FC2 and the Present of Fiction
by R. M. Berry
Halfway through her novella "Melanctha," Gertrude Stein recounts a peculiar awakening. The two lovers, Jeff and Melanctha, have reached a stalemate in the struggle "sure to be going on always between them," and during this lull, Jeff experiences a change:
Jeff did not talk so much now about what he before always had been thinking. Sometimes Jeff would be, as if he was just waking from himself to be with Melanctha, and then he would find he had been really all the long time with her, and he had really never needed to be doing any thinking.
What makes this moment odd is that Jeff doesn't wake from any dream or illusion, but from himself, a "before always" thinking and talking, and what he wakes to is no new self-understanding or realization, but rather to what he's "all the long time" been doing-simply being with Melanctha. It's as if Stein were describing as an event or breakthrough something no one ever imagined could be missing: the present.
An irreversible change in culture, one whose consequences nobody is yet able to see the end of, is signaled by this episode. For writers and readers of fiction its lessons are endless, but one seems paramount. If Stein is right, very few novels published this year will be the novels of 2001. For our literary culture to be the culture of the time in which we're living, the present will need to happen to us, like an injury or disarming comeuppance, and this breakthrough will not consist of any new subject matter, theoretical paradigm, or technical innovation, however important these changes mightturn out to be. On the contrary, it will be as if, in the very act of writing and reading, we were awaking from ourselves, from a "before always" thinking and talking, to something at every instant already underway. It is to such a present that, in her lectures, Stein described her own generation awaking, and this discovery of unsettling new beauty came with a simultaneous recognition of the futility-call it the inherent obsolescence-of all Stein herself had been doing with words until now.
At FC2, we're under no illusion that we hold a monopoly on the present. Like our forerunner the Fiction Collective, FC2 exists to provide an alternative public space for exploring artistic possibilities that the literary marketplace, as presently constituted, cannot support. As Ronald Sukenick explained twenty-six years ago in his New York Times Book Review "Guest Word," our aim has always been "to develop a community and audience [for fiction] of the kind that has always sustained poetry," and so to "open a path toward the maturity of the American novel." We profess no single aesthetic, and between any two of the books we publish in a given year-say, Lance Olsen's Sewing Shut My Eyes and Jessica Treat's Not a Chance-there can be almost as vast a difference as between our list and Random House's. Our aim is merely to identify writing in which we believe the pressure of the present can be felt-a risky, error prone task-and to give that writing the public attention necessary to its development.
It is this kind of achievement, a writing that transforms fiction from the verbal representation of action to an activation of the verbal medium itself, that Stein first recognized as an achievement of presentness. At FC2, this is what we publish. Whenever I am asked what distinguishes our books from "serious literary fiction" published by mainstream presses, my answer is always a version of the following. For mainstream writers the medium of fiction exists largely as a given. It is given in countless ways: by the work of other well-known writers, by editors at the most influential publishing houses, by the tastes of the majority of novel readers, by reviewers at America's most widely-read newspapers, by the recognized classics of the genre, by academic institutions like creative writing programs, by the distribution system connecting books to buyers, and by those global economic conditions that transform novels into commodities for exchange. Writers and readers can feel any number of ways about these culturally stabilizing forces, and it is a mistake to imagine that their limitations are more obvious than their possibilities. Many contemporary writers and readers, probably most, will find the norms they inscribe no more constraining than English itself, and to those who accept these regularities, they provide an objective basis for continuing achievement. But to the extent that writer and reader share a medium prior to each new work's achievement, literature exists in the condition of nature, a pre-established foundation underlying every present construction, as much a given as death and taxes.
For FC2 writers, the medium of fiction, if it exists at all, exists as a question. It is an imperative without justification, a ramshackle history with nothing to teach, norms repudiated by the very economic conditions under which they're preserved. Which means that the first task of FC2 writers will to be to establish, in their own practice, that fiction still exists, that this work will count as an instance of it. I think of it as the creation, not merely of a new work, but of a new medium. Such a task has nothing to do with defining novels or stories, although seeing what is accomplished in such writing will often feel like seeing, as though for the first time, what a novel or story is, and although wholesale failure will beset most attempts at creation this radical, the potential varieties of success are, as far as I am able to tell, infinite. What seems characteristic is the way some potentiality of literature's material base or verbal medium, of conditions common to virtually every fiction, acquire an unprecedented force and value.
In Michael Martone's fiction, The Blue Guide to Indiana, there is a narrator but no story. Historical anecdotes peek through the cracks in the travel guide's enthusiastic depictions of famous sites ("Annual Baking Powder Festival / Commemorating the Great Explosion of 1879 / The Landing / Fort Wayne"), but no organizing conflict emerges, and by the end, no overarching plot is revealed. Instead, the drama seems to exist entirely between reader and narrator, the former fighting to preserve her conviction of sanity against the latter's increasingly persuasive insinuation of madness. (Why isn't "pork cake" a dish? Is it less preposterous than corn dogs? Are we sure it isn't a dish?) But what I find most significant is the way this drama seems intensified by the materiality of Martone's book itself. In The Blue Guide to Indiana, Martone doesn't create a fictional place so much as a fictional object. That is, what makes his travel guide fiction isn't that no "mayonnaise pipeline" exists in Indiana, but rather that no Indiana exists (yet) to which his book will serve as travel guide. Its fictionality seems almost external to it. When published this August, however, The Blue Guide to Indiana will be as physically real as the The Blue Guide to Greece, beside which on any bookstore shelf it's likely to appear indistinguishable. That The Great Gatsby exists in book form seems inessential to its meaning. It can be read aloud or placed on a video monitor with no significant loss, and changes in its cover or layout do not call for reinterpretation. But the Blue Guide to Indiana authenticates its madness, at least in part, like Borges' encyclopedia of Tlon, by existing materially in the same world as its fiction. It's as though Martone had invested accidental conditions of every fiction-that it has a cover, that it's portable, that its typography is formatted-with the value of the whole, making those conditions now the agents of meaning.
This investment of writing's seemingly accidental materiality with literary significance comes close to describing, if not quite how presentness occurs, then what often seems to have happened when it does. Perhaps the most familiar form such awakenings will take is when a writer transforms our absorption in her represented subject into an interest in her means of representation, her language. Few writers do this better than Marianne Hauser. In the excerpt from her forthcoming novel Shootout with Father, this transformation begins with the first sentence, "Shoot the motherfucker!"-where a commonplace expletive is literalized by its ensuing context. When, on the celebration of his birth, the narrator receives a small pistol from his mother's fucker-i.e., the patriarch who taught him "to shoot to kill like a man"-the Oedipal plot inscribed in our familiar obscenity becomes concrete. One may think of this as fiction expressing a conflict latent in its verbal medium or its verbal medium undergoing contamination by the fictional conflict, but either way, the feeling is of an intimacy decisively enhanced. Hauser achieves this continually. After reveling in recollections of youthful defiance, her narrator admits that his birthday pistol "triggered no such memory." Later, he recounts his father's buying a smuggled suit of armor "for a steal." He remembers how, in defiance of his father, he refused to shoot a deer, so leaving the woods "ahead of the game," and in an extended literalization, Hauser's narrator paraphrases his father's epistles, assuring us, "I have faithfuly retained the spirit behind the letter. One has to read my old man between the lines." These are not puns or double entendres or even word play in the normal sense, but rather the concretizing of a significance already present in our everyday speaking, reading, writing. When Hauser places the narrator into the same relation to his father's letters as we stand in relation to Hauser's text (and as the father stands in relation to L.C.'s writing), our own activity becomes indistinguishable from the action represented in her plot. The single letter differentiating "lice" from "life" on both our page and the father's, equates what we see and the characters' "c."
Although I've followed Stein in calling this kind of achievement a "present," I've said nothing about current events, trends, new styles or ideas. Some may even feel that my examples are dated, that they recall a modernism or postmodernity that's now passZ¯. Hauser and Martone, at least in my version, seem more interested in conditions already present, that is, in what writing has "all the long time" been doing, than in such recent topics as globalization, hybridity, trans-nationalism, Brad Pitt, or Microsoft. Needless to say, such interests are not mutually exclusive, and much FC2 writing remains deeply interested in contemporary problems and ideas-Stephen Graham Jones in Native American cultural politics, Jan Ramjerdi in transgressive computer technology, Cris Mazza in postmodern sexuality, Lance Olsen in Baudrillard's simulacra, Harold Jaffe in Bataille's sacral excess. But I believe there's something right about the notion that, in our present circumstances, art which doesn't consider its existence a given will appear alien to, even out of synch with, its surrounding culture.
Stein believed that, since the breakdown of tradition starting in the renaissance, every generation has come to live naturally behind itself. That is, neither the late twentieth century nor the early twenty-first is likely to seem familiar to us. What passes for "our" age is a miscellany of past epochs: the early 18th century in physics, the late 18th in politics, the early 19th in philosophy, the mid 19th in music, the early 20th in painting, etc. The perennial "latest thing" is just this anachrony's normal form of resistance. Although Stein was convinced that no one could be ahead of his or her time, she believed that, under exceptional pressures, certain individuals and groups were moved to seek what the "latest thing" suppressed. In the arts, this search gave rise to elemental abstraction, a procedure by which art works began to explore their own formative processes and conditions. But what was new about this art wasn't the conditions it discovered. On the contrary, the linguistic processes first made palpable by Stein's own Tender Buttons were just the unacknowledged syntactic and discursive conditions of writing itself. What was new was our experience of these conditions, our present encounter with what had always been forming our experience. Art "made as it is being made"was so powerful because it uncovered what art "prepared beforehand" was counting on. It was contemporary, not because of its unlikeness to past art, but because through it our relation to all art, past and present, became that of discovery.
Like Yuknavitch's uncontained writing, Stephen Graham Jones's The Fast Red Road invests his verbal medium with unaccustomed expressive power, and like Hauser's literalizations, Jones's prose seems to acquire this power through foregrounded figures. But what I find new about Jones's work is the way it makes fictionality's deep bond with figuration experience-able. Near the end of Jones's excerpt, Pidgin and Charlie Ward are approaching a Hopi reservation at triple digit speed when they see something stretched across the highway: "It was a mile-long line of wooden Indians, pilfered from the cigar-smelling conscience of america." What's interesting about this sentence (like countless others in Jones's book) is that, although sounding hyperbolic and metaphorical, the "mile-long line" functions literally, at the level of the action, describing a physical barrier through which Pidgin's stolen Trans-Am must pass. However, the second portion of the sentence, "pilfered from the cigar-smelling conscience of america" doesn't tell us where the wooden Indians literally came from, even if indicating where they truly came from (and not in a merely figurative sense) and sounding far less hyperbolic than the roadblock itself. Similarly, in the ensuing sentences the dynamite, barbwire strung through the manikins' knees, DJ's warning, and vanishing gate, all sound surreal and allegorical, despite functioning literally, while (at least in my reading) Tecumseh "frowning hard into the camera" flip-flops like the duck-rabbit, seeming literal (albeit fantastic) one moment, while only metaphorical the next. Like Jackson Pollock's allover line, which recovered the power of drawing without dividing canvas into figure and ground, Jones's astonishingly active sentences manage to create a continuous experience of figuration without a contrasting experience of letter. It's as though the represented action were generated directly from the figures themselves, revealing the source of narrative in its own medium's questionability, in writing's freedom from its material base.
Not all the work we publish at FC2 is as radically ambitious as this, or not in the same way, but for writers whose medium is in question, such achievements have a special importance. It's as if, in them, the inaugural event of literature were being re-enacted, transforming the present instance of writing into a starting point. In Kim Addonizio's "A Brief History of Condoms" this re-enactment occurs through the intervention of form. Addonizio's parody seems haunted by vestigial narratives ("Life Cycle of the Condom," "One Condom's Story"), missing histories ("The Big O Theory"), openings into which a story wants to go ("I won't fuck you if I have to wear that thing on my dick"). In truth, the whole seems to project (and in turn be projected by) a narrative shadow, a phantom story, untold throughout but, in my reading, missed most strongly in the concluding "Personal Note," where we learn the devoted condomologist is male. This phantom story, a tale of intimacy violated, seems to be a woman's, or perhaps women's, whose narrative voice is heard only once, in the eloquent outburst in note 4: "Go fuck yourself." The implied moral could hardly be more literal. But what I find significant is the way this voice, or perhaps its expressive force, seems generated by the form itself, that is, by the scientifically chaste prose ("A condom is a simple one-celled organism...") and orderly categories ("Social Organization of Condom Communities") of a natural history article. This conventional framework does not just shape its subject. It suppresses it, exerting on the sentences a continuous pressure of the unsaid. It's this pressure which, for me at least, bubbles over in nervous laughter. That is, for all of its flamboyant parody, "A Brief History of Condoms" is probably best appreciated, not as satire but as lyric, an expression of powerful feeling made all the more immediate by feeling's exclusion. In short, the whole exists to evoke note 7, the ecstatic expression of insatiability which appears only to cum too late, after the male speaker's climax, in an anonymous afterthought that voices everything: "...there is no true death, there is only connection and ceaseless change...."
For those to whom writing has become a question, this voice recalls what called for writing in the first place. In it, we rediscover literature existing apart from us, not in the way of a pre-established order, but in the way our own desires exist apart from us. We're present only when it happens. It's this irrepressible absence that Kate Bernheimer's The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold invokes. Like Addonizio's "Brief History," Bernheimer's remarkable novel is replete with silences, gaps, shadows: the whispering "figure in the hallway;" the "flickering lights;" the "riddle" of her sister's abandonment; the sotto voce fragment "...not allowed over." Everywhere more seems meant than gets said, as though the enigmatic non-sequiturs of the opening folk tale ("this is all in the country by the sea where a lobster chased me to a field of windflowers enclosed by a wall") were merely the tantalizing half-light in which the world unfolds. Part of what's fascinating about these hints is as old as the novel itself, the miracle of life overtaken by literature. Like Jane Austen's Catherine Morland or Charlotte Lennox's female quixote, Ketzia seems to inhabit her own visionary imagination, transforming herself into a confused flower, wandering the road of oracles, becoming the pink ballerina on her bedroom wall. But unlike the Bovaries and Quixotes of earlier fictions, Ketzia seems overtaken as much from without as from within, succumbing not so much to her reading as to some ineffable necessity, a secret fate encrypted, like DNA, in old men's jokes and fables. In "The Star Pennies" the distraught Ketzia re-enacts Grimms' tale, "The Star Talers," in which a young girl gives away everything she owns and is reimbursed richly by the sky. However, what's striking is that Ketzia's reading of the folk tale can't account for her hallucinatory charity, since the pious girl's act in the Ur-story is itself neither more nor less scrutable than Ketzia's. It's as though both heroines were responding to some hint or meaning lost on the rest of us, a continuous calling we somehow fail to hear: "Outside, coyotes sang. At first, I thought I was hearing a gang of weeping children come to cover the earth. Soon their howls sent words and I knew what they meant." In Bernheimer's novel, as in all the work represented in these selections, awaking to the present is awaking to the autonomy of fiction.
This concludes my introduction to this selection of recent work by FC2 authors, although I've said nothing about the sample of my own work included here. This is as it should be. The impotence of self-commentary is notorious. But I fear that those I've discussed, as well as many FC2 writers I've omitted, may want to object that it was only about my own work that I was speaking all along. How could I deny this? So in closing, I'll acknowledge just a few of those who may feel moved to disagree passionately with my characterization of FC2 work: