In his first novel, Up, Sukenick sets in play the kind of literary innovations that, for many, have since come to define his entire body of work. A piece of parodic realism overlaid with fragmented scenes, wide-ranging writing-styles, self-reflexivity, autobiographical complications, fictions within fictions, and typographical play - letters packed together or strung out along the page, or swirled in looping designs - Up is an excellent example of Sukenick's surfiction, and surfiction generally. Sukenick's collection of stories, The Death of the Novel and Other Stories, published a year after Up, also represents well his surfictive impulses, adding to his slightly surreal stories and experiments some play with mixed-media; in "Momentum," the (purported) author (Ronald Sukenick) supplies marginal comments to the transcription of a tape-recorded monologue delivered by Ronald Sukenick (designated as the character playing the author); textually, these marginal comments are just that, typed in a column that runs to the left of the "main" text. Both works seem to have taken to heart the comments with which Sukenick opens "The Death of the Novel":
They are complicated and problematic fictions for a complicated and problematic American moment, with an attitude that declares that if along with other strategies they must disturb the letter on the page to get "past" the realistic, then so be it.
When Sukenick reaches his second novel, Out, he begins to fully realize the radical edges of his surfictional project. Out, writes almost frantically, in fact, toward the absence of "realistic" meaning, and in doing so becomes as much about writing, and the production of meaning, than anything recognizably "literary." Sukenick provides as a frontispiece to the book a mathematical formula, 0/1=0, that describes this movement from meaning to no meaning, from the rational towards the irrational, from consciousness predicated on unification to an unconscious distributed as the flux of all unformed energy. >2 01=0 is, after all, the bugaboo in an otherwise determinate mathematical system, a paradox which undermines all other mathematical processes. Anything, even the result of the most intricately pursued algorithm, when put into nothing equals nothing that a mathematical system can possibly describe. Likewise, as the text of Out, itself describes, any interpretative grid of meaning - novel or theory - when dissolved into a smooth plane of limitless possibilities starts to become no fixed meaning and all potential meaning at the same time, and writing becomes the imaginative notation of this journey from sense to nonsense - a map of an effort to stop making sense.
Out, distributes itself along the lines of this map, a book with 10 chapters engaged in a rapid, formal countdown to the 0 which stops everything on the book's last page. Each chapter containing discrete blocks of text that contain the same number of lines as the chapter number, as well as increasingly larger chunks of white space, the form of Out, 's writing draws a literary map of the mathematical formula. It speeds the reader, as the diffusion of text among blank white increases, through the dispersal of the writing itself, from solid text in the preface to text broken by tiny gaps in chapter 10 to virtual whiteness in chapter O: the (w)hole into which this rhizomatic map points and wants to be absorbed. Out, 's reflexive commentary on this journey from striation to smoothness appears in a number of places, illustrating Sukenick's desire to have a text composed of "Infolding and outfolding. Majestic infolding and outfolding. No petty invective and venom. No comic bits, no noodgy satire...Calm, slow exfoliations. The life cycle of the Whistling Swans. Inexorable curves of passion. Rise and fall of continents. Concrete. Innocent. Beautiful. No meaning" ("The Birds" TDOTN 157). Early in the novel, for example, the characters Donald, Carl, and Ova appear in a scene that describes this kind of interpretative movement. Examining the letters that form in their bowls of alphabet soup, they find, respectively, an "i," an "o," and nothing. "I have nothing says Ova what does that mean." "Nothing means nothing," replies Carl. Puzzling then through the "I" in his bowl of soup, Carl also finds nothing or, rather, no meaning. If, at first, he posits an interpretation which exalts the One (self or meaning) over the nothing, "[i] means you win. I trumps o. I is more than o. I is one o is zero. One destroys nothing and recreates it." His interpretation rapidly unwinds back into the plane of no meaning: "It means I o you. Owe me what. Ten. One and zero is ten. Ten is Io the cow. Ova is Io. I is sterile o is empty. One into zero is nothing" (25).
For the writer (Sukenick) who journeys toward the unconscious the literary text makes similar interpretative moves. Nothing means nothing, finally, intentionally. If temporary meanings are inscribed on the page, along the way, they might need be taken only as seriously as one might take the palm-readings given to Out, character Harrold as he takes the cross-town bus. "Avoid schedules," the itinerant palm-reader tells Harrold,
Out's dizzying transgressions of the border between fiction and reality, as well as its disorienting narrative displacements and formal and linguistic manipulations are central in its attempts to open up temporary escapes from rational literary forms, structures, and language. Even if not finally successful at reaching the "real" data of a brute reality, these escapes hold the promise of opening up new linguistic and metaphoric devices with which to differently apprehend "reality," and they further Sukenick's extreme, postmodern insistence that the world will not surrender up to a preconceived or naive mimesis. Out, concentrates very intensely on performing this process of annihilations that opens things up. Without a doubt, it gives less consideration than it might to whether its new linguistic and metaphorical constructs are intelligible to a mind other than its author's; quite often, the book seems to speak in Ron's Bjorsq: a personal, private language so disassembled and different as to be indecipherable to anyone but its creator. But while these languages are often untranslatable, their purpose and/or effect is not. They, in combination with their surrounding narratives speak to the struggle involved in writing (and thinking) that produces, and also dissolves, meaning.
In his third novel, 98.6, Sukenick's surfictional race from traditional meaning and/or form is altered, becoming in many ways more multidimensional, as well as more accessible to interpretation. In 98.6, Sukenick deliberately mediates the impulse toward escape that surfaces so pervasively in Up and The Death of the Novel and is dramatized so spectacularly in Out. Modifying the belief that personal (intellectual and imaginative) freedom can only be approached through an escape from entrenched traditions of language, literature, and meaning, 98.6 explores the possibility of establishing new traditions - the possibility that escape can lead somewhere, that escapee(s) can relocate, so to speak, and make attempts at constructing new foundations, new meanings, new worlds; 98.6 is interested not only in fleeing from oppressive systems but in attempting to create new communities free from oppression. Appropriately enough, considering that 98.6 wants to moderate the intense dissolutions of Out, with the possibility of (re)constructed, and communal, meanings, 98.6 begins by noting that "he," the main character of the book's first section (and, named only by this pronoun, a stand-in for all of the various peoples "he" might represent) has become less entranced by high-altitude flight than by the possibility of finding his feet on the ground: "He always wanted to be a pilot he no longer wants to be a pilot...his lust for flight has evaporated...he's overcome with an appreciation for gravity you might say he falls in love with it. He loves the way it hugs him firm against the ground like a mother" (5). >3 As the story(ies) of "his" return to earth, 98.6 is, as the title implies, a gauge of a new "normalcy's" potential as it both struggles with and attempts to displace itself from the dead-ends of a contemporary America (Frankenstein).
Before reaching this central conflict, though, 98.6 first struggles - as do Up, The Death of the Novel, and Out, - with escape. The Children of Frankenstein flee from the Frankensteinian world of the novel's first section, a world that is made by the same forces that "he" imagines made the camps of the Nazi Holocaust (a world suffering the "consequence of precisely the same phenomenon of life energy in the absence of creative forms turning against itself") (24). This world is presented in a kind of detached, impersonal, documentary style of writing that one would imagine finding in Frankenstein. Sukenick in fact develops the notion there that "he and The Witch are seeing a movie. The movie is about themselves it's their life," and what results is language that presents a detached, objectifying view of the characters, one that they seem to have even in regard to themselves (15). The book's failure to name "Frankenstein's" central character ("him"), to give one example, succeeds in this way to dehumanize and genericize him.
The composition of the text in this section further serves to convey its meaning. The (by 1975) already overworked modern strategy of collage is here taken up by Sukenick; in the latter half of "Frankenstein" he constructs a collage of (real) newspaper clippings and journalistic fictions that (besides blurring the line between his "fictitious" Frankenstein and an American "reality") carry the sense that the grotesquery of Frankenstein is an omnipresent societal problem ranging from the Manson family murders to the Hell's Angel to the simulacrum world of Universal Studios to the American government's "radiation tests" on unsuspecting participants. >4 The feel of this section, where an almost tired, disinterested, cut and paste gimmickry serves to splash together disconnected horror after disconnected horror, is as distinctly Frankensteinian as one can imagine possible for postmodern literary strategies.
But Frankenstein, and the need to escape from it, are not central to 98.6, and as mentioned above, the book's second section, "Children of Frankenstein," focuses less on escape than its aftermath and subsequent, balanced (and constant) (re)constructions. Finding its milieu in the counter-cultural sentiments of 1960's and 1970's America, 98.6's central return to earth, not surprisingly, takes shape with its characters' organization of a commune. Replete, again not surprisingly, with this commune's pretensions to establishing some kind of vital contact with nature, 98.6 finds its emphasis by staging a contemporary test of romanticism, the new community of the book hinging its foundations upon a successful return to nature and the establishment of a territory on earth where constructive energies can find themselves not immediately dissipated, but where "forces can draw together in a close embrace" upon somewhat stable grounds (Deleuze and Guattari 339). One of the more pressing questions raised by this "return to earth" in 98.6 is whether such a territory can possibly survive; how is its movement from flight to (semi)stability - how is its emphasis upon construction rather than flight - inevitably threatened by the older worlds (molar territories) to which it is immanent?
It is this complication - that such a return to earth offers both new possibilities and a potential recreation of unsuccessful traditions - that defines the central conflict of 98.6. The Children of Frankenstein are, in large, interested in having a new territory, a new home that they can construct. They also, however, seem to always want a simultaneous ability to disassemble those constructions, to have names and named places, for example, but the assurance that none of these names or places are permanent, because they "don't want anything that defined or crystallized. What's crystallized is static and what's static is dead" (65).
The Children struggle, in other words, to create new forms that somehow maintain a vital contact with "earth," while also struggling with their need to break those contacts when necessary. This contest is similarly manifested in 98.6's oscillations between annihilations that open things up and more traditional, or vital, or affective narrative lines and character developments that emphasize a perhaps recognizable and "realistic" shared perception of humanity. On the one hand, there is little stability of character naming in section five; the text is not organized into a solid block of type split by chapters, and the narrative flow does shift according to shifts in character and text fragments. The effect is at times disorienting. On the other hand, Sukenick does seem to attempt to keep these disruptions to a minimum, affixing the characters in this section with "plausible" psychological depth, placing them in narrative lines that somewhat conventionally "lead somewhere," and presenting a somewhat verisimilitudinous picture of a bohemian, contemporary America not dissimilar to the one conjured up in popular culture films and books of the day.
Typographically, this section makes such oscillations conspicuous in its organization of blocks of text; the entire second section is composed of dramatic episodes (of one paragraph to several pages in length) that are prefaced and ended with stark spaces of white, moments of dissolution and spaces of re-imagining. These open spaces, as intervals between textual episodes, allow the novel to break off narrative lines, and lines of thought, through its formal rhythm. As pieces of text bleed into and out of these white spaces, they literally dissolve into instants of reconfiguration, freeing the novel to move in new directions with every new piece of text (which it does, sometimes extravagantly, shifting rapidly between characters, perspectives, and settings).
What's suggested here - and engaged in large, as mentioned, throughout the content of the second section - is similar to the theoretical impulse of poststructuralist collaborators Deleuze and Guattari. Consistently pushing, in thought and practice, toward "extricating [themselves] from the problems of anti-Hegelianism and constructing an alternative train of thought," Deleuze and Guattari's work attempts to construct a "non-dialectical conception of negation and a constitutive theory of practice" (Hardt xii).
Their post-Hegelian philosophy theorizes that positive, liberated creation is possible when "pure" negation, or extreme nihilism, clears a space for new being. As Michael Hardt says in his study of Gilles Deleuze, Deleuze's philosophy does not advocate pure negation, pure nihilism, but recognizes it as an inevitable "element of our world." This absolute Deleuzian negation, with its continual movement towards ground-zero, so to speak, does not work toward nihilism as an end, however. Instead, it is pursued so that alternative geographical terrains for thought and action can be opened and reopened.
The perpetual "clearing" of such spaces, for Deleuze and Guattari, is intrinsically related to a desire-driven constructivism. This constructivism can take advantage of these leveled spaces, exploring and creating anew. It frequently grapples with, as Sukenick's "Children of Frankenstein" section consistently and dynamically does, basic questions of ontology: what is the nature of being, in what world does this being take place, and what world suits particular moments? The impossibility of finding foundational answers to these questions, in the face of an always-present potential of profound negation, leads to perpetual immanence in a dynamic world, a perpetual rethinking and re-creating in each succeeding moment "the relationship between language, literature, thought, desire, action, social institutions, and material reality" (Bogue 7-8).
Maintaining some sort of existential or intellectual balance when applying this theory is, of course, difficult; Sukenick addresses this difficulty through his own writerly struggle in 98.6's third and final section. Explicitly drawing out the multiplicity of the text/context/subject/author/language/ form/narrative relationship (which is coped with un-self-consciously, for the most part, in the rest of the text) 98.6's third section is simultaneously a return to earth and a self-conscious flight of fancy. "Palestine" has for its central "character" Ronald Sukenick, who is throughout the section both writing into being and locating himself in a state of mind, a determinedly imaginary commune (kibbutz) located in an equally imaginary Israel that is constructed to the tune of "who knows"; this Israel is a place where the weather is perfect year round, where Sukenick can meet for a friendly chat with Golda Meir, and where Sukenick can also fly briefly back to America to advise a newly-elected president Robert Kennedy, who has been saved from Sirhan Sirhan's bullets.
Emerging at the same time as this portrait of the State of Israel, however, is the voice of its supposed composer, who seems determined to remind readers that the State of Israel is a "composure grown out of ongoing decomposition," and just one part in "Interruption. Discontinuity. Imperfection. It can't be helped. This very instant as I write as you read a hundred things. A hundred things to tangle with resolve ignore before you are together. Together for an instant and then smash it's all gone still it's worth it. I feel" (167). This is the voice of a Ronald Sukenick living in a contemporary American reality that tells him that his notions of a State of Israel are "Ravings. I have important practical things to do. I have to get my car fixed. I have to call my agent" or that, in this American reality, "it all comes down to social justice and in practical terms that requires power. That's the only way out" (171, 178).
Tilting back toward the kind of radical Sukenickian surfiction that insists on blowing open and journeying through the multiple events always-already involved in acts of imagination, and writing, and "reality," "Palestine" navigates the rhizome connecting imagined reality, the imagining mind, and the imagining mind (and body) imaging itself imagining as it simultaneously locates it in a more immediate, "real" reality that it no doubt also in some way imagines into being but is also imagined into being by others and is quite material in its effects.
In other words, in "Palestine," "Sukenick" insists on writing that fails back into experience as countermeasure to the great amount of writing that will inevitably fail back into "reality." Which is to say, as Einstein says to Tanta Goldie, who in turn relays it to Sukenick, "Only experience can restore that lost synthesis which analysis has forced us to shatter," along with the notion that "Khazerei. A kadokhes vel ikh im gebn. You don't have to understand it do you understand everything you remember. You have to love it and feel it end quote. The writer who fails back into experience, as does a surfictionist, Sukenick self-consciously notes in this section, can have material effects on reality, but only when this failing back into experience is part of a larger weave that includes fabrications of "fiction" that can be failed back into experience.
Such composing depends on an almost agonizing awareness and juggling of a virtually infinite number of variables interacting on a virtually infinite number of planes of existence. This is the kind of juggling that Sukenick exposes himself as doing at the end of the "Palestine" section. Like the one man band Jesse Lone Cat Fuller, he is playing all the instruments at once, sitting in Laguna Beach and trying to finish his novel and trying to forget about it while at the same time his life is unraveling and at the same time he's trying to stitch it back together and it's another failure of course and at the same time not at all a last chance and the back of the book says that this section marks a "utopian vision of Israel [the promised land - the Ancien Caja (171)] that takes place on a perfect kibbutz in which all problems are solved" of course, it doesn't mention that this utopian vision is the "composure grown out of ongoing decomposition" that is, a real imaginative move towards a plane of immanence: THIS IS WHERE THE MOSAIC LAW CAN BE REALIZED (in the "inane" imagination) THIS IS WHERE "Interruption. Discontinuity. [and] Imperfection" can be realized. It can't be helped. This very instant as I write as you read [direct address to reader] a hundred things. A hundred things to tangle with resolve ignore before you are together. Together for an instant and then smash it's all gone still it's worth it. I feel" (167). The entire section is predicated on the fragments. Multiplicity. Difference. This is utopia. Madness. The premise of this section is not the "sowhatness of things," but rather the "who knows" ishness of things. What's replaced is the teleology of "should be" and the retrospectiveness of "if I had," with "who knows." But the practical: "Ravings. I have important practical things to do. I have to get my car fixed. I have to call my agent." I have to finish my article. I have to plan my classes. I'm hungry. But in Israel: "Here in Israel we have no need of cars. Or of Agents" and so on (171). Psychosynthesis as Schizoanalysis. Negation in the affirmation. It is an acentered system that destabilizes through a seemingly simple employment of the word "and," a logic of addition which always finds the middle, the space between things, "a perpendicular direction, a transversal moment that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle" and things being immanent to one another AND this is what we find in D and G AND The state of Israel is an example of this Luminous Coincidence AND Anti-Logos AND Anti-Questionnaire AND Anti-Binary: AND Enter Einstein AND Experience v. Faith: AND The book, as Israel, becomes the rhizome AND EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING AT THE SAME TIME AND "When you try to sew Orpheus back together you get Frankenstein" AND America can only be America in the imagination AND Last line: Another failure AND Segue into Long Talking Bad Conditions Blues, which gives us a discourse on failure AND All you can do is sing the blues? "Letting it go it is as it is?" (181-188). >6