Thanks, Edward, for inviting me to (re)post this here. I've been thinking a lot these past several months about my next full-length project, which is a novel without characters.
I'm in a brainstorming space right now, so the can'ts and impossibles are (while welcome) maybe unintentionally discouraging/damaging.
Anyway, this all comes from wanting to do with written text what John Register (the painter) did on canvas: he removed any trace of human beings in order to convey human isolation and loneliness. I want to write a book in which no people, not even a narrator, exists. But how?
He painted chairs, empty. Rooms, empty. Windows that looked out onto empty landscapes. These things were created to have a partnership with human beings. But without the humans, there is a yearning instilled in the viewer. Yearning for there to be some connection, especially, when windows are present, between the interior and the exterior worlds. I want to do that with words, and most interesting to me is the idea that perhaps this could be done--without a narrator. The narrator, in fiction, would likely function as the viewer of Register's paintings. I reject that the depiction of a world without humans must be narrated by a human (or anything with a voice, thusly, no personification of anything with humanlike thoughts). I feel like this is where narration, narrative, as it's always been done, could be revised, rethought, reattempted, anyway.
Without characters, there will be no dialogue, of course.
Without a narrator, there will be no stream of conscious. Likewise, no self-consciousness.
Absolutely no personification of inanimate objects. Ugh.
There will be no chronology, as there is no one to experience and therefore narrate time.
Neither knowledge nor being.
And, of course, a rejection of the oral tradition ("Once . . ." "There was . . . " "And so . . . ").
Any suggestions? Ideas? Responses? Would love to hear them. A few appear already over at my blog, in the comments section for this post: http://greencitynews.blogspot.com/2009/09/just-thinking.html.
Thanks in advance . . .
I think this is interesting and at least, as an idea brilliant. I would never suggest that it cannot be done or is impossible. That sort of dismissal is just silly. My initial response was WTF? As a writer, I see it as a very challenging, ambitious endeavor and I understand (at least in part) your motivations. But still, I am stuck at WTF.
I also think that if you're using words, even if you write a narrative devoid of humanity, the human is still implied because you are using language. As such, you're working within a logical fallacy and to my mind, that might defeat the purpose of your project.
I look forward to seeing how you move forward with this. Whatever you do, I know I will find it thought provoking.
I am very interested in what will be assumed--and pretty committed to a "setting" that involves a "landscape" filled with (forgotten, perhaps, or unused) human artifacts--things that imply, assume, a human presence.
I'm against a post-apocalyptic where-have-all-the-humans-gone "story."
Like, maybe, instead, well, I keep thinking about what it would be like to have no language, no self-awareness, what it would be like to come into contact with an empty room. No concept of otherness.
I don't know.
But I do like the possibility of future play with the concepts of assumption, implication.
I'm with you, by the way, on the WTF?
I am very close to the work of a poet who writes almost as a moralist though pulls up short of sustained moral positioning. There are no human figures in the poems: perhaps metonymy and synecdoche to indicate humans but no persons. The project of these poems seems human anyway, as could only be human. I imagine it as a city/consciousness under sea. If you write at the level of the morpheme -- I've seen this in another writer's work who seems to outdo Stein in his circumventing meaning while yet writing in language -- it's an imaginable way to approach what you're proposing. I could see writing from the point of view of an inchworm (no "I") (no pronouns) (a Scottish woman writer whose name I can't remember wrote a novel without pronouns, but it was human in its dilemmas).
V Woolf comes to mind. Jacob's Room, where J leaves the room, the narrative continues. Or the "time passes" section of To The Lighthouse. This is lyric prose, and prosey poetry also may come close, Wasteland or Season in Hell. Populated with voices not characters. Narrating time w/out people and/or the use of disembodied voices may serve you. Of course Woolf gets us to feel absence by removing characters and Eliot gets us to Identify with glimpses of humanity. You can fragment the human, focusing on social (dis)connections, the body, our implements and objects soaking with desire, hope. Of course sustaing for the length of a novel, calling it a novel, and doing so despite reader expecation...that's the humongous challenge. I believe we should be challenging ourselves. What's the saying? Fail better.
Ann, do you have names you can share? I'm fascinated!
John, thank you for all the specific suggestions. I'll dig in. Can't wait . . .
I'm about to crack open _Film_ by Samuel Beckett. Is anyone familiar with this? The back cover reads: "_Film_ is Samuel Beckett's only venture into the medium of the cinema. Written in 1963, the film was made in New York in the summer of 1964, directed by Alan Schneider and starring the late Buster Keaton. For the shooting, Mr. Beckett made his only trip to America, in July, 1964.
"The film, which has no dialogue and only one sound--a soft "sssh!"--takes as its basis Berkeley's theory Esse est percipi, that "to be is to be perceived": even after all outside perception--be it animal, human, or divine--has been suppressed, self-perception remains. [. . .] Keaton plays the role of a man who, fleeing down a near-deserted street, into a house, and up a flight of stairs, enters a room--presumably his--where he carefully blots out all external reality. He draws the curtain, shrouds the mirror, puts out the dog and cat, locks the door, covers the bird cage and then the goldfish bowl, and tears up photographs from out of his past. But the problem of self-perception remains insoluble."
P.S. Ann, I love the idea of no pronouns. Essential, it would seem.
Molly, here's a link for mIEKAL aND at the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo. Samsara Congeries is listed on that page. Samsara Congeries is a 13-volume poem. That is where I read, in ms., the writing (prose, i.e., without linebreak) at the level of the morpheme. I wish I knew in exactly which volume(s) the writing works that way, more Stein than Stein.
The other poet is Tony Sanders. There are three books in print, four not yet in print. The living rooms-at-sea (not literal but in my perception) are in the unpublished mss. I've said about him that he reminds me more of a novelist than any poet I know. He has a long arc, even in the shorter poems.
Beckett seems a place to turn, and as John suggested, Woolf and Eliot.
I absolutely love this idea as the human is often what gets in the way — of thought, of experience, of creation — by bringing us back to a known quantity.
But I wonder if ridding a novel of humanity means necessarily eliminating voice and people. I think most great writing is post- or non-human. I think of Nabokov who clearly privileges word over humanity; Borges for whom possibilities of concepts eclipse human being; William Burroughs, for whom humanity is enmeshed with a flux and flow of diverse forces very few of which look "human"; Clarice Lispector's _Agua Viva_ (The Stream of Life) which seems to come from someone but is all flow, all becoming, never cohering into a person or event.
I also think of Robbe-Grillet's privileging of objects.
So I wonder two things:
1. If by rigorously denying the seeming traits of the human — character, perspective, voice — one might not be in fact reifying the human, albeit it negatively as a present-absence (if that makes sense).
2. If perhaps this is more on the lines of an Oulipo rule, which I heartily applaud. That is, set yourself a series of specific constraints rather than the general one of "no humans." I think you've already begun that process (no dialogue, no individual characters).
In any case, I dig it.
Hi Daniel, thanks for your thoughts. Definitely I think this is a sort of constraint along the lines of Oulipo. It's how my first book was written (I made lists of words from Tender Buttons and tried to write self-contained poems with them); and, in the end, perhaps this is not so obvious, as a narrative emerged and was further developed. This time, though, yes, for the first draft, I do want to try to work within the no humans, no voice, no characters constraint.
Of course, I would stumble upon William Gass's statements:
"I have never found a handbook on the art of fiction or the stage, nor can I imagine finding one, that did not contain a chapter on the creation of character, a skill whose mastery, the author of each manual insists, secures for one the inner secrets of these arts."
"Great character is the most obvious single mark of great literature. [...] Hamlet. Ahab. Julien Sorel. Madame Bovary. There is no end to their tragedy. Great literature is great because its characters are great, and characters are great when they are memorable."
Think outside the book, or outside the "literary." There is so much written and read every day that has nothing to do with characters or conventional action. Maybe you could exploit a product brochure. The conventions of a fact sheet, a white paper, a matchbook cover.
steve & molly,
that's a really good idea, what steve said. i like.
i studied with bill gass, at wash u for a while, and i guess i would offer this, in the what it may be worth department:
he would often start the day by taking his camera and going out to photograph things.
and he never photographed people. he was unconscious of this until one day asked about it. he realized, he didn't want to. his world was depopulated.
and his characters are not "characters" in the traditional literary sense, but rather, as in mrs mean, a philosophical exercise in unpacking the meaning of a name. as in, below (sorry)--a lit encyclopedia thing i pubbed a while back
[Literature, Percesepe, Gass (#947)]
William H. Gass
(b. 1924) Author
William H. Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, the son of William Bernard Gass and Claire Sorensen Gass. His aesthetic sensibility was shaped in a childhood that he remembers as unhappy and damaging; he was schooled early by his father in the art of hate. The elder Gass, a World War I veteran, moved the family to Warren, Ohio, where he taught mechanical drawing and played minor league baseball. Gass remembers his father as a bitter, right-wing bigot, a man who was disappointed with life; his alcoholic mother he recalls as a passive woman, “a puddle of silence.” [See H.L. Hix, Understanding William H. (Columbia, South Carolina: 2002), page 2.] Before his childhood ended he had decided to become a writer. Gass earned a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell University in 1954; he taught philosophy at Washington University in Saint Louis for thirty years before retiring in 1999. Among his most important works are three novels, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and The Tunnel (1995); two short story collections, In The Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), and Cartesian Sonata (1998); and seven works of non-fiction: Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), On Being Blue (1976), The World Within the Word (1979), Habitations of the Word (1984), Finding a Form (1996), Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999), and Tests of Time (2002).
Across five decades, Gass’s fiction and essays have limned the limits of hatred; trusting honest hatred more than false love, by his own admission Gass writes to get even. Almost without exception his characters are utterly unlikable, and this is by design; word men and word women, they lead deflected and defeated lives, their only defense a well turned phrase or carefully planted word bomb. His essays, while often brilliant, are just as often screeds. Yet his writing is oddly compelling, in part because of his inventive use of language. As a prose stylist, Gass is almost without peer. His writing is ironical, irreverent, self-referential, perverse, and at times, as in The Tunnel, deeply disturbing.
Gass writes at the intersection between philosophy and literature. Although he is a true child of the Midwest, and his fiction often appears to be set there—along the banks of the Ohio in Omensetter’s Luck, or “fastened to a field” [See Gass’ short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” in his story collection by the same name, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), the first paragraph of the story.] in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”-- Gass is an anti-realist. He claims to have set Omensetter’s Luck in a river town in the 1890s precisely because he knew nothing of that time or place; both the geographical region and the river refer to nothing outside the work itself, no world outside the word. Similarly, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not an account of life in a small Midwestern town. It is rather a formal negation of W.B. Yeat’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium. His metafiction is an outworking of philosophical and literary theories; character is central, plot is not. Gass creates fictional characters who themselves create fictional figures, as in Omensetter’s Luck. (Omensetter is himself a fictional construct created wholly by the words, perceptions, and anxieties of fellow characters.) Methodologically, his fiction begins with a name of some character or a story title; at times, as in the story “Mrs. Mean,” these are the same; what follows is the unpacking of the meaning of that name, in this case the meaning of mean.
Gass explores self-referential philosophical themes in his fiction, in particular the problem of evil. Mrs. Mean, whose character matches her name, is the incarnation of average, everyday, evil absorbed into daily life. The contagion of evil in “Mrs. Mean” carries through to the meanness of The Tunnel, a novel thirty years in the making. As always in Gass, plot is kept to a minimum and is a consequence of character: Having completed his book, Guilt & Innocence in Hitler's Germany, William Frederick Kohler, distinguished Professor of History at an Indiana university, sits in his chair, intending to write an Introduction. Blocked, he writes instead a history of history, a metahistory-- a history of the historian-as-liar, lout and loser. Fearing his wife will discover it, he hides the new manuscript by slipping it into the pages of his book. Meanwhile, he digs a tunnel out from the basement of his house. Kohler is Mean with the volume turned up. His mother was a drunk, his father a verbally abusive bigot. He is a textbook case of an “unreliable narrator.” His excavations replace the objective with the subjective, the public with the private, the innocent with the guilty; like the members of the PdP (Party of the Disappointed People) he is a meanie, a fascist of the heart. Only language does not lie: notice, says Kohler, that lover is mostly spelled by using over, and sex is two thirds ex. Kohler, plumber of the depths, is himself a word-man, and Gass (the name means alley in German) has so cleverly matched structure to prose that for the first fifty pages of the book readers hit the wall in a series of false starts. Kohler and his readers are trapped at the end of moral history; the book is a total word war.
As an essayist and theorist, Gass hasn't changed his mind in forty years. He believes that philosophy is fictional, and fiction philosophical. Novelists and philosophers share an obsession with language; both are cut from the same conceptual cloth. Neither the philosophical nor the fictional world is more real than the other. Though there are differences between the two—philosophers tend to employ abstract nouns and verbs, while novelists fill in the blanks of proper names—both create verbal worlds, engaging in an “ontological transformation” whereby all objects, real or imagined, must conform to our ways of thinking; must conform, that is, to our words. Both we and the world we inhabit are fictional. As a formalist Gass insists that to understand the deep structure of the world--and the thin line separating reality from the representation of reality—one needn’t consult the periodic table; a thesaurus will do as well.
gary, it's been some time since I read gass but I enjoyed this post and envy your experience as his student.
Stephen: Thank you. Good thoughts, and I'm grateful you shared them.
Gary: Incredible. Thank you, also, for sharing. I really enjoyed reading this, but I want to read it again a few more times . . .
Maryanne: I am totally with you on the envy. :)
The representation of reality still makes its own reality. Whether that gets accepted by others is another thing entirely. But you can only put on so many masks before the act of putting on the masks becomes as boring as the frank wearing of one's own face all the time. But exploration is always wrought with danger and the x factor. You don't know what you will find or what you will make of it or what it will do to you in time. But one thing is for certain changes will occur, movements will happen and music will be scratched across the moment. With what ears you listen to such miracles is up to your own heart.
Molly: Have you read or seen Beckett's "Not I"? Worth a look, for sure.
We're an online literary journal that publishes works of short, indeterminate prose and accompanying criticism. We feature one author every posting period (every two weeks). Every so often a question related to the form and function of fiction will be posted here for discussion.http://www.matchbooklitmag.com