Liberating the Literary Canon | Houman Barekat

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    Read June/July 2018 in full here.

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

    Safe Mode, Sam Riviere, Test Centre, June 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 Two of the standout stories in The Unmapped Country, a collection of previously unpublished material by the English experimental novelist Ann Quin (1936-1973), illustrate this with excruciating aplomb.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 twenty-first 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 self-conscious 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.

    Read June/July 2018 in full here.