Secrecy and Community in 21st-Century Fiction
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Secrecy and Community in 21st-Century Fiction

María J. López, Pilar Villar-Argáiz, María J. López, Pilar Villar-Argáiz

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Secrecy and Community in 21st-Century Fiction

María J. López, Pilar Villar-Argáiz, María J. López, Pilar Villar-Argáiz

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Secrecy and Community in 21st-Century Fiction examines the relation between secrecy and community in a diverse and international range of contemporary fictional works in English. In its concern with what is called 'communities of secrecy', it is fundamentally indebted to the thought of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot, who have pointed to the fallacies and dangers of identitarian and exclusionary communities, arguing for forms of being-in-common characterized by non-belonging, singularity and otherness. Also drawing on the work of J. Hillis Miller, Derek Attridge, Nicholas Royle, Matei Calinescu, Frank Kermode and George Simmel, among others, this volume analyses the centrality of secrets in the construction of literary form, narrative sequence and meaning, together with their foundational role in our private and interpersonal lives and the public and political realms. In doing so, it engages with the Derridean ethico-political value of secrecy and Derrida's conception of literature as the exemplary site for the operation of the unconditional secret.

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Part One

Secrecy, literary form and the community of readers


Secrecy and community in ergodic texts: Derrida, Ali Smith and the experience of form

Derek Attridge

Modernism and the ergodic novel

Criticism of the novel is concerned, above all, with meaning – and, most often, meaning as a noun, something that can be extracted from the text or something outside the text to which it refers. Character, plot, scene, motive, development, crisis, recognition, reversal and other features of narrative content are the staple ingredients of most accounts of fictional works. Historical, social and political context are exhaustively examined, and even the material constitution of the books in which novels appear gets a great deal of attention. What criticism less often attends to is the experience of meaning, how the text does its work of meaning as it is read. (This, to my mind, is a better way to think of literary meaning – treating it, that is, as a verb rather than as a noun.) In either case, when the question of form is being addressed in studies of the novel, and when it’s not simply being described, it is almost always assumed to have as its sole raison-d’être the enhancement of meaning. (By ‘form’ I mean simply those aspects of the literary work that are not in the business of directly conveying content to the reader, and thus not drawing directly on the semantic dimension of language.) When Samuel Richardson writes Clarissa (1748) in the form of letters, it is in order to convey a sense of immediacy and authenticity in the writing; when Charles Dickens switches between first-person and third-person narration in Bleak House (1852–3) it is in order to achieve a contrast between subjective and objective views of the world – these, at least, are the kinds of explanation usually given for formal choices.
The use of innovative formal devices in order to enhance the reader’s experience of meaning was a significant marker of modernist fiction. Dorothy Richardson’s use of stream-of-consciousness narration in Pilgrimage (1915–67) captures the movements of Miriam Henderson’s mind; the repeating cycle of narrative voices in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) represents the fluidity of human awareness; James Joyce, in developing the technique of interior monologue in Ulysses (1922), was able to express the constant flux of an individual’s inner life with unprecedented immediacy. And many of the novels labelled ‘postmodern’ or ‘late modernist’ similarly find inventive ways of extending the fictional use of language in the service of more precise, more intense, or more humorous representations of human experience – think of Eimear McBride’s tortured syntax in A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013) and The Lesser Bohemians (2016), the grammatically continuous, spatially punctuated, prose of Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), the unstoppable mental chatter of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019), and what has been called the ‘stream-of-fractured-consciousness’ (Leith 2017) of Will Self’s Busner trilogy, the novels Umbrella (2012), Shark (2014) and Phone (2017). What is frequently left out of these discussions is the contribution made by these formal features to the reader’s experience that can’t be accounted for in terms of meaning. Although there is wide acceptance of the notion that in literary works form and meaning are inseparable – the romantic idea of ‘organic form’ remains powerful – it is worth asking whether there are ways in which form may operate on its own to produce pleasure for the reader.
A comparison with music is instructive: an absolute piece of music, without, that is any associated words or narrative, produces its effects on the listener by means of its handling of sonic form. It is a commonplace that these effects are not, finally, translatable into anything that could be called meaning, yet their subtlety and power receives constant testimony. One might say that music operates in secret if secrecy can be thought of as the condition of being outside language and its referential functions. Poetry is more obviously a parallel case, especially when it exploits to the full the possibilities of sound and rhythm. But my suggestion is that a non-semantic potential exists for all formal properties of literary works, and in this essay I wish to explore this proposition in relation to one type of novelistic form.
All the novels I have cited, like most novels, invite a continuous, linear reading in which the primary experience of form is as a constant augmentation, or perhaps complication, of meaning. A different mode of semantic enrichment may happen when the visual layout of the page includes elements that ask to be taken in separately, at a moment of the reader’s own choosing. Espen J. Aarseth provides a full discussion of this issue, coining the term ‘ergodic literature’ for texts in which ‘nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text’; by contrast, traditional texts, which require only ‘eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages’, are non-ergodic (1997, 1). Ergodic literary productions are one example of multimodality, a phenomenon that is receiving increasing attention in studies not only of literary texts but other art forms and games.1 It is the issue of the reader’s freedom of choice in ergodic texts and its relationship to secrecy that I want to consider in more detail here.
One traditional manifestation of ergodic form is the use of illustrations, from medieval illuminated manuscripts to Laurence Sterne’s graphic interpolations in Tristram Shandy (1759–67) to the nineteenth-century illustrated novel.2 More recent examples include W. G. Sebald’s frequent use of photographs, Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), and, in a different mode, the collaboration between the novelist Ivan Vladislavić and the photographer David Goldblatt in Double Negative/TJ (2010). Another type of separate formal element is the footnote or endnote, ranging across Issy’s contributions to the ‘Nightlessons’ chapter of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), Samuel Beckett’s devastating use of the footnote in Watt (1953), Flann O’Brien’s mock-scholarly apparatus in The Third Policeman (1967) and David Foster Wallace’s exploitation of the endnote in Infinite Jest (1966). There are numerous related examples in what we might call late-modernist writing; B. S. Johnson uses side-notes as running commentary in one section of Albert Angelo (1964), Nicholson Baker entertains the reader with lengthy footnotes in The Mezzanine (1988) and a further development of visually simultaneous narrative threads occurs in J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007) with its triple bands of text. Perhaps the fullest exploitation of the text plus notes format is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), which allows the reader a number of different reading experiences, depending on what route is chosen between the poem and its lengthy apparatus.
The readerly choice evident in the inclusion of non-verbal material is also manifest when alternative routes through a novel are provided. Finnegans Wake could be said to be an early example of this mode, since the sentence that runs from the end of the book straight back to the beginning might be taken to imply that the reader can start the text at any point. A well-known Spanish example is Julio Cortázar’s 1963 Rayuela, translated into English as Hopscotch, which provides instructions for an alternative ordering of the chapters; and even more extreme are those novels published in boxes with loose leaves or chapters, such as Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 of 1962 and B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates of 1969. Other extravagant games with visual layout include Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) with its dizzying array of typefaces and spatial arrangements, footnotes and footnotes to footnotes, index, diagrams and photographs and J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. (2013), a narrative that unfolds in handwritten marginal notes to a printed novel that has every appearance of being a library copy of a 1949 novel called Ship of Theseus by one V. M. Straka, complete with loose inserts. In these examples, the reader has multiple choices in sequencing their reading (and, of course, different decisions produce a different book). And when we leave the category of the printed book for electronic media, we find a new universe of multiple plots, readerly choice and visual effects.
I have argued elsewhere that to read a literary work responsibly is a matter of actively exercising interpretation (of language, of referential detail, of generic conventions and so on) and at the same time passively allowing the text to operate upon one – and, if the work is a powerful one, to effect a change in one’s mental and perhaps emotional world.3 The literary work, therefore, is not, to my way of thinking, an object but an act-event. Ergodic novels produce an increase in the reader’s active engagement by making conscious choices necessary, but this increased activity is only valuable if it contributes to the work’s effect upon the receptive reader. In all the examples I have cited, it is possible to make a case for the contribution made by the non-linear materials to the text’s production of meaning; harder to account for, however, is the experience of non-linearity, and thus of choice, as itself as an element in the act-event of reading.
The question I am asking, then, is this: ‘Is the enhancement or complication of the semantic dimension the only way in which this aspect of the reader’s experience – the freedom to choose a pathway – can contribute to the work’s literary operation, or can it make a contribution by functioning independently of meaning?’ (A further question, which I shall come to later, is ‘Do ergodic devices have a p...

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