While dealing with the distinctions between data, knowledge and information in class, a pyramidal hierarchy was proposed, which can be seen on the left. This diagram discloses the process of making data (which have been defined as ‘facts’ which exist in the world), into information, and thereafter knowledge. These shifts from one state to another are not as neat as the diagram might suggest; it is just one interpretation giving shape to a highly dynamic and unsettled process; any movement from one of these levels to another is fraught. It is ‘a bargaining system,’ as every dataset has its limitations and aporias, not to speak of the process of interpretation or subsequent dissemination. This temporal dimension to data, its translation from a brute state is too often neglected within certain fields of study, fields in which data is more often understood as unambiguous, naturally hierarchicalised, and not open to contextualisation or debate.
The purpose of the CSO is to compile and disseminate information relating to economic and social conditions within the state in order to give direction to the government in the formulation of policy. Therefore it was decided that the most pertinent information to be derived from the dataset would be the correlations between level of education and the likelihood of falling into poverty. The results appear below.
Correlation Between Risk of Poverty and Level of Education Achieved
Correlation Between Consistent Poverty (%) and Level of Education Received
Correlation Between Deprivation Rate (%) and Level of Education Received
Poverty Risk Based on Education Level
Deprivation Rate Based on Education Level
Consistent Poverty Rate based on Education Level
It can be seen that there is a very strong negative correlation between one’s level of education and one’s risk of exposure to poverty; the higher one ascends through the education system, the less likely it is one will fall into economic liminality. This is borne out both in the bar charts and the correlation tables, the latter of which yield p-values of .000, underlining the certainty of the finding. It should be noted that both graphing the data, and detecting correlations through use of the Spearman’s rho are elementary statistical procedures, but as the trend revealed here is consistent with more elaborate modelling of the relationship, the parsimonious analysis carried out here is all that is required.
It should not be assumed that just because these graphs are informative that it is impossible to garner information from data in any other way. Even in its primary state, as it appears on the website, one could obtain information from a dataset through qualitative means. It is unlikely that this information will be as coherent as that which that can be gleaned from even the most basic graph, but it is important to emphasise the fact that the border that separates data from information is fluid.
It is unlikely to be a novel finding that those who have a third level education have higher incomes than those who do not; there is a robust body of research detailing the many benefits of attending university.  Therefore, can it be said that the visualisation of the dataset above has contributed to knowledge? One would answer this question relative to one’s initial research question, and how the information complicates or advances it. If the causal relationship between exposure to poverty and level of education has been confirmed, and a government agency makes the recommendation that further investment in educational support programmes are necessary, it is somewhere in this process that the boundary separating information from knowledge has been crossed.
The above diagram actualises the temporal nature of data to a greater extent than the pyramid, but in doing so it perpetuates a linearisation of the process, a line along which René Descartes’ notion of thought could be said to align. Descartes understood thought as a positive function which tends towards the good and toward truth. This ‘good sense’, allows us to ‘judge correctly and to distinguish the true from the false’. Gilles Deleuze believes Descartes instantiates a model of thought which is oppressive, and which perceives thinking relative to external needs and values rather than in its actuality: ‘It cannot be regarded as fact that thinking is the natural exercise of a faculty, and that this faculty is possessed of a good nature and a good will.’
In Deleuze’s conception, thought takes on a sensual disposition, reversing the Cartesian notion of mental inquiry beginning from a state of disinterestedness in order to arrive at a moment at which one recognises ‘rightness’. Deleuze argues that there is no such breakthrough moment or established methodology to thought, and argues for regarding it as more invasive, or unwelcome, a point of encounter when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’
Rather than taking the neat, schematic movement from capturing data to modelling to interpreting for granted, Deleuze is engaged by these moments of crisis, points just before or just after the field of our understanding is qualitatively transformed into something different:
How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or know badly?…We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms one into the other.
Deleuze’s comments have direct bearing upon our understanding of data, and how they should be understood within the context of the wider questions we ask of them. Deleuze argues that, ‘problems must be considered not as ‘givens’ (data) but as ideal ‘objecticities’ possessing their own sufficiency and implying acts of constitution and investment in their respective symbolic fields.’ While it is possible that Deleuze would risk overstating the case, were we to apply his theories to this dataset, it is nonetheless crucial to recall that data, and the methodologies we use to unpack and present them participate in wider economies of significance, ones with indeterminate horizons.
The boldness of the title here needs to be put in check immediately, I’ve only read the Grammatology recently, and though this was the first reading where I think I made the sense of it, I still haven’t read Lévi-Strauss or Rousseau, so in actuality, my reading can g.t.f.o.
Helpfully, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak provides one of the better introductions of all time, which allows us to get underway in terms of considering style.
It could be said that Derrida’s philosophy launched a thousand styles, much to David Foster Wallace’s chagrin; his MFA students had an uncanny capacity to encourage many of them down the route of irony-poisoned multi-vocality, typographical playfulness, all in the name of his casting adrift an economy of relativised meaning, at the expense of bourgeois, post-Enlightenment certainty. This led him eventually to begin each semester by writing the names of the doyennes of deconstruction on the chalkboard, to announce ‘I’m read all these guys. You don’t need to remind me of them’.
However, we must not mistake the historicised post-structuralist movement for Derrida’s stated views on style, which, as far as I can see are unfortunately absent from the Grammatology. But, if we say that Derrida viewed the pursuit of stable meaning sceptically, it’s probable that seeking to discover a single, unified style in any textual artefact, would be likewise wrong-headed, as Spivak points out in her introduction
The desire for unity and order compels the author and the reader to balance the equation that is the text’s symptom.
A single authorial style is a romantic contrivance, and violates Derrida’s sense of textuality, which is autonomous from such concerns, and does not answer to ‘proper names.’
We know that the metaphor that would describe the genealogy of the text correctly is still forbidden. In its syntax and its lexicon, its spacing, by its punctuation, its lacunae, its margins, the historical appurtenance of a text, is never a straight line. It is neither causality by contagion nor the simple accumulation of layers. Not even the pure juxtaposition of borrowed pieces.
Of all the words in this rather dazzling paragraph, it is ‘layers’ that strikes me most forcefully, if only for the reason that ‘layers’ is the way in which I decided to envision and visualise literary data in the course of my thesis. There is a risk in giving into Derrida that one would merely come away with some nebulous kind of radical indeterminacy, rather than a constructivist paradigm, which would be more necessary in the carrying out of quantitative analytical procedures. In fact, the kind of theological everything/nothing that Derrida, ironically tends to engender, is exactly what I want to avoid.
What does stand out in this paragraph, is the text’s interconnectedness, and every part’s responsiveness to every other part. This is a key feature of Derrida’s mode of critique; in later chapters, he will locate minor, or tangential sections of Rousseau or Lévi-Strauss, minor details or afterthoughts, that reveal themselves to be the precise juncture at which their systems of thought lapse into incoherence and uncertainty. A ‘total’ view of style then, one which reveals it to be wide-ranging and prone to upset, composed on a granular level of fragmentary particles, is something that Derrida might offer us in comprehending style.
Martin Heidegger is a philosopher who had a very specific idea of the kind of philosophy he wished to practice and as such, he doesn’t make it easy for those who wish to extract something of use from his system of thought for use elsewhere, as in, for example, literary studies. His primary interest was in the nature of Being, what we might simplistically define as ontology, less simplistically, the ontology of ontology.
His style is famous for its obtuseness and difficulty, and in my own estimation, Heidegger would be less an author who demands multiple readings, than one who requires a lifetime of serious study. Unlike Nietzsche, it can hardly be said that he endorses this praxis as a proper stylistic mode. Instead, he envisioned literature, which he refers to mostly as ‘poetry’, as an extension of his own philosophical work, in establishing the nature of Being.
The only material that we can harvest from his collection of hermeneutic writings, Poetry, Language, Thought which seem relevant to literary stylistics, comes in the second chapter, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’. Enquiring into the nature of poetry involves, for Heidegger, an enquiry into its origin, in the artist and the artist’s activities. Getting to what the artist is is a difficult matter also; both seem to depend on one another as categories:
it is the work that first lets the artist emerge as a master of his art. The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist. Neither is one without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other. In themselves and in their interrelations artist and work are each of them by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both…art.
This is an unfashionable view; reflecting the increasingly social, collaborative nature of the humanities, we might increasingly wish to understand style as a likewise collaborative phenomenon, a social entity which allows for both the expression of a historical tradition and an individual idiom simultaneously.
Not for Heidegger. For him, style is somewhat beside the point, and elucidating it is a symptom of our decadent modernity, our tendency towards using things as means to ends, rather than ends in themselves. Elaborating on a text’s stylistic features, is to engage with rather facile aspects of its thingliness:
a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which…an aggregate arises. A thing…is that around which the properties have assembled.
A style in which a thing, (and I should say, he’s talking about a jug or a stone here, hardly a novel or poem) appears does not define its thingliness completely, but it definitely partakes in it. Rather than having a secure sense of style, we have an aporia, direct information on the difficulty of confronting it methodologically, because of our fallen culture. Rather than grappling with style in its actuality, we only list traits, and thereby we come to an understanding of a thing-concept, rather than thing.
In resolving this, we might construct ‘a free field to display its tingly character directly,’ in such a way that that which interposes itself between the interpreter and an understanding of thingly nature, would be set aside. Of course, Heidegger is a pessimist regarding the success of this endeavour:
There is much in being that man cannot master. There is but little that comes to be known. What is known remains inexact, what is mastered insecure…When we contemplate this whole as one, then we apprehend, so it appears, al that is — though we grasp it crudely enough.
When we think about Frederich Nietzsche and literary style, we might think of one of two things, the first being the conceptual distinction he drew in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, between the Apollonian and Dionysian modes. I won’t be pursuing this mode of analysis because I haven’t found a way to make it relevant to my own dissertation, yet, but I will draw our attention to what might be the second thing we think about which connects Nietzsche to style, and that is his own style.
Speaking purely about the only two works of Nietzsche I’ve read, Human, All too Human and Beyond Good and Evil, it can seem as though Nietzsche’s interest in style is less in dealing with the matter systematically, but more in embodying the notion, in his own epigrammatic, aphoristic and restless manner of writing, which seems, as time goes on, to become more and more pertinent to more contemporary forms of media. He’s been usefully described as a newspaper columnist or pundit (in that the philosophical antecedents he engages with he probably hasn’t read as systematically as he lets on, he was a philologist and a classicist rather than a philosopher), blogger (for the same reason) and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to say he would’ve fit in well on twitter, were I a vulgar enough character to make those sorts of analogies.
This restlessness when it comes to explicating the finer points of his work is what I mean when I say he embodies his own notion of style; by paying attention to his works’ formal strictures, or the artifice of their non-existence, we might be able to develop a more engaging model of Nietzsche’s stylistics than he can provide us with. For example, in the introduction to Human, all too Human, Ray Furness describes how Nietzsche perceives truth as feminine:
and those dogmatic souls afflicted with a terrible seriousness will be unable to woo her. A light, more elegant path is needed, a fresh and sparkling approach.
This ‘fresh and sparkling approach’ is Nietzsche’s ‘gay science’, which could be summed up as a curative to the Enlightenment project, which Nietzsche viewed as restrictive and overly systematic. As the translator says:
his preference for a darting perspectivism allows him to use dazzling contradictions to disorientate the reader and force them…to do the necessary work of weighting…and evaluating.
His commitment to a multiplicity of thought in his philosophy would encourage us to align Nietzsche’s commitment to multiperspectivalism, with a certain disposition towards multiplicity in literary style. This isn’t really an extravagant interpretation, Nietzsche is positively effusive about artists who display a capacity to be ‘on the move’ stylistically.
One author who he singles out for praise on this basis is Laurence Sterne. Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, A Gentleman, is so stylistically restless, it fails to assume any kind of stable narrative shape at all, which Nietzsche endorses unequivocally:
an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that is signifies one and the other at the same time
So his tastes are fairly obvious, multi-vocality, oscillation of the writing’s attention regarding its subject, ambiguity/irony. The reasons for this are fairly obvious, everything about Nietzsche’s thought repudiates convention and the formation of habit, which makes us overly familiar with and lax in our approaches to objects under inquiry.
Interestingly, for the purposes of my own research into modernism, Nietzsche sees plurality of styles as a modern tendency, and partially attributable to the growth in urban living. Modern iterations of literary forms will be formally restless, Nietzsche argues, as this is the new paradigm: “they [the moderns] are in all things rather too thorough to be able to settle like the men of other days.”
While I don’t think I could get away with calling Richard Wagner modernist, he was one of Nietzsche’s contemporaries, and Nietzsche regards him as pertinent in delineating the modern turn, as he saw it at the time:
This kind of music expresses best what I think of the Germans: they belong to the day before yesterday and the day after tomorrow — they have as yet no today.
Like Hans Georg-Gadamer after him, Nietzsche understood style as a reactionary force in many respects, enforcing normative standards on particular works. In Nietzsche’s estimation, pre-modern works were written for performance, for the benefit of the ear. In the modern age, a key distinguishing feature of style is its appeal to the eye. In both cases, Nietzsche regards this as having their own impediments, demonstrating that he is unlikely to commit to signing off any one kind of style as sufficient in itself, it will always be a matter of overturning, experimenting, pushing the boundaries of hegemonic categories, until they break apart.
Hans Georg-Gadamer was a philosopher working within the field of hermeneutic theory, which investigates the ways in which interpretation works, and how we come to understand things in the way that we do. He is a thinker deeply steeped in the Western philosophical tradition, but I came to him for his influence on literary theory, as Gadamer is also working within the tradition of German philology, from which Erich Auerbach, the author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature also emerge. This post will deal with his theories as they are laid out in Gadamer’s magnum opus, Truth and Method.
The first thing to know about Gadamer, is that he was a student of Martin Heidegger, which is very significant for those approaching his works. Not only does this require of us a sensitivity to their political resonance, which does, at times, veer towards justifying totalitarianism, but also allows us to detect subtle tendencies towards Heidegger’s philosophical thought, such as those on the nature of Dasein.
One of Gadamer’s objections to hermeneutics is its perceived aspiration towards practicing it objectively, or with a manner of disinterestedness. Gadamer traces this positive valuation of objectivity back to the Enlightenment, which argued for a scientificist ideology within the human sciences. One might recall Heidegger’s own vision of modern society as overly mercantilist and alienating, pursuing things for their ends, rather than treating things as ends in themselves.
If restoring the temporal angle to a work of art sounds familiar it should, as it recalls one of the most significant things Heidegger identified relating to the nature of Dasein, namely, its temporal quality, and therefore, its being in a constant state of becoming. This is ontology as process, and it is something that we as interpreters should be aiding, rather than stymieing. We should never be trying to ‘resolve’ a work of art, but open it up to further questions. It is fortunate then, that Gadamer believes that this happens automatically, in the course of a very interesting process called ‘play’, a full account of which I won’t provide here, because I’m primarily interested in Gadamer’s notion of style, which he outlines in a fairly brief appendix to Truth and Method.
Gadamer objects to the notion of style, seeing it, as any good philologist would, within a genealogy. For Gadamer, its meaning has changed over time, but in some originary sense, it owes its significance to jurisprudence, and the way in which one would conduct a trial along pre-determined lines. This manner of conducting trials led to the idea that a particular style of writing can be deployed incorrectly, in a way inappropriate to the occasion.
The romantic era brought with it a notion of style that Gadamer attributes to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose definition became more widely accepted:
An artist creates a style when he is no longer just engaged in imitation but is also fashioning a style for himself. Although he ties himself to the given phenomenon, this is not a fetter for him. He can still express himself in the process.
Therefore style is a social, collaborative phenomenon, which happens when one draws on a tradition which exerts influence over you, while maintaining one’s own idiom. However, for Gadamer, this instantiates a notion of inherency or essence that recalls the jurisprudence argument, the appropriateness of style, from which we derive its normative, or oppressively standardising vibe.
While accepting that Gadamer is dealing with this in a three-page appendix, I think his argument is slightly thin in this instance, he goes on to say that style refers to something ‘fixed’ and ‘objective’ within works of art. This notion is inscribed by the historically effected consciousness, or the wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein, which allows us to compartmentalise each epoch along straight lines, rather than doing justice to their complications and ambiguity. Classificatory approaches along the lines of style, Gadamer argues, do us no good.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
I’m always surprised when I read one of the thinkers generally, and perhaps lazily, lumped in to the general category of post-structuralist, when I find how great a disservice the term does to their work. To read Derrida, Foucault or Deleuze, is not to find a triad of philosophers who struggle to produce a coherent system via addled half-thoughts in order to deconstruct, stymie or relativise everything. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another philosopher I’ve read who displays greater attention to detail in their work than Derrida, and Deleuze, far from being a deconstructionist, presents us with painstaking and intricate schemata and models of thought. The rhizome, to take the most well-known concept associated with Deleuze and his collaborator, Félix Guattari, doesn’t provide us with a free-for-all, but an intricately worked-out model to enable further thought. Difference and Repetition is likewise painstaking, and so involved is Deleuze’s model of difference, applying it in great depth to my theory of literary style, might be something to do if one wished to be a mad person, particularly since, at an early stage in the work, he attempts to map his concepts to particular authors, such as Borges, Joyce, Beckett and Proust. But I’ll do my best.
My notion of literary style has been influenced by the fact of my dealing with the matter via computation, i.e. multi-variate analysis and machine learning. All the reading I’m doing on the subject, is leading me towards a theory of literary style founded on redundancy. When I say redundancy, I don’t mean that what distinguishes literary language from ‘normal’ language is its superfluity, an excess of that which it communicates. For the Russian formalists, this was key in defining literary language, its surfeit of meaning. I don’t like this distinction much, as it assumes that we can neatly cleave necessary communication from unnecessary communication, as if there were a clear demarcation between the words we use for their usage (utilitarian) and the words we use for their beauty (aesthetic). The lines between the two are generally blurred, and both can reinforce the function of the other. The shortcomings of this category become yet more evident when we take into account authors who might have a plain style, works which depend on a certain reticence to speak. Of course, a certain degree of recursion sets in here, as we could argue that it is in the showcased plainness of these writers that the superfluity of the work manifests itself. Which presents us with the inevitable conclusion that the definition is flawed because its a tautology; it’s excessive because it’s literary, it’s literary because it’s excessive.
My own idea of redundancy comes from a number of articles in the computational journal Literary and Linguistic Computing, the entire corpus of which, from the mid-nineties until today, I am slowly making my way through. It provides an interesting narrative of the ways in which computational criticism has evolved in these years. At first, literary critics would have been sure that the words that traditional literary criticism tends to emphasise, the big ones, the sparkly ones, the nice ones, were most indicative of a writer’s style. What practitioners of algorithmic criticism have come to realise however, is that it is the ‘particles’ of literary matter, that are far more indicative of a writer’s style, the distribution of words such as ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘said,’ which are sometimes left out of corpus stylistics altogether, dismissed as ‘stopwords,’ bandied about too often in textual materials of all kinds to be of any real use. It’s a bit too easy, with the barest dash of an awareness of how coding works, to start slipping into generalisations along the lines of neuroscience, so I won’t go too mad, but I will say that this is an example of the ways in which humans tend to identify patterns, albeit maybe not necessarily the determining, or most significant patterns, in any given situation.
We’re magpies when we read, for better or worse. When David Foster Wallace re-instates the subject of a clause at its end, a technique he becomes increasingly reliant on as Infinite Jest proceeds, we notice it, and it becomes increasingly to the fore in our sense of his style. But, in the grand scheme of the one-thousand some page novel, the extent to which this technique is made use of is statistically speaking, insignificant. Sentences like ‘She tied the tapes,’ in Between the Acts, for instance, pass our awareness by because of their pedestrian qualities, much like many other sentences that contain words such as ‘said,’ because of the extent to which any text’s fabric is predominantly composed of such filler.
In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze is concerned with reversing a trend within Western philosophy, to mis-read the nature of difference, which he traces back to Plato and Kant, and the idealist/transcendentalist tendencies within their thought. They believed in singular, ideal forms, against which the notion of the Image is pitched, which can only be inferior, a simulacrum, as they are derivative copies. Despite his model of the dialectic, Hegel is no better when it comes to comprehending difference; Deleuze sees the notion of synthesis as profoundly damaging to difference, as the third-way synthesis has a tendency to understate it. Deleuze dismisses the process of the dialectic as ‘insipid monocentrality’. Deleuze’s issue seems to be that our notions of identity, only allow difference into the picture as a rupture, or an exception which vindicates an overall sense of homogeneity. Difference should be emphasised to a greater extent, and become a principle of our understanding:
Such would be the nature of a Copernican revolution which opens up the possibility of difference having its own concept, rather than being maintained under the domination of a concept in general already understood as identical.
Recognising this would be the advent of difference-in-itself.
This is all fairly consistent with Deleuze’s sense of Being as being (!) in a constant state of becoming, an experiential-led model of ontology which doesn’t aim for essence, but praxis. It would be fairly unproblematic to map this onto literary style; literary stylistics should likewise depend on difference, rather than similarity which only allows difference into the picture as a rupture; difference should be our primary criterion when examining the ways in which style becomes itself.
Another tendency of the philosophical tradition as Deleuze understands it is a belief in the goodness of thought, and its inclination towards moral, useful ends, as embodied in the works of Descartes. Deleuze reminds us of myopia and stupidity, by arguing that thought is at its most vital when at a moment of encounter or crisis, when ‘something in the world forces us to think.’ These encounters remind us that thought is impotent and require us to violently grapple with the force of these encounters. This is not only an attempt to reverse the traditional moral image of thought, but to move towards an understanding of thought as self-engendering, an act of creation, not just of what is thought, but of thought itself.
It would be to take the least radical aspect of this conclusion to fuse it with the notion of textual deformance, developed by Jerome McGann, which is of particular magnitude within the digital humanities, considering that we often process our text via code, or visualise it, and build arguments from these simulacra. But, on a level of reading which is, technologically speaking, less sophisticated, it reflects the way in which we generate a stylistic ideal as we read, a sense of a writer’s style, whether these be based on the analogue, magpie method (or something more systematic, I don’t want to discount syllable-counts, metric analyses or close readings of any kind) or quantitative methodologies.
By bringing ourselves to these points of crisis, we will open up avenues at which fields of thought, composed themselves of differential elements, differential relations and singularities, will shift, and bring about a qualitative difference in the environment. We might think of this field in terms of a literary text, a sequence of actualised singularities, appearing aleatory outside of their anchoring context as within a novel. Readers might experience these as breakthrough moments or epiphanies when reading a text, realising that Infinite Jest apes the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, as it begins to cast everything in a new light. In this way, texts are made and unmade according to the conditions which determine them. I for one, find this to be so much more helpful in articulating what a text is than the blurb for post-structuralism, (something like ‘endlessly deferred free-play of meaning’). Instead, we have a radical, consistently disarticulating and re-articulating literary artwork in a perpetual, affirming state of becoming, actualised by the reader at a number of sensitive points which at any stage might be worried into bringing about a qualitative shift in the work’s processes of meaning making.
Another thing the novels have in common is the extent to which similarity and interconnection determine their overall structure. Skippy Dies is a novel of repetition and concealed dovetails; one notices that almost every character in a given setting, whether this be among Skippy’s friends, the teachers, or the inner-city drug-dealers, certain overlaps and congruencies play off one another throughout the novel. Skippy Dies never signals this overtly however, it’s the sort of thing that’s left for the reader to discern themselves, particularly on a second or third reading. Skippy Dies’ structure can therefore be said to resemble a network, being multiple, deferred and interconnected in obscure and subterranean ways. Interconnection in Heresies runs along a more linear or arborescent model; it could be said that if it wasn’t for Maureen giving birth to Jimmy outside of wedlock, the events of the novel, the misery and fallout that Jimmy goes on to inflict as a gangster operating between Cork and London, it is unlikely that anything in the novel would have happened at all.
Although, if we were to trace historical events in the Heresies back, we can’t or rather shouldn’t stop there, as we must recall that Maureen became pregnant at a time in Ireland when sending one’s ‘fallen’ daughter to a laundry for the rest of her days was a viable option. As is clear from the argument Maureen has with a priest in a confessional, Ireland’s treatment of women is a big part of what can be said to make the country as miserable for its inhabitants at the time in which the novel is set.
The historical consciousness of Skippy Dies’ can be traced as far back as the forgotten young men who fought in World War I on the side of the English, and were therefore written out of the historical record. This all has significance for the Robert Graves ‘White Lady’ motif, and chimes with Skippy’s own premature death, but the novel’s argument is directed at an hagiographical tradition, whereas, as Maureen’s attempts to come to terms with her experience, and place herself within the society of her time, is a contemporary, and urgent task. The ending makes clear that Maureen’s attempts to do so is ongoing, as is, by extension, those of other survivors of her generation.
This might be said to relate to the fundamental difference between McInerney and Murray’s narrative styles. While McInerney takes a panoramic view only towards the novel’s opening and closing sections, moving from house as she sets the scene/ties up loose threads, Murray is more inclined to take a longer, or even cosmic view more frequently, zooming out to rhapsodise in a manner reminiscent of David Foster Wallace quite a bit, whereas McInerney keeps things restrained, perspectivally. This isn’t to say that Murray’s approach is less immediate, or less worthy, but this difference provides a means of emphasising what it is that’s important in McInerney’s writing. Murray’s Seabrook College is easily made a synecdoche of Life, in the ‘in the particular is contained the universal’ sort of a way, but McInerney’s Cork never reaches beyond itself; it reflects it’s author’s willingness to take it seriously as a setting-in-itself, and the pallor in which it has been set in a post-bailout, post-globalised, and never quite post-clerical, Ireland.
The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?
I: The Data
The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence were used.
Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.
The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:
20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2
Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:
number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words
Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:
number of hapax legomena / number of total words
II: Data Overview
Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.
IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis
A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.
The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.
Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:
La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)
Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.
The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.
Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.
The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.
Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.
IV.II Word Count
It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.
Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.
The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.
In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.
SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:
The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.
As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.
The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.
But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.
As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.
But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.
The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:
The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —
Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.
My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.
Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.
Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.
Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:
The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?
The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.