01 July 2006

FRANK & THE NATURE OF LIT

Like any interesting novel, R.M. Berry’s FRANK is a multilayered work; but there’s one reading of it that I thought people on this list would really relate to. In case you haven’t read it yet, FRANK is a re(un)writing of Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN. Berry stays faithful to Shelly’s plot though it’s all transposed to the present-day America, and the monster FRANK (Victor’s doppelganger in Berry’s book) is (and here you’ll see where I’m going)—HA!—an experimental novel. In this regard, the novel is an embodiment of a number of the worries, rants, pissing and moaning, that run through a lot of the NOW WHAT posts: a writer being unable to be less savvy about language than he or she is in order to write a book that is “pretty,” that the general public would find “attractive”; a novel creating the novelist as surely as the novelist creates the novel (or at least the work determining what kind of novelist/thinker/person its maker is); a novelist trying to run from his creation.

That is, once Victor’s created his monstrous collage of language, and the NY establishment, i.e., commercial houses, reviewers etc. see it for what it is—that most odious of creations (save possibly poetry), the novel with miniscule sales, Victor does his damnedest to distance himself from his creature. It follows him wherever he goes, though, insisting that he create a bride, a sequel, which Victor realizes would be the death of any chance he would ever have of being recognized as a “real” author by most of civilized society’s standards: appearances on Oprah, NYTBR ads, etc. Like I say, this is only one slice through a very funny and philosophical novel that takes up ideas of realist authors killing family members by turning them into characters in their thinly veiled memoir-novels; how a text can take on a life of its own once its brought into the world; how fictions have real-world consequences; author as artist vs. author as blacksmith of commercial product; an artists/author’s responsibility; an author-artists being responsible for what they write. This last point seems most apt given Joe Amato’s earlier points about critics not taking any responsibility for the ramifications of valorizing crap by making it the subject of their studies (a subject I’d love to see someone—Joe?—explore/develop). Lastly, did I mention how FUNNY this novel is?—especially if you get the “inside” experimental/Wittgenstein/Cavell jokes….
Yours,
Steve

9 comments:

Davis Schneiderman said...

FRANK is an excellent book, absolutely. A quick anecdote:

There is a 25 page or so section of the novel written as a "monstrography"--presumably the novel-within-a-novel Steve refers to in his post.

As a parody of experimental text, it is dead on--lyrical, hysterical, and largely nonsensical to the casual reader. The rest of the text, rich with polyvocality and language play, is yet "easier" to process as it maintains recognizable narrative relevance to the story arc (yes, I realize how loaded this phrase reads).

At AWP this past year (Austin, TX), I spoke with the editor of a prominent literary journal that had published an an excerpt from FRANK. The editor noted that Berry's book seemed completely wild--and only after a few minutes did I realize that the editor thought that the entire FRANK novel was written as the "monstrography"!

We laughed about the mistake, but there is something quite admirable about Berry's ability to bewitch an entire _absent_ text through the Joycean/Beckettian machinations of one incredibly eclectic excerpt.

Read it, I suggest.

Davis

Joe Amato said...

I'd like to comment on Steve's post digressively, with reference (again) to the NYTBR.

OK, I know -- why keep bothering with that review?

Well -- but it gets such attention, owing among other things to its rather vast circulation, that I see it as one litmus of where we are culturally (an issue that Steve and others keep raising, and one we can ill-afford to neglect).

So first, permit me to draw your attention to Walter Kirn’s scathing review of Cynthia Ozick’s defense of the novel (The Din in the Head: Essays, Houghton Mifflin). Something very odd happening in Kirn’s dismantling of Ozick’s (absurdly overwrought, yes) praise for the form. Here’s a sampling:

“If novelists were all to go no strike someday, the world might finally understand that it can’t live without them, as they insist, but since they can’t seem to bear to drop their pens, society must rely on fuzzier evidence for the alleged necessity of their services.”

And so it goes. One problem here, you see, is the work that that term, “novelists,” is doing in Kirn’s critique. He doesn’t want to, or refuses to, address the thornier issues we’re busy plumbing here on the blog -- why, for instance, R. M. Berry’s Frank will likely never appear in any of Ozick’s pronouncements. The other problem is perhaps just as obvious: that Kirn proves himself completely unable to accept the more sensible contours of Ozick’s concerns regarding the novel’s status in a public sphere that seems to enjoy another layer of mediation with each system upgrade.

But -- and I save the best for last -- the real juice in this week’s NYTBR comes courtesy of Sven Birkerts, in his review of Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season (Harcourt). Birkerts begins his review with reference to David Foster Wallace’s oft-cited speculation, in “E. Unibus Pluram,” to the effect that the “next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching” etc. (I’ll assume we’re all familiar with DFW’s argument.) And so we have, in the final paragraph of Birkerts’s review, a telling formulation of that binary which both haunts the pages of the NYTBR and animates the fiction-poetry concerns given voice to here at Now What and elsewhere (Birkerts’s ultimate judgment is far from surprising):

“This takes us back to Wallace’s point about the limits of irony and the possibility of ‘single-entendre’ virtues. Is a novelist like Doig simply writing past the circumstance of the now, high-tailing it back to a time before the Fall (whichever Fall we prefer, 9/11 being the latest by common consensus), escaping deeper engagement with the cultural now? Or is this in fact a triumphant reclaiming of terrain through a leap of imagination? The care Doig takes with language suggests to me the latter -- this is a deeply meditated and achieved art. But I also suspect many readers will have to keep fighting off the ironist’s defense, a hip condescension toward what seems just too decent to be real, too good to be true.”

There is more than a hint here, I think, that Birkerts would like us to regard Doig as among those anti-rebel rebels posited by Wallace. No, Birkerts is saying, this isn't retro writing -- and it might not be (as I haven't read Doig's work) -- this is "a triumphant reclaiming of terrain through a leap of imagination." And we can likewise imagine this defense put in the service of defending those novels, poems, theories, what have you, that appear, but presumably only appear, to sidestep the now.

Now what indeed.

Best,

Joe

Joe Amato said...

Oh - my apologies for the typo in the Kirn quote. Should be “If novelists were all to go on strike someday...."

///

Joe

blonde said...

i'd rather showcase R.M. BERRY and the cool as shit press that published FRANK--CHIASMUS...heh.

i love his book. i was utterly seduced by his book--having been visited in a waking dream by mary s.--i love the politics, the word-invention, the obsession with frankenstein (m.s.'s), the allegience to her text, her body, her mind, gender, history, and geography.

bravo, r.m., again and again.

i'd publish you til the cows came home.

lid

Kass Fleisher said...

congrats, lid/blonde, on seeing this as the forward-thinking book it really is. i love the damn thing---second break-out novel of the 21st century, after _vas_.

davis, if you're still out there, could we discuss whether the middle section is a *parody* of innovation? how do you see that working within the context of a work that's already profoundly metafictive? i don't mean to suggest that there's some sort of pure language work happening, but to ask what you're thinking.

kass

Lance Olsen said...

There's a really interesting interview with R. M. Berry about Frank on the Chiasmus blog here.

Steve Tomasula said...

Thanks to Davis for bringing up the Monstography passage, and maybe to feed off Kass's and Joe's comments. But first a footnote:

At one point in Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN, the monster corners Victor, its maker and forces him to listen to its side of the story, which shows more humanity, more compassion, and complexity than Victor (or most of the other human characters in the book) can hope to understand. In Berry’s book, this scene is re-enacted as Frank Stein reading the experimental novel that he has created: the novel within the novel, the monstography section Davis refers to, i.e., the monster’s bio/story. Frank, a cousin of Gertrude, has written a novel whose style is reminiscent of Stein’s TENDER BUTTONS, a leaky bucket of meaning. Or rather, I have my metaphor backwards; it’s more like a bucket that keeps having more meaning poured in as you go along, its language making meaning spill all over the place, e.g.: “Now come to hearthrob & high feelies, bust part of monstography. Hear nome.” Which I roughly translate as ‘heart throb, but also ‘hearth rob’ (like Shelly’s monster, Berry’s has been cheated out of human society, hearth and home); the “feelies, bust part” is both ‘emotion,’ and the ‘cop-a-feel’ sex scene he’s about to describe, the ‘best part,’ while ‘nome’ is ‘No Me, i.e., no one,’ the loneliness that Frank, a sole creation in the world, feels (Berry’s monster, like Barbie, has no genitalia—it’s a book, after all—though it still burns with desire); i.e., ‘no one,’ at least no one who is recognized as a human is ‘here.’

The monstography probably seems pretty dense from the taste I just quoted, but as you read it, as you see what’s going on, you develop an ear for it. Just as a reader does for Stein, or the slang of Clockwork Orange. But what comes out is this amazing display/enactment of how leaky/layered language can be, how much of life has multiple meanings. Frank (like Victor), wrapped up in himself, can only see his interpretation of events while his creature forces him to listen with the command, printed one word to a page when we first encounter it: THIS HERE NOW, i.e, Hear this now! & The here and now, this Time, this Place, will determine meaning.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the blog about the small circulation of conceptual fiction, whether the small numbers make it worthwhile, etc. I bring up this novel both as an example of the sort of book the commercial press almost never publishes and as an example of the kind of novel that justifies readerships that are smaller than, say, your typical realist soap-opera-in-the-shape-of-a-book. The ideas it works with, the play of language it employs to enact its ideas, to make them not only fun, but funny, its own awareness of itself and its awareness of text as a medium, its awareness of the literature that came before (as opposed to 90% of the novels published today which seem to have either literary-history amnesia or apathy), and probably a dozen other reasons show the loss for literary culture that novel as lowest-common-denominator-commodity has become. And also the importance of some space for literature as art to exist. I can think of a number of books I read recently for which the same can be said, e.g., FRANCIS JOHNSON; ACCIDENTAL SPECIES; EUROPEANA; MULTIFESTO….

I guess I don't know if this is retro or a "triumphant reclaiming of terrain through a leap of imagination" but it does remind me of a time in the visual arts, when you could buy a Jackson Pollack for $45 out of his studio, and everyone was wondering, What was art for? There's a super essay on this (which I'm blanking on) that claims no one knew; it only lasted a year or two, but it was great. We seem to be in a similar transition where those who do know what lit is for seem wrong (or at least pretty narrow), and those who don't know, are confused, pissed, exhilerated, all at the same time. What a great time to be a writer (I think).
Respectfully submitted,
Steve

Joe Amato said...

It may be, as Steve tentatively suggests, a "great time to be a writer." I want to explore this idea a bit. Again, in this past Sunday's NYTBR, there's a letter to the editor in which an author (of no fewer than 69 books, as I recall) tackles John Irving's lament for the publishing world of yore in terms of author royalties. His observation, which I've seen in many forms now, is essentially that the emergence of Amazon and other online book retailers will necessarily result in diminished print runs (you can buy used copies now of most trade books almost immediately after they're issued -- no point in paying retail). And for said author, this is, as you might expect, a Bad Thing.

Now I don't know about most of you, but this has zero (and I mean, zero) implications for the writing -- or better, the publishing -- I've managed to date. I'll never make any money off of my poetry -- poetry generally COSTS ME money! -- and I don't hope to. Most of the writing I do is such that the very notion of royalties is a remote concern. Hence my turn to screenplays, and my decision to permit screenplays to absorb, as it were, my more intentionally fiscal aspirations.

But my question is, Should royalties not be a concern? Should the fact that the (small and academic) presses that publish me, and the marketplace that distributes my work, IS pretty much disconnected from the lucrative royalties sphere lead me to imagine that it SHOULD be so disconnected?

My own feelings about this -- and I've already given ample voice to same hereabouts -- is that the avant, or post avant, or what have you, has come up with some rather bizarre notions about writers' "necessary" non-relationship with the world of royalties and advances and cold hard CASH simply b/c we ain't got none to speak of (at least, based on our writings).

And I've been arguing that this might be one way of shooting ourselves in our collective foot. Or feet.

No -- I don't imagine that the poetry I write, or even the fiction that I've begun to write, is necessarily going to generate money. But, there wouldn't be anything wrong if this did happen to happen, would there? B/c if we're to assume that, ipso factoid, there IS something wrong with work that generates money, well then hey -- I'm going to have to become equally suspicious of all of those other forms of institutional support that help to fund avant work. Tenure would be at the top of my list, and NEA fellowships and the like would come soon after. Etc.

One can get a mite bitter proceeding this way, of course. Bitter about academics, for instance, about the NEA, and so forth. And within the arts world, I suspect that a lot of the grief academics get has to do with what's perceived as an insiders network -- you know, 'Mr. Professor is getting PAID -- often by us taxpayers -- to publish his work, where here I am toiling away at my day job yet I don't receive any such support.' Never mind how unfair or ill-informed this grievance -- and there is, after all, some justifiable traction in the notion that academics are remunerated for the writing they do (albeit academic paychecks, like academe itself, vary considerably from campus to campus).

Now there is a key generic difference twixt fiction and poetry, as defined by marketplace constraints -- and I daresay those of you who teach have noted this difference immediately in your classrooms: fiction bears the more immediate burden of films, tv, etc. To teach fiction one generally has to un-teach the ubiquitous desire to write what amount to very wordy screenplays.

BUT, my point here is that if FRANK for instance is such a great book, and I too believe it is, then what on Earth would be wrong with R. M. enjoying some real moolah for same, along with Chiasmus? The work is no more or less bracing for its having generated such revenue, is it? The cultural conditions that mitigate against this happening are what we're busy exploring, here (among other things), but I for one am also interested in exploiting these conditions (ergo the discussion of newer publishing models).

But here's my point: if the more conventional author function is being threatened by a reduction of royalties owing to the digital sphere, is this really a Good Thing for, uhm, us? Does this make our "now" a "great time to be a writer" (Steve) or a precarious time to be a writer? Ought we not to be at least a little alarmed, in a National Writers Union kinda way, when even conventional, high-royalty authors are finding it difficult to make a living off of their books? (And regardless of how "bitter," as above, some of us may be to see so much crap writing earning so much bread?)

To overstate: if the premise, aka leveling effect, of the digital sphere is such that it eliminates all possibility of an authorial living wage even while promising that EVERYONE CAN BE AN AUTHOR, that everyone can achieve the potential of attention, is this a real gain?

Enough for now, just thinking out loud along the lines of my hobbyhorse --

Best,

Joe

R. M. Berry said...

If I were to speak frankly, I'd admit that it's so much fun seeing what you've said in response to what I've said that I just want to respond too. My question since forever has been: What is the medium of literature? Perhaps that's an overly abstract way of putting what I've put overly abstractly before, but I've tried to say for some time now what I've tried to say for some time now, and recently it has started to sound like this:

A medium is what provides access to what I care about, but automatically or by the way, as though a mere vehicle or support of my caring, and so inseparable from my caring, but never itself, y'know, what I care about. Think of the painting and its pigments or edge. Wittgenstein has a remark in the PI, in the low 100s I think, that we're captives of a picture and can't escape because language seems to repeat it too us inexorably. Or not far from that one: we posit of the thing what is in the method of representing it. Wittgenstein calls these remarks "reminders," i.e., ways of recalling to mind what is too nearby for anybody to need reminding of it. He says that providing these reminders is his "therapy" (in the 1940's Wittgenstein called himself a Freudian), and his idea is that, just like the neurotic who endlessly repeats a self-destructive pattern, we will continue to imprison ourselves in our pictures (the painting) until we discover what our medium (its pigment and edge) is. In the 300s he asks, "What is your purpose in philosophy?" to which he answers, "To let the fly out of the fly bottle." The transparency against which we beat our heads is what has displaced writing. Call this literature's philosophical unconscious.

Anyway, Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN is about her medium, the material out of which men (from Adam to Percy) have wanted to create new lives, and her point is that it's literally fucked to death. There's sex in place of the words and words in place of the sex. What looks like a medium is no more a medium than the self-hatred the neurotic calls love is love. Or to put it more excitingly: it falls to us, in a world of violence and confusion, to reveal for the first time what our medium is. At this point it would be useful to say some things about books like VAS, which has taught me so much of what I'm trying to teach me, e.g., that writing is printed, that it's printed on paper, that its paper is bound along an edge, that its sheets unfurl rather than unshuffle, etc. Knowing the medium of writing is discovering facts like these, that is, seeing how every plot has been produced by them. (Who could need reminding of this?) In FRANK my discoveries often involved "hearing" the print I see, something nobody can find surprising and so, if called to mind, produces either annoyance or laughter. This nowhere is this now here. Wittgenstein's most profound remark is PI 111: "Let us ask ourselves: Why do we feel a grammatical joke to be DEEP? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)"

RMB