Richard Kostelanetz’s Fict/ions and This Sentence (Blue and Yellow Dog, 2010)
Blue and Yellow Dog Press has published two books in one by Richard Kostelanetz; each starts on a different side and is upside down from the other. Let’s start with the title, Fict/ions. According to its Latin roots, a “fiction” is something “made,” as “poetry” in Greek is “making,” and in this case, the splitting of fictions emphasizes division as a paradoxical form of construction, as well as the particulate quality of syllabic “matter.” In part 34 of “New Retrospective on my Fictions,” a section that follows this book within the book Kostelanetz speaks of “’Fict/ions‘ and ‘Fulcra Fictions’ that depend upon discovering within a single word two shorter words that, concluding with a period, make a narrative. . .” (unpaginated). Of course, in some of these, there are two slashes, not one. I think it is useful to focus on varying ways in which the reader might establish a relationship between the original word and the shorter ones or find a major discontinuity.
Sometimes, the juxtaposition of the two elements can be construed as a narrative, as Kostelanetz wishes, and sometimes it appears to enable the development of an (often strained) metonymy. In the case of “boomerang”/ “Boo/me/rang,” the construction of a narrative is more persuasive. The sound of the flying object cutting through air is a “ringing” (not subtle) denigration of the first-person narrator, perhaps because s/he is foolish to use such a dangerous implement. Also, in a reversal of the startling transformation of “manslaughter” to “Mans/laughter” through a delayed slash, surprise is engendered by Kostelanetz’s decision to place the first slash one letter earlier (“boo”) than one would expect. I generally hear “boom” in “boomerang” but not “boo.” The writer’s decision creates a distinction in the sounding of the second syllables of the word and of the “fict/ion.” Divergent pronunciations are also important in the gap between “inundating” and “I/nun/dating.” When the first-person narrator and the “nun” are “dating”—something that the latter is not supposed to do—we can speculate that one or the other or both might be psychologically“inundated” with guilt, arousal, actual liquid, or some other effect of the situation’s novelty.
A more politically charged fict/ion with narrative possibilities is “pickaninny”/“Pick/a/ninny.”Here, the divisions are not at all surprising, as though they explain the word’s origins. However, the racist English term for children of African descent does not derive from Kostelanetz’s verb or noun, but from the Portuguese pequeninhos (“little ones”),which does not necessarily refer to race, even though the Portuguese were slave traders. The verb “pick” reminds us that young African-American slaves labored in the cotton fields alongside their elders, and the noun “ninny” creates a different torque. The writer’s divided version embodies a command to select or identify a stupid person, a racist whose atrocious epithets disparage black children.
In at least one case, an absurd image (and not a narrative) is the source of pleasure. We tend to think of a “knight” as a respectable, able bodied, adult-sized adult male. However, the slightly pejorative “Wee/knights” makes me think of a diminutive soldier in a big man’s armor. Of course, the adjective/ noun combination bears no appreciable relation to “weeknights.” There is no reason that the person would have a special connection to this designated time, and the elimination of pronunciation of the hard “k” in the transition from original word to split underscores this gap.
In certain instances, narrative resides on one side of the equation and cannot be integrated with the other. As “antelopes” is transformed into “Ant/elopes,” comic narrative resides solely in the “fict/ional” marriage of the tiny insect, and a metonymic foregrounds the vast size difference between the two creatures, and we cannot bring the verb into plausible relation to the original noun. Similarly, the tangible result of a mother’s tragic burning in “Char/is/ma” is not evidence of the charisma that she might otherwise possess. The sonic disjunction echoes the thematic one. The juxtaposition of the single word and the three smaller ones indicates a displacement from a unified “hot” or “glowing” psychological quality to the disintegrative effect of actual heat.
The jocularity of “Philo/sop/her” notwithstanding, at times Kostelanetz’s fict/ions take a philosophical turn. “Beaches” may be sites of pleasure and distraction from life’s hardships, but “Be/aches” indicates the inseparability of being from the possibility of pain and, of course, the final pain of dying:“Am/ends.” Further, the concept of the “immortal” is a generality that“contains” the realization: “Im/mortal.” Since the whole book is an investigation of what language can be made to do in acts of “Re/creation,” the philosophical direction is built into the project.
As its title indicates, This Sentence is a book entirely composed of sentences that “talk” about themselves. They take inventory on various properties of and observations or judgments about sentences. Syntax is one topic:
This sentence is syntactically correct. . . .
This sentence correct syntactically also is. . . .
This sentence not correct is syntactically.
Surely, the first and third sentences are telling the truth about themselves. To say that the second one is conceptually valid would mean that a modern reader accepts inversion of the adjective/noun pattern (“sentence correct”) but not the same inversion when “not” precedes the two words in the succeeding sentence. In the second sentence, “syntactically also” is an awkward pattern of modification of an adverb by another adverb, but I cannot say that it is “incorrect,” and one can end the statement with a copular verb. It would be clearer if rephrased: This correct sentence also exists syntactically—or . . . also exists as a syntactical entity. Perhaps Kostelanetz is showing the distinction between literal correctness of syntax and conventional clarity/appropriateness, as he is in the sentence: “Clumsily is this sentence organized unfortunately.”
A substantial number of sentences cause us to look at visually or conceptually apprehensible form or mathematical features:
Six words appear in this sentence. . . .
This sentence has a beginning and an end. . . .
Backwards is sentence this. . . .
This sentence contains one verb, one article, four adjectives, and five nouns.
An obvious response would be indifference. But after seeing that each sentence performs a proper inventory, one notices possibilities of formal experimentation. If a writer composed a text with six words in each sentence or one that did not seem to have a conventionally recognizable beginning or end or one with backwards sentences (which, I believe, can be found in Bernadette Mayer, Charles Bernstein, and Jonathan Mayhew’s lists of poetic experiments) or one which preordains the precise number of particular parts of speech, then these constraints would probably affect tone, rhythm, range of statement, and other factors. After all, sentences are composed of such formal elements (and cannot escape them). We can profit by paying more than lip service to the cliché, “materiality of language.”
In line with this emphasis on words as entities that do not transparently signify what is outside them, Kostelanetz sometimes seem to articulate a doctrine of supreme self-reference:
This sentence refers to nothing beyond the words in this sentence. . .
This sentence is this sentence and, therefore, cannot be anything but this sentence. . . .
This sentence stands alone. . . .
Every word in this sentence belongs where it now is.
An author can express the intention to limit linguistic reference and identity to words themselves as they exist within their syntactical unit. S/he can even tell readers to ignore the relationship among sentences in a text. However, Kostelanetz knows that the reader, disregarding authorial intention, can develop interpretation that relies on concepts external to the original words that “belong where they now are.” Any reader can expand the range of identity and reference beyond self-referential strictures: “Does not an encyclopedia of the world inhabit this sentence?” Readers create a fragment of that encyclopedia. Kostelanetz also includes the realization that readers make judgments about a text that are external to the sentence’s basic identity:
This sentence has an abundance of clauses that, while taking the reader aside, offering him or her additional dimensions,
suggesting yet further thoughts to consider, inevitably distract from its central line. . . .
This sentence is pornography to some readers and not to others. . . .
Writing this sentence has won me several friends, but no enemies.
The mere acknowledgment of the existence of a reader, who receives “offers” and“suggestions” and is led to produce “thoughts” from a writer through the vehicle of a sentence’s simple or complex structure, indicates that self-referentiality cannot be the whole story. With the use of the noun“pornography,” the writer seems to suggest that “some readers” who perceive writing solely as a conduit for psychological expression or ideological persuasion would consider major attention to the properties of the medium—and not to their concerns—“obscene.” In doing so, they fail to recognize that the philosophical investigation of language within literature is not merely art for art’s sake. And if a sentence can win friends or enemies, then there is much more to how it can be used than as Kostelanetz’s “nothing beyond . . . words.”The boast of all “friends” and “no enemies” invites our skepticism; innovative writers have penned many sentences that raised hackles.
Often with ample humor, some of Kostelanetz’s sentences announce that they do not have to “stand alone” but that their creation and dissemination can be seen in the context of the author’s extra-textual existence and sometimes his ego-fulfillment:
The author of this sentence is known to the world only as. . . (.)
Is not this sentence as unique as its author?. . . .
This sentence epitomizes my literary ambitions. . . .
What I want most from this sentence (as well as every other sentence here) is that it be memorable. . . .
I want this sentence to be the best sentence that any writer has ever written.
While the ellipsis in the first sentence above may suggest a separation of the author’s self from his “autotelic” piece of writing, and the second one uses a seemingly rhetorical question to argue for the parallel uniqueness of author and sentence, the other three refer to the writer’s goals. What makes the third sentence funny is that there is no sense of how the author’s “ambitions” are “epitomized”; expressing “ambition” could not be the goal itself for a serious artist like Kostelanetz, so one might surmise that there is no ambition, just as the sentence, “This sentence contains every profound thought that I ever had about the art of writing sentences,” can be construed as evidence that the writer does not traffic in the delivery of “profound thoughts” but in writing that yields discovery. Perhaps the ambition is simply to write one sentence after the next to learn what there is to learn from doing it. As for desiring to create “memorable sentences” and even “the best” one “ever written,” Kostelanetz implicitly exposes the hopelessness of such (im)pure ambition, because the judgment of what is memorable or best is absurdly subjective. Criteria would differ from reader to reader. And what unveils the fragility of such aims is the arena of this catalogue poem, which pits divergent impulses and conceptual formulations of the same experimental mind against one another. Thus, conflict is out in the open. If the reader wants resolution, s/he had better achieve it herself.
The closing passages of the aforementioned “New Retrospective on My Fictions: Forty Notes” tell us something unfortunate. Though noting his many publications and two encyclopedia entries on his fiction, Kostelanetz, now just over 70, states that “there have been few reviews of individual books, no commercial contracts, no grants for fiction writing, only one passing mention in purportedly comprehensive surveys of contemporary fiction, little public acknowledgment of [his] alternative purposes in creating and publishing fiction. . . .” Perhaps some reasons for this relative neglect involve Kostelanetz’s lack of direct affiliation either with certain literary movements of the last half century or with academics who influence critical reputation in the realm of avant-garde fiction. Kostelanetz asks plaintively, “Should anyone care (other than me)?” Blue and Yellow Dog Press, a new and extremely promising publisher of experimental writing, has provided us with an excellent opportunity to answer, “Hell, yes!"