by Paul French
Beggar Press, 2011
784 pages / $19.95 Buy from Beggar Press
Paul French’s Untitled (2011) is either his most brilliant or most obnoxious novel yet—probably, it seems, his most obnoxious. What’s brilliant about French’s novel is this: for Untitled French has invented, not just fictional characters (as you might get in a realist novel), not even just a fictional world (as you might get in a sci-fi novel), not even just a fictional universe (as you might get in a fantasy novel)—Untitled isn’t set in our universe, it isn’t even set in our dimension. For the novel French has invented fictional systems of mathematics, of physics; electromagnetism, nuclear forces, gravity, French has done away with them altogether. French’s characters aren’t made of cells, and within those cells atoms, and within those atoms protons and neutrons, and within those protons and neutrons quarks. French’s characters aren’t even length/width/height-type characters: whatever dimension Untitled is set in, it’s not the traditional dimension in which one would set a novel (the third).
In that sense Untitled may be the most fictional novel ever written: everything within the novel is fictional. French hasn’t relied upon even a single nonfictional fact to build his story. Capitalism doesn’t exist in Untitled, for example; economics doesn’t even exist; greed itself doesn’t exist. Untitled took French almost thirty years to write—his last book, Come Hither Ye Stockbrokers, he published in 1984—and it’s easy to see why. The novel French built in those years is, in a certain sense, a masterpiece.
What’s obnoxious about Untitled, however, is that it seems French felt the premise of the novel required him to write Untitled in a fictional language. The fictional language is named .: (the language itself is a dot-based language, like a visual Braille; “.:” translates to, in English, “Wary”). Unlike books like the Codex Seraphinianus and the Voynich manuscript, it is actually possible to read Untitled—but, as it turns out, that’s what’s so obnoxious. The first several hundred pages of Untitled are an English/.: textbook—French has made it possible for an English speaker to study and become fluent in .: before reading the novel itself. (Some of the language exercises French has invented are, admittedly, actually sort of fun.) .: takes the average student about seven months to learn, the textbook’s introduction tells (warns) readers, but even after those seven months, the next several hundred pages of Untitled are a kindergarten-level textbook, written in .:, that teaches readers about the physics within the novel and the place this novel is set. Untitled is, without question, the most laborious, exhausting, obnoxious novel ever written.
However, what’s also true is that—after one has read both of the introductory textbooks—the next (last) several hundred pages of the novel do make it all worthwhile.
(For those unwilling to become fluent in .:, Untitled does have, also, lots of shiny pictures.)