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An Archipelago of Gardens in the Expanded Field of Fiction: Three New Books by 11:11 Press (2020)

Bidding farewell to a difficult 2020 and welcoming a more hopeful 2021, Equus Press’ very own David Vichnar has penned a series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to three of their most recent & interesting titles. In the first instalment, the focus is on Minneapolis-based 11:11 Press

Elisa Taber’s An Archipelago in a Landlocked Country is a fictional(ised) fieldwork conducted in Neuland (a Mennonite colony in Paraguay) and Cayim ô Clim (the neighbouring Nivaklé settlement). The backdrop is the Gran Chaco, an isolated region of grassland and thorny forest that extends over the Paraguayan-Argentinian border.

As pointed out by Joseph Schreiber, the area explored in Taber’s book is one with a rich geopolitical history of displacement, colonisation, persecution: “Home to the Nivaklé peoples for centuries, the area was opened up to outsiders in the early part of the twentieth century […], German-speaking Russian Mennonites from Canada who [… were] fleeing prosecution in the Soviet Union. The community was initially home exclusively to women and children.” This is the region where the author was born and left soon afterwards, and where she decided to return twenty-three years later in order to attempt a “lyric ethnography,” designed to capture its rich pasts and presents through recording, observation, fiction, and myth.

This is done in three generically distinct parts: Part I, “Asunción to Neuland, via Filadelfia”, presents descriptions of thirty-second films shot en route to the heart of Paraguay (in Asunción, Filadelfia, and finally Neuland); Part II, “Cayim ô Clim”, are short stories based on “metonymic translations” of Nivaklé myths; and Part III, “La Paz del Chaco Street,” is a novella that mythologises the life of Agatha, an eccentric third-generation Mennonite woman disgruntled and disturbed by societal restrictions and norms. The narrative draws to a close with a climactic scene of Agatha’s birth-giving: “Her name is Concepción. It means conception. […] If an animal can care for a woman, the earth, wind, water, and fire can pity their child” (192). 

Thus we move from the ekphrasis of the visual to the translation of the textual and on to a creation of personal mythology and a “conception” of new writing that is, we are to understand, Taber’s own book. The main interesting idea behind this segmentation, the publisher’s blurb informs, is that “these three parts are not meant to be read in order,” their “hypertext” gesturing “towards the omitted films and translations.”

This structure further points to absent presences, to silences and undoing, how Taber’s text is a woven texture of various cultural threads that overlap and intersect while remaining distinct and in constant process of reweaving—just as every story is told only in order to be retold, and retold again. This “unweaving” technique is inspired by ñandutí—a spider web pattern created by unravelling threads from a fabric: “Threads so thin and woven so tight they are invisible. Single vertical strands stem from the dense center. Filaments intertwining over and below them are missing. Single horizontal threads intersect” (103). 

In this interplay between weaving and unweaving may lie the “tactile quality” that Joseph Schreiber discerns in the “execution” of Taber’s stories and the “striking precision” in which they are arranged: “The landscape is as essential as any circumstance that arises or event that occurs; the atmosphere is evoked in an insistent, poetic prose that seems to physically occupy the textual space.”

The “ethnographic” programme of Taber’s An Archipelago in Landlocked Country is twofold: it maps an exotic place from an endemic viewpoint, and experiences the contemporaneity of an ancient tradition—two seeming contradictions of terms. But the main “gift” of her book consists in fiction, not fact, and seems again contradictory: the combination of Taber’s poetic sensibility and her almost clinical, detached, cold-eyed prose with which she fine-weaves the thin threads of (hi)story.

When Pierre Guyotat’s “legendary novel of atrocity” (Stephen Barber) on the war in Algeria, Eden Eden Eden appeared 50 years ago to public uproar and immediate ban as “pornography” by the French Ministry of the Interior, it bore a short Foreword by among others Roland Barthes. As if to placate the catastrophic fallout of Guyotat’s obscene and brutal text, Barthes introduced it as “a free text: free of all subjects, of all objects, of all symbols, written in the space (the abyss or blind-spot) where the traditional constituents of discourse […] would be superfluous.” In an elegant critical copout that only someone like himself could pull off, Barthes insisted that the natural consequence of such “freedom” is that it leaves criticism with nothing left to do, “unable to discuss the author, his subject, or his style”.

In the mid-90s, twenty-five years after Guyotat’s “war on literature” waged in Algeria, Louis Armand travelled through Morocco & “the disputed Western Sahara”, a trip which gave rise to notebooks that furnished the basis for The Garden (Salt, 2001). Another twenty-five years later, Armand produced The Garden: Director’s Cut, a complete, unexpurgated edition of his own Maghrebi “ransacking of literary & theological pieties”. And so, when writing his short Preface to Armand’s text 50 years after Barthes’ on Guyotat, Jean Bessière again evoked “the paradox of complete freedom” in whose spirit the text should be read: “non-alienation can be expressed only by transgression and deconstruction and their opposite, the obsession with claustration and destruction.” The trick of The Garden is not to make “these references coalesce” but to “describe a constant state of Non-Being,” one which requires “not a poetics of negativity but of fragmentation and continuity” (a.k.a. cinematic “cutting”). 

The Garden reacts to Guyotat in more than just its title or form. After all, The Garden might refer to Eden Eden Eden’s textual emissions, but adapts its almost classicist pornographic approach from Hieronymus Bosch’s Earthly Delights, its clinical camera-eye is that of Derek Jarman‘s cinematic voyeurism, and its multiple references to “smells” and “waftings” are a tip of the hat to Shaykh Nefzawi’s The Perfumed Garden. Nor can their relation be reduced to just the shared form of a single 100plus-page sentence. Here Armand goes even a step further than Guyotat, removing all punctuation and letting the ampersand function as the only segmenting device. 

But what is most interesting about the relation between Armand’s and Guyotat’s books lies beyond both their titles and their forms. Importantly, like Guyotat but in quite its own way, The Garden also does away with such “traditional constituents of discourse” as (quoth Barthes) “the one who speaks, the events recounted, the way they are expressed.” Armand’s is “a chimerical tale of disorientation and lust” (Pam Brown) that follows two figures and a voice: a woman M, who is dead (and quite possibly “M for murdered”), a man, and one endlessly rambling voice that keeps fragmenting and reuniting their “stories”. Before forming itself as a subjectivity, M appears “physically” on the page, as a letter-character just born: “a dislocated ampersand or a bruised M tipped on its side or a semilegible Phrygian Phoenician Greek Σ or a K for kafir monogrammed on a piece of bloody sackcloth” (2), but soon the letter comes to signify an entire universe:

M for mute for ma mère for morte for migraine morphine misery for money machine mantra myxoma malaria for mongrel melanoma macabre morbid mandragora for mastectomy for meanness martyr mastoid for moaning bitchbody for missed messiah for manhole for Mam’selle X mindwash & milk of human miserliness for momentary marred mutilated for all the malediction & menace & melodrama (4)

Some of this is universal, but some of this is markedly part of a woMan’s universe: not just the mastectomy & milk of miserliness, but more importantly the migraine misery, the martyrdom, and the mutilated malediction. 

The Garden is, by its own admission, “by turns excoriating & lyrical, political & pornographic,” but most of its “blasphemous ransacking” is directed at the institutionalised, ideological and discursive, as well as starkly physical misogyny perpetr/uated by the legions of huMANity’s religions. M for “misogyny,” then: “because a woman must have a hole of her own if she’s not to be a work of pure fiction” (53).  The primal story of the Garden of Genesis, after all, is a whodunnit with the culprit all too clear. And so Armand’s M in The Garden keeps escaping and coming back to the “Eternal Punishment she’d been secretly longing for from the moment she exited the womb” (31), the punishment of all the ill-chosen-ones of “being thus honoured above all women to be the receptacle of His rapture” (20), “the women of Allah their screams” (84). 

“Blasphemous” is the mode in which The Garden is at its best, as it allows Armand to combine his “political pornography” with his critique of religious misogyny in some savagely hilarious metaphorics, as when “a single prophylactic” is described as “tantamount to the whole nation’s reproductive industry going out on strike” (17), or when M catches herself

thinking of all the women of mythology abducted by aliens in the throes of some erotic disorder one minute they’re having their brains fucked out by a hirsute Lesbian the next they’re in a plexiglass cocoon in Allah’s private space laboratory (41)

And Allah of course is not the only one who comes in for blame. Armand’s materiality of the word also extends into a Joycean blasphemy of the literalism of some of the Scriptures’ canonical magic tricks:

what a travesty Jesus-Lazarus must’ve been with his wormy flyblown stigmata they never paint Him like that planted atop Golgotha that time of year all the blood & unloosed bowels of the crucified wafting on the airwaves to any among the faithful of Judea with a nose to smell by (48)

Back to Barthes, then: although left by his own admission with “no way of taking hold” of Guyotat’s text, he nevertheless did call it “a historical shock” which gathers up “the whole of an earlier evolution of writing”, the underbelly of the French tradition “from Sade to Genet, from Mallarmé to Artaud”, only one which is devoid of “Story” or “Sin” and leaves us “simply with language and lust”. Armand’s is an important book in that it leaves us with both of these couplings, while allowing for the experience, not of “a historical shock,” but of a shock of history. It cuts across so-called humanity’s history of sin (a.k.a. the history of its women) in a lustful language that literally “stops at nothing.”

Collected Voices in the Expanded Field (CVITEF) is a “collectively written novel” composed by 34 distinct authors, with each contributor beginning “with the same eleven words: You see a watering hole. Reprieve from the old dusty path.” Taking it from there, each writer works in unison with the chapters around them to generate their own variation on the theme. One could easily fall into the trap of genre nit-picking, belabouring the many counts on which CVITEF does (not) fit under the rubric of “the novel.” Jeff Vande Zande’s commentary on the collection has already attempted that, and got no further than the rather obvious etymological link between “the novel” and “novelty.”

More productive would be to take the opening gambit of “the old dusty path” on which the texts seek their “watering hole” as a metaphor for the “old dusty” genealogy of traditional novel-writing and contextualise CVITEF as a “reprieve” therefrom. CVITEF is a “novel” only in the looping sense of textual recursion as practiced by some of the French “nouveaux romanciers” and on full display in such repetitive texts as Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style and Giorgio Manganelli’s Centuria. The editors’ preface speaks of “remixing” and likens the collection to a “sample mix-album” of the pre-MySpace age. Its very sketchy premise of a “narrative situation” & general thematic framework is broad enough for individual writers to “do their thing.” 

To take but a few “samples” from the early chapters: Right into the middle of the “nauseating static topography of this landscape” (22), Mike Corrao’s Chapter One throws “a duffel bag of VHS tapes” with which to meditate “on a fabricated landscape” (21) by means of textual concretism reminiscent of his Man Oh Man and Gut/Text (also by 11:11 Press). As his chapter carries out its process of fabricating and meditating, the text turns back on itself and becomes a reflective, sentient thing—in other words, alive: “THE VOID SUFERS A YOU-SHAPED HOLE WHERE SOMETHING NOW EXISTS” (19).

Grant Maierhofer’s Chapter Two deals, as so many of his stories and novels (collected recently in Works, also by 11:11), with a wounded, traumatised physicality: “You took the point of your thumb and started to push it into the infected bit of flesh there on your leg there, it felt like cracked painting on the wall and you mashed your fingernail and skin into the warm wet center of it and moved it around” (26). The “old dusty path” has left the body “wrong”, aching and in agony, and Maierhofer’s second-person “you”-protagonist’s subjectivity is reduced to a present “minor moment” of pain and fatigue, and to a past of “a family left behind, work left behind” (27). An existentialist nakedness that recalls some of the best Bleach stories as well as “X” from his Postures.

Elisa Taber’s Chapter Four features a female protagonist Piedad recalling and imaginatively revisiting her childhood home in the “buried city” of Alunizaje, in the company of the apparition of her long-dead mother Ilusión. This is a narrative premise and story-telling technique familiar to the readers of Archipelago, but Taber’s instalment still manages to strike the surprising note: “Don’t feel, act mad” is the mother’s exhortation, and “There is no inside”—a line remembered from Archipelago (p. 186), but here with an added layer: a final reminder that dreams and memories are their textual surface (43).

Finally, Germán Sierra’s Chapter Seven takes the incipient “watering hole” as a VR and videogame “reprieve” from the “old dusty path” of the body’s “producing machine” (66). Sierra’s hyper-tech, posthuman, dronological surrealism meditates on the ways of overcoming the human embodied biological machinism in an age of “DNA cell hacking” (73) by stringing together disjointed surrealist images so radical as to outdo even the most far-out passages in his earlier Artifact. “Pleasure is a hell of fanged numbers, a shell of code. Space and time are computers. I am a graveyard of scribes. Reprieve from the old dusty path. You see a watering hole. Jump inside” (74).

This is an important book in chiefly two ways. It offers a unique collection of 34 “portals of discovery” into a panoply of the chief contemporary proponents of experimental writing, “sampling” their styles and leading the reader on to further, and more detailed, personalised explorations. But the whole is also more than the sum of its parts, offering a fresh new spin on the “obsolete” notion of the “novel-genre” by placing it in the context of the avant-garde practices of recursion, looping, and collective creativity.  

The next instalment of this series will be devoted to Inside the Castle.

© David Vichnar, 2020

About Equus Press

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

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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
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