Lib­er­at­ing the Lit­er­ary Canon

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Houman Barekat

The Un­mapped Coun­try: Sto­ries & Frag­ments, Ann Quin, And Other Sto­ries, 2018, pp. 192, £10.00 (Pa­per­back)

Safe Mode, Sam Riviere, Test Cen­tre, 2017, pp. 128 (Pa­per­back)

It is possible to feel very alone in com­pany. Two of the standout sto­ries in The Un­mapped Coun­try, a col­lec­tion of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished ma­te­rial by the English ex­per­i­men­tal nov­el­ist Ann Quin (1936-1973), il­lus­trate this with ex­cru­ci­at­ing aplomb. ‘A Dou­ble Room’ tells of a ro­man­tic sea­side jaunt gone awry: there is list­less con­ver­sa­tion, bad sex and snor­ing; worst of all, when the cou­ple or­der a cup of tea on the train buf­fet, it is served lukewarm. Hol­i­day­ing in Latin Amer­ica with her part­ner, the pro­tag­o­nist of ‘Eyes That Watch Be­hind the Wind’ is be­set by ‘a cat-like rest­less­ness’:

she felt al­most an urge to go out alone, walk into some part of the jun­gle . . . Give her­self to some In­dian. With­out words. Be rav­ished. Even raped. Then killed. A quick death from a ma­chete.

One of the most strik­ing fea­tures of Quin’s prose is her in­ven­tive tin­ker­ing with punc­tu­a­tion and syn­tax to evoke the dull las­si­tude that be­sets many of her pro­tag­o­nists. Here is the happy cou­ple in ‘A Dou­ble Room’ choos­ing a ho­tel: ‘what about this one it’s a three star one should be OK hope the food’s good.’ The monotony of the so­journ is brought out by dis­pens­ing with punc­tu­a­tion. Later, con­versely, Quin clogs a sen­tence with punc­tu­a­tion in or­der to ren­der a sense of halt­ing te­dium: ‘Strug­gle up three. Four flights of stairs.’ Oc­ca­sion­ally, a para­graph will end sans full-stop, leav­ing the reader tee­ter­ing at an abrupt el­lip­ti­cal abyss. Else­where the es­chew­ing of a ques­tion-mark to de­note a flat in­to­na­tion (‘He has a nice mouth… Is he alone.’) an­tic­i­pates by sev­eral decades the dead­pan reg­is­ter of twen­ty­first cen­tury so­cial me­dia ver­nac­u­lar. The prac­tice is wide­spread among

mil­len­ni­als on Twit­ter, com­mu­ni­cat­ing any­thing from wry amuse­ment to with­er­ing in­dif­fer­ence to cool rage.

The longest story in this col­lec­tion is the un­fin­ished novel Quin was work­ing on when she took her own life at the age of thirty-seven. ‘The Un­mapped Coun­try’ is set in a lu­natic asy­lum and is rem­i­nis­cent, in its anti-psy­chi­atric sen­ti­ment, of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). A re­cal­ci­trant pa­tient strug­gles with two or­der­lies, ‘I don’t want to come here – what are you do­ing to me – I’m go­ing home right now – leave me – let me go you can’t keep me here you have no right – no right what­so­ever – I want to go home.’ The pa­tient is se­dated, and the pas­sage ends with the re­as­sur­ances of the nurses, ren­dered in the same syn­tax: ‘feel bet­ter – that’s right – no need to worry you’re in good hands now – we’re here to help you.’

These small but telling touches im­bue the nar­ra­tion with a vivid, filmic ur­gency. Other af­fec­ta­tions are slightly less pleas­ing, such as the blank redac­tions that punc­tu­ate the text with spo­radic puffs of white space in ‘Mother­logue’, and the splice com­mas that rid­dle ‘Nude and Seas­cape’: ‘He sank down, ev­ery­thing, it seemed, had been wasted’; ‘He stepped back, it seemed too per­fect, far too beau­ti­ful’. These are meant to give the prose a greater sense of rhythm, but in­vari­ably have the op­po­site ef­fect.

The Un­mapped Coun­try is es­sen­tial read­ing for any­one in­ter­ested in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in lit­er­ary fic­tion. Pub­lished in Jan­uary of this year, it has re­ceived a warm re­cep­tion from crit­ics, which may be a sign of the times. While con­ven­tional, re­al­ist nov­els con­tinue to dom­i­nate the mar­ket for lit­er­ary fic­tion, the past few years have seen a glut of eye-catch­ing for­mally ex­per­i­men­tal nov­els and short story col­lec­tions, mostly pub­lished by in­de­pen­dent presses. These in­vari­ably draw in­spi­ra­tion from Six­ties avant­gardists like Quin, or the mod­ernists of the early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury. Lat­terly, the term ‘ex­per­i­men­tal’ has fallen out of favour, with writ­ers and pub­lish­ers pre­fer­ring to la­bel these nov­els ‘in­no­va­tive’. This brings its own bur­dens. Some read­ers might bris­tle at Claire Low­don’s ap­praisal of the Joycean prose style of Eimear McBride,

the au­thor of crit­i­cally acclaimed nov­els The Lesser Bo­hemi­ans (2013) and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2016), as ‘Oa­sis do­ing the Bea­tles’, but it raises an im­por­tant ques­tion: why is it ‘in­no­va­tive’ to bor­row a style from 1920 but ‘con­ven­tional’ to bor­row a style from 1880? The dis­tinc­tion is man­i­festly false; the for­mal tech­niques as­so­ci­ated with mod­ernism and post­war avant-garde have long been in­te­grated into the canon­i­cal lit­er­ary main­stream, and their de­ploy­ment in twenty-first cen­tury nov­els is un­re­mark­able. To take two re­cent ex­am­ples, Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose (2015) and Si­mon Okotie’s In the Ab­sence of Ab­sa­lon (2017) are highly ac­com­plished ex­er­cises in neo-mod­ernist lit­er­ary aes­thet­ics – the former a spi­ral of Beck­et­tian whimsy, the lat­ter a poignant med­i­ta­tion on mem­ory. Both feel par­o­dic – al­beit to some ex­tent self-con­sciously – and nei­ther feels par­tic­u­larly of its time.

This is not to sug­gest, like some lat­ter-day lit­er­ary Fran­cis Fukuyama, that the race is run and there shall be no more in­no­va­tion. On the con­trary, we are liv­ing through an epochal mo­ment in the his­tory of lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture: the pro­lif­er­a­tion of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions me­dia has brought changes ev­ery bit as his­toric as the so­ci­etal and tech­no­log­i­cal changes that an­i­mated the mod­ernists of yesteryear. The way we live, think and com­mu­ni­cate is chang­ing in un­prece­dented and un­pre­dictable ways – and this, surely, is the new fron­tier for lit­er­a­ture that as­pires to the man­tle of ‘in­no­va­tion’. In re­cent years a plethora of nov­els have en­gaged with the in­ter­net as a sub­ject mat­ter, but com­par­a­tively few have es­sayed the trick­ier task of en­gag­ing with it at the for­mal level, by in­te­grat­ing the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of dig­i­tal-era con­scious­ness into the very fab­ric of a work of fic­tion.

Safe Mode, the first prose novel by the poet Sam Riviere, is a bold at­tempt to do just that. At the sen­tence level, Riviere’s writ­ing is con­spic­u­ously lack­ing in Quin-es­que frills. The con­ven­tions of stan­dard syn­tax are ob­served, and the prose is char­ac­terised by an in­for­ma­tive lu­cid­ity redo­lent of art ex­hi­bi­tion pam­phlets. What is un­usual is the text’s struc­ture: the novel is pre­sented as a se­ries of self-con­tained vi­gnettes of vary­ing length – be­tween two and six per page – con­tin­u­ously al­ter­nat­ing be­tween first-

per­son and third-per­son nar­ra­tion, flit­ting be­tween in­te­rior and ex­te­rior lives, and hop­ping with capri­cious ease across a mul­ti­plic­ity of top­ics. In the space of a cou­ple of pages Riviere’s nar­ra­tor pon­ders, var­i­ously, the plight of po­lar bears in cap­tiv­ity, the eco­nomics of pa­per re­cy­cling, and his girl­friend’s im­pas­sive man­ner in the sack. One mo­ment we find him in deeply con­tem­pla­tive mode, the next he is reel­ing off an en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­toid with the clin­i­cal de­tach­ment of a Wikipedia en­try.

That sense of in­con­gruity, which ought to be jar­ring but ac­tu­ally, un­ac­count­ably, isn’t, speaks to the mul­ti­lin­ear na­ture of nar­ra­tive con­scious­ness in the twenty-first cen­tury: the scat­ter­gun struc­tures of the in­ter­net rab­bit-hole are slowly, im­per­cep­ti­bly im­print­ing them­selves upon our psy­ches. Some prom­i­nent au­thors – among them Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen – have lately spo­ken of their in­dif­fer­ence to­wards dig­i­tal de­vices, and of the need to cut off from them. This is rea­son­able in­so­far as it re­lates to the ques­tion of writerly pro­duc­tiv­ity and the de­sire to seal your­self off from dis­trac­tions, but to dis­re­gard the broader im­pact of dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion on lan­guage and con­scious­ness is to con­sign your­self to ir­rel­e­vance: firstly, be­cause the ver­nac­u­lar of on­line com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the dom­i­nant epis­to­lary form of our time; se­condly, be­cause any con­vinc­ing ren­der­ing of in­te­ri­or­ity must take ac­count of these changes.

If the es­sen­tial plot­less­ness of Safe Mode re­calls Gus­tave Flaubert’s de­clared de­sire to write a ‘novel about noth­ing’, a the­matic pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with pub­lish­ing for­mats and com­mu­ni­ca­tions medi­ums gives the novel a meta­tex­tual di­men­sion that serves, in lieu of plot, to give it a sense of pur­pose and di­rec­tion. Ana­log-era arte­facts pop­u­late the me­an­der­ings, di­gres­sions and ru­mi­na­tion that com­prise the text: CGI; cod­ing; the ‘In­ter­net of Things’. We are told that ‘The first time James reads The Hob­bit . . . he is confused that it takes the hob­bit far fewer pages to re­turn from his journey than it does for him to go on in’ – a con­fu­sion that could only have arisen in the age of the codex, with its quaint equa­tion of lin­ear time to the phys­i­cal space of the page. At one point Riviere ex­presses his ad­mi­ra­tion for a col­league by means of a pub­lish­ing sim­ile:

If Mar­cus were a publi­ca­tion he wouldn’t be a single vol­ume – he’d be dis­persed through a thou­sand ca­sual jour­nals, his en­tries held in old edi­tions, their thick pages un­sep­a­rated. If James were a book he’d have a spine – but only just. So much de­tail had been lost, re­peated, al­tered up as if on ac­etate, with whole ar­eas blacked-out, made in­vis­i­ble.

Later, an un­usu­ally fev­er­ish pas­sage cul­mi­nates in the nar­ra­tor re­as­sur­ing him­self of the con­ti­nu­ity of the world of let­ters: ‘Pub­lish­ing, type­set­ting en­dured, the lib­eral arts en­dured.’ To the ex­tent that it is rid­dled with anx­i­eties about tech­no­log­i­cal ob­so­les­cence, Safe Mode is a de­cid­edly self­con­scious work – a for­mal ex­per­i­ment in its own right, but also preg­nant with its own cri­tique. And yet it doesn’t feel con­trived or over­writ­ten but reads sur­pris­ingly well: the tran­si­tions are cu­ri­ously seam­less, the writ­ing poised and pre­cise; the text feels – de­spite it­self – uni­tary and con­tigu­ous.

‘If there were a lit­er­ary avant-garde that were rel­e­vant now,’ writes Is­abel Waid­ner, the ed­i­tor of an im­pres­sive new an­thol­ogy of con­tem­po­rary in­no­va­tive writ­ing en­ti­tled Lib­er­at­ing the Canon, ‘it would be what the queers and their al­lies are do­ing, at the in­ter­sec­tions, across dis­ci­plines. This avant-garde would be in­clu­sive, racially and cul­tur­ally di­verse, mi­grants ga­lore, pre­dom­i­nately but not ex­clu­sively work­ing-class, trans­dis­ci­plinary, (gen­der)queer and po­lit­i­cally clued up (left).’ But the in­her­ent con­nec­tion be­tween for­mal ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism is not im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous, and it is re­gret­table that, when it comes to in­no­va­tive lit­er­a­ture, the sen­si­ble reader is forced to choose be­tween two equally ob­jec­tion­able poles: at one end, the righ­teous pos­tur­ing of those who loathe the lit­er­ary canon with a quite un­rea­son­able in­ten­sity – of­ten orig­i­nat­ing, one sus­pects, in an ado­les­cent aver­sion to the graft re­quired to un­der­stand it, and other as­so­ci­ated un­re­solved hangups from school­days – and the stuffy con­tempt ex­em­pli­fied by Martin Amis’s dis­mis­sive New States­man re­view of Quin’s Be­yond the Words, in which he re­marked that ‘it suits a cer­tain type of writer to see him­self as part of a fac­tion or ne­glected clique.’

On both sides of the ar­gu­ment one gets the sense of that of the in-group-

ver­sus-out-group dy­nam­ics of the col­lege cam­pus play­ing out un­der the guise of crit­i­cism. Yes, all art is to some ex­tent po­lit­i­cal; but it is in­formed and sus­tained by other things too, and – not­with­stand­ing the oc­ca­sional right-wing hack get­ting in a tizz over gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns – the defin­ing changes in lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture are be­ing pri­mar­ily driven not by the va­garies of pol­i­tics or eco­nomics, but by tech­no­log­i­cal change.

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