December 27, 2010
Spark Gaps and Circuits: Probing the holes in Fiction
Writers are risk-averse. Necessarily so, because writing is really a sort of willful blindness, each sentence depending on all the ones preceding it, the way digging a tunnel depends on each shovel scoop. Experimentation is potentially catastrophic (or worse, embarrassing). With the exception of a few scurries into modernism and postmodernism prose has barely evolved since Charles Dickens’ era, at least compared with its poetic and visual counterparts. The reason for this is partly that writing is intelligible on a granular level; word for word, there is far less room for ambiguity between words than brushstrokes on a painting. A word that isn’t understood is moot; like a blockage in the aforementioned tunnel. That goes double for syntax. A reader can endure a fair amount of acrobatics for a short duration, like a poem, but kicking through 75,000 words of strange… is difficult. Good writing is clear, concise and almost always formally conventional, that is, on the page. Drafting and re-writing do, in theory, let an author step back and intervene in a more architectural manner, but such interventions are powerful and jarring and are used sparingly, often only in the most dire of circumstances. Drafting is more akin to buttressing than transmutation. Shifting tense, or modes of narration (from a first-person “I” to an omniscient third-person, for example) can easily collapse a text. Yet as rigid a channel as prose writing may be, there are a few zones of complete ambiguity in a piece of prose, which have become the site of a rich, strange and evolving alchemy.
Readers of unsolicited texts –‘ slush piles’ in publishing industry argot – develop an uncanny ability to identify monstrous prose from a mere glance. Some of this is obvious: choosing a quirky font, for example, is never a good sign; but there are other more subtle queues. A series of monotonously sized paragraphs marching down the page is an unambiguous tell that something has been written by a rank amateur. Paragraph breaks may not have semantic content, but they contribute something tangible to a text. Same goes for any other whitespace. An author who doesn’t manipulate his or her spaces is likely not paying much attention to anything else in his or her prose. But this suggests something else as well. Absence of text may not ‘say’ something but it does do something.
The paragraph break is probably smallest unit of absence in a prose text. Words and sentences map onto reality pretty well, since, for the most part one’s internal monologue seems to consist of words and sentences – or at least sentence fragments, and it is easy to imagine punctuation marks as pauses for breath, a querulous chirp, or sudden spurt of rage; but a paragraph is a strange and unnatural thing. It is an artificial break; a gap in what should be a continuous feed of chatter from the brain. Higher-orders of division are more peculiar still – sections, chapters, books, volumes and sets – some are vestiges of the printer’s trade, others evolved from older forms, but all share one quality: they interrupt text, break it into a segment, and by doing so delineate a beginning and an end to a discrete unit of information; or to put it another way, they force a feed of information into a rigid form.
Captured, text circulates: it has a beginning, an end, and, ostensibly, a way to reel back to the beginning all over again.
The larger the gap, or to put it another way, the more of an impediment to the reader an interruption becomes – ranging from a few milliseconds flex of one’s ocular muscle through a line of blank space, to closing a book and (perhaps) starting over – the stronger the circulation. Within a text, each a paragraph break transfers momentum, a quantum of flexion, almost like a heartbeat. Alone, this is meaningless, but as paragraphs accrete, they develop a rhythm, one that a skilled operator can use to modulate the momentum of a piece of writing, or even alter its meaning.
A slightly larger gap – the double space break – is “big” enough that it is often used to mark the passage of time and space, so a reader isn’t forced to slog through the traffic en route to dénouement, for example. Here the heartbeat becomes something a little larger, a more deliberate interruption, with a beginning and end that is easier to notice on the page: a shock. The asterisk, a larger (or perhaps more accurately, a starker) impediment creates a more jarring gap than a mere blank space, a longer leap through time and space, or a more poignant sudden precipitation of a cluster of thoughts. Likewise, being forced to begin a new chapter, book or volume is starker still. In each space, the reader is asked to project all of the information that he or she has previously accreted into the gap, to fill that chasm with all that preceded it, devour and digest it, and then tackle the text anew.
Clarice Lispector's (1964) The Passion of G.H. takes this moment of repose and magnifies it. She begins each chapter by repeating the last sentence (or sometimes just the last sentence fragment) from the preceding chapter, and places it into a new context: a mnemonic that sharply intensifies the sense of transmission between chunks of text, in effect, yanking the accretion forwards, and hurtling the text along. The Passion of G.H. forms a circuit between its beginning and end – “I keep looking, looking. Trying to understand. Trying to give what I have gone through to someone else, and I don’t know who, but I don’t want to be alone with that experience;” (3) and “[t]he world interdepended with me—that was the confidence I had reached: the world interdepended with me, and I am not understanding what I say, never! never again shall I understand what I saw… (173).” Lispector’s text is more than blind projection, it is as if a transmission is being accelerated through a series of spark gaps, amplified, intensified, until the beginning collides with the end.
These metaphoric collisions can be strong enough to actually dismantle time and space. Robert Coover’s short story, “The Babysitter” from Pricksongs and Descants (1969) amplifies its transmission even more intensely than Lispector, decoupling a story from time and space entirely using small, jagged paragraphs (broken apart with astrices) that read like TV channels being changed – you can almost hear sputter of static in-between – to probe multiple timelines and points of view (a teenage babysitter, her boyfriend, her young charge, and his predatory father): A crisis averted. A crisis occurs. A crisis is about to occur. All these things happen simultaneously, everywhere and nowhere all at once. Causality, time and space are splayed open, rendered meaningless through duplication and re-deployment. Coover’s text no longer ‘reads’ linear, it is almost a cubist perspective of a story; it reads like a grid.
Imagining a text like Coover’s unraveling in a grid implies that there would be a space for it to unravel onto (or perhaps into). And in a way there is. Reading can be imagined as something of a spatial experience, in that text consists of a push-pull between three dimensions: the text on the page, the author, and the reader. Czar Gutierrez, a young Peruvian poet turned novelist, manages to actually enter this fictive plane and use it to toss and turn his subject matter, inspired by the World Trade Center, not only in space, and time but also abstract metaphor, technological data and in the public eye.
In 80M84RD3R0 (2008), the first chapters of which appear in translation in the current issue of NY Tyrant magazine, Gutierrez tears apart his paragraphs and sentences. He uses bullets, subheads, numerals, capitalization, and lists to typographically rend (and contain) his subject, then grounds it by repeating imagery from startling perspectives. Within three pages (that is two chapters, and 11 ‘tempos’) knees spread apart become towers, semen trickling down a thigh becomes a jet contrail that crosses another and suddenly explodes into the realm of pure physics, an event which is being observed and recorded by satellite, and the perspective is plunged back into pure sensory experience, into meaninglessness and finally into nothing at all. The last two “tempos” read: “10. I WANT TO WEAVE A NET with my bones but I end up converted into a deformed polar icecap, into a poem covered in moss, crushed in its edges, burned at its core, bathed by the silent and spectral and cathodic rain of a television without weather that, as it feeds me, converts me into plasma. //11S. FOREVER.” Of course, Gutierrez is a noted poet and DJ, and though he calls 80M84RD3R0 a novel, if there is a limit to how much experimentation a piece of prose can bear and remain a piece of prose, he is certainly pressing upon against it, perhaps pushing past it and approaching the threshold of a new, more intoxicating form.
Posted by James McGirk at 12:30 AM | Permalink