August 29, 2012KR OnlineNonfiction

Unclassifiables: A Tour of Books on My Bed Stand

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“We ought really to call a ‘book’ only that which contains something new.”
             —Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

My eighth grade English teacher was a man named Proudfoot, but we all called him Bob. By 1971, Bethel, Connecticut, standards, Bob was a radical. He wore his blond hair long, with bell-bottomed blue jeans and square-toed Frye boots. This didn’t sit well with parents and administrators, but his students loved him.

Since the school wouldn’t pay for the experimental textbook that he’d picked out for us, on a portable typewriter in the converted carriage house where he lived, Bob painstakingly reproduced its pages on ditto masters, including the ultra-chic illustrations by Saul Steinberg. Among many tantalizing quotes reproduced on those alcohol-scented pages was this one by author and lecturer Francis Cartier:

There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea: by the combination or association of two or more ideas he already has into a new juxtaposition in such a manner as to discover a relationship among them of which he was not previously aware.

This quote made an impression on me. I remember being especially impressed by the word “juxtaposition,” which to me at the time represented the height of intellectual sophistication, and which to this day carries with it the alcohol reek of those ditto sheets, along with that of the lapsang souchong tea Bob and I sipped at a Japanese-style wooden table mounted on bricks on the floor of his cottage.

Juxtaposition, we’ll see, lies at the root of postmodernism, which lies at the heart of this discussion. But to return to Bob and his cottage for a moment, for me, back then, originality meant everything: for this boy growing up in that small-town environment of abandoned hat factories and picket-fenced conformity, anything that smacked of originality, of innovation or experimentation, was cause for celebration. The bold, the new, the different, the thing without classification or precedent: that’s what my friends and I all lived for.

Forty years later, I teach “creative writing,” a term that (as Nabokov said of “reality”) should always come with quotation marks. Like most of my brethren, I wrestle with the meaning of that word “creative,” and question whether and how creativity can (or should) be taught. But who can question that writing itself must be taught, for the simple reason that it must be learned? The question is, who does the teaching? The answer: the books we read.

Which is why I think it’s so important that creative writing pedagogies steer students away from the usual suspects—not only popular best sellers and the established darlings of the MFA culture, but toward works that defy categorization and boundaries, while confronting them with that slippery, furry, duck-billed, shape-shifting beast known as “creative writing.”

I call such works “unclassifiable,” and keep a stack of them on my bed table, if only to remind me of why I became a writer in the first place.

Is there such a thing as a truly unclassifiable book—a book without pedigree or precedent? Aren’t all great works of art to some extent unclassifiable? If not, shouldn’t they be? By way of answering those questions, I offer the following guided tour of the books on my bed stand. Some you will recognize; others will be obscure to you—anyway, I hope so!

I. Fictional Biographies & Biographical Fictions

[W]hen readers complain about the lives of writers—why didn’t he do this; why didn’t he complain to the newspaper about that; why wasn’t he more involved in life?—aren’t they really asking a simpler, and vainer, question: why isn’t he more like us? But if a writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer: it’s as uncomplicated as that.
             —Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

In 1984, English author Julian Barnes wrote a novel about an amateur Flaubert expert named Geoffrey Braithwaite. The story consists mainly of Braithwaite’s musings on his subject’s—and, more incidentally, his own— life as he tries to track down a stuffed parrot that once belonged to and inspired the French realist. Like Ulysses and Exercises in Style (another book on my night stand), each of Flaubert’s Parrot’s chapters is written in a different rhetorical mode or style. The plot, to the extent that there is one, comes down to the question of which of several stuffed parrots discovered is the real stuffed parrot.

In fact the stuffed parrot is beside the point, much as the bird in The Maltese Falcon is beside the point. That latter bird is often pointed to as an example of Hitchcock’s “McGuffin”—the thing the characters are willing to kill and die for, but about which the audience doesn’t really give a fig. Though it may be “the stuff that dreams are made of,” the glorious bird doesn’t matter.

Metaphorically, however, the stuffed parrot in Barnes’ book is very much to the point. One might argue that the book itself is a kind of stuffed parrot or, if you like, a glorious bird—though whether Flaubert’s Parrot is a literary essay stuffed with novelistic straw, or a novel stuffed with literary criticism, is up for argument. However, few will argue that the book, which won the Faber Memorial Prize, was a success.

There’s something preening and self-regarding about Barnes, who seems far more intent on his ideas and originality than on the lives and emotions of his characters (it’s no coincidence that his protagonist is a bloodless physician, and his voice that of reasoned authority: one feels like an intern being lectured by a man in a white clinical smock). Ironically, or fittingly, Flaubert was adamant that the novelist should remain neutral, that the author’s personality should be hidden behind his creation, that he should be “like God in the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible.” That said, Barnes’ personality is everywhere visible in the form of ideas.

In that sense, the “novel of ideas” may be a contradiction in terms, since the author’s thumbprint, so to speak, is destined to be all over it.

And then, abruptly, there were no more letters [he had been reading D. H. Lawrence’s letters]. It was the end: oblivion. There were no more letters. If only, I found myself thinking, if only there had been Volume 8, 9, 10 or 11. I had read four thousand of pages of letters by Lawrence and I wanted thousands of pages more . . . I wanted them not to end. And yet at the same time that I was wishing they would not come to an end, I was hurrying through these books because however much you want it never to end, you are always eager for it to end. However much you are enjoying a book you are always flicking to the end, counting to see how many pages are left, looking forward to the time when you can put the book down and have done with. At the back of our minds, however much we are enjoying a book, we come to the end of it and some little voice is always saying, Thank Christ for that!

Unlike Barnes, in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer makes no pretense that he’s writing fiction. Instead he regales us, in the form of what may be best described as an extended rant, with the story of his epic failure to write a biography of Mr. Lawrence, his similarly moody and impassioned subject.

But the lack of pretense in Out of Sheer Rage is itself a pretense. As he frankly admits in interviews, Dyer never intended to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence; certainly he never intended to write a traditional biography. Furthermore, the narrator of his book, though not, strictly speaking, a fictional character, is nonetheless a persona—an avatar or simulacrum of the author, and not the author himself.

To a greater or lesser extent this is true of all nonfiction narrators. But the rage in mostly a put-on. Though classified as “memoir” and “literary criticism,” Out of Sheer Rage is, at heart, a work of fiction.

Here, as throughout this tour, we confront a paradox. For while Barnes walks through the door marked “fiction” and comes out with a biography, Dyer walks in a door marked “memoir” or “biography” and ends up with a novel.

Think of Jasper John’s famous painting of the American flag. When you look at it, do you see a flag, or a painting? You can’t see both at once, or can you? A flag is objective; a painting of a flag is subjective. Like all works of art, paintings are acts of interpretation that in turn offer themselves up to interpretation.

A flag most emphatically does not offer itself up to any such thing. You could even say that a flag’s raison d’être, as with all symbols, is not to be interpreted, but to stand unambiguously, dogmatically, for that which it represents.

Literary “flags” (nonfictional works: biographies, letters, diaries, histories) denote; while literary “paintings of flags” (fictional works: novels, stories, poems) connote.

Postmodern literature challenges and even reverses these formulas.

II. Diary as Fiction

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written thank God.
      This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Beauty . . . what you will.
             —Henry Miller, Tropic of Paris

While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Frank Conroy concocted something he called the “writer/reader rainbow.” This is an arc or spectrum describing the range of types of writing from purely personal or private writing (a diary) to writing with an absolutely public agenda—bureaucratese or, in extreme cases, propaganda. Conroy maintained that most, if not all, good writing falls roughly into the middle range of this rainbow, in the case of literary works and certainly of fiction nearer to the ultraviolet of private expression than to the infrared of propaganda. The point is, according to Conroy, that great writing has no truck with either the purely personal or the purely public.

Though Conroy’s not around to ask, I feel pretty safe in saying that he was no great fan of Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer first saw print in Paris in 1934, but in this country was banned due to its so-called “graphic content” until 1961. Miller’s first book is essentially the souped-up and at times surrealistic diary of an American expatriate living in Paris in the early 30’s. However sexually frank by the standards of its day, the book concerns itself more with the narrator’s digestive system than with his libido, and includes, among many things, a delightfully disgusting Rabelaisian episode wherein a young Indian gentleman, on a first tour of a Parisian brothel, mistakes the bidet for a toilet. Hardly the stuff of adolescent fantasies.

Today, Miller comes across as the misogynistic windbag of Modern Letters, but when first published and for decades afterwards Tropic of Cancer was a shocking book, but also a book with an extremely liberating influence on generations of authors, including Lawrence Durrell, Kerouac, Erica Jong—and, to be sure, Geoff Dyer. Suddenly, all these young writers looked to their own diaristic material and saw: novel! Interestingly, the word “novel” appears nowhere on the dust jacket or title page of Miller’s book. Rather than declare any genre, instead Miller serves up this epigraph by Emerson:

These novels will give way to diaries and autobiographies—captivating books if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly.

These words are from Emerson’s journal, which he kept between 1820 and 1842. You’ll come to appreciate just how prescient Ralph Waldo was as we continue our literary tour.

My scow is tied up in Flushing, NY, alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.
      Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.

These are the opening lines of Cain’s Book, Scottish-Italian author Alexander Trocchi’s 1960 novel of a heroin junkie living aboard a gravel scow in New York harbor. Trocchi’s novel has an interesting genesis. By the time it was written, Trocchi had abandoned literature and everything else not directly pursuant to his passion for heroin. To get this (or any) book out of him, Trocchi’s publisher paid him so many dollars per page, money that went straight into a dope needle and from there into Trocchi’s arm.

The result is a sort of anti-anti novel, written in fits and starts (and fixes), yet it holds some of the most gorgeous prose passages ever written, including a terrifying description of a storm at sea during which Trocchi’s barge breaks loose from the tugboat pulling it and is nearly lost in the squall. It’s a messy performance—random, arbitrary, with bursts of brilliance competing with passages of ponderous pedantry. On the other hand, the arbitrary nature of its composition lends it a spontaneous and fresh air that isn’t likely to grow stale any time soon.

Much of Cain’s Book is a diatribe against the work ethic and in favor of the junkie lifestyle. Thus we have a paradoxical novel by and about a man who refuses to work—including the work of writing a novel. Trocchi could write like no one’s business; he just didn’t care to.

This sort of paradox is bound to enter any discussion of postmodern literature. The term “postmodern” is itself quite slippery, but can’t be ignored in confronting unclassifiable texts. As applied to literature, the word typically describes certain tendencies in post-World War II works that were seen as an antidote or response to modernism, though in fact such qualities merely extend the experiments championed by Joyce and company, and which rely heavily on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, pastiche, and so on. Mainly, postmodernism challenged the whole notion of objectivity, the belief that any text, fiction or nonfiction, can convey objective truth. Aptly—and again paradoxically—the term “postmodern” is itself highly subjective.

One way to think of postmodernism in literature is to equate it with cubism in art. In cubism, objects are broken up, analyzed, and reassembled into quasi-abstract forms. Rather than depict its subjects from a single viewpoint or perspective, the cubist depicts them simultaneously from a multitude of angles. Hence a kind of subjectivity is achieved, and with it an arguably truer depiction of reality, which is never experienced from a fixed point in time and space, or, for that matter, from a fixed emotional attitude.

III. The Geography of Solitude

No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. . . . And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour.
             —W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn

This air of subjectivity is alive and vibrant in the works of post-WWII German author W.G. Sebald, whose Rings of Saturn chronicles a walking tour through East Anglia by its narrator, who, it happens, shares the name of his author. The journey leads him through many destinations internal and external, with each destination giving rise to digressions in the form of memories, historical side-trips, and philosophical ruminations, and these digressions in turn giving rise to digressions of their own, so that reading Sebald’s book is like walking through a hall of mirrors.

One is tempted in the case of Sebald books to suggest that where there are mirrors there is also a certain amount of literary smoke, since we no sooner complete the journey than we wonder where, exactly, we have been, and why we’ve gone there—or if we’ve really been anywhere at all; if what we have experienced in reading wasn’t all a dream, an illusion.

There’s something ghostly and mirage-like about The Rings of Saturn; the world that it conveys, however grounded in reality, is so deeply, so richly, so fantastically subjective, or, if you like, postmodern. In describing, for instance, Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, Sebald gives the impression of a mythical winter garden ablaze at night by hundreds of gas lamps. Sebald’s sinking coastal cities, his towers, his bridges, his conservatory gardens and mansions, shimmer with the phosphorescence of decay. These places are no sooner described than they crumble into the dust of nostalgia and myth, to where the voyager’s internal landscape seems more solid, more real, more reliable, than the shifting ground under his feet.

Is Sebald’s book fiction, nonfiction, a novel, a travel guide—none or all of the above? It is certainly postmodern.

And yet it’s not new, at least not entirely. In 1704, nearly 300 years before Sebald published The Rings of Saturn, essayist and Formosa native George Psalmanazar published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, a painstakingly researched and detailed description of Formosan customs, geography, and political economy, including such delightful tidbits as the fact that the island’s indigenous males walked around naked save for a silver or gold plate covering their genitals. The problem with Psalmanazar’s book was that not a word of it was true. Depending on your disposition it was either the greatest literary hoax of its time or a novel. What, one can’t help wondering, would Oprah have made of such a performance?

Ninety years later, Count Xavier de Maistre published a book titled Voyage autour de ma chamber (“Voyage Around My Room”): an autobiographical tour of furniture, drapes, paintings, etc., described as though they are fantastical scenes from an expedition to a strange land.

So much for The Rings of Saturn having no precedent.

IV. Fragmentation, Abdication, & Denial

With Cain’s Book we’ve touched on one form of literary denial, the novelist who refuses to write a novel—and not just any novel, but the very novel we happen to be reading. Time won’t permit us to explore the many other permutations of literary abdication—or what I’ll call “refusenik” literature. Suffice it to say that its roots go all the way back to the most recalcitrant of all literary heroes, Bartleby, and his famous utterance, “I prefer not to.” In fact, the Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas has written a delightful non-novel entitled Bartleby & Co. in which he explores the life and works of an array of refusenik authors, including Josefina Vicen’s The Empty Book—a “novel” (thank God for air quotes) about and by a man with nothing to say, but whose “empty” ruminations are engaging and vivid all the same. Among many other such authors and works included in Vila-Matas’s survey are one or two who, it turns out, never existed. Thus, a nonfiction book about novelists who refused to write, or who gave up writing, novels morphs into . . . a novel.

One real writer cited in Vila-Matas’s book is Marcel Bénabou, author of a book titled Why I Have Not Written any of My Books. A book by such a title is, of course, a contradiction in terms. I’m reminded of the ouroboros, the mythical snake swallowing itself by the tail.

The aphorist occupies a similar literary space as the refusnik. He, too, resists writing or refuses to write a novel, but he goes about it quite differently, by dispensing completely with anything resembling a narrative. The aphorist does so by smashing the narrative mirror into an assemblage, a mosaic, or just a random pile of glimmering shards:

A practical man should have knuckles in his eyes; a poet should have them in his images.
To almost any American “thinker”: the feet of your thoughts are always asleep.
All summits are cemeteries.
Art can only influence artists.
If you have no ideas, beware of your tenses and your grammar.
An emotion has more reality than a nail.
Hope is the promise of a crucifixion.
Whatever we do is a remedy.
Beauty is distance.
Only the ugly are modest.

The world “aphorism” comes from the Greek aphorismós, “to bound.” Hippocrates (“Life is short, art long”) was first to use the word. The selection of aphorisms above is taken from the works of Benjamin De Casseres: diarist, egotist, and aphorist, who wrote regularly and voluminously for a variety of New York City newspapers and magazines in the last century, and who by his own estimation considered himself equal to or greater than any writer who ever lived. When not writing for newspapers, he amassed reams of unpublished drama and fiction. De Casseres enjoyed, among other things, writing lines to poems he never intended to write.

Apart from a single poem (“Moth Terror”), the great work of De Casseres’s life was his Fantasia Impromptu. Subtitled “The Adventures of an Intellectual Faun,” the book exists only in theory, since it was never bound between covers. This theoretical opus containing everything the self-proclaimed master ever wrote was dedicated “to the thinkers, poets, satirists, individualists, daredevils, egoists, Satanists and godolepts of posterity.” De Casseres began his “book” in 1925, and meant to work on it for the rest of his life. Whether he did or not we can only guess, since there’s no material evidence.

While some writers are born aphorists (Oscar Wilde), others, like Georg Lichtenburg, are turned into aphorists by posterity. Though he excelled in physics, astronomy, mathematics, and nearly all of the natural sciences as well as literature, the German polymath is best remembered for what Lichtenburg himself referred to uncharitably as his “waste books,” the notebooks wherein he collected random thoughts and observations.

Nietzsche was at heart an aphorist, as were fellow philosophers Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer. Indeed, it’s impossible to write aphoristically without sounding like a philosopher (“Somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle defined by Proverb, Philosophy, and Poetry, the Aphorist drifts restlessly in his tiny boat”).[1] This may account for the curious claim on readers of David Markson’s later novels, the better known of which owes its fame as much to its snake-swallowing-its-own-tail title as to anything.

In fact Markson’s book lives up to its title (This is Not a Novel), since it offers nothing by way of a narrative or developed characters. Instead, Markson plies readers with what at first seems like a gratuitous compendium of biographical trivia mostly to do with writers and the circumstances under which they met their usually ironic ends. One might expect the result to be tiresome and gruesome in equal measure; on the contrary, it is surprisingly witty and engaging, and one turns the pages greedily, hungry for the next morbid morsel.

If a novel can be described as “a prose work of a certain length that holds one’s interest and ends well,” Markson’s book certainly qualifies.

Perhaps the most curious example of an accidental book (or maybe it’s better to say a book in spite of itself) is The Book of Disquiet, by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa—or rather by Bernardo Soares, one of Pessoa’s dozen or so “heteronyms”—the fictional alter-egos to whom he assigned credit for nearly everything he wrote.

I am always astonished when I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My instinct for perfection should inhibit me until I get started. But I distract myself and do it. What I achieve is a product in me, not by applying my will but by giving into it. I begin because I’m not motivated to think; I conclude because I haven’t the nerve to leave off. The book is my act of cowardice.

In fact no one wrote The Book of Disquiet, since it was never a book; it is a volume of fragments pieced together in different editions by various editors from thousands of scrawled paper scraps discovered in a trunk after Pessoa’s death. As for the arrangement of the fragments, since the scraps came with no instructions for assembly, that has been left to posthumous hands. All that’s certain is that a book was intended, and that its title was—and remains—The Book of Disquiet.

nov·elnävəl/ Noun: A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. Adjective: New or unusual in an interesting way: “a novel idea.”

But—is it a novel? Since its author never really succeeded in writing it, is it even a book?

In The Crack-Up (another unclassifiable book assembled from fragments by his friend Edmund Wilson after the author’s death), Fitzgerald defines genius as the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts in the mind at once. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, on the other hand, makes clear that—genius or no—certain pairs of physical properties cannot be simultaneously known. Specifically, it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the position and momentum of an electron or any other subatomic particle with any degree of certainty.

It might be argued that Heisenberg’s Principal is the fundamental theorem behind postmodern literature: nothing is certain, everything is subjective. At best the “truth” is like that point on the distant horizon where the railroad tracks appear to merge: the closer we get to it, the more it eludes us. And yet it makes for good sport.

V. Oulipo & Copia

With respect to literature and in particular to the novel, the implications of the Heisenberg Principle can’t be overestimated. It comes down to this: we no longer live in a Newtonian world that exists independently of whether or not we observe it. The notion of causality—the idea that any future actions or outcome can be known or predicted—is thereby challenged, and with it the very basis of the plotted novel wherein one event unfolds into another through a seemingly casual sequence that is in fact strictly the product of causation (“The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”) What makes a traditional novel satisfying is this underlying causal relationship between events. Take that away, and what’s left? According to George Perec, among others, plenty:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pin it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp — fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? —a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign—but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Read the above paragraph. Notice anything peculiar about it, apart from what’s being described? The passage is from the English translation of Perec’s masterpiece, “La Disparation,” or A Void. As you have so astutely observed, what is missing or avoided here is the letter ‘e.’ For its entire 300-page length, that most popular vowel is nowhere to be found. Bear in mind, by the way, that what we have here is a rendering in our language of the original French version by Gilbert Adaire, and so this tour de force has been carried out not only once, but twice.

Perec belonged to a group of French experimental authors who went by the word “Oulipo,” an anagram for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature.” This group, founded by Raymond Queuneau, was particularly interested in constraints as a means of triggering ideas and inspirations. Looked at in the broadest sense, every literary genre, from haiku to novel, functions this way: as soon as we decide to write in one form, we’re restricted from writing in any other. According to the Oulipo gang this is not only a good thing, but what makes literature not only challenging, but worth the struggle.

The constraints of existing forms not sufficing, the Oulipos set about concocting their own often bizarre restraints, such as that of omitting the most popular of all vowels in any Arabic language. Such practices give off a whiff of sado-masochism, along with attendant images of leather whips, harnesses, handcuffs, and other restraining devices.

Not all Oulipo constraints are as bizarre and extreme as the ones Perec imposed on himself. In his book, Exercises in Style, Perec’s mentor Raymond Queuneau takes us through 99 permutations of a banal story: that of a man who encounters the same stranger twice on the same day, first on a bus, then in the St. Lazare Train station. Offered below is just one of those permutations, #13 (“Telegraphic”):


Each variation demonstrates a different rhetorical strategy, from Cross Examination to Olfactory to Antiphrasis to Zoological, and so on. You may recall that in Flaubert’s Parrot Julian Barnes adopts a different rhetorical strategy for each chapter. Joyce does the same in Ulysses. The difference here is that the substance of each chapter or section remains identical; only the rhetorical method changes.

You wouldn’t think Queneau’s book would lend itself to a comic book, would you? Well, it has. In 99 Ways to Tell a Story, graphic novelist David Madden pays homage to Queneau’s book.

In fact both Mr. Madden and Mr. Queneau are paying homage to a long-departed forbear, namely Desiderius Erasmus, who in Chapter 33 of his De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia, a rhetorical guide written in 1512, advances 195 variations on the sentence, “Your letter pleased me greatly,” a fraction of which are reproduced in translation here:

Your letter mightily pleased me.
To a wonderful degree did your letter please me.
Me exceedingly did your letter please.
By your letter was I mightily pleased.
I was exceeding pleased by your letter.
Your epistle exhilarated me intensely.
I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle.
Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure.
Your affectionate letter brought me unbelievable pleasure.
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines.
We derived great delight from your excellency’s letter.
From my dear Faustus’ letter I derived much delight.
In these Faustine letters I found a wonderful kind of delectation.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
I was singularly delighted by your epistle.
To be sure your letter delighted my spirits!
Your brief missive flooded me with inexpressible Joy.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
Your epistle afforded me no small delight.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.
Your epistle was delightful to a degree.
Your letter affected me with extraordinary gladness.
As a result of your letter I was affected with singular gladness.
Your epistle was the great joy to me.
Your missive was to me a very great delight.
Your epistle was an incredible joy to me.
How exceedingly agreeable did we find your epistle!
You could scarce credit with relief I find your missive.
Your epistle was to us one of great delightfulness.
Your letter was very sweet to me.
Your letter was the source of singular gladness.
Your letter made me positively jump for joy.

VI. Postmodern Postschmodern

Which begs the question: does our postmodern literary era give us any real claim to work that is truly one-of-a-kind, without forbears, sui generis? Is there any such thing as a thoroughly unclassifiable work? Or, to put it more charitably, aren’t all truly great works of art to some extent unclassifiable? And, if they aren’t, shouldn’t they be?

David Shields would say yes. Shields is the author of Reality Hunger, subtitled, a Manifesto, in which he—in collaboration with dozens of other authors whose words he appropriates—argues for the death of the novel, a superannuated form incapable of rendering—let alone engaging with— contemporary reality, and in favor of new, hybrid genres (like literary bricolage, of which his book is an example). According to Shields and his book’s 618 numbered passages, the novel, with its contrived armature of linear cause and effect, is hopelessly unsuited to a Heisenbergian world, in which uncertainty is the only certainty, and in which “anything processed by memory is fiction.” A fragmented world, Shields and his retinue of unwitting (and non-compensated) coauthors go on to argue, demands fragmented forms, new forms arrived at by bending, breaking, and shattering traditional ones. Undergraduates everywhere will be happy to learn that Mr. Shields also advocates plagiarism or “sampling,” arguing that this is something artists in every medium have always done, and that the present-day stigma owes far more to capitalism and copyright law than to intellectual or artistic considerations.

As a spokesman for the postmodern, Shields is brilliant; but his arguments are fatuous. It’s not reality that we hunger for: how can it be, when the very word “reality” is so unstable it has to be restrained by quotation marks? To the extent that the word means anything at all, “reality” is what we’ve had more than enough of lately in TV shows like Big Brother and Survivor, thank you very much.

What we hunger for—as writers, anyway—isn’t “reality” or “originality,” but authenticity. However cleverly packaged and hyped, there’s nothing new in Shields’s book, and his death knell for the novel rings as hollow as his claim that there’s something new under the postmodern sun. When Emerson made the same pronouncement a century and a half ago, it was already old news.

To be sure it would have been old news in 1691, the year Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. If ever there was a sui generis work of literature, Melancholy is it, with subjects ranging from doctrines of religion to military discipline to the morality of dancing schools, all parsed through a multitude of perspectives by way of direct quotation, though not always attributed. Which is to say: sampled. On the surface, Burton’s book is a medical textbook; scratch that surface and it’s everything but, its nominal subject merely a life-support system for digressions in much the same way that the subject of a painting is the artist’s excuse for arranging and exploring shapes and colors.

Hence the brave new “unclassifiable” book that Shields urges upon us with his manifesto had already been written nearly 400 years ago, proving—if proof is needed—that postmodernism is neither “modern” nor “post,” and returning us, “by commodious vicus of recirculation,” back to where we started, to: “There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea . . .”

VII. Last Words

The hallmark of a great work of art is its ability not to touch our familiar emotions, but to generate unfamiliar combinations or juxtapositons of familiar ones. Whether these fresh juxtapositions are achieved by way of substance or form isn’t the point. To argue, as Shields does, that substance must give way to form, that conventional genres like the novel are inadequate to conveying “reality,” is not only besides the point, it’s nonsense, since the novel never pretended to convey any reality other than its own.

In novels as nowhere else, form and substance have always been—and will always be—inseparable, with each particular novel dictating its own substance and shape. There is no such single entity called “the novel” for Shields or anyone else to murder by decree or manifesto; only a myriad of individual creations, each shaped to various degrees by its own motives ands constraints.

As for the last words on formal originality and postmodernism, I leave those to Charles Bukowski:

. . . as the SPIRIT wanes
the FORM appears.

And with that, kind reader, our unclassifiable tour ends. I put down my book, switch off the lamp, and go to bed. Good night!


“Unclassifiable” Works Cited:

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. (1621)

De Maistre, Xavier. Voyage Around My Room. (1794)

Dyer, Goeff. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. New York: Picador, 2009.

Erasmus, Desiderius. De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia. (1512)

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Crack-Up. Ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1993.

Joyce, James, Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare $ Co., 1922.

Lichtenburg, Georg. The Waste Books. Trans: R.J. Holligndale. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2000.

Madden, David. 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. New York: Chamberlain Bros., 2005.

Markson, David. This is Not a Novel. New York: Counterpoint, 2001.

Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press, 1961.

Perec, Georges. A Void (La Disparation). Trans: Gilbert Adaire. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet. Trans: Richard Zenith. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Psalmanazar, George. An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. (1704)

Queuneau, Raymond. Exercises in Style. Trans: Barbara Wright. New York, New Directions, 1981.

Sebald, W.G.. The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn). Trans. Michael Hulse. New York: New Directions, 1999.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Trocchi, Alexander. Cain’s Book. New York: Grove Press, 1960.

Vicens, Josefina, The Empty Book, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1992.

Vila-Matas, Enrique. Bartleby & Co.. Trans. Jonathan Dunne. New York: New Directions, 2007.

[1] James Richardson in his foreword to Signposts to Nowhere, by Yahia Lababidi.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, as well as two novels, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. He teaches at Georgia College and State University and at Antioch University's graduate writing program.