Nava Renek, ed.,
Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Prose by Women Writers
(Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2008)
I haven’t inquired recently into whether there have been new developments in the court masque, but a case can be made that no art form today is more conservative in its general formal tendencies than fiction writing. More demanding to consume than more passively experienced visual or aural art forms, and for the most part mass-produced by subsidiaries of entertainment conglomerates who more and more insist on bottom-line profits, so much fiction today is so plainly moribund that the “truth is more interesting” camp now has adherents even among creative writers themselves. The Ian McEwans of the world are seen carping in the press about fiction’s time having passed, while younger writers flock to writing programs to learn how to “turn trauma into treasure,” to quote the come-on from one recent creative nonfiction workshop.
In such a climate, it isn’t surprising that alternative, innovative, or “experimental” fiction suffers from an identity crisis. What precisely defines experimental—or here, “XXperimental”—fiction, besides unpublishability? Who practices it, and to what end? Does no audience exist for it because of its difficulty, or because its questions aren’t relevant enough to waste one’s time? What concerns separate it from commercial writing? Are these concerns, as this new anthology of prose by women writers suggests, linked particularly to questions of gender?
Wreckage of Reason includes works by newbies and by such well-regarded authors as Fanny Howe, Cris Mazza, Kass Fleisher, and Aimee Parkison. A great many of the contributions to this volume not only create new fictive structures, but have the genuine power to transport, as in this kaleidoscopic paragraph from “N,” by Shelley Jackson:
Is a written document a conversation? Is a hand-print? Music played to crates in cargo bays—conversation? Is a hardball reported to a bat? Is blood suggested to the heart? Do Spring showers disclose flowers? Does a dress address, linens lie? Does a bottom cite a seat? Does light debate night? Is tomorrow a comeback to today?
“N” imagines in its first lines a rivalry between chain retailers “Judas ‘N’ Things” and “Bed Bath and Jesus.” In this excerpt, Jackson makes her prose rhetorical, arguing interrogatively that categories that seem separate can have previously unseen adherences (“Does a dress address”) once we attend to the role language plays in calling realities into being. This is merely one of many propositions in these refractive sentences. Use of the verb “disclose,” for instance, suggests a reasoning intelligence behind the things of this world, especially in the context of a Christian spin-off story, but one which perhaps might as readily hide its truths as reveal them.
A further understanding of what helps constitute the practice of experimental fiction is suggested in Jackson’s endnote to this story:
“N” is composed entirely of words recycled from the front page (both sides) of the New York Times from April 7, 2006. In the news that day was the so-called “Judas Gospel” alleging that Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted ally, to betray him. One word has been added.
One of the strategies employed by such writing is, in the traditions of 20th-century surrealist and Oulipo movements, actual “experiment”: putting into operation a defined process to see what will result. While this technique by no means dominates this collection, it does appear in several works in several guises. Alexandra Chasin’s “They Come From Mars,” the final piece in the book, is a brilliant example, using only four-letter units to create proliferating meanings in a computer-code-like grid of words:
Then they walk pour flow ooze down town Rows upon rows flow folk from Mars rows upon rows like ants Dont obey when City Hall says dont Then wewe spec they want fear they want take over take over Wewe spec fear that what they want they want
Another visible strain in this collection is activist politics, positioned against worldwide consumer-capitalist-driven military solutions. In “Daguerreotype of a Girl,” Lidia Yuknavitch meditates on an imagined photograph called up off the white page, and reflects on violence as the assumed, eternal condition subjugating women’s imaginations. Debra DiBlasi juxtaposes the horrors of violence in contemporary Africa with another kind of horror, the vapidness of American culture: celebrity dating, toy dog accessorizing, liposuction, and war euphemisms. Both of these pieces may fairly be called polemical, and so eschewing the “ambiguity” still held at a premium in the “realism”-oriented mainstream fiction marketplace.
But there is a greater level of complexity here encoded in the forms themselves—both Yuknavitch and DiBlasi are interested in the mechanisms of representation. For each of these writers, there is no such thing as an objective, ambiguous realism; even what purports to be simply a recording device, the journalist’s camera, delivers images that are selected based upon audience desires: “More than we are anything,” writes Yuknavitch, “we are consumers.” Language, an even trickier, more complex medium, can never be assumed simply to be yielding a direct picture of truth, such as the manufactured ambiguities of realist fiction would have us believe. Truths are always constructed, and self-conscious polemics are at least honest about the unavoidable processes of representation.
Nava Renek has done excellent work assembling this sampling of women’s experimental fictive strategies, understandings, and positions. She does this without wishing to locate what exactly is meant by “experimental,” not wishing to proscribe limits to what new forms her contributors (or readers) might themselves create: “Women are natural innovators. Their minds are nimble, accustomed to flux. By necessity, they know how to improvise and innovate....”
This position—claiming women, as innovators, produce fictions that are by necessity innovative—isn’t always tenable, as one is hard pressed to find experimentation in some of the longer selections by Geri DeLuca, Martha King, Sarah White, and Carmen Firan. And these pieces stand out all the more because of the vigorous inventions on display elsewhere: In “Intuition,” Aimee Parkison’s schoolgirl and guidance counselor perform a psychological grand opera in four brief pages. E. C. Bachner’s “Mick and Keith, Tom and Huck” is pure, hallucinatory brilliance, yielding an excitement so rich one is unsure whether one has sipped champagne or seen Jesus. In Nina Shope’s “The Women,” we see lovers role-play a history of male-determined sexual identities in prose of unrelenting power. And Kass Fleisher’s “Generation” collages line-editing, linguistic theory, orgasm, and a bad need to pee into one absolutely original text. When was the last time you heard “fiction” and “absolutely original” in the same sentence?
Were this book published by St. Martin’s or Norton, they would have slapped its contents on wider margins and packaged it for the college market at twice the cost. Except Norton or St. Martin’s would never publish this book—it’s too dangerous, wild, and singular. Wreckage of Reason gives us three dozen women authors beyond any easily marketable definition; by any description, it’s an anthology worthy of an audience and acclaim.
Ted Pelton is the author of several books, all fiction: Bhang, Endorsed by Jack Chapeau 2 an even greater extent, Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals), and the novella, Bartleby, the Sportscaster. He is also the Executive Director of Starcherone Books, and a Professor of Humanities at Medaille College of Buffalo, NY.