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?

Lost in the narrows

September 11, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Barbara Kay and Lev Grossman seem cut from the same cloth. Both of them, in their own ways, disdain what they perceive as “difficult” novels. Kay, whom some of you may recall took issue with a generally laudatory (or, in Kay’s own words, “gushy”) assessment of Lisa Moore’s second novel, February, recently published a column in the National Post decrying Canadian literature that she claims is “dying in beauty.” For Kay, Moore is, “like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer’s writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.”

In this, she echoes Grossman, whom she name-checks in her article, and who, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, criticized the modernists for neglecting plot and inculcating the idea that literature has to be difficult in order to be valuable:

The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did. One of the things they broke was plot.

To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the Boy’s Own war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury.

Grossman takes issue with the “discipline of the conventional literary novel,” which partakes of “a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience,” and asks, “Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?”

Both Kay and Grossman are rehearsing the distinction that Jonathan Franzen draws (in his 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult”) between the “Status model” of fiction and the “Contract model.” The Status model is premised upon the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” According to the Status model “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” In the Contract model, by contrast, the writer offers “words out of which the reader creates a pleasant experience.” For adherents of Contract, “difficulty is a sign of trouble,” which “may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection.”

Obviously, both Kay and Grossman are Contract adherents. Kay holds little truck with novels that are “dying in beauty,” novels in which the technique or the language is an end in itself. Similarly, Grossman approves of Cormac McCarthy’s late-career digression into genre fiction, and applauds the normally prolix Thomas Pynchon for writing a straightforward hard-boiled crime novel. Where both of their arguments fail, however, is in their implicit assumption that “difficult” writing – writing that demands to be appreciated on its own terms – and pleasure are mutually exclusive. Franzen, himself an admitted Contract person, acknowledges this stumbling block when he adumbrates the extreme end of Contract thinking:

Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

The only problem being that nowhere is it written that the consumer of fiction actually does rule, at least not in the way that Kay and Grossman would have it. If a reader runs up against a “difficult” book, or a book that doesn’t play by conventional rules or act in the way the reader thinks it is supposed to act, perhaps the fault lies not with the obstreperousness of the writer, but with the narrow prejudices of the reader. A reader who assumes that plot-driven novels are the only kind that can give pleasure will not be won over by books like Century by Ray Smith, in which the main source of pleasure is revelling in the author’s technical mastery. Nor will they gravitate toward McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where what happens is infinitely less important than the author’s exuberance in the uses and possibilities of language.

In her assessment of February, Kay locates “[t]wo feeble points of what-happens-next ‘tension,'” and the dismissive quotation marks around the final word indicate that for Kay, even these two moments were pallid and underwhelming. But as a writer, Moore has never been all that interested in conventional approaches to things like plot or suspense. For Moore, language has always been more important than plot; the tension in Moore’s writing exists in the technique itself. To not recognize this says more about the narrowness of a reader than about the inherent pleasurability of Moore’s writing.

Ultimately, both Kay and Grossman suffer from an artificially proscribed view of the pleasures literature has to offer. For them, a novel is only enjoyable if it does what they want it to do (which is, finally, to behave like other novels they’ve enjoyed in the past). Such a reader will never be able to derive pleasure from books like Ulysses or Wise Blood or Hopscotch, because these are novels that demand to be met on their own terms. In order to find pleasure in them, readers must abandon their preconceptions and open themselves to an experience that is unfamiliar, foreign, and, yes, possibly even difficult. They are novels that require work, but their rewards are commensurate with the effort a sympathetic reader is willing to put into them.