What Remains in Liam's Going

What Remains in Liam's Going

2003-11-03
Liam's Going
Michael Joyce
Kingston, NY: McPherson and Company, 2002. $22

Pattern, absence, routine, return - Dave Ciccoricco mulls the shape(s) in Michael Joyce’s new paper novel, Liam’s Going

“In Liam’s Going, Joyce - the foremost American author working in the new electronic artform of ‘hypertext’ - has returned to his storytelling roots.” So goes the blurb on the overleaf of Joyce’s most recent novel. The comment resonates with something like the relief felt after an exhilarating but somewhat nauseating amusement park ride. Joyce has addressed the inevitable question of his “return” to print in an online interview with Mary Cavill in TrAce :

I do not see myself as returning to the novel in the sense of having left it, but rather returning in the way you return to what has never left you, like the family or the place where you grew up. (TrAce)

For an artist informed by a hypertextual aesthetic that, digital or not, anchors itself in recurrence and return, there is no “from and to, only the to and fro, the swirl and flow, of clouds” (TrAce). A more productive distinction here arises not so much with the notion of returning, but rather with that of storytelling itself. After all, since when was the novel about telling a story?

I. Space for Stories or Time for Patterns

Joyce arranges the text in chapters alternating the point of view of Noah Williams the lawyer and Cathleen Hogan Williams the poet, husband and wife. From these two poles of perspective emerges a procession of memory and desire, the same “cruel mix” that sets T.S. Eliot’s most famous poem in motion, and the same twist of consciousness that Brian McHale, in contrast to the ontological preoccupations of much contemporary fiction, has described as a “classic” epistemological theme. Here, the agent of change is Liam, Cathleen and Noah’s only child, who is leaving home for his first year of college. His imminent absence forces both Cathleen and Noah to contemplate not only what they have and what they will bring into the future, but also what and who they may have left behind long ago. At one point late in the novel, Noah considers the possible futures for his son, recalling his own past in turn. The act assumes a marked congruency for him, as if the two planes of possibility somehow overlap - the many paths that exist unrealized for Liam overlaying many of the paths that remain unrealized in Noah’s own past. “There was a pattern here,” he thinks, “what was a story if it wasn’t that?” (194).

Story and pattern have a complex relationship. The conflation of the two comes easily enough given that the line, in the most basic sense, forms a pattern when it doubles back on itself. Story becomes cycle - the archetypal snake with its tail in its mouth. We might even describe the two as consubstantial given that language can constitute - literally give substance to - both story and pattern. The two, however, are not synonymous. A story connotes progression; a pattern connotes repetition. Story typically concerns itself with the representational quality of language, whereas pattern concerns itself with non-representational components. The same claim, of course, is complicated by any text that aspires to represent - or refer to - nothing other than itself. Conversely, patterns can be said to carry “the meaning” of a text. As AI scientist Herbert Simon writes,

It is a matter of terminological preference whether we want to use the word ‘meaning’ broadly enough to encompass the nonrepresentational components of pattern. Apart from the question of terminology, there are no particular problems in seeking out such patterns in a work of art, whether it be music, painting, or literature. It is really the representational component in painting and literature, rather than the nonrepresentational component, that is problematic. (Literary Criticism, A Cognitive Approach)

Narrative fiction further complicates the distinction between story and pattern in that both unfold in a protracted temporal and cognitive frame, as opposed to the prescribed, immediate, and material site of a painting or concrete poem. Narratologists refer to narrative as a “universal cognitive structure,” and given its role in patterning or ordering raw information, we might describe it as a pattern measured against the noise of culture, or consciousness, if not reality. But ordering here means “giving coherence to” rather than the arrangement of a chronological or causal order. This is not to say that narrative provides a higher level of organization, only that pattern does not depend on a fixed sequence to convey its meaning.

Recalling the various binary rehearsals of word/world, structure/representation, opacity/transparency, or looking at/looking through the text, we can likewise position pattern/story, where story refers to the represented world and pattern refers to what and how it is represented. But we cannot speak of binaries without speaking of privilege. Which term should come first? Marie-Laure Ryan discusses narrativity in literature as “a matter of degree”: “Postmodern novels are less narrative than simple forms such as fables or fairy tales; popular literature is usually more narrative than avant-garde fiction” (Beyond Myth and Metaphor). Within these categories is it possible to speak of increasing or decreasing degrees? Or would such a discussion only point to the limits inherent in the categories themselves?

The Formalists operated under the assumption that patterns constituted a set grammar for all stories. In this context, patterns gain privilege given that stories cannot escape universal or archetypal parameters. At the same time, story remains primary in structuralist readings at least in terms of visibility, providing the framework for the observation of the underlying pattern(s) of the text. The place of story in contemporary criticism continues to accommodate different and often more dynamic patterns, such as the recursive and reflexive constructs common to multi-layered, discursive texts, which can form the metaleptical loops or “strange attractors” that figure prominently in systems-theoretical readings. More generally, the self-consciousness of late 20th century art, the explosion of new media forms, and the neo-materialist turn in literary criticism all increase the visibility of textual patterns. In much literature written on and for the screen the privilege now goes to pattern recognition over story reception (the phrasing itself implies an opposition between the active and the passive). In networked environments, for example, the mutable and performative qualities of the text complicate causal chains and character development. Caught between what Scott Rettberg calls the “contemplative” and “performative,” writers who implant storylines overtly in networked fiction, privileging the contemplative experience, face criticism for lacking hypertextuality, whereas writers who privilege conceptual patterning face criticism for lacking a story. These texts would seem to enact a strict inversion of a more familiar critical praxis: the practice of finding patterns amid the (story)lines instead often becomes the practice of finding the (story)lines amid the patterns. In his Language of New Media, Lev Manovich supports this claim in his discussion of database and narrative as antithetical cultural forms, arguing that in “new media” elements of the paradigmatic dimension are related ” in praesentia ” whereas those of the syntagmatic dimension are related ” in absentia ” (230).

The place of a contemplative narrative fiction in a culture inundated with the graphical, the animated, and the immediate remains unclear. But it is at least clear that the required “oscillation” between transparency and opacity, described by Richard Lanham as “the most powerful aesthetic attribute of electronic text” (The Electronic Word 43) and Jay David Bolter as “a defining characteristic” of literary hypertext (Writing Space [1991] 167), comes at the expense of the conjured storyworld. For we cannot unsee what has been seen - unshattering the illusion is a complicated affair. Whatever the narrative medium, the same question applies: given the determination to make space for patterns, how much time is left for the story?

In her discussion of “information narratives,” N. Katherine Hayles suggests that certain texts thrive in the current media ecology partly because they allow for the “text as information pattern to infuse the space of representation” (Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers” 8). And in a by now familiar passage that Joyce himself cites in Othermindedness (101), she describes the shift that makes “pattern and randomness more real, more relevant, and more powerful than presence and absence,” a shift that is “encoded into every aspect of contemporary literature” (4-5). Her essay does not explicitly address how information narratives might displace “story” as it is traditionally understood as the motor of narrative. In her landmark How We Became Posthuman (1999), however, Hayles applies her cybernetic methodology predominantly to print texts that hold firm to the normative role of story - a method mirrored in the overall critical-historical organization of her own text. In her next work, Writing Machines, Hayles diversifies her range of tutor texts to include digital works, but retains a narrative organization in the form of the persona, Kaye, which frames the text as personal journey. Manovich, similarly, employs first-person anecdotes to introduce many of the chapters in his Language of New Media. In fact, he introduces his chapter on the ascendancy of database logic with a micronarrative from his personal history (“August 5, 1999. I am sitting in the lobby of Razorfish Studios…” [213]). The proliferation of narrative in these contexts suggests that if the database has inherited the throne as supreme cultural form, then there is still some time before the coronation. See Linda Brigham’s Are We Posthuman Yet? (ebr 1999) for a review of How We Became Posthuman, and Komninos Zervos, Raine Koskimaa, and Geniwate (ebr 2003) for reviews of Writing Machines. Geniwate also reviews Manovich in New Media and Old: The Limits of Continuity (ebr 2002).

Liam’s Going encodes Hayles’ dialectic of pattern and randomness at certain levels, but at others can be said to encode it only by resisting it. The story-time of Liam’s Going falls somewhere in between the length of the ordinary Dublin day of Ulysses and the seven minutes that transpire in Geoff Ryman’s online novel 253, which follows the course of a London train in between stops. Even though the novel’s amazon.com entry somewhat oddly lists “travel literature” as one of the subject categories, it is hardly a road novel. Patterns of thought drive this text, and the stories that do unfold (the death of Noah’s school friend, Cathleen’s intense affair with the apple farmer) are encased in the consciousness of each; they are memories that remain - and, in the case of Cathleen’s affair, must remain - unshared. The alternating focalization between chapters has the distinct effect of delimiting the boundaries of consciousness: the two minds that shape the novel are close enough to be said to constitute one another, and they seem to communicate throughout in some sort of displaced and ill-timed counterpoint; but ultimately they can share neither the same mental nor textual space. In fact, outside of the scenes of memory, Noah and Cathleen meet only in a hypothetical albeit certain reunion in the final chapter. As Joyce’s narrator tells us, “some things were sure even in the subjunctive” (206).

While it encodes pattern at the cognitive level of its characters, the novel diverges from “information narratives” that are shot through with the noise and radiation of technoculture (and its material presentation, released in a numbered and signed edition of 1500, suggests the opposite of Hayles’ “bodiless text”). The work moves toward Joyce’s own notion of “ordinary fiction.” Joyce derives his idea of the ordinary from Ecclesiastical usage, referring to “the part of Mass that remains unchanged from day to day, against which the daily readings come and go” (Othermindedness 204). He initially discussed the concept in the context of hypertextual fiction, emphasizing the recurrent but not necessarily the apparent or plain. For him, ordinary fiction would honor “the day-to-day complexity and shifting drama of ordinary lives” (204).

In order to shift focus (back?) to the complexity of the storyworld, the novel maintains the same discursive level throughout. For example, in the hypothetical final scene, the shift from Noah’s mind to an imagined future - and from figural to authorial diegesis - does not have the effect of a radical ontological rupture for the reader. In part because the style of this final episode does not diverge markedly from that of the Cathleen and Noah chapters (nor, for that matter, does the style differ markedly between the chapters focalizing Cathleen and Noah), and in part because nothing extraordinary happens in the new discursive frame, we can process this scene in the same flow of ordinary events. The scene functions as an afterthought that is made to appear no less believable in its anteriority.

Patterns, too, emerge between people and place. As Cathleen drives through the valley, she muses over the mountain that was Echo before it was Storm King, and Butter Hill before Echo, and Klinkenberg for the Dutch settlers before that: “Did Klinken have the low lost sound of memory for Dutch that echo has for us?” (15). But overall, the tensional movements of memory and desire form the most coherent pattern in the text, uniting the scattered stories throughout and, in turn, accumulating more force than each story in isolation. The governing pattern, in this sense, is more tonal than structural, and it has much in common with the network aesthetic described by Laura Trippi:

Instead of driving the narrative forward, plot to a greater or lesser degree follows mood, which rides and also guides the network’s volatility. In some cases, plot gives way altogether to the ambient interplay of pattern/randomness anchored in mood. (Networked Narrative Environments).

The Hudson River Valley provides the backdrop for Joyce’s novel, but the setting plays more than a passive role. In the TrAce interview, Joyce describes the river itself as a dynamic network, albeit one much older, and slower, than the Net:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Hudson served as the first network in America, and its technologies, which besides the steamboat included the paintings of the Hudson River School, the literatures of the mountains and valleys, and so on, remain imprinted upon our understanding of the river as an imaginary screen for our consciousness. (TrAce)

More specifically, the river’s tidal movements serve to foreground the flow of the narrative. Dubbed Muhheakunnuk, “river that flows two ways,” by the Algonquin native to the region, the river generates a distinct push and pull between the mountains above and the ocean bays below. In this sense, Noah’s desire to see pattern as story underscores the desire to look through language to the lives that both pattern and are patterned by the life of the river. The idea is not to make pattern equal story, but rather to endow it with equal representational force. Arguably, a gesture such as this comes more easily from within the material confines of the book. That is, the same network aesthetic described by Trippi cannot dominate the text itself, which is guided not by “the network’s volatility” but rather the turning of pages.

II. Moore is Less

That said, one cannot help but feel that absences here are more palpable than patterns - that the emphasis falls on sensing absence rather than finding pattern. Borrowing from Raymond Federman’s surfictionist manifesto, the text does not “offer itself for order and ordering” (12). Rather the textual embroidery follows a delicate yet prescribed design; like the tensional currents of the river, the textual flux finds firm boundaries to either side. Indeed, in Liam’s Going, readers are drawn toward what is absent, left out, or missing. Although readers are always privy to the thoughts of Noah and Cathleen, the narrative often focuses on what the characters fail or have failed to say to one another. The story opens with Liam sitting next to his mother in the car with his “ears plugged with black foam inserts” (in what also amounts to the only occasion of the cyborg) (7). More significantly, Cathleen decides never to tell her husband about her affair with Paul. What was for her an intense and enchanting event - and the inspiration for her latest poem - becomes an omission for and of the husband. Liam’s impending absence motivates the work as a whole. In one of the novel’s more forceful moments, Noah escapes with a bottle of Bourbon to the sanctity of his Lexus in the garage after being “burdened by something briefly bigger than himself and no space to consider it” - his son’s meditations on death (149). When Cathleen locates him later, he repeats his son’s question: “It makes me angry and frustrated when I think that what we are as individuals might not exist after death” (150-51). “Not a question exactly,” Cathleen thinks in turn, “yet every question,” and, of course, a woeful recognition of the most final of absences. For a novel that avoids crossing ontological boundaries, it follows that Joyce’s characters would feel uncomfortable even questioning them.

In attempting to find a shape for a novel so mindful of absence, one might hark back to a geometric form familiar to critics of James Joyce - the gnomon. The gnomon denotes the shape remaining when a smaller parallelogram has been removed from the corner of a larger one. It also refers to the pillar of a sundial, in which the casting of shadow signifies the omission of light. Both denotations emphasize what is missing. The gnomon appears in the opening of “The Sisters,” Joyce’s first story in Dubliners (1914), seemingly in passing in a list of words “that sounded strangely” to the ears of the boy narrator. Since then, the concept has come to suggest anything from the emptiness of Dublin life for Joyce’s earliest characters, to the impotence, both sexual and creative, of his later poet-protagonists. Hayles speaks of castration as “the moment when the (male) subject symbolically confronts the realization that subjectivity, like language, is founded on absence” (“Virtual Bodies”). But if the masculine metaphorics at work in the (Lacanian) psychoanalytic discourse can be blamed for dating and limiting the dialectic of presence and absence, then Michael Joyce’s novel - a meditation on lost lovers, deceased friends, and a family soon to be dispersed - cannot be blamed for treating absence in terms of a strictly male subjectivity.

The gnomon can be said to organize Liam’s Going, at the thematic level as well as the structural level. For instance, if story is to be thought of as a representation of events that have occurred, then the reunion in the final chapter, rendered only in the hypothetical, transcribes an omission. Moreover, the name Liam is gnomon to William, the name that remains after a smaller part is removed from the larger whole (as an only child, he one day will be what remains of the Williams trio). Along with these structural or organizational invocations of gnomon as void, silences permeate Liam’s Going, such as the gaps in communication between Cathleen and Liam during the drive to his school, which remind us that absence is not a prerequisite for silence; that is, we feel the most acute silences in the presence of others. At one point, Cathleen, “sounding the lines into the automobile silence,” recites the opening of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are more important beyond all this fiddle” (89). Moore’s poem speaks of a “perfect contempt” for poetry - a gesture that seems rhetorical given her chosen medium. But the sentiment takes on added significance when we recall that Moore disliked “Poetry” enough to omit everything beyond the first two lines of that poem in the final edition of her Collected Poems (1951). For Moore, “Poetry” itself exists as a gnomon, the shape of what remains. Similarly, for Cathleen, “as we try to understand the place of any one place in our lives…the poem is what’s left of all that is unsaid” (144-45). The poem must suffice to articulate “the things more important” than itself; despite its inadequacy, the poem must name and rename what Moore calls “the place of the genuine” in her own remnant poem. Unwilling to see the act of inscribing surfaces as inevitably superficial, Cathleen willingly accepts the paradox.

Cathleen’s recitation of Moore’s verse immediately follows her own “Unpoem of no thingness” and her meditation on wordplay, which “annoyed her in herself and others” (27). Later on during the drive, Cathleen recalls the stories that Liam used to tell of imagined mythological worlds, “endless chronicles of what never was” (90-91). She thinks of them dismissively as games, which reminded her of the “nothingness of language…mere patterns…word games” (92). Perhaps we are to read her dismissal of Liam’s mythological world against the creation of her own, for the story of Cathleen and the orchard man is itself a chronicle of what once was; but now, inversely, she has romanticized the affair to the point where it can exist only in a quasi-mythological world, preserved among the curves of mountains named Echo and Storm, or again in the curves that comprise her verse. In a reflection of Cathleen’s sentiments, the narrative itself is reluctant to play with words. Liam’s Going does not present the reader with a high degree of linguistic or stylistic indeterminacy, a wordscape obfuscated by an authorial sleight-of-hand, in comparison not only to Joyce’s hypertexts, which indulge the ludic (and are regarded as playful by virtue of their form), but also his theoretical texts in print, which are riddled with refrains, side-winding parentheses, and bracketed embeddings (see for example the second chapter of Othermindedness, “MOO or Mistakenness”).

There are playful moments. At one point Cathleen recalls the story of Susan Warner’s popular 19th century novel, The Wide, Wide World, which is, appropriately, a story of coming-of-age. She subsequently returns to the phrase “wide wide world” (68, 77) with a blunt affection that makes it difficult to read as anything other than a jab at the implied unreality of the World Wide Web. A more noticeable interpolation occurs with Noah’s cerebral act of self-editing as he attempts to describe his elderly client: “Well into her eighties now…she was harp-backed (was that the word?) with what Noah supposed they would call papery skin” (45). The third-person narration allows for a slippage between the narrator and Noah, which complicates exactly who is questioning the choice of words. But these moments are rare, and are subsumed by the affective weight of Joyce’s portraitures. On the whole, the text is unconcerned with cryptic configurations at the linguistic level. These become, in Cathleen’s phrase, “mere patterns.”

As Hayles makes clear, the dialectics of pattern/randomness and presence/absence do not exist in “antagonistic relation” (11). That the novel engages with both but does not ground itself firmly in either will be for some a strength and for others a weakness. By privileging those patterns that exist in the world it represents and, by extension, the
world(s) of our own lived experience, however, the novel no doubt succeeds in allowing the storyworld to infuse the text as information pattern. As far as storytelling goes, Joyce lets the narrative motor of Liam’s Going idle inconspicuously while the narrative mood sets in. At the same time, the patterns that ultimately emerge to tether the text will be for some too delicate and too diaphanous to be held, even in memory.

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Works Cited

Federman, Raymond. Surfiction. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” 1993. online at http://englishwww.humnet.ucla.edu/faculty/hayles/Flick.html

Joyce, Michael. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Liam’s Going: Review and Interview by Mary Cavill. TrAce Online Writing Centre, December 2002. http://TrAce.ntu.ac.uk/showcase/index.cfm?article=33

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media” in Game Studies, volume 1, issue 1, July 2001, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/ryan/

Simon, Herbert. “Literary Criticism, A Cognitive Approach,” Stanford Electronic Humanities Review, volume 4, issue 1: “Bridging the Gap,” Updated 8 April 1995, online at http://www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/4-1/text/simon1.html

Trippi, Laura. “Networked Narrative Environments,” Oct. 2003. www.netvironments.org/nne/Unit3/Presentation3/view

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