There is a split in experimental fiction, it would seem, which is hardly a split: a duality which is hardly dual. Articulating it, in addition, will not add to or subtract from what I’m provisionally calling “experimental fiction.” I am not going out of my way to break open or unmask a binary which has, till now, subsisted in relative silence. The following is a brief and incomplete diagnosis–neither positive nor negative, or else both at once. Most importantly, perhaps, these are not two distinct regimes (again, a split which is hardly, or is not, a split). Nor should this be taken as a statement of fact, but as a condition which I’ve begun, more and more, to see in what I read.
Collaboration and alienation are the two modes or strategies of writing–of reading, too–between which the history of experimental fiction might be located. The first strategy is easy enough to identify. The collaborative mode is characterized by open possibility–a collaborative text insists on an active reading for adequate dialogue. Indeed, it is the work of dialogue, of reader-become-writer. The collaborative mode–I almost wrote mood–is Proust’s past which explodes into the future, the fragments of which must be collected by the reader. Ulysses, whose polyphonic framework requires much sorting and sifting. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, an overlooked but seminal work of metafiction whose chapters–loose pamphlets–can be read in any order (save, notably, the first and last). Carole Maso’s Ava, which demands that the reader write between the lines. Infinite Jest, whose significance in this regard should be obvious enough–it is perhaps the upshot of this entire tradition. But the latter is related intimately to a novel which very subtly skirts and ultimately transgresses the boundary of what could be considered a collaborative work.
This novel is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. The Recognitions is a remarkable novel. For all of its poetry, for its preciosity, which would disguise it as conventional, The Recognitions emerges in 20th century fiction as a novel displaced, disintegrated, and at war with itself. Its motor force is a tension between the elegance of its language and the vitriol, the destructive and self-destructive will, of its elements. Language and elements: this unique novel profoundly hates its characters while investing its very depth in their presentation. Its status as a watershed moment between high modernism and postmodernism–as a nontraditional work of fiction–is due to this complex schism at its center, between an icy distance from its characters, and a desire to render them fully, if not exhaustively. Again and again The Recognitions foregrounds the social and economic relations which constitute its characters as the only possible relations, yet collapses the border between art and life–so to say that it simultaneously judges its characters didactically, and makes them beautiful in and through language.
The novel’s ending manifests this contradiction, but does not dissolve it: the work of art murders its parasite, that is, the one who has given it life, and at the very same time, itself. The piano piece collapses in on the player (literally: a character plays a piano piece inside of a church, and the church collapses on and kills him)–the player no longer fades into the work, couples with it, but is violently cut off from it. In the end, the artist or performer is at once what makes the work possible and its condition of impossibility. The work of art can now be located only as different from itself, as a function of the artist (reader/writer/performer) who never simply intertwines with the work, but who activates its destruction and his or her own. The work becomes dangerous, unstable, sacrifices its characters to the power of its image, which does the same. To affectively present its characters–their genealogies, their relations–the work must die, and take the “holy reader” down with it. We now meet the novel which repulses its reader, the narcissistic novel which wills the crossing-out of its own reflection.
The work of alienation mirrors the relation of time which I described above in connection with Proust, who, it will have to be said, does not altogether fit into the collaborative strategy: an infinite past which collides with the future and creates a memory for the future. But the fragments which scatter are not collected or recollected–represented–by the reader. They consist in presentation; the audience puffs cigars and talk amongst themselves during the performance, but are not drawn into it. This same movement can be traced, for instance, in the fiction of–and I can hear the collective sigh at his mention–Gordon Lish. In Lish’s work, we see the production of a past that never was, which is continually created anew: the contraction and explosion of fragments which the reader cannot collect, but which the reader can contemplate as a collision, as the creation of a memory for the future. This movement is Lish’s hostile, repetitive, insistent voice, for whom memory, the “I” itself which can write, is a production of the “as if”: the beating heart of time. Let’s think of Bataille. The alienating voice becomes the sun, or that which will be consumed in its own fire. But only in order to create. Create what? The possibility of creation. A silence which would permit one to sing. Not the synthetic unity of collaboration which gathers together parts, but a paradoxical unity–the one which is multiple, which explodes, contracts, explodes and contracts. Alienation produces a new moment: the moment in which the work unveils itself as a performance, and in the same instant, unveils life itself as such. The entire history of literature is suffused with this performance; it is the rare work which owns up to it.