Blank Frank

Blank Frank

Joseph Tabbi
R. M. Berry
Normal, Illinois, FC2: 2006

This review of Ralph Berry’s novel Frank and the subsequent exchange between the authors, appeared in the March/April 2006 and July/August 2006 issues of The American Book Review.

Ben Underwood:

Davis Schneiderman intervenes in the innovation vs. crowd-pleasing debate via Jonathan Franzen’s attack on William Gaddis and Ben Marcus’s subsequent response.


Frank Stein, the eponymous hero of R.M. Berry’s most recent fiction, is a composite character: a voyager, a linguist, “last remnant of a proud family considered one of the architects of the New South” (16). He is a “man of parts,” to use the archaic idiom adopted by Berry for much of this novel. Frank is said to be related, distantly, to Gertrude Stein; with Wittgenstein, he shares an obsession with language games and the limits to what can be communicated. The main character’s life story inexorably follows Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – despite the main character’s familiarity with the plot and his determination to avoid its tragic outcome. Frank is “the messenger of your doom and your destruction” the one who “looks at you sideways,” hangs around in “driveways,” sets you up “for nothing” (if I’m hearing the words correctly in the song by Brian Eno). Like Ronald Sukenick’s “Mosaic Man,” Frank is a seriocomic author-figure whose epic formulations are fragmented by modern circumstances; like Billy Budd, he has known “the frank enjoyment of young life” (Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2750); like Ahab, he has grown bitter with age and monomania.  Like Shelly Jackson’s hypertext Patchwork Girl (1995), Frank is an “unwritten” classic cast into racial, class, imperial, and gendered terms that were mostly left out (understated, or rendered unconsciously) in Mary Shelley’s generative fiction.

“Unwritten” in two senses: the narrative set down by Berry deploys concepts not yet realized, and recalls events not available to Mary Shelley but always there in potential, at the edges of an already post-Romantic, proto-feminist, multi-racial awareness. The unwritten novel is also the known version taken apart and reassembled into new configurations. Unwriting, like retrofitting a brownstone for electricity, DSL, and single-family living, requires demolition as much as a reconstruction. And Frank is certainly a destroyer. In the course of his life he may have murdered three of the people who are closest to him: his twelve-year-old brother (the crime gets pinned on the family’s black maid and semi-adopted daughter); his best friend; and his bride, the orphaned daughter of a Nigerian medical student who was brought into the family and raised as Frank’s “more-than-sister” (47 et. Seq.) Likenesses in this book do tend toward the excessive, family resemblances routinely get adulterated, and racial affinities, taken too quickly for granted in a white liberal milieu, turn out not to be so comfortable after all.

The list of unlikely likenesses can be extended, but Berry’s fiction is not, finally, just another version of Frankenstein so much as it is the story of “its own perversion” it is perhaps less a narrative than a verbal network, through which earlier narratives and former languages are continually cited and transformed. The housemaid, when she testifies in court, raps; the “more-than-sister,” Liza Mbira, writes one letter that is nothing but a pastiche of pop lyrics. An extended, unpaginated middle section is written in a fevered gibberish of Frank’s own invention. In the heyday of poststructuralism, Frank might have been called a writerly text, whose author is not an “origin” but rather an intertextual field where numerous voices from multiple origins are made to converge. A decade ago, Frank could have been considered a print hypertext. I think it is neither of these, poststructuralist pastiche or proto-hypertext. More likely, the novel joins a number of other, self-consciously literary productions over the past decade or so that seem to indicate an end to creativity altogether. But before I press that case, let me try first to describe what sort of “perversion,” exactly, this book is.

Clearly, creativity and its frustration are featured topics, and the figure who most resembles the novel’s author is not Frank himself, but rather a second narrator named Rob Lawton. A graduate of a prestigious writing program whose “literary aspirations have gone south, all the way to the Everglades,” Lawton encounters Frank “lying senseless in a john boat” (see book jacket). The man is found literally “lying in his craft” (28), and he will soon be lying about a lifework that is so compelling that Lawton immediately sets aside his own projects and takes on the role of amanuensis, typing Frank’s spoken words into a laptop computer, and occasionally transcribing both the words and the gothic script used in the “small leather volume” containing the nineteenth-century fiction that has scripted Frank’s fate. More explicitly than most contemporary rewritings of the classics, this one brings forward the materiality of subsequent textual transformations, revealing how meaning is altered by font and binding, how a sense of wholeness is shaped by leather or paper backing, and now by the remediating screen. In Lawton’s transcript, Frank’s life and lifework get preserved even as textuality itself is transformed.

About the content of this lifework – a novel written during Frank’s undergraduate years and published under a pseudonym - we are told actually very little. We are left to assume that its “exorbitance,” like the author’s own narrated life and extravagant language, represents “all our tepid culture has left out” (191). We’re given similar promises from Chiasmus Press about Frank, that the “story within a story uncovers a more literally untamed America” than either Frank or Rob could have foretold (book jacket).  Such claims have often been advanced, not by Berry himself, but in support of the writers he publishes in Fiction Collective Two, many of whom are now featured on Chiasmus. In my view the claim is disingenuous and even a little insulting, because it assumes that there is another, lived reality that the author knows and that we, the readers, don’t. We’re asked to accept the idea that an author should be distinguished not by literary and imaginative qualities but rather by the possession of some specific information, some dark experience or unique stimulation unavailable to those who read fiction published by conglomerates, get their news from the papers or blogs or network media, and find pleasure where they can. The trouble with such misconceived advocacy is that, even if such privilege were held by the occasional, exceptional author, the edge would not be kept for long in an economy based precisely on managing flows of information, experience, and stimulation. Advanced literary creation scarcely can be expected to compete with cultural media that are far more powerful in circulating and exchanging insight, information, and sensual commodities. And besides, there has always been a colonizing and racializing tint to the notion that somebody else, somewhere else, is experiencing more pleasure, or sinning more delightfully, than are those of us living only too peacefully in THIS NOW HERE (to cite the three words printed in bold on three consecutive pages midway into the book).

If the purpose of the literary novel was ever, primarily, to bring news of a “more literally untamed” environment, from some heart of darkness at the colonial outskirts or some never explored recess of the human heart, that function has been long surpassed by an ever more highly developed commodity culture. Risk-taking in fiction is conceptually no more interesting, and materially less consequential, than the work of venture capitalists, who have similar commitments not only to innovation, but to an innovation and accumulation of capital that is endless. What distinguishes capitalism, as it has developed in recent decades, is a newfound ability to inhabit areas of subjectivity as well as material production. Can it be a surprise, then, that fiction has become marginalized, when it continues to claim for itself exclusive right to precisely that diminishing psychological territory? When news is ubiquitous, novelty becomes less and less important for novels.

Fortunately, despite what the book’s copywriter might say on the jacket, the novelty claim is not pressed in earnest by Berry, at least not for long. In reality, when his narrator Lawton actually tracks down a copy of Frank’s long out-of-print book, the narrative proves to be rather tepid, containing “no extraordinary viciousness but, on the contrary, only the commonplace hokum of paperback fiction, all represented in the most hackneyed words” (201). More interesting than the book Frank claims to have written is Berry’s coming-of-age narrative of Frank’s self-education (“For an extended period my whole study was the Rhetoric, Poetics, and Nichomachean Ethics. In the original. Thus passed my thirteenth year” [20]); his effortless rise through the academic system and introduction to the publishing industry; and the scenes where, in an ultimate attempt to correct his perpetual misapprehensions, Frank decides to buy up all the warehoused copies of his book, and all the copies held in personal libraries and used book stores. What began as a metaphysical quest to delineate “unseen forces at work behind commonplace phenomena,” ends in farce (Frank 18). Berry, a novelist who is also a publisher, knows only too well the fate of most actual, physical texts, all those earnest accounts of untamed experience.

The tales Frank tells are themselves framed, like Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel, in letters that Lawton sends to his sister “Marge,” the female auditor who remains forever marginal. Berry is aware, no doubt, of feminist accounts of romantic creativity, by which Dr. Frankenstein’s monstrous progeny can be understood as usurping, partly through science but mostly through sheer male subjectivity, the “role of the mother in collaborative creation” (LeClair, “False Pretenses,” electronic book review 2003). For Berry, however, as for his contemporary Tom LeClair in a review of turn-of-the (twentieth) century “monstrous fictions,” the Frankenstein story can be “also a formal model, an oversized being patched together from the spare body parts lying around Frankenstein’s laboratory.” In Berry’s case, the “body” includes not only flesh, but the canonical body of written work that preceded this one. In both cases, the body is cruelly “deformed”: flesh is punished “to purify the spirit,” letters manipulated to enable meaning (Frank 190). Both processes, sensual repression and literary transformation, prove equally disastrous for Frank’s sensual life as well as for his aspirations as an artist.

Formalism, then, excess, and a wildness that is more linguistic than cultural, are what distinguish network fictions by Sukenick, Jackson, and now Berry, from the spate of novels that appeared (as it happens) in the year 1999, all of which modeled themselves after classic texts: Moby-Dick for Sena Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife (1999), Lolita for Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary (US ed. 2001), and the Marquis de Sade for Rikki Ducornet’s The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition (2000). These near-contemporary narratives, however, limit the work of revision to character and point of view (now we hear what it was like for the woman who stayed behind in Nantucket; for the no longer “object” of Humbert’s lavish affection; for the lover who obeys the Marquis’s desire for disobedience). Ultimately, these revisionary writers are still telling tales; they remain within the sphere of the canonical text they deconstruct. Berry, who “unwrites” rather than “rewrites,” follows his tutor text faithfully – to the letter, even as he reproduces gothic lettering here and there. Plot and prose style frequently are given verbatim, like samples in music; pre-modern mores and pre-modernist phrasings are left unaltered, though their oddity is not unnoticed by Lawton, when he pauses to reflect on the words he has transcribed:

“I closed not my eyes that night?!

Good God, Marge, where do you think he gets sentences like that?

                        (Frank 28)

No elaborate deconstructions are needed, and no mere narrative retelling can match the power of language, in its own development from generation to generation, to make outdated conceits sound outlandish: “where is he getting these chapters? In roman numerals no less! Is he completely out of his mind? Am I?” (28) Past conceits can be overcome, worn out worldviews superseded, simply by restating them, unchanged from the original, in the recorded words of one’s literary precursor – words that, one discovers, never had authority as commanding concepts, but only as conventions within a society and a linguistic system.

“I’d be less than frank, Marge, if I pretended I weren’t absorbed” (28). The narrator is clearly subordinate; he merely records Frank’s spoken words (and his precursor’s print conventions, such as roman numerals indicating chapter breaks). ‘Less than frank,’ this narrator is also less than Frank. A mere copyist, he can only facilitate possible meanings, not convey meaning. Like any other reader, or like the author in the act of dictation, Lawton might become “absorbed,” but he cannot identify himself with the words he transcribes. What author can? There is no convention for sincerity, in speech or in writing, no guarantee of frankness apart from the social and political context, which is itself largely conventional, organized less by action and events than by printed and verbal accounts of those realities. “Did I call this a life?” Frank asks, “If only there was some way to have my experience and imagine it too” (144). Exiting the established, “precursor” text proves no more possible, in literary life, than it is possible for meanings to exist and circulate without fixed (and largely unconscious) material supports.

Similarly, a novelist creating a literary character, even if writing autobiographically, must of necessity be separate from that character. Rob must be “less than frank” – he must be insincere to achieve sincerity, different from Frank so as to know him, and subordinate to another’s literary authority. Such a willing subordination could not be more different from the explicitly political, socially sincere rewritings of past classics mentioned above. Whether Berry’s fiction proves more lasting than these contemporary rewritings, or whether in “abolishing… past defacements,” the author is just repeating himself, “who can tell?” (Frank 190).

Not Frank, whose dying words merely give the question back to the reader: “A strange expression, who can tell? ” (Frank 190).  If the conditions for continued literary creativity escape the author, no reviewer can say for sure whether this rewriting will do more than repeat or reorganize the received expression of one’s own time and culture. What can be said is that Berry explores the problem of repetition in fiction not with a merely literary self-consciousness, but with an awareness of the way that consciousness, to exist at all, needs to forget itself. As he nears the end of his life, Frank is able to perceive how his own aggrandizement as an author has depended on the scribe, Lawton’s, “dwindling presence” and comparatively “meager consciousness”:

I know you’re there. Further, I’m profoundly sensitive, and don’t need any more irritating demonstrations that, were you not, this headlong discourse would stop. In a literal sense then, you are of all present the most palpable. I am, it goes without saying, a function, not of my voice, but of your indefatigable keystroking… Unpretending copyist, who else preserves me from these murky depths? Your writing means all the world to me. (Frank 79)

Without a diminished awareness of the material supports of communication, there is no world-making imagination; without an “unpretending copyist” there can be no set terms for interpretation, and hence no end to pretense and proliferating likenesses. Committed as he is to invention, duplicity, and the destruction of sense, Frank nonetheless respects the stability of a fixed text, its consistency and reproduceability in the midst of constant change. But what happens when the scribe ceases to be passive? When the page itself becomes structured and operative?  That’s more or less the situation of literary writing now, when the page has become a field that has to be newly constructed, differently with each system upgrade, and with visual and responsive elements, once comfortably removed, now interfering at every turn of every written phrase. A novelist working in print can seek (either unconsciously or, like Berry, with fertile self-consciousness) a more lasting, more consistent basis for exploring the fictions, inconsistencies, and less than frank expressions of everyday communication. But the result will be more reflective than creative. The frankness of communication is not, and cannot be, the truth of fiction. To be meaningful, fiction needs to dissemble, and it needs to revel in the awareness that nothing literally, nothing – can stop the production of meaning, and still different meanings, from spoken words and written symbols. But words, rich in interpretive possibility, nonetheless need to be stabilized at the level of material production – so that nothingness, impossible to confront directly in language, can be replaced by something potentially more productive: the blankness of the page.

Or the space between letters, or the turn of a page: between THIS NOW HERE and THIS NOWHERE, the nothingness that puts a stop to meaning, sense, and material presence is also what allows these things to emerge.