Absences, Negations, Voids

Absences, Negations, Voids

2010-04-01

Examining Doug Nufer’s Negativeland, a constraint-based text, Louis Bury adopts the same constraint as the novel - an approach NOT dissimilar to his treatment of Abish’s Alphabetical Africa. In this case, the constraint is a prohibition against sentences lacking “some form of negation” - a commitment not unlike the affirmation of negativity.

If providing somethings will not do, the writer must provide nothings. I am not playing with words. A little observation will show you that writers do nothing else. They make the experience of consciousness available through nothings - absences, negations, voids. To put it another way, writing works exclusively by what the writer leaves out.

- Harry Mathews, “For Prizewinners”

Not to nitpick, but there are a few things Doug Nufer left out of his 2004 novel, Negativeland. There aren’t any Sherpas in it. Nor are there any ice cream trucks. And for the life of me, I couldn’t find one mention of steroids. In a novel where the anti-hero is a former Olympic champion who used to promote Health Spas and who likes to watch baseball games, how could the topic of steroids not come up at least once? For that matter, how could Sherpas and ice cream trucks not? Who doesn’t eat ice cream or mountaineer in Nepal? An irresponsible critic might overlook these glaring omissions, but not I. In an “environment rigged for deprivation,” nothing isn’t a clue (Nufer 103). In fact, by this logic, what isn’t in the novel is far more important than what is, since what is in it is there only to point to what isn’t.

To begin with, there’s no mention of the OuLiPo in the novel. Nonetheless, their presence can be felt everywhere, because it is a constraint-based text: no sentence can be included without possessing some form of negation. In “Abish’s Africa”, Louis Bury explores another constrained text, adopting - as in this essay - a version of that text’s constraint in his own critical writing. Not an impossible constraint, but an insistent one. Cumulatively, characters and events come to be defined by what they are not, as in this description of the housewife Susan Griffin: “the cut of her clothes wasn’t so domestic that a guy didn’t want to keep looking at her” (147). Each negation, in addition to asserting that something is not the case, also implicitly asserts Nufer’s allegiance to writing under conditions of deprivation and duress. Like an ascetic, he will not permit himself certain liberties and forms of behavior. They are out of bounds, off limits, not for his eyes and ears.

Perhaps more than any other constraint-based text, Negativeland reveals the Oulipian credo to be a negative one, a credo of thou-shalt-nots. I say this descriptively, not pejoratively. A negative credo’s neither good nor bad in and of itself. Freedom from is not inherently worse than freedom for, only different. A constraint always says: no. Yet this no does not simply demarcate the boundaries of the possible, of the pastures the writer’s language has been confined to, but longingly resounds for those things that are forbidden to it, those things that are missing, absent, not here. Non-existence haunts every constraint-based text. Ghosts of the unsaid and the unsayable populate their caesuras, silences, malapropisms. The condition is not unlike a phantom limb: an absence that can be felt. No wonder Harry Mathews, an Oulipian, believes that “writing works exclusively by what the writer leaves out.” No wonder Georges Perec, a Holocaust scion, wrote La Disparition and Charles Lamb never mentioned his matricidal sister in his otherwise autobiographical Essays of Elia. They all know something not everybody does: unlike gains, losses needn’t be articulated to become tangible, present, real.

Nowhere in Negativeland will you find a discussion of game theory, or even Pascal’s wager, but you don’t have to be a mathematician or literary critic to recognize that this book theorizes extensively about losses and gains in gambling and in language. The novel’s two protagonists, Ken Honochick, a former Olympic gold medalist in the backstroke, and his landlady-turned-girlfriend, Miriam, who used to work in a photo lab developing negatives, are both unemployed and support themselves by gambling as they travel around the United States. This detail is not unimportant: another of Nufer’s constraint-based novels, Never Again, is a picaresque journey through the protagonist, I’s, various forms of employment - I has a surfeit of jobs, while Chick and Miriam have a pronounced lack of them. It could be argued that no theme is more important to Nufer than jobs (then again, the converse could be argued as well). Whatever side of the debate you’re on, pro or con, the key point is that Chick and Miriam exist outside an economy of paid labor. Indeed, they consider themselves unfit for even simple household chores: “Even undemanding chores were too much for us. She could say we’d make do, but she had abandoned a building because she hadn’t done any maintenance. Usually, things were the other way around, as the pride of ownership kept a place up while tenants didn’t flinch to save it from falling down, but a lot of what we did was the other way around” (89).

“A lot of what we did was the other way around”: not only is professional gambling an unstable source of income, it is also an unusual one. Its appeal lies in the bewitching alchemy of creating something out of nothing. When you win a bet, no substantial labor has been expended, no goods produced, and yet, voilà, fortune showers you with undeserved riches. A Marxist might even say that the process was capitalism writ small: money making money on itself, with no value added to society. But there’s a reason why Marx is never mentioned in the novel: for Chick and Miriam, this modus operandi constitutes the core of a contrarian ethic, a way of opting out, of saying no to the predominant, and stifling, modes of existence.

Within the upside-down logic of the novel, this emphatic no is actually an affirmation. There is no positive thinking in the novel; or, more precisely, there are no positive portrayals of positive thinking. None of the conventional hierarchies or value-systems hold; they have all been inverted. Thus when Chick’s former father-in-law Roger Patterson, an unctuous PR man who was the mastermind behind Chick’s post-Olympics promotional tour for the Gold Medal Health Spas, solemnly declares, “What we, what Gold Medal Health Spas is all about, in a nutshell, is life not death…we are here to help our clients release themselves from the gym-teacher induced inhibitions and retrograde disciplinary mechanisms that thwart self-actualization,” his blustery, canned rhetoric makes it apparent that, contrary to what he insists, he actually stands on the side of death, not life (94). His cloying mantras, such as “Language is the audio of image,” are not mechanisms for “self-actualization,” but a form of death-in-life, of language and thought gone rancid (93). And when he asserts, in response to Chick’s protestations, that “Gold Medal Health Spas is not about negative thinking. Hostility is not progress but regression, the enemy of growth,” his principle character flaw is revealed to be an incapacity for negative thought: a profound inability to imagine alternative ways of knowing and of thinking, an inability to understand that even hostility and negativity can be a means of forward progress, and that growth is not an unqualified virtue (96). Keats’ notion of negative capability is never mentioned in the novel (though its conspicuous absence suggests its looming presence), but if it were it would not be used to describe Roger Patterson.

Even Chick’s and Miriam’s gambling wins and losses are perverse, defiant, backwards - not at all what you’d expect them to be. When they play blackjack at a casino they don’t aspire to win by being dealt favorable cards, but to win by the dealer being dealt unfavorable cards: “We didn’t hope for tens and aces for ourselves as much as for the dealer to get stuck with dregs, and often we won by standing below seventeen while the dealer busted himself” (45). In keeping with their contrarian ethic, Chick and Miriam prefer to win by not losing. For them, winning is not its own positive state, but simply the absence of loss, and thus, in a bizarre reversal, is revealed as a hidden state of loss: the loss of loss. The converse, of course, holds as well - that loss is the absence of gain - but is not nearly as radical a proposition, because loss is understood as a state of absence in the first place. One of the implications of this logic is that the characters become inured to loss, unaffected by it: because loss is everywhere, there’s no sense fighting it or even caring much about it. For example, after a not so good session at the horse track, Chick explains, “What I lost didn’t bother me as much as what I hadn’t won” (20).

Among the many things you won’t find in Negativeland, the most telling may be its lack of nostalgia for things that are lost, missing, absent, not here. In the same way that Chick and Miriam’s negative, gambler’s logic inures them to loss, it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that the deliberate use of constraint inures a writer to it as well. A constraint always says: no. But this no is less similar to the delighted squeals of a masochist, writhing in pleasure on the rack, than it is to the yelp of abject terror by a character in a horror film - an expression of surprise mingled with helplessness - who has seen something she’d rather not have. Constraint-based writing, in other words, isn’t fundamentally about being bound and gagged, but about being benumbed, distant, arch. A psychoanalyst might describe this condition as a state of denial, as a refusal to confront someone or something that haunts the writer, but there’s a reason why there are no psychoanalysts in the novel: this diagnosis is incorrect. Non-acceptance is a more accurate description of the condition: not a denial of loss’ existence, but a refusal to be cowed or waylaid by it - a refusal, ultimately, to play games, to make meaning, on terms other than one’s own.

These refusals account for the reason why, in a novel jam-packed with negativity, there isn’t, as one would expect, an unhappy ending. Two negatives (Chick and Miriam) combine to make a positive (a new, albeit unorthodox, life together). It is not unlike the way in which, philosophically speaking, a proposition that is not not true is in fact the case. In the final scene of the novel, Chick and Miriam attend a New Year’s Eve party, uninvited, at the house where Chick grew up in Florida. As drifters, they don’t fit in with the “lawyers, accountants, salesmen, doctors, and mid-level media executives” in attendance, those individuals who occupy civilization’s approved posts and hew to its prescribed ambits - those individuals, in a word, who play, unquestioningly, by other people’s rules. Amidst this party full of yes-men, Chick and Miriam dance, contentedly, to the song “Nothing Could Be Finer,” as, in the novel’s closing sentence, Chick muses on the contrasting pleasures of their mode of existence: “She pulled me to her, and as we danced, I thought of the road they [the hosts] had taken and the road that we had taken, of their house here and of our car outside, and I knew that nothing could [be finer]” (186). In the final analysis, every novel lacks something, but no novel is as comfortable with what it doesn’t have as Negativeland.

Works Cited

Mathews, Harry. The Case of the Persevering Maltese. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2003.

Nufer, Doug. Negativeland. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.