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Raymond Federman

Raymond Federman Essay - Critical Essays

Federman, Raymond

Federman, Raymond 1928–

Federman, a French-born novelist, critic, poet, translator, and editor, has lived in the United States since the 1950s. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Double or Nothing is a bold experiment in comic fiction; it suffers from the fact that a novel as it first bounces through a writer's brain, then goes through its first drafts, is not intrinsically interesting to a reader—unless the novel in question be War and Peace. For the eye simply to decipher Double or Nothing's typographical eccentricities is a chore whose accomplishment should richly reward the reader. But the writer Mr. Federman creates has not yet approached the point of polishing his novel for the reader's delight. His thoughts—and the Frenchman's thoughts—are too thin and too few to withstand the intense scrutiny asked of us. We cannot help wishing that the writer had finished his book before publishing it. (p. 86)

Dorothy Mintzlaff Kennedy, in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Winter, 1974.

I'll tell you about this guy, Federman. Maybe you've run across the type: you know, The Professional Frenchman, with an incredible accent, suave with precisely the correct mixture of appealing boyishness, poised posed impetuous spontaneous—women love it! (p. 5)

Okay. This guy (Federman) has written, more or less, one book of criticism (average, unexceptional), one bibliography (profitable, I'm told), three novels (four, if you count the questionable translation of the second, done by another guy, R. Federman, accent aigu, no connection), not to mention the improbable collection of letters (what gaul) and various poems stories essays unnameables. That much is established, certainly. But for reasons as yet unclear unspecified uncertain, I choose to play with review rewrite restate play with the novels (mainly)—after all, this is my game, I make up the rules, change them to suit my purposes (as yet unclear unspecified uncertain)—take it or leave it. (pp. 5-6)

Frenchy … ends up teaching in large university in new york state condemned to stringing out the story of his life endlessly in various novels that never quite catch up to his encounter with their conception as expected (0-0-0-0)….

Sounds something like a QUEST of some sort, doesn't it? In search of The American Dream, very Horatio Algerian. Lies, lies, I assure you. Actually the three/four novels form one endless ESCAPE—a flight detour digression evasion dodge. From what? This and that; the past, present, future; most of all: from language, writing, l'ecriture. It's obvious. Just to CONfuse us, Federman nearly admits as much [in Double or Nothing, p. 146 1/2]. (p. 7)

The THEORY of digressions: Federman echoes Tristram Shandy, although he (Federman) denies that he's ever read him (Tristram)…. The theory suggests the paradoxical realization that any narrative can be progressively displaced deformed decentered (the fuild space between: difference/differance: AU/TO/BI/O/GRA/PHY) to increase the improbable unlikeliness that the narrator will ever be overtaken trapped engulfed by the tidal events of his narration—which is to say obviously that should the speaker ever coincide precisely with his speaking the wordmaker with his words the writing with the written the result should be DEATH (X-X-X-X)—so that clearly the only possible strategy the BEST BET is to cancel everything spontaneously instantaneously immediately to prevent forestall annul any final cancellation—with the result evidently that everything becomes parenthetical so to speak (((((((tres obscure)))))) which is to say incidental inconclusive incomplete so that no climax is called for leaving (       ) for THE NEXT TIME redeemed. (p. 8)

In [the] first novel [Double or Nothing] Federman juggles four 'voices': first, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man who decides to record word for word the story of another (second) man, rather paranoid and confused, who decides to lock himself in a room for a year (365 days, more or less), subsisting entirely on noodles (that's right), in order to write the story of yet another (third) young man, shy and naive, who comes from France to American and who (if the second voice can pull itself together sufficiently to write and be recorded by the first voice) will experience various adventures and so on but who must for the time being wait until he is charactered—all of which implies a fourth voice managing the glorious, sacred, gimmicky confusion craftily jumbled. The essential weakness of his opening performance is the omission (alas!) of the fifth voice (THE TEXT), which interacts with the sixth voice (THE READER) in order to evade the first four by contesting with the seventh voice (the silent space between the fifth and sixth). Get it?

In his second novel [Take It or Leave It], Federman advances tentatively by juggling the singled narrator's voice (varied and disguised, to be sure), which is rather stubborn determined paranoid confused shy crafty jumbled, with those of various unnamed but easily identifiable others (the TEL QUEL boys, some odd strangers, plus everyone Federman has ever known or imagined), and so on. The weakness of this second act, aside from residual attacks of typographiphobia (a common ailment among modern writers, to which Federman is particularly susceptible, rarely fatal however), consists of its omission of sufficient textual variety, as if the author so-called considers only literal-ly oral voices and overlooks the fantastic possibilities of distorted letters, graffiti, telegrams, dissertations, undeciperhable scrawlings here and there, all of which jar against and seek to evade/disrupt the purposive movement of the central text. Got it?

In his third novel [Winner Take All], Federman leaps courageously (following all my advice, naturally) by juggling not only all (each and every one) of the above elements (included, omitted, or merely imagined) but also a countervoice (which includes, reversed, all the above mentioned elements) which reflects backward-wise on the hesitant progress of the central voice-text, displacing and denying its every move, and so on—with the incredible astonishing magnificent result that the entire work cancels itself out not only as it progresses, but also in advance! Good. (p. 9)

Campbell Tatham, "Crap: Lie or Die," in Margins (copyright © 1974), December, 1974, pp. 5-9.