Narratological Amphibiousness, or: Invitation to the Covert History of Possibility

Narratological Amphibiousness, or: Invitation to the Covert History of Possibility

Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen continues the FC/2 authors’ discussion of Carole Maso’s AVA and adds some bits on Laird Hunt, Mark Z Danielewski, Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley, and other recent U.S. avant-gardists.

confessions of a future junkie

The present, it almost (but not quite) goes without saying, is too present to imagine.

It’s too much with us.

It’s the Technicolor gel we live in.

Try to get your mind around it, try to get some distance on it, some language with which to articulate it, and in the end all you frequently feel is dumb.

All you feel in the end is like you just raised your camera to take a shot of that skyscraper in front of you, no, that pallid-skinned red-haired girl crossing the street beside you, no, that jet rushing above you, yes, and your viewfinder frames nothing but blank blue sky or cloud cusp or, if you’re really, really lucky, some ghost-strand contrails at 39,000 feet.

It is nonsense trying to pin down the present, an act of egg-headed presumption, a fool’s game doomed to fail over and over again, and the one I just can’t stop playing.

thinking as digestion

In part, it seems to me, that’s because every writer contributes in some small way to the present’s invention.

Whether or not she or he likes it, of course.

Whether or not he or she is even necessarily aware of it.

And in part that’s because, by trying to imagine the present, writers have a hand in imagining the future, and, by having a hand in imagining the future, writers have a hand, a tiny hand, granted, a tiny hand but a real hand, a real hand and therefore an important hand, in shaping its architectonics.

And in part that’s because trying to imagine the present and therefore the future is a means for our species of remaining awake, a way of rousing ourselves in the midst of our dreaming.

Thinking, Ludwig Wittgenstein once reminded us, is digestion; thinking, in other words, is that much a component of who we are.

If you don’t use your own imagination, Ronald Sukenick once reminded us, somebody else is going to use it for you.

cloning as pleasure principle

For me, here, now, for all of us, here, now, there exists a plethora of presents, a number of imaginings, many of which are flat and faded as last month’s best-seller list, last week’s New Yorker, the scant three or seven watery appraisals of fiction in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review: instance after instance of the bland leading the bland.

Many of these imaginings are written by the same author.

(This is a secret many people don’t know.)

Many of these imaginings are written by the same author and published by the same publishing company and many carry some formulation of the same message:

Everything will work out in the redemptive end, they say. Every story is the same story because every person is the same person. There is nothing new under the Ecclesiastes. Tomorrow will be better than today. Don’t worry; be happy. Be sad for a little while, obviously, but then be happy. Characters are plump people. Plot is pleasant arc. Language is plain transparence. The body is boring, politics passé, gender stable, realism real, the page a predictable arrangement of paragraphs descending. Go to sleep.

narratological amphibiousness

But the imaginings that have interested me most, the ones that have kept me awake the longest, are the relatively covert ones, culturally speaking: those that acknowledge our continual condition of textual, ontological, and epistemological inbetweenness while searching for adventurous forms that can express said condition with what André Breton once called convulsive beauty, thereby capturing the sense of disquieting surprise many of us feel inhabiting these first few seconds of this fresh millennium, this new network of potential presents and potential futures.

These are the imaginings that engage with what I have come to think of lately as Narratological Amphibiousness.

How might fiction and hence perception become richer, these narratologically amphibious imaginings ask by their very presence - these are the imaginings, by the way, that continuously refuse to tell - how might fiction and hence perception become richer by living commensally alongside, in, and/or among several structures and genres and modes of being and seeing at once?

At a local scale, they ask what might happen at the intersection(s) of, say, transgressive fiction and speculative fiction, surfiction and detective fiction, avant-pop pla(y)giarism and surrealist game, pornography and fake memoir.

At a more global scale, they ask what might happen at the intersection(s) of fiction and, say, photography, music, video, theory, poetry, computer games, drama, sculpture, hypermedia, painting.

That is, they conceive of fiction, as Roland Barthes once did, as a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. …a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. …a less upright, less Euclidean space where no one…would ever be in his [or her] final place.

the history of possibility spaces

Narratologically amphibious imaginings are, in effect, fictive possibility spaces that encourage us to contemplate and converse about what happens at the horizon of Both/And, at the precise instant boundaries become permeable and commence giving rise to all tomorrow’s parties.

That moment of permeability and opportunity, I should probably emphasize at this juncture, is not an exclusively postmodern one.

Or, if it is an exclusively postmodern one, then we must begin to think of postmodernity less as a discrete historical period than as a diffuse ahistorical state of consciousness whose propensity is for opening up and out rather than closing down and in - a mode of perpetual questioning (of language, of form, of experience) that leads to a position of perpetual floating.

When I speak of Narratological Amphibiousness, I am thinking of the conversation implied among such diverse writings as, for instance, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, whose project is to fuse and confuse radical skepticism with fictional narration with lyric poetry with visionary rant; and, more recently and radically, Burroughs’ appropriation and manipulation of science-fiction tropes in the Nova Trilogy; and, more recently still, Carole Maso’s stunningly subjective discourse-travel along the edge of poetry and prose, or Laird Hunt’s wonderful 2001 debut, The Impossibly, a warped metaphysical detective narrative which reads as if Donald Barthelme were channeling Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paul Auster, Ben Marcus, and reruns of Get Smart, where a mysteriously afflicted unnamed narrator unravels lightheartedly, suffering memory lapses, ominous clubbings at the hands of strangers, and a sort of existential aphasia as he drifts through an increasingly shadowy universe.

I am also thinking, as I say, of texts that investigate the aesthetic prospects generated not only at the intersection of different sorts of writing, but also at the intersection of different sorts of writing and the other arts - those narratologically amphibious works that explore what Sukenick terms the technological reality of the page:

- the graphic novel, such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s extraordinary Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus from the eighties, postmodern analogs of the illuminated manuscript which think themselves back through the countercultural comics of the sixties to such surrealist collage-novels of the twenties as Max Ernst’s The Hundred-Headed Woman, while playfully blending sketches with sham and not-so-sham autobiography, police reports, ornithological articles, letters, toy brochures, and advertisements;

- or word-object fictions, such as Raymond Federman’s impish Double or Nothing (1971) and, more recently, Eckhard Gerdes’ Cistern Tawdry (2003), which explode conventional layout, typography, and other visual aspects of writing while nodding toward such antecedents as Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1919);

- or miscellany fictions, such as Kathy Acker’s powerfully transgressive Blood and Guts in High School (1984) or, more recently, Mark Danielewski’s exciting and theoretically provocative House of Leaves (2000), which employ drawings, photographs, and other pictorial elements to enrich and challenge the reading experience;

(Nota Bene, or A Short Intermission: House of Leaves, the story of a family who moves into a Borgesian dwelling they soon discover is larger on the inside than the outside [an extended metaphor for the possibility space of text itself], takes more interesting and complex narrative and paginal chances than almost any other novel to appear in the last decade and a half while seldom sacrificing forward momentum. In addition to investigating at length a poetics of indeterminacy, it probes the amorphous zone between written text and film, conventional text and word-object fiction, linear text and hypertext, and, in a remarkably amphibious move, between experimental text and edge music in its cooperation with Haunted (2000), the album composed by Danielwski’s sister, Poe, which doesn’t so much appropriate and retell the novel’s story as rethink its core obsession with the Father.)

- or nonlinear hypertext fiction, such as Judd Morrissey and Lori Talley’s My Name is Captain, Captain (2002), a hyper-elegy about the anniversary of a woman’s death whose real protagonist turns out to be the text’s own processes (the beautifully designed interplay between elusive language and the motion of ever-morphing surfaces), which frequently includes music, videos, graphics, kinetic language, and myriad interactive components while, as George P. Landow has famously pointed out, abandon[ing] conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replac[ing] them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks - thereby enacting the deconstructive turn in the very mechanics of structure.

The history of these and similar richly deformed textual moments is the history of what Deleuze and Guattari call the rhizomic after the proliferating horizontal, usually underground stem that sends out roots and shoots in every direction. Long live the multiple, they urge.

the future of possibility spaces

Hypertext fiction, of course, like the traditional book, exists as a bridge into other soon-to-arrive or soon-to-fully-arrive narratologically amphibious possibility spaces.

Virtual reality, already the dead letters of cyberpunk films and fiction, will allow us in fewer than ten years to enter a sense-around cartoon-gel room where we’ll be able see and hear, say, Homer, perhaps incarnated as a lobster, recite The Odyssey to us while we watch its events acted by computer-generated thespians who never existed outside an algorithm and read and even modify its text as it scrolls by on some screen, perhaps incarnated as a fish tank, touching textured words or phrases that will send us, if we like, into reams of research or a narrative hotel of further possibility spaces … hearing, if we wish, what ancient musical instruments sounded like, or maybe gliding through examples of Greek architecture, or conceivably linking to other epics, or lectures on epic composition, or into breaches where we might engage with other readers in three-dimensional chat rooms or leave behind our own traces in the form of comments or questions or further retellings.

Then, within the next twenty or thirty years, things will start getting really interesting. That’s when narratological amphibiousness will move from outside our heads to inside by means of biochip technology. Our computers will thus interface with our central nervous systems, and the distinction between textuality and biology will become indistinguishable. In order to dream someone else’s dreams, to think someone else’s thoughts - the essence of what a book has always been about - all you’ll need to do is shut your eyes.

covert invitation to failure

The imaginings that have interested me most, then, the ones that have kept me awake the longest, are the Frankenstein fictions, the termite texts, the cyborg and centaur scripts, the narratologically amphibious writings that embrace a poetics of beautiful monstrosity, because, in part, for me they represent innovative thought - experiments that help us contemplate, not what it means to be a human being, but what it means to be human beings now, what it might mean to be human beings the day after tomorrow, how our consciousnesses and bodies move, and, by contemplating such notions, maybe even having a hand, a tiny hand but a real hand, a real hand and therefore an important hand, in shaping today’s and tomorrow’s architectonics.

For me, therefore, one of the most engaging tasks for the seriously playful writer in this century will be to attempt to think and feel beyond the kinds of texts I have just mentioned here … and fail. Fail and, needless to say, now and then, here and there, fail to fail.