoscope of memories (of her father, brother, and grandparents as well as Christine) and fragmented narratives about her own experiences separate from her mother. But Vanessa appears to be in a state of mental displacement, and so we cannot be entirely confident in her reliability as narrator. She seems unable to accept the fact of her mother’s death, suggesting to us that Christine has simply disappeared (as has Vanessa’s father). If Ghost Dance portrays Vanessa finally as capable of coming to terms with her family history, this novel could be taken as Vanessa’s progress toward acceptance of reality, but this means that much of what she tells us, her rendering of events and characters, must be subject to doubt. Thus the more startling episodes from her own past and present, from her affair with a mentally disturbed fellow college student who ultimately commits suicide, to a sexual encounter with Christine’s lesbian lover, Sabine, to a relationship with a giant man (“an enormous man, a man so large he might blot out the sun”) named Jack each must be doubted as a literal representation of “real” events.

Perhaps the same is true of Vanessa’s account of her grandparents, one of whom becomes deeply immersed in Native American spirituality, while another exiles himself to Armenia, although we might think her hold on family history would be more secure than on her own present experiences. None of this makes such interludes less effective in evoking Vanessa’s troubled state of mind, however. And to the extent that we might read Ghost Dance as the revelation of her confused consciousness, we would probably conclude that it is Vanessa’s story that is the novel’s primary focus of concern. In a sense this evocation of a consciousness in extremis governs the novel’s formal structure: fragmented, prone to repetition and revision, scattered in time and place, but ultimately holding together in its task of suggesting a more nebulous reality beneath the “recognizable reality” that form in conventional fiction reliably summons. We could say that latter reality does finally come into more apparent view by the end of the novel, when the actual circumstances of Christine’s death are revealed. Vanessa relates Christine’s death in an automobile accident, as well as its immediate aftermath, straightforwardly enough at this point, but the accident would seem to be the central trauma animating the novel, to which Vanessa’s fractured narrative figuratively bears witness, circling around it but finally not able to evade its heavy gravity.

Still, if Vanessa’s internal conflict motivates the novel’s formal structure, her hesitations and evasions inevitably work to make Christine an even more enigmatic figure, and thus arguably make her character its most memorable feature. Although Christine is a dynamic character in her own way — part free-spirited artist, part incipient madwoman, the two halves perhaps indivisible — she is also the first of what will become a recognizable kind of character in Maso’s fiction, an unruly woman of sorts, a trait she shares with Ava Klein and Defiance’s Bernadette O’Brien. The title of Defiance, of course, captures the spirit both of these women characters, whose behavior defies the constrictions of what is considered to be proper behavior for women, and of the work of Carole Maso herself. Maso’s fiction does consistently defy those “hackneyed” conventions that in most contemporary fiction are assumed to be “locked into place.” In employing non-hackneyed stylistic and formal strategies, Maso creates distinctive characters not usually to be found in other fiction, even other fiction written by women. Neither Maso nor her characters are afraid to transgress presumed boundaries.

Maso’s most recent novel was Mother and Child, an atypical exercise in surreal whimsy, published in 2012. By then, it had been 14 years since Defiance, although Maso had published three works of nonfiction in the interim. Presumably through much of this time (and since) she was working on the reportedly mammoth Bay of Angels, excerpts of which have appeared in various journals. These excerpts, as well as Maso’s own descriptions, suggest the novel will draw on the sort of collage and juxtaposition we find in the previous work (and it appears to involve Ava Klein), so it will indeed be interesting to see how Maso is able to realize her iconoclastic ambitions in meeting the large-scale demands of the meganovel.


Sergio de la Pava (A Naked Singularity)

The response to Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity included numerous references to the book as "postmodern," "innovative," or "absurdist," terms that by now are mostly used to indicate that the work at hand is not a conventional work of realism. Often postmodernist and realist seem to be the only two categories available in which to put new works of fiction--the former to designate anything that runs counter to the broadest currents of mainstream "literary fiction," the latter to identify the fundamental aesthetic orientation of mainstream fiction. A Naked Singularity is clearly enough not mainstream, from its length (de la Pava seems more interested in putting everything in than in exercising editorial restraint) to its long stretches of dialogue without expository supplement, its gradual shift from a kind of expose of the American judicial system to a crime novel complete with "caper," all enveloped in a quasi-science fiction atmosphere that may just be the eerie reflection of the protagonist's psychological breakdown. But do these qualities alone warrant calling the novel "postmodern"? Moreover, does calling it postmodern further make it "innovative"?

There's no doubt that A Naked Singularity takes real risks if its intended audience is indeed typical readers of literary fiction. That de la Pava chose to self-publish his novel after it was rejected by every agent to whom he sent it suggests, of course, he does not consider this to be his likely audience. The reader of A Naked Singularity needs to be willing to become immediately immersed in the daily business of a big-city American court at its most random and chaotic, in the company of the novel's protagonist, Casi, a public defender attempting to negotiate his own way through an environment that ultimately we understand has taken its toll on him, despite the fact that he has apparently been successful enough at his job he has yet to lose a case that has gone to trial. (He spends most of his time attempting to prevent his clients from going to trial in the first place through plea bargaining.) There is little indication in the novel's first 100 pages that anything like a conventional plot of the kind we might expect from a novel with a legal setting is going to develop, although Casi's account of the courtroom scenes and his interaction with his clients is quite compelling on its own.

This early part of the novel doesn't avoid realism but, if anything, could be described as hyperrealism. The depiction of the hellish atmosphere and moral degradation of the New York lower courts is uncompromising and unrelenting as we follow Casi through his daily activities. If the ultimate goal of realism is to represent life as lived as faithfully as possible, A Naked Singularity surely accomplishes the task, giving Casi's encounters with his colleagues and his clients its scrupulous attention. Such an approach can seem postmodern only when "realism" is reduced to conventional storytelling: "plot," after all, is an artificial imposition on the artistic treatment of reality in fiction, since rarely do we experience our lives as "story," complete with its exposition, rising action, and narrative climax. Historically, realism has been a mode most supportive of character and setting, and certainly A Naked Singularity provides plenty of both.

Eventually it provides plenty of plot as well, but by the time we get to the heist, meticulously planned by Casi and a colleague, and its ultimately violent outcome, we have also been introduced to several other narrative strands, including Casi's interactions with his family and his volunteer work on a death penalty case from Texas, as well as the interpolated stories Casi tells about various boxers of the 1980s, especially Wilfrid Benitez, with whom Casi seems to have a strong connection. This digressiveness would appear to be another feature of the novel that might lead readers and reviewers to call it postmodern, but finally all of these strands work together to provide a coherent character portrait of the protagonist. Because the novel is further unified by Casi's first-person narration, the digressions are less a symptom of postmodern fragmentation than an alternative method of characterization that arguably renders his increasingly erratic behavior and deteriorating state of mind with more fidelity than a more linear, conventional form of "psychological realism" would.

The postmodern writers with whom de la Pava has been most frequently compared are Wallace, Pynchon, and Gaddis, and of the three it seems to me that A Naked Singularity has most in common with the latter, particularly A Frolic of His Own with its similar legal setting, but the reliance on dialogue in Gaddis's fiction provides the closest parallel to de la Pava's approach in his novel, although he does not pursue the strategy as radically as Gaddis does. Moreover, although Gaddis is frequently classified as a postmodernist, his work is much less explicitly metafictional or absurdist, much less an attempt to create a distorted or artificial world separate from reality than to be truer to reality by getting it all in, the sheer babble and noise of American culture as reflected by the perpetual talk of his characters. A Naked Singularity certainly could be identified as a novel of "excess" (a designation coined by Tom Le Clair), and it shares with Gaddis as well as Pynchon and Wallace a willingness to violate the boundaries of what would ordinarily be considered "well-made fiction," creating in the process an impression of excess that is actually very carefully calibrated in its effects. The work of all of these writers puts the reader in the same position as the characters in their novels, who often find themselves in the middle of a seemingly overwhelming "system" they are attempting to comprehend.

If A Naked Singularity bears comparison to the meganovels of Pynchon, Gaddis, and Wallace, it is hard to say that it advances beyond the achievements of these earlier works, either formally or thematically. To suggest that this novel probably should not be considered innovative is not to undervalue its own achievement. At a time when ambition in American fiction is most often expressed in the "social novel," in hybrid genre forms such as the post-apocalyptic narrative and tepid forms of magical realism, or simply in securing a contract with a mainstream publisher, it is refreshing that a writer is willing to be more formally adventurous, in a mode less assimilable to prevailing expectations of "literary fiction"—so much so that no agent or publisher was willing to take a chance on this book. The most foolish miscalculation on the part of those who concluded this novel was not worth publication is in the assumption that readers would not find it engaging because of its unorthodox structure, but in fact once we have oriented ourselves to its method, the novel is quite entertaining (if at times disturbing in its portrayal of the dysfunction of out "system of justice"). In the novel's expository passages, Casi's voice attracts our interest, and de la Pava's control of language in general should be apparent to any serious reader.

Ultimately there can be no fixed category of "innovative" fiction. Sergio de la Pava is admirably following up on the innovations of Gaddis and Pynchon, exploring possibilities suggested by their example, but the invocation of a term like "postmodern" as a convenient way to identify a book like A Naked Singularity works more to obscure our perception of what's truly innovative in new works of fiction than to assist it. No familiar terms will seem adequate to describe the introduction of the really new.