Monday, August 22, 2011

Matthew Roberson | Reviews of Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It and The Twofold Vibration

Reviews of Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It and The Twofold Vibration
by Matthew Roberson

Raymond Federman. Take It or Leave It (Normal, Illinois: FC2, 2000) and The Twofold Vibration. (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000)

As one of the most innovative periods in American letters, the 1970s (roughly speaking) gave birth to an unprecedented number of literary experiments, producing scores of outlandish and frequently outrageous metafictional/surfictional/cirtifictional/superfictional/fabulational novels by writers such as Sukenick, Federman, Katz, Gass, Gins, Kostelanetz, and Major. These books were disquieting: different, difficult, untraditional, unclassifiable, and at times interpretable. Yet they, and their radical tendencies, received a surprising amoung of serious attention, investigation, and imitation (and, further indicating their prominence in 1970s America, unreasonable hostile criticism).

While innovative fiction continued to be written through the following decade (and continues to be written since), the energy and interest devoted to it by a larger number of writers and readers dropped sharply in the 1980s. American fiction turned toward neo-realism; the eclectic and disruptive novelty of the novel as surfiction (to use one term) gave over to more recognizably traditional fictions, and the kind of aggressively radical efforts driving experimentation began to again lurk in the margins from which they had emerged. Whether this return to the margins was in some ways healthy from the American avant-garde or not (a question and label that are in some ways at the heart of the recent quarrel, in the pages of American Book Review, between Ronald Sukenick and Larry McCaffery), it was not a positive turn of events for readers wanting to obtain innovative fiction. Many excellent texts from the 1970s went quickly out of print and circulation, and a similar fate was guaranteed many of the surfictional efforts produced in the years following. In the recent past, this problem has been in part rectified by publishers' efforts to reissue these texts. Much of Raymond Federman's work, in particular, is now accessible in English (until recently, Federman's texts have almost always been available in every language but English, translated as they are into German, Italian, Polish, Rumanian, Hungarian, Dutch, French, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese). In 1992, a revised version of Federman's first novel, Double or Nothing (orginally published in 1971 by Swallow Press and reissued by Ohio University Press in 1976) as again made available by FC2 [Fiction Collective Two). In 1995, Federman's more recent novel, Smiles on Washington Square (published first in 1985 by Thunder's Mouth Press) was reissued by Sun & Moon Press. These books have now been joined by new versions of Federman's well-known third novel, Take It or Leave It, first issued by Fiction Collective and now reissued by FC2 (with an introduction by Larry McCaffery), and Federman's fifth novel, The Twofold Vibration, is available in the Green Integer series for the first time since its original publication in 1982 by Indiana University Press.

That Federman's work is again being made available (and, in the case of those of his texts published by FC2, will continue to be available as long as FC2 exists) is a triumph for American readers of the present generation and, one can hope, generations to come. Federman's texts are important representatives of the best ideas and efforts of the experimental American literature discussed above. They brilliantly exemplify the kind of inter-textual, self-conscious, self-reflexive, formally disruptive, indeterminate, and energetically (and often absurdly) performative play that was so important to 1970s surfictions). As much if not more than the most provocative surfictions, they unsettle boundaries between the teller and the tale, "fictional" worlds and "real" worlds, and "high" and popular culture, inviting in a potentially inspirational confusion of established beliefs and norms. In their attacks on the heart of traditional literary authority, Federman's novels deliberately vanish the autonomous, creative self so (problematically) central to humanist assumptions and enterprises. Take It or Leave It is one of the finest examples of Federman('s work) in action. It ostensibly tells the story of a twenty-three year old Frenchman's entry into America and American Army, and the cross-country trip he must make to reach his transport to the Korean war. But this tale is just a front, a cover story from which Federman can digress into apparently anything and everything else: his character's childhood in Paris and his eventual flight from the Nazi occupation, the loos of his family to the holocaust, his early arrival into America, his struggle for survival in the slums of New York and Detroit and his encounter with what sustains him during this time—the jazz world of Fats Navaro, Kenny Clarke, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and, of course, Parker and Bird, his uneasy relationship with a psympathetic American Jewish population, the job that this community offers him in, of all places, a lampshade factory, his affair with his boss's wife, and, not least, his time among the hillbillies (as the character calls them, among other, less polite things) of Company C, Third Platoon, 82nd Airborne Division. What further, and wonderfully, complicates Take It or Leave It is that these digressions come to the reader through the novel's other main character, an unnamed and obstreperously entertaining narrator who relates the young Frenchman's tale. Constantly, vocally aware of the many challenges facing him as he relates his tale second-hand, of the "room for distortions, exaggerations, deformations, [and] errors," invovled in retelling a "story that which was already told from the start in a rather dubious manner," the narrator makes of himself and his difficult position a fascinating and entertaining story about the telling of stories. In doing so, his trials and travails become as important to Take It or Leave It as the supposedly primary stories of the young Frenchman for whom he is the readers' spokesman. And, Federman, guaranteeing that the circumlocutions of this scenario don't, in their own way, become too straightforward—too much a routine of self-consciousness—inserts into the text an audience for this narrator, an audience that is more than willing at every turn to questions, confound, and generally irritate the narrator into vociferous digressions on, again, seemingly anything and everything: politics, economics, literature, sex, the idea of America, the annoying nature of his audience. Federman layers stories and voices to create a labyrinth that engages and entertains; this laybrinth also asks that readers attend to the tangled relationships between storytellers and stories. As with the gest surfictions, this layering doesn't stop with only those stories and storytellers that appear within the text, but presses boundaries until Federman's relationship with the creation of Take It or Leave It becomes a vital part of the text itself. These boundaries are pressed in part by the fact that Take It of Leave It is somehow an autobiography of Federman; in an oblique way, the book lets readers know that the young Frenchman is/was Federman, as is/was the unnamed narrator, who is/was the young Frenchman, who is/was Federman (though, of course, "distortions, exaggerations, deformations, [and] errors," will inevitably occur in "a story that which was already told from the start in a rather dubious manner"). Federman also reminds readers of his presence in the text through the elaborate narrative dislocations and digressions, typographical highjinks, and play(y)giaristic allusions that erupt on every page of the novel. These are experiments with the workings of the text, and an elaborate intertext of which this text is but a part, and are not developed as part of an autotelic game, but both as and as reminders of the gutsy and difficult work being undertaken in the pursuit of creating some sort of difference in the American literary tradition. They perform, in other words, the story of surfiction.

In The Twofold Vibration, Federman wrote what is in some ways a follow-up to Take It or Leave It (orginally titling it Winner Takes All, so to continue the gamblilng theme that ran through the titles of Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It). Putting again into play the kind of ultiple voices and selves and stories that enliven Take It or Leave It, The Twofold Vibration adds to Federman's auto-biograph (Brian McHale's term for describing the genre that emerges when metafictionists use material from real-life on the same level with fictional data in order to destablilize the presupposed ontological dominance given to one over the other) by way of Federman, "the old man," Moinous, and Manredef. Appropriately enough, the character Federman is the novel's first person narrator and "author," and he tells the story of the character only known as the old man, who (like Federman in person) has lived through most of the twentieth-century and witnessed several of its central moments: the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII, the political uprisings of America in the sixties, the reconstruction of Europe after its catastrophic wars. At stake in Federman's storytellilng is the old man's life; his tale works to unearth and make sense of what transgression in the old man's history has sentenced him to imminent exile (deportation to space colonies), and what, if anything, can be done to prevent that exile. If his tale fails to do that, it seems that the old man's exile will inevitably occur on the final day of the story and novel—the end of an era, a century, a millennium: New Year's Eve, 1999.

Helping Federman piece together his tory are Moinous and Manredef, two of the old man's lifelong companions, characters who "have a disorienting way of talking at the same time, interrupting each other...sometimes one of them starts relating something, begins to articulate a sentence, and right in the middle of it the other will take over, as if they were of one mind, one mouth, often wandering...two voices of the same thing—the Federman history, the story of Federman, the stories that make Federman, the Federman assemblage. They are not, the four of them, constant companions, but they are inextricably related to each other, and their connectedness creates the tension that drives Moinous (a name that uses French pronouns to create Me and Us, or Me in Us) and Manredef (Federman, backwards) to assist Federman's effots to save the old man by making sense of his past; if the old man disappears, vanishes, in a way they all do, they all disappear, they all die.

Federman, Moinous, and Namredef struggle to continue the old man's present life by re-situating it between past and future, beginning and end. Throughout the book, they turn backwards, and backwards again, in order to ensure some sort of continued movement forward, and his doubled motion is the twofold vibration of the novel. The central, underlying question of The Twofold Vibration (and a central question in much of Federman's work) is wound into this motion (and the predicament that impels it): How does one account for one's life in a way that makes that life and continuing that life bearable and meaningful? This questions plagues Federman, and the novel, particularly, because it is always related to another question: How does one do so after having surived "the epic event of the 20th century never striking bottom in the resonance of its tragic fact," the Holocaust, while six million other Jews did not? How can Federman, when this six million included his entire family, his father, his mother, and his two sisters?

The Twofold Vibration is not Federman's most adventurous text, in terms of narrative, formal, and tyographical ply; it doesn't apprach the kind of outrageous, delirious experimentation found in Take It or Leave It, for example. It is nevertheless, a book that represents Federman's contiued need for distinct ways of speaking and writing, ways that can illustrate the unusualness of Federman's life, his place in the world, and his mind, as well as the continuing need for surfictional innovation in the face of persistently traditional literary forms and methods. The Twofold Vibration is broken into unindented blocks of texts of varying sizes and shapes—typographical chunks, the bricks out of which stories are built. These blocks are formed in size and shape by the recurring two white lines that seem to emerge according to the rhythm of the story (when there needs to be a pause for breath in or between the voices of the characters or character/author). There is, furthermore, not a period to be found in the book, as if it is one long recitation that pauses only long enough for necessary inhalations or, in the case of the only other break markers int he text-chapter headings—a meal or a night's sleep or a bathroom break.

As said earlier, and as bears repeating, it's a coup that Federman's work is being made available now, and will continue to be available in the future. His books are (as this review has only begun to suggest) at once intelligent and silly, tragic and playful, sly and ingenuous, sublime and petty, ambitious and indifferent, deliberate and reckless, successful and failed, and seemingly everything else one could imagine a book being. They illustrate the immense potential of the (American) novel to be novel, and we are fortunate to have them around. [Matthew Roberson, American Book Review]

Copyright (c)2000 by Matthew Roberson.

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