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WHOSE AFRAYED OF CHRISTINE BROOKE-ROSE? (2)

OR, TRIBUTE TO THE GREAT BRITISH ENIGMA (Part 2)

There is much usefulness in taking the following remark made by the author herself as a possible key to understanding Brooke-Rose’s fiction:

I deal in discourses, in the discourses of the world, political, technological, scientific, psychoanalytical, philosophical, ideological, social, emotional, and all the rest, so that knowledge to me is not an extraneous element I can put in or withhold at will, it is discourse, it is language […] the source of most of my comic effects is the grafting together, or onto each other, of all these different discourses […] Discourse comes from Latin discurrere, to run here and there. It has today become whole sets of rigid uses, and I am trying to make it run here and there again.[1]

What this key opens, for Sarah Birch – author of the pioneering and highly useful critical study on Brooke-Rose’s fiction – is access to the common denominator of all Brooke-Rose’s fiction: “the prismatic effect of viewing one field of knowledge, one language, or one culture through the discursive lens of another, and the idea of crossing between cultural domains is manifest in her novels as a structural principle.” To this I would merely add that more often than not, this crossing between linguistic domains takes place on the basis of Brooke-Rose’s employment of the technique of the (multilingual) pun – in which lies the strongest strand in her otherwise rather tenuous link to the late James Joyce of Finnegans Wake. Punning is what animates her texts, what compels them to “run here and there again,” and thus presents one of the few (if not only) principles of continuity in her otherwise very diverse oeuvre.

While Out and Such deal with exploring discursive limitations and mutual incompatibilities, the science of fiction and fictionality of science, and so their experimentation remains largely on the conceptual level, Between thematises complexity of the (multi-)lingual and linguistic kind. The employment of the expressive form in Between lies in presenting both a narrative of and narrative as journey. Brooke-Rose also continues experimenting with her new narrative sentence, this time with a female centre of consciousness and new logic of narrative journey. The narrative traces the nameless protagonist (“A woman of uncertain age uncertain loyalties” [545]) whose life story locates her on the boundary between France (her French mother, dead), Germany (her German father, disappeared) and English (husband, divorced). Her vocation cements and furthers her transitional state – a simultaneous translator (French to German) who is always “between conferences.” The metaphoric networks that bind together thematic sequences are centred on two chief images: enclosure (her body afloat in the bellies of countless airplanes or huddled between the sheets in countless hotel rooms) and intercourse (her mind a crossroad where languages meet, a locus of heteroglossia) – a sustained metaphor parallels the blending of linguistic and cultural codes with sexual act:

As if languages loved each other behind their own façades, despite alles was man denkt darüber davon dazu. As if words fraternised silently beneath the syntax, finding each other funny and delicious in a Misch-Masch of tender fornication, inside the bombed out hallowed structures and the rigid steel glass modern edifices of the brain. Du, do you love me?[2]

Taking yet another direction in the last part of her second tetralogy, Brooke-Rose’s Thru carries the parodic tactics of Between a step further by turning from the discourse of culture in the wide sense to the discourse of the self-reflexive plane of metafiction, used here in reference to its definition in Patricia Waugh’s work as “not so much a sub-genre of the novel as a tendency within the novel which operates through exaggeration of the tensions and oppositions inherent in all novels: of frame and frame-break, of technique and counter-technique, of construction and deconstruction of illusion.”[3] It is perhaps this overt self-reflexivity and verbal innovativeness that links Brooke-Rose’s text to Joyce’s final opus, though to call it “an offshoot of Finnegans Wake[4] would be an overstatement disregarding its individual concerns and merits which are markedly different from those of the Wake.

If individual parodies challenge specific theories and texts by Derrida, Lacan, and French poststructuralist feminists, Thru takes as its guiding narrative tool Propp’s anatomy of folk-tales, its characters turned into variables while their functions are constants. The dynamics of reflection, so essential for all poststructuralist theory, finds its morphological enactment in the names of principal characters, not given a priori as usual, but rather generated a posteriori from within the text:

I am in fact dead, Jacques. Oh, he’s asleep. What a pity. Everything becoming clear at last. God! No! Yes! Quick, pen and paper.

ARMEL SANTORES

LARISSA TOREN

Yes! It figures. So that’s why she said about Armel not finding his ME in her and she not finding her I. Why the names are anagrams. Except for Me in hers and I in his. Am I going mad? Help! (647)

While it would of course be reductive to claim an exclusively Joycean heritage for these and other textual effects, it is easy to see how they have originated in the multifarious discourses of French poststructuralism, which had been crafted, explicitly and consciously, within the sphere of Joyce’s influence – see, e.g. the “Lacanian” pun that renders syntagmatics as “SIN TAG MA TICKS” (581). Significantly, Brooke-Rose avails herself of a strategy whose genealogy stretches as far back as Freud (even though, in Thru, Lacan is a far more pervasive presence) and whose potential for literature has been best exploited by Joyce – the pun. As Brooke-Rose explicitly states in the text, “the pun is free, anarchic, a powerful instrument to explode the civilization of the sign and all its stable, reassuring definitions, to open up its static, monstrous logic of expectation into a different dialectic with the reader” (607). Hence, again, the aims and uses of Brooke-Rose’s employment of the technique are decidedly her own and not derivative from Joyce’s. She is far more concerned with how the workings of the pun undermine scientific, theoretic discourse, or indeed the claims of univocity of discourse as such. While destabilising and dissolving the realist idea of “character,” Brooke-Rose novelises the supposedly distanced and logical position of “theory” and shows it to be a function of desire, an endless, for circular, dissemination of meaning. Thru ends as it by necessity must do: within the dissemination of possible endings, the story finally “tells itself,” and the final words of the narrator are written acrostically into the narration: “exeunt narrators with a swift switch of signifiers no more I superimposing” (735).

Amalgamemnon presents a striking departure from Brooke-Rose’s trademark third-person narrative sentence, as practiced so far, in favour of a first-person narrative. However, another constraint surfaces: the entire narrative is written in the future and conditional tenses, the subjunctive or imperative moods – i.e. in some “non-realising” form (tense or mood): future, conditional, hypothetical, etc., the preterite being, it will be remembered, the sign of official recorded history, and thus evaded in Brooke-Rose’s aesthetics. The “situation” of the narrative is Joycean enough – a woman lying in bed next to her sleeping/snoring partner/lover, entertaining herself in her insomnia by impersonating several major prophetic voices in the history of Europe. The woman is Professor Mira Enketei, who, in view of the impending termination of her academic career of a classics professor, “mimages” herself as many other characters, in order to engage in a broad reflection on the possible futures of humanity. Thus, the constraint is in full service of mimesis and ideological thrust of the text: Brooke-Rose stages a prophecy, a mock-ancient oracle with which to divine the future on the basis of diagnosing the present, an amalgamation palpable from the very start:

I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero. […] Who will still want to read at night some utterly other discourse that will shimmer out of a minicircus of light upon a page of say Agamemnon returning to his murderous wife the glory-gobbler with his new slave Cassandra princess of fallen Troy who will exclaim alas, o earth, Apollo apocalyptic and so forth, Herodotus, the Phoenicians kidnapping Io and the Greeks plagiarizing the king of Tyre’s daughter Europe, but then, shall we ever make Europe?[5]

Visibly, from the very start, Brooke-Rose’s engages in her favourite strategy – exposing scientific discourse to the destabilising fictional practices, here the discourse of computer science. In an age of 0 and 1, Brooke-Rose’s narrator suggest, “I” and “you” become as void of information content as “u” after “q,” or “you after queue.” As a classics professor, Mira has much at stake in countering the foreseen impending hegemony of computerised technology, whose pre-programming threatens to replace the function of the oracle, programming both the “foetus” and the “prophetus” into wholly predictable patterns (82-3). As a woman, her “prophersigh” assumes the voice of Cassandra (or, as she appears in the text, Sandra), consciously countering the “Father of History,” Herodotus. In her discussion of Amalgamemnon in Invisible Author, Brooke-Rose points out that “the word plagiarize […] originally meant ‘kidnap,’ and this etymological connection provides ‘an invisible pun’ in the text.”[6] From Medeia and the kidnapped Io to Willy/Wally’s (Mira/Sandra’s partner) “sexclamations” over breakfast, the very title of the novel signifies the amalgamation of women and their voices throughout the male-dominated history, mythology, and consequently imagination of the West. Just as some native Irish voices in their dramatisation in Joyce’s Wake, these voices, “foreign” to the history, are unintelligible to it. This (however partial) unintelligibility resulting from amalgamation is staged in Brooke-Rose’s, in the best Joycean fashion, already on the level of the signifier. The prophetic protagonist, (Cas)Sandra, imagines herself as a determined counterculture “graphomaniac,” who will be imprisoned for her “graffitism” (20). Portmanteau amalgamations and subversive etymologies have already been exemplified, but there are more strategies employed – for instance, the numerous détournements of clichés, often polyglotic, and often to a satirical effect: “Che sera sera, you shall see what you shall see and may the beast man wane” (30), or “On verra ce qu’on verra may the boast man whine” (52), where the narrator’s reversion of stock phrases about male competitiveness (“may the best man win”) undermines the values of the male-dominated society that has designated her as redundant. The narrator’s “prophersighs,” having traversed areas as diverse and panoramic as Greek mythology, Britain’s situation of a postcolonial post-empire, as well as (what amounts to a truly prophetic feature of Brooke-Rose’s 1984 vision) Somali famine or “budding” Arabic terrorism, ultimately returns to the domestic gender policy and power politics. As Elen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs have argued, although at the end of Amalgamemnon, Sandra is still cooking for Willy (now Wally), “she has recast and reformed history in her ‘second memory,’” and even though the stories running “through the madlanes of [her] memory” will not help her to find a job, by inscribing her presence in language, “she defies the deadening and ever-growing bureaucracy around her.”[7]

Billed as her “last novel,” Life, End Of,[8] Brooke-Rose’s fictional autobiography of her old age spent in the seclusion of the rural Provence, grapples, in Lawrence’s phrase, with “the paradoxical task of looking back in the present tense.”[9] Poignant and painfully candid in its depiction of mental and physical senescent deterioration, Life, End Of is also Brooke-Rose’s reflection on post-2001 global politics, literature and culture. The physical decline, cardio-vascular troubles plaguing the nameless narrator, works its way into language as a process of linguistic punning variation on the name of Vasco da Gama: “Vasco de Harmer” (11), “Qualmer” (20), “Charmer” (36), “Harmer” (59), “Balmer” (88), “Alarmer” (92), “Lamer” (103) and finally, “Cardio-vasco-de-gamma-totale” (111) and “Vasco da Drama” (118). Hand in hand with physical decay goes the narrator’s binarisation of the humans around her into T.F.’s (“True Friends”) and O.P.’s (“Other People”): “O.P. also means Old People. Over-sensitive People. Otiose, Obdurate, Obsolete People. Outrageous, obtuse, obstreprous [sic], ostracised. All of which bring one Person into line: Oxhead Person, Oxymoronic Person” (43). O.P.’s are desensitised doctors as well as former True Friends alienated, over time and long-divergent paths: “Omega People that’s what we are. O.P. or not O.P., that is the question. There is rarely any doubt. Real O.P.s are striking, whatever the efforts to drag the eyelids down over their insensitivity” (48). However, together with the growing awareness of her own self-alienation comes the realisation that “everyone is someone’s O.P. that’s hardly news” (91). Interspersed within these are reflections on contemporary politics and state of society and thought, marked by scepticism toward American world supremacy (“The Unilateral States of America? So generous sixty years ago and so polite. Perhaps it’s the long worsening process observed in every empire until it falls.” [50]) and suspicion of the current “post-” vogue:

the correct euphemism now is post-, new and therefore better: post-human for instance, heard the other day. But that will at once be confused with posthumous, as of course it should be, human becoming humus. […]

Is that the radio voice?

But isn’t the whole O.P. story the same? Who speaks?

Ah, the twentieth century question. In fact, since you ask, nobody speaks.

Don’t be silly. (64)

Brooke-Rose’s narratological obsession drives her to deliver, from a character to an uninterested author, a last mock-technical lecture on free indirect discourse and the importance of narratorless present-tense sentence – accepting that experiments in narrative are like pain-killers – actively combating the smarting dullness of convention – and that, like life, they have no ultimate purpose beyond themselves. It is a resignation both saddening and ultimately at odds with Brooke-Rose’s lifelong project, in which an experimental technique was always harnessed to a broader ethical concern – as Karen Lawrence has observed, for Brooke-Rose, “new fictional techniques are needed to represent the cultural narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, narratives that must capture heightened constraint and loss.”[10] The experienced loss, here, is that of fitness for life, for writing, and ultimately, the impending loss of life and writing itself: “The typing, once touch-typing and swift, slows down to a beginner’s speed. And even then produces five typos and three squashed intervals per line, costing each time two whole minutes to correct and creating another non-access: writing” (111). The only comic relief – now that physical there is none – comes through language: the tragedy of losing veiled in the comedy of regaining, of redoing language anew by means of punning. Thus, narrator’s polyneuritis requiring treatment on the basis of polyketone polymers becomes “Polly New Writis” and “Polly Kettleon” (88), the haemorrhage of her eyes, the ophthalmological “infarctus” (“How can the eye have a heart-attack? Because it loves, it loves” [117]) gives rise to the chilling farewell note: “Eye eye, bye bye, die die, eye. I? Why?” (118). Despair is accentuated and poignancy escalated as the text draws to a close and life to its end:

Those earth-plugged body bits seem less strong, as indeed body bit by body bit is slowly being killed off, except for the brain, and humour, so far an uplift out of that scrambled ego, because of the wholly captivating groundless ground, the extenuated earth the untrue world the ominous planet the hazy galaxy the lying universe. (119)

However, then, remembering that Descartes deemed the pineal gland to be the seat of the soul, the “scrambled ego” uplifts itself through humour, adding the concluding comments: “Dehors before the cart, after all. A cruising mind, as against the mere word-play fun. Meanwhile: Les jeux de maux sont faits” (119). A supremely ambiguous coda: Decartes putting dehors before de cart, Brooke-Rose pitting her “cruising mind” against the “mere world-play fun.” As it was in the beginning, in the end there will also be the pun: the evil bets having been placed (cf. the French les jeux sont faits), and body bit by body bit killed off, Brooke-Rose adds her own consummatum est:her very last words, quite emblematically, a French pun: les jeux de maux implying les jeux des mots, wordplays. Multilingual punning and discursive amalgamation, then, remain up until the very last instance Brooke-Rose’s means of inscribing her own presence, her own signature, within language: a signature equally unique and idiosyncratic as it is – and must be – repeatable and recognisable.

Brooke-Rose’s variegated oeuvre presents the most sustained continuation of modernist experimentation with the many levels of fictional narrative discourse and the aesthetic-political implications of style. As opposed to her marginalisation within the canon of contemporary fiction, a reading of Brooke-Rose’s work in its own right may suggest its potentially paradigmatic status in that virtually all of the chief thematic and stylistic concerns of post-war fiction are present here in a blend at once indefinable and most intriguing. The benefit of resisting critical pigeonholes and eluding classification is the power of Brooke-Rose’s works to remain challenging, surprising, alive. Dealing with Brooke-Rose’s signature (her presence as writer in language), it has largely been the recognisability of some of its features within certain aesthetic traditions and programmes that canonical criticism has preferred to focus on. Perhaps the time has come, now that the signer has passed away and presence has turned into absence, for us to recognise its uniqueness.

[1] Christine Brooke-Rose, “Ill wit and good humour: women’s comedy and the canon,” Comparative Criticism, vol. 10, ed. E.S. Shaffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 129.

[2]Christine Brooke-Rose, Omnibus (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986) 445. All in-text references are to this edition.

[3] Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Conscious Fiction (London: Methuen, 1984) 14.

[4] Morton Levitt, Modernist Survivors: The Contemporary Novel in England, the United States, France and Latin America(Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1987) 24.

[5] Christine Brooke-Rose, Amalgamemnon (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984) 5. All in-text references are to this text.

[6] Christine Brooke-Rose, Invisible Author (Columbus: OhioStateUniversity Press, 2002) 50.

[7] Ellen G. Friedman & Miriam Fuchs, “Introduction” Breaking The Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 31.

[8]Christine Brooke-Rose, Life, End Of (Manchester: Carcanet, 2006). All in-text references are to this edition.

[9]Lawrence, Techniques for Living, 175.

[10]Lawrence, Techniques for Living, 4.

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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