I’ll stand rank-in-file with other bibliophiles about the graceful perfection that is a book’s form. It – in its compact design and wealth of stored, permanent (read-only) memory – is a supreme and methuselah-istic technology.
That being said, the playful aspects of experimental literature are provoking in the way they push this form beyond the typical confines of the bound novel. Yes, the plethora of electronic literature is where most people suspect literature to move toward (Hayles’ latest book – both bound and digital – likely the best source for work on this). However, there’s something to be said for the tangible nature of the occasional experimental text. As such, here are two recent works that I’ve been fascinated by:
The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson arrives in a box, though it looks unremarkable on the shelf (the side of the box acting as spine of a “regular” novel). However, upon opening the “book” the contents and their instructions are revealed:
[Note: This novel has twenty-seven sections, temporarily held together by a removable wrapper. Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such) the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order. If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other order before reading.]
After reading Johnson’s novel, I’ll say I was underwhelmed only by the fact that the book did exactly what I hoped it would; I felt like I was thrown into the random, haphazard way that memory unfolds and takes hold. I could empathize with the method but still felt like the story itself was secondary to the experiment. Regardless, there’s a wonderful bio on Johnson that I’ve been plotting to read sooner than later.
On the opposite end of the extreme, Correspondences by Ben Greenman is such a lavishly letter-pressed trinket of a box that I fret doing the kind of serious reading that has crippled many a text that has come across my path.
Correspondences next to Greaser Duck and another book for size comparison.
Apparently limited (mine being numbered 151 of 250), Correspondences includes several stories printed on the text as well as folded on pamphlets. Unlike Johnson’s text, Greenman’s makes you aware of the object as you relate to its contents. I think this combination is what I find as a portal toward more organic experimental literature (I think, for instance, of the way House of Leaves, by the simple dimensions of its cover is literally a text that does not fit within the bound book – a realization you make by holding the paperback).
And while it sounds like future editions of Correspondences will be printed (likely in a more traditional form), that version’s text is in our hands (figuratively … and maybe literally). The story “What He’s Poised To Do” is an incomplete text. A series of postcards help build the links between the elements of Greenman’s text. However, these postcards need to still be written … by us! Though the Correspondences box comes with its own sample postcards, we are invited to add to the fiction that Greenman has started. I’m interested in using this in my classroom. Maybe Greenman has a few collaborators? Maybe one of them is you?
Yes, I realize that McSweeney’s has done several issues of their Quarterly in boxes and other shapes, including something along the lines of the way Johnson incorporates chance into his work. However, I feel the above two texts are exemplary. There’s a feeling of commitment by the author when presented with an entire work by an author in an otherwise unusual form. Worthwhile additions to the growing shelf of BSRAYDEKWTDWT.