Fillip

Fillip 6 — Summer 2007

There is little respect for those who claim that Superman is not Clark Kent: Fiction, Criticism, and the Art of Anti-Suspense
Maria Fusco

Here is an arrow whose flight would consist in a return to the bow: fast enough, in sum, never to have left it; and what the sentence says—its arrow—is withdrawn. It will nevertheless have reached us, struck home; it will have taken some time—it will, perhaps, have changed the order of the world even before we are able to awake to the realization that, in sum, nothing will have been said, nothing that will not already have been blindly endorsed in advance. And again, like a testament: for the natural miracle lies in the fact that such sentences outlive each author and each specific reader, him, you and me, all of us, all the living, all the living presents.1

The bridge between fiction writing and visual art making is a wide one, too broad in fact to traverse with surefooted assurance. Increasingly, I’ve become interested in fiction that positions “anti-suspense” as its primary creative process and how this type of writing may be utilized to probe readers’ attitudes towards their presence within contemporary art criticism.

Such anti-suspense may be described as a response to, or break from, traditional narrative structures where the reader/viewer experiences a beginning, middle, and end, in that order. Because such stories are propagated around us on a daily basis, we have specific expectations and anticipations that are redolent of narrative form itself. We assume that there will be characters and action. We expect a series of incidents that will be connected in some way, and that the problems or conflicts arising in the course of the action will achieve some final state: either that they will be resolved, or at least a new light will be cast on them. We as viewers come prepared to make a narrative reading of any creative encounter. I would argue that this is as true of reading fiction as “reading” art, in that we consistently attempt to make a whole out of sometimes dislocated or unhinged fragments.

Quotidian cause and effect, and its experiential relationship to time, is central to looking at and making sense of the world around us. Here I am considering “time” as the chronological space that looking takes place within, both in terms of the personal time spent in the act of “reading,” and the historic timeline or literary lineage within which a work is placed. What I am suggesting is that temporal compression through looking is an activity in and of itself.

Criticism is one part of this process—the reflective component—where the vocative honesty of the complete object is generally favoured over the idea of a leaky object. This encourages the viewer/reader to “cruise” the text or artwork in a more profound manner. This is akin to Roland Barthes’ evocative description of a book, “braided, woven, in the most personal way, the relation of every kind of bliss: those of ‘life’ and those of text, in which reading and the risks of real life are subject to the same anamnesis.”2 This action of cruising the surface of a text or artwork in whatever combinations prove to be the most satisfying, useful, and most importantly precise at any given reading, is vital if we are to adhere to Ezra Pound’s assertion that: “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.”3

With the idea of a “relief from plot” in fiction writing, let’s consider the potential for such fiction to intervene in visual art criticism. It is my contention that textual objects can be invested with a new life or critical trajectory, and a more profoundly cathectic and critical immersion, in which the spectator is encouraged to be always in the present rather than wondering what will happen at the end. The independent experiences of fiction and visual art writing as creative practices could together potentially gain the ability to produce non-sequential narratives effectively reintroducing the reader/viewer to closer looking and calling for his/her presence in the present.

As Umberto Eco has observed in On Literature:

Let us try to approach a narrative work with common sense and compare the assumptions we can make about it with those we can make about the world. As far as the world is concerned, we find that the laws of universal gravitation are those established by Newton, or that it is true that Napoleon died on Saint Helena on 5 May 1821. And yet, if we keep an open mind, we will always be prepared to revise our convictions the day science formulates the great laws of the cosmos differently, or an historian discovers unpublished documents proving that Napoleon died on a Bonapartist ship as he attempted to escape. On the other hand, as far as the world of books is concerned, propositions like “Sherlock Holmes was a bachelor,” “Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf and then freed by the woodcutter,” or “Anna Karenina commits suicide” will remain true for eternity, and no one will ever be able to refute them...There is little respect for those who claim…that Superman is not Clark Kent. Literary texts explicitly provide us with much that we will never cast doubt upon, but also, unlike the real world, they flag with supreme authority what we are to take as important in them.4

Utilizing Eco’s observations about the irrefutable veracity of fiction as a fixative of meaning, we can further examine the dissolution and dissemination of the absolute object through non-sequential narrative structures.

A good example is to be found in the work of British fiction writer B. S. Johnson, whose most famous novel, The Unfortunates, first published in 1969, is a “book in box” of twenty-seven unbound sections, which may be read in any order that the reader sees fit, apart from the “First” and “Last” sections, which are marked as such. Johnson’s comments about truth and fiction reveal his non-sequential approach to writing. His mantra states that, “Telling stories is telling lies.” He goes on to ask, “How can you convey truth in a vehicle of fiction?” Then he claims that, “The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites, and it must logically be impossible.” He ends by asserting that, “The novel is a form in the same sense that the sonnet is a form, within that form, one may write truth or fiction. I choose to write truth in the form of a novel.”5 It is worth considering Johnson’s imperative to produce truth in a fictive container in relation to the Eco statement above: “There is little respect for those who claim…that Superman is not Clark Kent.”

The Unfortunates is born out of this struggle to fuse truth and fiction together in a form that is at once direct and self-reflexive. Its genesis came on a Saturday afternoon in Nottingham in the north of England, where Johnson had travelled for a routine assignment in his role as a football reporter for the Observer newspaper. The visit evoked a tissue of memories about a dead friend who used to live there. As Johnson’s memories of his old friend unfold throughout the day, so too is the linear narrative interrupted by the immediate job of reporting the football match. Wishing to express such an aspect of intellectual “cruising,” Johnson realized that this very randomness is “directly in conflict with the technological fact of the bound book: for the bound book imposes an order, a fixed page order, on the material.” And so he unbound the book. This is not a new idea. French writer Marc Saporta’s 1963 Composition 1 consisted of 150 unnumbered, loose-leaf form pages presented in a box. And yet, it is The Unfortunates, which endures as the exemplar of its type.

Perhaps this is because Johnson made a formalistic compromise and retained the “First” and “Last” sections. Perhaps we, as interlocutors, require clearly signposted access points for the purposes of parlous navigation. Or, perhaps, this playful trace of traditional narrative structures is, as Jacques Derrida has written of Nietzsche’s work, “Future Producing” in that The Unfortunates’ very own material syntax is meta-critical. It refers to its own knowledge (and non-knowledge) by shuffling the order of our narrative world, even before we are aware that nothing will have been told to us that we have not already have blindly endorsed in advance. (Think here of choosing which exhibition or film you will go to see, based on the opinion of a trusted critic.)

The following is from the final lines of the section in The Unfortunates labelled “First”:

Tidy, his mind, not as mine is, random, the circuit-breakers falling at hazard, tripped equally by association and non-association, repetition…I selected and elected to hear what I needed, what was of most use to me, at that time most use, from his discourse, yes the word is not too pompous, discourse, a fine mind, a need to communicate embodied in it, too, how can I place his order, his disintegration?6

Even though there is a formal compromise mentioned above, the “scrappy” nature of The Unfortunates’ construction directly encourages its readers to be pro-active in an obvious way. Here the suggestion of “scrappiness” relates not only in a logistic sense in terms of the loose leaf pages of the book—pages that may be lost inadvertently thereby actioning a physically incomplete whole—but also to the perceived scrappiness of just such objects and the methodologies of reading or looking that are required to navigate them. This clear, non-sequential, and anti-suspense direction can be considered analogous to the experience of art writing, in that readers must decide on the meaning or partial conclusions of their own reading, both of the actual artwork and also its attendant critical writing.

Contemporary art criticism can be seen as assembling a teratological corpus through a rationalist grafting of interpretation from scrappy parts. It is criticism demanding to be read in and of itself, whilst simultaneously calling for a reading of something that is outside of itself. The meaning of that “outside” reading can, of course, never be proved, just as Johnson’s world of words (memory) in The Unfortunates is open to constant reinvestment depending on “how you look at it.”

And so we return to the beginning:

Here is an arrow whose flight would consist in a return to the bow: fast enough, in sum, never to have left it; and what the sentence says—its arrow—is withdrawn. It will nevertheless have reached us, struck home; it will have taken some time—it will, perhaps, have changed the order of the world even before we are able to awake to the realisation that, in sum, nothing will have been said, nothing that will not already have been blindly endorsed in advance. And again, like a testament: for the natural miracle lies in the fact that such sentences outlive each author and each specific reader, him, you and me, all of us, all the living, all the living presents.7

Notes
  1. Jacques Derrida, “Loving in Friendship: Perhaps—The Noun and the Adverb,” The Politics of Friendship (London and New York: Verso, 1997), 32.
  2. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), 59.
  3. Raymond Carver, Call If You Need Me (London: The Harvill Press, 2000), 88.
  4. Umberto Eco, On Literature (London: Vintage, 2006), 5.
  5. See Jonathan Coe’s introduction to the 1999 edition of The Unfortunates.
  6. B. S. Johnson, “First,” The Unfortunates (London: Picador, 1999), 3-4.
  7. Derrida, 32.
About the Author

Maria Fusco is a Belfast-born writer and academic based in London. She recently edited Put About: A Critical Anthology on Independent Publishing produced out of a conference at Tate Modern that she organized. She is currently developing a new journal The Happy Hypocrite for and about experimental writing within visual arts.

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