S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission: notes toward a Canadian nouveau roman

September 13, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

Permission_ChrostowskaPermission is a book that could not have been published in Canada. Literally.

Composed as a series of twenty-seven e-mails sent by a character named Fearn Wren to an anonymous recipient over the course of one year, the novel, by York University professor S.D. Chrostowska, came out earlier this year from U.S. publisher Dalkey Archive Press, the house that has also been responsible for re-releasing notoriously difficult texts by authors such as William Gaddis, William H. Gass, and Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The last association is appropriate, since it was Robbe-Grillet’s theories of the nouveau roman that called for an overthrow of the traditional conception of literature as a repository of the kind of naturalism practised by Balzac and Stendahl. Robbe-Grillet’s influence (and that of his major supporter, Maurice Blanchot) is apparent throughout Permission, which indeed cleaves closer to a European than a North American (or British) literary tradition.

The novel updates the epistolary convention for the digital age, but not in any obvious way. Nowhere does the reader find the ungrammatical, symbol-laden syntax employed in text or instant messages. Rather, the e-mails that make up the narrative – if such a term can be applied to Permission – are written in sentences that often run to the academic and the abstract. Permission is a novel of ideas, but the ideas it is interested in are not the clichéd modern obsessions over humanity’s increasingly tedious relationship with technology. Instead, the novel is concerned with the nature of identity in a more universal sense.

“My concern with making meaningful life choices in pursuit of well-defined goals cast me naturally in the role of self-observer,” writes Fearn Wren, who, at this early stage in the novel, is identified only as “F.W.” And yet, as a “self-observer,” the narrator is not entirely lucid or reliable. The life story that unfolds is replete with gaps and lacunae: it appears that the author of the e-mails is a native of Warsaw who went to university in America, but these bare facts don’t really tell us much, and they must also be taken on faith as we have no supporting evidence to verify their veracity. (It becomes apparent toward the end of the novel that even the name “Fearn Wren” is a likely pseudonym.)

Instead of the normal biographical detail that would proliferate a character-driven novel of a more recognizable sort (what Holden Caulfield referred to caustically as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”), we are given extended meditations on the nature of silence, the Holocaust, imprisonment, and the significance of North American native tribal masks. “The objects that caught my attention,” Fearn Wren writes, “were the so-called Speaker and Echo masks, which at one time played a role in the potlatch, or giving feast.”

The notion of speech and echoes is resonant throughout Permission, as is the idea of gifting. Recalling Lewis Hyde, Fearn Wren positions the e-mail missives as gifts requiring no response; indeed, the silence from the implied reader is taken as “permission” to continue the correspondence. “Permit me to write to you today, beyond today,” reads the first line of the first e-mail. The narrator characterizes the writing project as “an experiment in giving,” and goes on: “I want nothing in return, nothing tangible – only permission to continue this spectral writing, so disembodied and out of place, so easily disavowed.” The intimate relationship between writer and reader, the nature of authorship, and the faith that written material, sent out into the world, will find a receptive and sympathetic audience, are central to the e-mails that develop over the course of a calendar year, gradually – almost accidentally – resolving themselves into a book-length narrative.

“My own identity,” Fearn Wren writes, ” … is random and immaterial.” This, too, recalls Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman philosophy. Fearn Wren is not a character in the traditional sense, just as Permission does not feature a story in the traditional sense – that is, the sense in which these things are normally understood (and taught) as springing out of a naturalist, realist mode. In his 1956 essay, “A Future for the Novel,” an essay that testifies to its author’s continued relevance to contemporary literary criticism, Robbe-Grillet writes:

As for the novel’s characters, they may themselves suggest many possible interpretations; they may, according to the preoccupations of each reader, accommodate all kinds of comment – psychological, psychiatric, religious, or political – yet their indifference to these “potentialities” will soon be apparent. Whereas the traditional hero is constantly solicited, caught up, destroyed by these interpretations of the author’s, ceaselessly projected into an immaterial and unstable elsewhere, always more remote and blurred, the future hero will remain on the contrary, there.

It may not be possible to call Fearn Wren a “hero” in any conventional sense: as the central figure in Chrostowska’s novel, the character is subject to a kind of progression, though nothing remotely resembling archetypal notions of journey or growth; even the figure’s real name remains a matter of dispute. And yet, the consciousness of Fearn Wren (or, perhaps more accurately, “Fearn Wren”) remains, inexorably and undeniably, there.

“I was also staunchly anti-artistic,” Fearn Wren writes at one point, here perhaps standing in for the author to a degree. “I could not stand straight-faced aestheticism and urbane pastimes, I wanted no part in accepted avant-gardes.” There is an almost defiantly anti-artistic aspect to the way in which Permission unfolds: it interrogates accepted notions of what constitutes a novel and what is expected of a reader in response. And yet, it is also in its way defiantly literary: unlike much of what gets passed off as “innovative” writing, it is virtually impossible to imagine Permission existing in any medium other than the one in which it has been cast. Its lack of scenes, plot, and character development force the reader to return to the words on the page, to actively engage with the ideas being put forth, and to wrestle with the intelligence behind their creation.

Permission is quite obviously not intended for a mass audience. In a literary environment ever more sympathetic to the infantilizing tendencies of boy wizards, sparkling vampires, and adolescent dystopias, there is not a huge clamour for the kind of formally and intellectually challenging writing Chrostowska engages in. Yet it is frustrating that the author had to go outside the country to have the book published. There are a few domestic houses – Coach House Books and BookThug spring immediately to mind – that do take chances on aesthetically challenging work (Coach House more in the area of poetry, although last year’s story collection Cosmo by Spencer Gordon was a bracing retort to the naturalist tradition of storytelling that continues to hold sway in this country). But the days when Jack McClelland would publish Beautiful Losers even though he admitted the novel frankly baffled him seem long gone.

“All I can say is that I think it’s an amazing book,” McClelland wrote to Leonard Cohen in 1965. “I’m not going to pretend I dig it, because I don’t.” Beautiful Losers remains in print to this day, and is widely considered a Canadian classic. Without courage similar to McClelland’s, what will our classics look like fifty years from now?