Monday, March 30, 2009

A different kind of tension

One of the few things the novel can be said to have on its side at this particular juncture is its stubborn and pretty much irreducible materiality. It’s just not that great, reading novel-length text online, nor are sheaves of printouts especially gratifying to the hand, eye or bookshelf. The novel’s compact transportability, its tactility and manipulability, its shape and smell, the feel and look of the cover, the font, the width of the margins, the quality of the paper, all of those factors are immediately sensually/sensorily present in reading, no matter how subliminally. They are primary elements in the act of reading. Their loss isn’t equivalent to what’s lost in listening to an mp3 as opposed to vinyl in which the physical/ tactile elements (sleeve, inserts etc) aren’t a continuous feature of the experience. No other art form demand such immediate and permanent contact during its consumption as the novel does, nor is any other form so resistant to dematerialization into digital media.

This restores to the miserable old novel ( if you’re unhappy with the use of the term novel and all its numerous connotations just substitute “book-form” or something), at this juncture, a pronounced character that was otherwise just subsumed into the fabric of daily consumption. As everything that is solid melts into air the novel remains mysteriously, jaggedly and jarringly heavy and present. It’s this aspect of the novel (among others) that I think is under-exploited and insufficiently engaged with (though of course it’s not that it has never been engaged with, it’s just that given contemporary debates around digitization it takes on an especial urgency/ prominence).
Its status as an object, something that can be handled, needs, I think, to be emphasised, (along with it’s mysteriously reticulated depths). To this end most of the things I’ve written have required the reader to engage with the book’s three dimensional present-ness, with White Diaspora for example, it was necessary to read alternate pages, turn the novel around at the book’s end/story’s halfway point and then read back to the start. With Jason Phereus the organizing principle, which expanded on Cortazar’s Rayuela, meant the reader could follow several different paths through the text, requiring them to move backwards and forward in the book, and with the latest, The Begging Letter, the two halves of the story should meet in the middle, running into each other in the centre pages.

What is of course fundamental is that formal “ tricks” like these aren’t gratuitous but objectivise (rather than “ dramatize”) the fundamental theme of the work. In White Diaspora for example the Mobius-strip created inside the book’s front and back cover relate precisely to the central character’s (and the culture’s, no less!) inability to break out a particular set of co-ordinates, with The Begging Letter, each of the two halves of the story ends on a deliberately proffered blank page, the novel itself has nothing at the centre and is constructed around this central emptiness, Jason Phereus was intended to slow the reader down, divert them, restrict their view, force them to make choices, pay attention to the text and order it themselves instead of passively gliding from page to page: an attempt to represent something of the opacity and sense of temporal disorientation that afflicts the characters.

This is one more of the tensions that I imagine the novel as existing within. The series of tensions is roughly, the internal tensions between reader and author, the tension between the characters within the story, the tension of the plot’s drive toward closure, along with the tension between the diegetic realm of the novels and the corporeality of the novel as a physical structure/object : the attempt by the fiction’s diegesis to sublimate it’s materiality.** It’s also situated in an extended tension with other forms of media such as hypertext, digital fiction (about which more later) conceptual art and theory.

Largely I think that even those who are friendly toward experiment in other art-forms feel that there’s something slightly distasteful in approaching the novel this way. It’s a nicely moribund cultural form, an area of largely curatorial specialist interest, exhuming it and trying to get all innovatory is a bit like digging up grandpa sticking a pair of Van’s and some deely-boppers on him and taking him down a Wonky*** all-nighter. Unseemly. Unwanted.

I have a few more equally unseemly and unwanted ideas about what the novel should be doing, as it goes….

*South and for that matter North Americans**** have so much less trouble with the idea that the novel is still there to be fucked-about with and pushed forward, don’t they? There is a certain stolid, meat-and-two-veg Brit literalism that likes a well-fashioned, unflashy book***** and regards any exuberance and unconventionality as all a bit embarrassing and gauche. It’s supposed to be all grown up, the novel. An adult affair with a decent, reasonable, adult perspective on life that views this kind of formal folderol as an attempt to hoodwink you, a bit of smoke and mirrors. And if there’s one thing the puritan prides himself on, it’s his ability to harumphingly dampen enthusiasm in both himself and others. All a bit silly, really! What’s wrong with just moderately putting one reasonable page after another!?

** I kind of imagine that the fictional realm is an attempt to dissolve the books materiality and that here is a conflict, the book continually struggling to assert itself as an object against the fiction’s attempt to repress and mask it, the book as a kind of surplus of reality that keeps puncturing the fiction’s symbolic shell when the reader’s attention lapses or the conjuring act loses momentum (I find a potentially interesting political/ideological analogy here). It’s not just about the story, it’s about the book as a dialogue between all its parts, its about the novel as series of planes and interactions, a whole piece.

***In a music-related footnote shock I have to say I’m well up for a bit of Wonk. See you down Lightbox for Zomby.

****It behoves me at this point to acknowledge the formative impact of Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.”

*****If the novel’s an object here then it’s a handsome and robust sideboard that you can pass on to your own kids rather than a weird objet d’art assemblage of sprockets, ice and brain matter that came crashing through the roof one day and just sits there daring you try and move it. I should also point out that innovation at the level of the sentence i.e. style, seems a bit of a secondary consideration now, especially given the increasingly wearying compendious stylistic profligacy of recent American fiction (I mean can you expand on Omenstter’s Luck or The Runaway Soul?) Innovation at the level of the object seems the most promising and urgent demand.


ASHDAV said...

Forgive me asking, but how can I get my hands on these masterworks Jason Phereus and the Begging Letter?

Niall said...

Maybe they're available to download as a .pdf [!]

Thought provoking as ever, Carl - the thought on this occasion being this; People often approach a cultural form looking for a sense of order in a random, chaotic, unbounded world [or a sense that other people find it as overwhelming as they do.] They can get this from linear narratives with protagonists, from the temporally and melodically structured environment of music, from the confines of the Hollywood editorial grammar in film, religious eschatology, the picture frame, proscenium etc. Several dimensions of each of these forms are curtailed in order to exclude the outside world. Significantly, in all but the book form, this includes a time-frame that the "audience" can't interfere with. However, because the reader of a book is entirely in control of the time taken to read it they need some other constraint to restore the relaxing sense that some higher power with a clear plan is in control. This may be where the materiality of the book comes in and why electronic forms are a poor substitute.

R. William Barry said...

hey carl, one little point on one little point here - you say that the physicality of vinyl is not something that one must constantly engage with throughout the act of listening, but what about if you are a DJ? as a DJ, even if you're not crab-scratching and what have you, the act of touching the record, physically moving it to precisely the spot you need, running your fingers across the grooves in what you might call a quasi-erotic fashion, is fundamental and constant. and yet, curiously, this has not stopped many DJs - even
hiphop-type DJs ho use a lot of scratching and so forth - from switching to mp3s and cds. have you seen those CDJ tings where you can kind of spin a virtual plate back and forth and it will simulate the act of doing so to a record on a turntable?

Martin said...

"Innovation at the level of the object seems the most promising and urgent demand."

You could have just written that, surely? It would have sufficed.

Anyway, I think it's too easy to assume that people don't use the object in non-linear ways already, and perhaps where innovation is more promising is in the relationship of reader to narrative, no matter how it's physically carried. But that's a whole new argument. Let's do that some other time eh?

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