Christine Brooke-Rose

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Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (essay date winter 1982)

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SOURCE: Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. “Ambiguity and Narrative Levels: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru.Poetics Today 3, no. 1 (winter 1982): 21-32.

[In the following essay, Rimmon-Kenan addresses the question of “Who is speaking?” in the narration of Brooke-Rose's Thru.]

Whoever you invented invented you too

Thru, p. 53

Visual exercises such as Wittgenstein's famous “rabbit-duck” figure (1969: 194)1 or Escher's “white birds/black birds” interlacing (1972)2 have often been evoked in studies not distinguishing between ambiguity and other types of plurisignificance (e.g., Wright 1976: 506-508). Attempting to develop a more sharply focused definition, I have identified the same puzzle pictures with ambiguity alone, differentiating it from cognate phenomena on the basis of the logical operation involved (1977: xi-xi, 3-26). Ambiguity, according to my narrow definition, is the “conjunction” of exclusive disjuncts, whereas double and multiple meaning are based on the conjunction of compatible readings, irony on disjunction, allegory on equivalence, and indeterminacy on the absence of any necessary logical operator.3

In narrative, the exclusive disjuncts are what I call the “finalized hypotheses” (i.e., the hypotheses the reader has attained at the end of the reading process), and their conjunction is the most abstract equivalent of the coexistence of two mutually exclusive fabulas in one sjuzhet. Closer to the surface of the text this “conjunctive disjunction” takes the form of the coexistence of mutually exclusive systems of gap-filling clues (Perry and Sternberg's term, 1968: 263-293; see also Rimmon, 1977: 27-58). Thus, as demonstrated in my study, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw yields two mutually exclusive finalized hypotheses—“there are real ghosts at Bly” vs. “there are no real ghosts at Bly”—both of which can be equally supported by highly complex clue systems in the text, so that the gap remains open and no choice between the conflicting hypotheses is possible (Rimmon 1977: 116-166).

Ghosts vs. no ghosts, black birds flying in one direction vs. white birds flying in the other, rabbit vs. duck—all become ambiguous because of the logical relations created between their components when applied to the same object (contradictories or contraries). But there is another equally famous work by Escher which is no less ambiguous, though far from constituting a contradiction, its components are in fact mutually generating, interchangeable mirror images. These are two pencil-holding hands, identical in form, each appearing to have just finished drawing the other. Neither contraries nor contradictories in themselves, the two hands become mutually exclusive because of their interchangeable structural position. In order to make sense of the puzzle, the observer must be able to construe one hand as drawing the other, but Escher ingeniously subverts the notion of hierarchy, rendering level and metalevel perpetually reversible. The subject of this paper is a parallel type of narrative ambiguity which, to my knowledge, has not yet been analyzed.

The type of ambiguity I am concerned with here is one arising from the interchangeability of narrative levels. As such, it has an evident affinity to other techniques which render the discreteness of levels problematic, such as analogies established among them (e.g., the repetition of the plot of Hamlet in the play within the play) or their intermingling (e.g., asking the reader to help Tristram Shandy reach his bed)4, but it goes one step further in that it collapses—through reversibility—the very distinction between outside and inside, container and contained, narrating subject and narrated object, higher and lower level. In order to examine this ambiguous interchangeability of narrative levels in its most acute form, I have chosen a highly complex and self-conscious text as an example: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru (1975).

My purpose here...

(This entire section contains 5731 words.)

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is to describe the various techniques used in this text to create the ambiguity of narrative levels, to relate these techniques to some underlying assumptions about the nature of narrative, and to define their status within the mimetic and nonmimetic functions of ambiguity in literature. Since this is a study in descriptive poetics, I shall not attempt an evaluation of the book, aside from what is implied by the very act of choosing it for analysis.

Thru is a text about texts. It is both about every discourse—including itself—being constituted by previous discourse (hence the abundance of quotations and allusions in it) and about society, love, personality, the human body as texts (hence the frequent references to French structuralist and poststructuralist theories in this book). Full of repetitions and mirror structures, Thru reflect[s] nothing but


(p. 164)

Glimpses of “reality,” the bribes of traditional narrative, are offered only to be subsequently effaced in this self-destructive construction. Everything in it is posé et déçu, as Barthes said about Robbe-Grillet (1964: 198-206)—everything—including the ambiguous structure I am about to analyze. A preliminary caveat is thus in order: the symmetrical interchangeability of narrator and narrated does indeed exist in Thru, but it often disappears into “no narrator at all but a lacuna through which it is possible to fall into delirious discourse” (p. 54), governed by “the principle […] that you don't follow the principle” (p. 76), moving “from one disembodied voice to another” (p. 59), and consequently giving rise to the question repeatedly asked at all levels: “who speaks?” (pp. 1, 22, 35, 42, 59, 89, 107, etc.).

Who is it, then, who speaks in Thru? One could perhaps identify the speaker with the Master borrowed from Diderot's Jacques le fataliste and functioning here as a kind of dramatized narrator (Booth's term, 1961: 152). Although the Master appears only three times in Thru, his conversations with his servant and alter ego, Jacques, concerning the composition of a text, occur around the beginning, middle and end of the novel (pp. 16-17, 60-70, 149) and can thus be grasped as representing the overall act of narration. The text they compose is presumably the one we read, since its main characters—just as in Thru—are a couple by the names of Larissa Toren and Armel Santores. However, Larissa herself is also in the process of composing a text. “But which text?” asks the Master. “It looks mightily as if she were producing this one” (p. 66). If both Larissa and the Master are said to be writing the text we read, their roles as narrators become interchangeable. Not only does this mean, as the Master jokingly puts it to Jacques, “that the narrator I transformed into Larissa am no longer your master but your mistress” (p. 66); it also means that the object of the Master's narration is transformed into the narrator of the text we read and thus possibly becomes the inventor of both Jacques and the Master. No wonder the Master is bewildered and enraged that “this woman Larissa has […] usurped my place as narrator” (p. 67).

Moreover, in the middle of writing her text, Larissa is interrupted by a visitor called Armel, a friend of her neighbor's, a black writer from Timbuctoo, whom she does not know, and who gives her naïve criticism of her previous book (pp. 61-65). Armel, we remember, is also the name of Larissa's husband (later ex-husband), and there is an early suggestion, rejected later, that he may be black (p. 46). If the interrupter Armel is identical with the husband Armel, then the scene between him and Larissa is probably a flashback, perhaps their first meeting. And occurring where it does, this scene reinforces the blurring of fictional levels, since Armel, who formerly appeared as a character in the Master's narrative, like Larissa herself, is now promoted to the first degree of functionality where he converses with “Larissa Toren, author” (p. 64), who may have invented Jacques and the Master (or rather borrowed them from Diderot) as dramatized narrators for her text. On the other hand, it is also possible that the whole scene between Larissa and Armel is a part of the text composed by the Master.

But in order to bring the conversation with Armel to a close, Larissa “acquire[s] a sudden husband as a last minute escape” (p. 67). The Master, who makes that comment, is also convinced that “Of course her husband if true would have to be Armel” (p. 67). This is confusing, in view of the fact that she tells Armel about a husband who—according to the Master—must be Armel. So perhaps the two Armels are not the same person, and the confusion may be an example of textual auto-destruction rather than ambiguity: “that's a coincidence”—the Master explains at this point to the perplexed Jacques—“they do happen despite the critics” (p. 67).

In addition to the dramatized gentleman narrator, Thru is replete with references to “the unomniscient unprivileged unreliable narrator” (p. 32), who may have been created by the Master for the narration of the story of Armel, Larissa, and the others, but may also be a narrator above that one, posing the Master and his servant as narrating agencies for his own narrative. Like the dramatized narrator, this disembodied voice is also confusingly equated with Larissa, either through analogies or through explicit identification. The minutes of a staff meeting state that “Larissa Toren is opposed to all horizontal coordination which, according to her, would degenerate into useless chatter” (p. 96), and later we hear that “[…] the horizontal coordination degenerates, according to the narrator, into useless chatter” (p. 147). Similarly, Larissa is accused by Armel of having invented him and withdrawn “indifferent, paring your fingernails” (pp. 25-26), a Joycean attribute of authors often applied in Thru to the unreliable narrator (e.g., p. 87). Is Larissa then the narrator in whose narrative she appears as a character? She herself sometimes considers this possibility:

Whoever invented it is the absent narrator or you in love with the unreliable narrator who is in love with the implied author who is in love with himself and therefore absent in the nature of things.

(pp. 137-138; see also pp. 96-97)

Whoever the narrator is, one of the objects of his narration is a radical university, with students from all over the world, where Armel and/or Larissa seem to be teaching.5 This institution of learning is said (by whom?) to have been “dreamt up by the unreliable narrator of the moment who however will be tactfully dropped without scene or motivation” (p. 55). And since that narrator often merges into his dramatized counterparts or into Larissa, the radical university could, by the same token, have been invented by either of the latter. But who, in that case, can tactfully drop the unreliable narrator without scene or motivation? If he is himself dreamt up by the dramatized narrator or by Larissa, he can obviously be dropped by them. But if he is either equivalent to them or their creator, who can dispose of him “from above”?

An interesting possibility emerges here, for the academic course most often focused on in this narrative is Creative Writing, where a collective text, rather uncannily similar to Thru, is being composed. Hence it is quite possible that the class is the collective author inventing and dropping the unreliable disembodied voice as well as Larissa and the Master as narrators. “After all it's our text, isn't it? for us only,” the teacher says (p. 75). But if the class composes the text and sets up its narrators, how can it also be dreamt up by the very narrators it invents? One of the students is disturbingly aware of this double bind:

What are you talking about Ali this is the text we are creating it verbally we are the text we do not exist either we are a pack of lies dreamt up by the unreliable narrator in love with the zeroist author in love with himself but absent in the nature of things, an etherised unauthorised other.

(p. 155)

Nor do the complications stop here. The Creative Writing class is probably taught by Armel, and Larissa's name in the schedule as well as her comments in the staff meetings could be a part of the collective composition or of Armel's own novel. On the other hand, since Larissa herself also writes a text (writes Thru?—whether she teaches at the same university or at another—it is quite possible that she transforms Armel (and the class) into characters in her novel, or even that she transforms herself into Armel.

Since Armel and Larissa are both teachers and characters in the collective narrative composed by the Creative Writing students, the following conversation among the students is particularly perplexing:

You're mad, all of you. You're talking about all these people as if they really existed.

Oh shut up Ali we're having fun inventing.

(p. 154)

As characters in the students' composition, Armel and Larissa do not really exist. On the other hand, as teachers they do exist, but—another turn of the screw—even as teachers they exist only as fictional characters within Thru. Imagine Armel, the teacher, listening to (and perhaps even participating in) the lively exchange among the students about him as character:

[…] if it weren't for that illiberal and catastrophic chapter in which you reinvented him as an ideal husband, articulate and crueltobekind, in order to dialogue lunatically with yourself.

What do you mean? That was real.

[…] Already Myra slipped him into the wrong rectangle as a black man last term.

(pp. 150-151)

Or about his ex-wife, Larissa:

So what do you think, should we kill off Larissa?

She sure asks for it.

(p. 150)

The collective narrative is not exclusively oral. Some of its sections are submitted by the students as written exercises, but the same interchangeability of levels that governs the oral composition operates here, too. Rather than signaling the nature of such segments in advance, Thru presents them first as if they were the narration of primary fictional events (possibly told by the absent or the dramatized narrator) and only later, when we reach the teacher's comments or the class discussion, do we realize that these events are a fiction within a fiction, that is, parts of a student's composition (e.g., pp. 45-48, 58-59, 71-73). Armel's comments on these written segments reinforce the ambiguity of levels, for they could also be said of Thru with equal justification. “The narrator could in fact disappear entirely though you've woven him in quite well,” he writes to one student (p. 48), and to another: “Very good. I like the mixture of levels” (p. 73), thus promoting again the students' compositions within Thru to the level of the very text in which they appear and whose structural principles they share (or create).

Armel and Larissa, we have seen, play two hierarchically incompatible yet interchangeable roles: they are both university teachers and characters in a collective narrative composed by Armel's students. If we leave this ambiguity of levels aside for a moment and examine the relations between Armel and Larissa at each level separately (though we never know which is which), we soon realize that another form of reversible hierarchy is introduced even when the two are expected to be on a par. This form of hierarchy is realistically motivated both by the kind of people Armel and Larissa are said to be (and this applies to them both as primary fictional characters and as inventions in the students' narrative) and by their being writers who fictionalize each other in their work (which again applies at both levels).

As people (that is, as fictional characters at one level or another) Armel and Larissa are capable of relating to each other only by creating an image of themselves (a kind of persona) for the other and an image of the other for themselves. Thus, in Armel's letter to Larissa, he asks: “Have you not carefully invented the person you have become?” (p. 26) and—at a different narrative level (unless the letter is also a part of the collective composition)—the students ask the selfsame question: “But Larissa? and our Larissa? Has she not carefully invented the person she has become […]” (p. 151). As Armel realizes, he himself could also be said to have created Larissa, an invention which she fully reciprocates: “and perhaps it was after all I who invented you though you would not admit this. Certainly you invented me and withdrew […]” (p. 26). The students also see Larissa—now a character in their fiction—as creating an image of Armel for herself: “That's precisely why one has to reinvent him all the time. I mean that's why Larissa had to” (p. 151). This mutual invention, with a few more characters added, is tabulated by one of the possible narrators of Thru before any of the characters have been “properly presented”:

unless Armel inventing Larissa

or Larissa Armel
Armel Veronica
Veronica Armel
Armel Larissa
Larissa Marco (or is it Oscar?)
Marco (?) Larissa
Larissa Armel

(p. 8. The same table is then repeated counterclockwise)

Such a table is, by its nature, endless: “It follows therefore that if Larissa invents Armel inventing Larissa, Armel also invents Larissa inventing Armel” (p. 108) and so on ad infinitum.

Just as they fictionalize each other in their fictional lives, so they fictionalize each other in their fictional fictions. In what seems like the first tête à tête meeting between Armel (future husband or stranger-interrupter?) and Larissa, various elements (e.g., “the man from Porlock,” the remark about the white lines formed on the black hands) are “repeated” from the text Larissa composes as he enters. It is as if her text anticipates the “reality” between Armel and herself, just as—according to the students—it does in relation to Stavro, her lover, after the separation from Armel:

they'd meet for a drink on the castle terrace [Larissa, Stavro, and his new girlfriend] and Larissa would say well tell me how did you two meet closing the manuscript in which she'd be inventing the whole episode before she knew it would turn out that way.

(p. 153)

Larissa herself talks to Armel about Stavro both as her lover and as a character in a text she is writing: “That's why I transferred the whole narrative to Rome, the International Theme you know, as well as the psychosis” (p. 132). And just as she (re)invents both Stavro and Armel in her writing, so she encourages Armel to do with her: “Write your text and reinvent me in the present tense, which is a convention like any other tense […] Whoever you invented invented you too. That surely is the trouble, we do not exist” (p. 53).

Moreover, Larissa's novels do not only transfer her fellow characters to a further degree of fictionality; they also parallel the governing structural principles of Thru in which they are contained. This is particularly evident when Armel (the husband or the other?) criticizes Larissa's book in terms that could apply to Thru, and her answers become an in-built defense of Thru, disarming its potential critics in advance. Two examples will suffice to clarify my point. Armel wonders why the publisher advertises Larissa's book as funny: “Of course it's not funny you are weeping all the time it is one long cry of anguish” (p. 62) and she answers:

So, I'm weeping all the time and yet I'm merely amusing myself. But isn't the only thing to do with a long cry of anguish to amuse oneself? In my country we never separate the two. I take it as a compliment. But you seem to utter these phrases as reproaches.

(p. 63)

Like Larissa's novel, Thru is a combination of witty self-amusement with a cry of anguish, and it is impossible to know whether its author is sad to be glad or glad to be sad—she certainly does not separate the two. Another aspect Armel attacks is the “fall into language”:

Why this flight? […] what I mean is there are moments when you touch on the very essence of things and then brrt! you escape, you run away into language.

(p. 62)

And Larissa answers—for herself and for all critics of Thru—“You mean that when I touch on the essence of things, in that text, it's not by means of language? What is it then?” (p. 62), and “Language is all we have to apprehend reality, if we must use that term” (p. 64).

With this parallel between Larissa's text and Thru we have come full circle to the possibility envisaged in the beginning of this study, namely—in the Master's words—that “It looks mightily as if she were producing this one and not, as previously appeared, Armel, or Armel disguised as narrator or the narrator I disguised as Armel, That's not clear” (p. 66).6 It is indeed unclear both because Larissa may be producing this text but may also be invented by its dramatized or undramatized narrator or even by the students' collective composition, and because it deprives the reader of the possibility of distinguishing between container and contained, outside and inside, higher and lower narrative levels, plunging him into a situation not far from Russell's paradox of “the class of all classes which are not members of themselves.” As is well known, Russell solved his paradox by the theory of logical types, postulating that a class is of a higher type than its members and should not be confused with them (Whitehead & Russell 1964: 37-66). But it is precisely the hierarchy which solves Russell's paradox that becomes ambiguously reversible in Thru, blocking all possible resolution.

Applied to semantic antinomies, which do not have a logical-type hierarchy, similar paradoxes (e.g., the man who says “I am lying”) were solved by Carnap (on the basis of Russell's own insights in his introduction to Wittgenstein) by the distinction between object-language and metalanguage (1937). Thru integrates this distinction within its own discourse when the student Ali writes, in an obvious takeoff from Lacan, “Ça parle. Who then, the Other or the metalanguage?” (p. 35), and when the teacher reminds the class that “we must not confuse the levels of discourse […] I am not a function of your narrative and we are using a metalanguage” (p. 50). This is followed by Jakobson's six functions of language and an appended comment:

There should be placards saying: Danger. You are now entering the Metalinguistic Zone. All access forbidden except for Prepared Consumers with special permits from the Authorities.


(p. 51. See also p. 126)

“Placards” are precisely what Thru omits, and the integration of the notion of metalanguage within its own discourse subverts the very usefulness of this notion, for it employs the reader's metalanguage as its own object-language. The reader thereby becomes an element of the very text he is reading, losing his secure external position.

If, as Lacan says, “il n'y a pas de metalanguage” (1966: 11), the identification of narrative levels remains forever ambiguous. Furthermore, when each level is interchangeable not only with the contiguous one but also with the all-inclusive level which is the text we read, all hierarchical distinctions within reality or fictionality collapse into the only true reality, that of the text itself: “A text is a text is a text” (p. 57). This variation on Gertrude Stein is perhaps the only solution to the ambiguity, but if it solves it, it does so not by opting for one of the interchangeable alternatives but by reasserting the insolubility, thus—like Escher—deliberately flattening the three-dimensional, “reality-like” fiction to the two-dimensional literality of the text.

The structural differences between the perpetual reversibility of narrative levels analyzed here and the conjunction of exclusive disjuncts belonging to the same level studied in my book seem to entail differences in the linguistic devices related to the two types of narrative ambiguity. In Henry James, I have shown, the coexistence of mutually exclusive hypotheses is reinforced by verbal ambiguities such as doubly directed pronouns, substitutions, ellipses, syntactic relations, tone, register, polysemies, and oxymora. In Thru, on the other hand, the ambiguity of the narrative is paralleled not so much by verbal ambiguities (although there are a few) but by various devices of reversibility, notably anagrams, palindromes and chiasmus.

Anagrams, that is, words formed by a transposition of the letters of other words, are used in Thru mainly for proper names, and the transposition they involve tends to emphasize the interchangeability of elements belonging to different levels. This is not true of the simple anagram used by Larissa to explain her personality, “I'm rotten through and through you know, my name is Toren” (p. 135),7 but it is true of the mirroring of her relationship with Armel through their names. Each being both the inventor and the invention of the other, Armel Santores and Larissa Toren are anagrams, with a few extra letters which foreshadow their incompatibility. Armel's name contains m and e not taken up in Larissa's, and hers includes an I not utilized in his. “Why ask what went wrong?” Larissa writes to Armel, “you can make up answers such as you didn't find your ME in me or you kept it nor did I find my I in you but kept it” (p. 53; see also p. 69, where the anagram is explicitly explained). Thus what went wrong in a human relationship is reduced to missing letters in the lovers' names, and language again reigns supreme. A similar anagram exists between a fleeting character in Thru and the title of the book in which she appears: “In any case the mistress of the moment should be changed, and no doubt will be in another moment though perhaps she could meanwhile be called, Ruth, for mixed reasons of phonemic contiguity” (p. 17), an anagram made more explicit and more inclusive a few lines later: “So that now we have at last returned to the subject of discourse, while still of the moment before being thru and hurt (oo!)” (p. 17. italics mine).

Whereas anagrams create a different name by interchanging letters, palindromes are even closer to Escher's drawing hands, since they produce exactly the same word (or expression) when read forwards or backwards. Wishing to crown Larissa's fictional life with a banal death, the class is engaged in a language game: “What shall we do, kill her off? Eliminate her to Lima or let her die in Rome?” and their decision is a perfect palindrome: “But she must die in ROMA AMOR spelt backwards of course” (p. 152). The two words are reversed mirror images, undermining the order of perception just as Escher subverted its hierarchy.

Chiasmus is also a figure of interchangeability, the second part of which reverses the order of the first. But whereas anagrams tend to operate on letters, chiasmus in its pure form reverses the order of words, as in the following example from Coleridge: “Flowers are lovely, love is flowerlike”. Here is an instance from Thru:

desired and feared
unfeared and undesired

(p. 159)

or, without the verselike arrangement: “[…] the diagonal contradictory of the dialectical reply to I want to take you over must necessarily be I want to overtake you” (p. 103). Congruent with the extensive use of metalanguage in Thru, the very word “chiasmus” often recurs to describe human relationships, for example, “the secret chiasmus the signifying substance which once upon a spacetime is accidented as the idyll of Armel and Larissa poem not couple” (p. 75), or in relation to Stavro: “You know you will forestall it by rejecting him soon, very soon, organizing a chiasmus to make him reject you, which he will with cowardice and that will hurt” (p. 123; see also pp. 109, 124, 129, 145). Even when the term itself is not used, the chiastic structure of various phenomena becomes evident through their formulaic stylization, as in the speculation about an object of desire “instituted by itself as valueless […] in order to evade the valuelessness of the subject performer” (p. 122). Similarly, in literature, it is the recipient who constitutes the addressing subject as author (p. 69) and hence the reader is the writer and the writer the reader (p. 30). Even the abstract mechanism of chiasmus, a crosslike shape, is used in Thru in various squares of opposition (pp. 7, 20, 49, 56, 89, 112, 117), at one point becoming interchangeable with the letter X in the playfully equated words “sexuality” and “textuality” (p. 12).

In the foregoing analysis I have shown that the dramatized Master, the disembodied unreliable narrator, Larissa, Armel, and the Creative Writing students are all possible narrators of Thru, each having the mutually exclusive roles of inventing the others and at the same time being invented by them. I have also pointed out the verbal devices which reinforce the interchangeability of narrative levels. It seems appropriate to conclude this discussion by trying to interpret the ambiguity described above, that is, to account for its functions and significance. Some hints in this direction have been included in the descriptive part of this study (see, in particular, pp. 22, 27, 29 above), but I would now like to explore them further in a more systematic way.

Like any other literary device, ambiguity has both mimetic and non-mimetic functions. The mimetic functions are those which turn the ambiguity of the narrative into a vehicle for the reflection, expression, representation of a parallel phenomenon out there, in the world of “reality.” The nonmimetic functions, on the other hand, emphasize the materiality of the chain of signifiers and the ways in which the text draws the reader's attention to itself, becoming a self-reflexive meditation on the medium of art, rather than a mirroring of a reality outside art (Rimmon 1977: 227). Texts differ in the relative weight they assign to the mimetic and the nonmimetic functions of their components, and so do critics and theoreticians—not only according to the nature of the text they deal with but also according to their own assumptions about the nature of literature in general.

In its mimetic role, narrative ambiguity can be said to “imitate” or reenact the ambiguity of various aspects of life: the moral problem of the coexistence of good and evil in the human soul, the epistemological difficulty of determining whether what we see is fact or delusion (Krook 1967: 130, 167), the subjectivity of human perception and the ways in which it either denies or confirms the existence of the external world (Wright 1979: 402-432), the dubious status of human communication, and many others.

Although Thru does pose the question of truth and illusion, of reality and fiction, the very fact that its ambiguity resides in the perpetual reversibility of hierarchy rather than in a contradiction between hypotheses belonging to the same level calls into question the notion of mimeticism. To see literature as mimetic is to assume, in one way or another, a reality (or a fictional reality) which precedes the act of narration of which it is the object, and thus to confirm the hierarchy of levels or what Russell calls “logical types.” To transform the narrated object into the narrating agency and vice-versa, as Thru constantly does, is precisely to render problematic the notion of hierarchy and to plunge us into a universe of paradox against which Russell's “logical types” were designed to guard. It is also to question the separation between reality and narration, and to suggest that there may be no reality apart from its narration. On this view, texts reflect nothing but their own textuality, resulting in infinite regress, tight loop (in computer-programming parlance), and tautology: “a text is a text is a text” (p. 57).

The opaque materiality (or literality) of the text is affirmed not only in opposition to its mirroring of “reality,” but also in relation to its reader. In a text which uses the reader's metalanguage as a part of its own object-language, the reader cannot remain outside, at a level apart, but becomes one of the elements, or effects, of the text. One could say, paradoxically, that the reader does not only read the text but is also read by it, consequently becoming himself a text, forever changing positions with the text creating him and created by him.

Thus, the ambiguity of narrative levels in Thru tells us more about texts than it does about life, but then this novel sees all life as a network of texts, constituted by other texts, and it is in this that its radical modernity—as well as, perhaps, its “perverse” mimeticism—lies.


  1. See also Gombrich's analysis of such figures (1968: 4-5).

  2. See Gombrich's comment on this painting (1963: 154).

  3. Thus, I would prefer to call Wright's “Irony model” the “ambiguity model,” since in irony the disjunction enables us to identify the “true” meaning concealed behind the overt “false” one, whereas in ambiguity, as I define the term, no choice is possible.

  4. These are called “narrative metalepses” by Genette (1972: 238-51). Genette calls the levels themselves “extradiegetic” (the level of narration), “diegetic” (the level of the events narrated), and “metadiegetic” (the level of a narrative within a narrative).

  5. Larissa is listed in the schedule as teaching “The Novel as Intentional Object” (p. 21), and her views are stated in the minutes of the staff meeting (p. 96). Armel in turn writes a letter to Larissa during another staff meeting (p. 26), his comments appear on students' compositions (pp. 48, 73, 74), and one of his courses (“The Beginnings of Narrative”) is listed in the file of a student named Saroja (p. 34). However, since Armel writes to Larissa during a staff meeting, it is also possible that she teaches elsewhere, or that she is away for some time, on a sabbatical perhaps (p. 133).

  6. Note the ambiguity of formulation here, yielding two possible readings: (a) she was producing Armel; (b) Armel was producing the text.

  7. Note also the repetition of the title word, though spelled the English way, in this sentence.


Barthes, Roland, 1964. Essais Critiques (Paris: Seuil).

Booth, Wayne, C., 1961. The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago).

Brooke-Rose, Christine, 1975. Thru (London: Hamilton).

Carnap, Rudolf, 1937. The Logical Syntax of Language, trans. Amethe Smeaton, Countess von Zeppelin (London: Kegan Paul).

Escher, M. C., 1972. The Graphic Work of M. C. Escher, trans. John E. Brigham (London: Pan/Ballantine).

Genette, Gérard, 1972. Figures III (Paris: Seuil).

Gombrich, E. M., 1963. Meditations on a Hobby-Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon Press).

1968 Art and Illusion (London: Phaidon Press).

Krook, Dorothea, 1967. The Ordeal of Consciousness in Henry James (Cambridge: At the University Press).

Lacan, Jacques, 1966. Ecrits I (Paris: Points).

Perry, Menakhem and Meir Sternberg, 1968. “The King through Ironic Eyes: The Narrator's Devices in the Biblical Story of David and Bathsheba and Two Excursuses on the Theory of the Narrative Text,” Ha-Sifrut 1:2, 263-292.

Rimmon, Shlomith, 1977. The Concept of Ambiguity: The Example of James (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press).

Russel, Bertrand, and Alfred Norton Whitehead, 1964 (1913). The Principles of Mathematics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1969. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell).

Wright, Edmond L. 1976. “Arbitrariness and Motivation: A New Theory,” Foundations of Language 14, 506-508.

1979 “Illusion and Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 39, 402-432.

Christine Brooke-Rose, Ellen G. Friedman, and Miriam Fuchs (interview date 29 December 1987)

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SOURCE: Brooke-Rose, Christine, Ellen G. Friedman, and Miriam Fuchs. “A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3 (fall 1989): 80-91.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on December 29, 1987, Brooke-Rose discusses the difficulties faced by experimental women writers.]

[Friedman and Fuchs]: In your essay “Ill Iterations,” which you wrote for Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction,1 you mention the difficulties experimental writers face when they are male, but you say also that the differences are compounded when the experimental writer happens to be a female. Will you talk about those difficulties for the woman writer?

[Brooke-Rose]: Yes, although it took a long time to become aware of them. Once in Paris, quite a long time ago, Hélène Cixous range me up and asked me to write something about the difficulties I've had as a woman writer. Naively, I said, “Well, I haven't had any difficulties as a woman writer. I've had difficulties that any writer would have; can I write about that?” And she said, “Oh, no.” She wanted something feminist. I was a bit antifeminist in those days, in the early 1970s. I didn't consciously feel that I had had any difficulties. My later revision of that feeling came from genuine experience. As I look back over my career I realize that, in fact, I did have difficulties, but took them for granted as part of the nature of things. From the moment I went experimental, however, when I wrote Out, and my then-publishers couldn't understand it and turned it down, I did actually start having difficulties. And when I wrote that essay for you, I started looking back and thinking about it, trying to fathom it out, and I became aware that the woman experimental writer has more difficulties than the man experimental writer, in the sense that, however much men have accepted women's writing, there is still this basic assumption, which is unconscious, that women cannot create new forms. They can imitate others, they can imitate their little lives, tell their love stories and their difficulties and so on, and they do it extremely well. I'm not downgrading that kind of writing. But if by any chance they dare to experiment, then they are imitating a male movement, and usually one that's already dead. In my case, I always get the label nouveau roman in English because nouveau roman is, from the English point of view, safely dead and no one talks about it anymore. In other words, all one is capable of as a woman is to do what the men do, and not so well. There is an unconscious refusal, really, to look at what I'm doing in any kind of detail. Whereas men experimenters or innovators of any kind do get that sort of attention.

What does the phrase “utterly other discourse” from Amalgamemnon mean for you? Do you feel that you are writing “utterly other discourses”?

In Amalgamemnon, it doesn't actually mean that. It doesn't refer to the writing, it refers to the woman reading and thinking quite other things until she has to switch back to talking to the man. In fact, though, I do feel that my writing is different. I haven't actually seen other writing quite like mine, but it is very difficult for me to say how “other” it is, or even whether it's any good. I can't really judge it, so I can't really answer that question. I do what I want to do.

But you did make a conscious decision at one point in your career to write the indeterminate novel, rather than something realistic?

What a strange opposition. The realistic novel has its own indeterminacies. But anyway, it didn't happen that way at all. It was much more negative than that. I was simply dissatisfied with what I was doing. I had written four novels, my early novels, which are really quite traditional, satirical, comic novels. I did experiment with time in one of them, which was written backwards, for instance, so that in each chapter the hero gets younger and younger. But that was still classical irony. They were basically traditional modern novels, if I can use such a phrase, in that the main concern was, like most novels, epistemological, concerned with reality and illusion. But I felt it was too easy. It was great fun, but it wasn't what I wanted. Originally, when I was very young, I used to write poetry every day, but I soon discovered that I was not a poet; but that urge to write poetry …

But you are a poet.

Perhaps, but I had to get around to it in a very different way. I then thought I had found myself as a novelist, but after those four early novels I realized it still wasn't what I wanted. So eventually—yes, I do now write very poetic novels, more deeply poetic at any rate than the poems I was writing every day. At the time of this dissatisfaction, I suppose it was Nathalie Sarraute's The Age of Suspicion, and her putting the modern novel in question, which was the first turning point for me, much more so than her novels, for although I like them very much, I can't say there's a direct influence of Nathalie Sarraute on what I write. Whereas Robbe-Grillet did have a direct influence, at least on Out. But I soon got out of it. So it wasn't a decision to write indeterminate novels as such. It was simply a decision not to go on writing as I used to write. But the other thing that happened was much more important. I had a very serious illness, lost a kidney and had a very long convalescence. I fell into a semi-trancelike state for a long time. I was very much thinking of death as the meaning of life. And I began to write Out, which is a very “sick” novel. I think one can feel that. I imagine a time when the whites are discriminated against; the whole color bar is reversed. But the reason the whites are discriminated against is because they are sick, dying from this mysterious radiation disease to which the colored people are more immune. My protagonist is a sick old man who cannot get a job and cannot remember his previous status. This exactly reproduced the state of illness that I was in, so in that sense of protection it was still a very mimetic novel. But I wasn't consciously trying to do anything different. I started writing a sentence and fell back on the pillow exhausted. I didn't really know where I was going, and it took me a long time to write it. I was groping. So I don't think it was a conscious decision. But then with Such I really took off on my own. I don't think there's any more influence of Robbe-Grillet on Such I would say that Such is my first really “Me” novel, where I don't owe anything to anyone else.

Can you characterize that “Me-ness”?

I think Such is more imaginative, for one thing. It's still, of course, concerned with death since the man dies and is brought back to life. Again, I don't explain why. I get much more interested, in fact, in the impact of language on the imagination. I suppose it's really with Between that I discovered what I could do with language. With Such it's still a fairly straightforward use of language, but very much in another world with this slow return to reality as the man comes back to life, but he then sees the stars as radiation. And having hit on that idea but not really knowing where I was going, I then had to do a lot of work, learn something about astrophysics, for example, since I was using it as a metaphor for the world. It's in Such that I discovered that jargon, of whatever kind, has great poetry. For instance if you take a scientific law and use it literally, it becomes a metaphor. Of course, this is a schoolboy joke. If the teacher says, “Weight consists of the attraction between two bodies,” everybody giggles. But if you take it further and use more complicated astrophysical laws about bouncing signals on the moon, for instance, to express the distance between people, then it becomes a very active metaphor. Yet it's treated as ontological in the world of the fiction, like a sunset or a tree. So this sort of thing, you see, isn't a conscious decision, it's a discovery.

Is that how you would define the experimental novel?

Yes, in a way. People often use the term “experimental novel” to mean just something peculiar, or as a genre in itself (on the same level as “realistic” or “fantastic” or “romantic” or “science” fiction). But to experiment is really not knowing where you're going and discovering. Experimenting with language, experimenting with form and discovering things, and sometimes you might get it wrong and it just doesn't come off. When I discovered that there is great beauty in technical language (and this comes into its own in Thru where I actually use critical jargon as poetry), I also discovered that there's beauty and humor in confronting different discourses, jostling them together, including, for instance, computer language. In Such it's astrophysics and in Between it's all the languages, the lunatic, empty speech-making of different congresses, political, sociological, literary and so on, and of course, actual languages, different languages, all jostled together, since my protagonist, who's a simultaneous interpreter, is always in different countries. Discourse became my subject matter. So discovery is one meaning of “experimental,” and this would be, to answer your earlier question, my “utterly other discourse,” where the actual language is different from the language you and I are using now, or that I find in other books. The second meaning is to see how far I can go with language, with vocabulary and syntax, and this is much more conscious. In Between, for example, a sentence can continue correctly, but by the end of it we are elsewhere in time and space. And I chose an imposed constraint, not using the verb “to be,” just as in Amalgamemnon I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.

Why did you write Between without the verb “to be”?

I wanted to get the constant sense of movement. She's always on the go, she never knows where she wakes up. It's amazing how once you don't use the verb “to be” (and it's extremely difficult not to), you're forced to find another verb, and it's usually an active verb. This gave a sense of constant movement. The other reason was the other sense of the verb “to be,” the existential sense—she just doesn't know who she is, she is always translating from one language to another and never quite knows to which language she belongs, and in fact she belongs to three because she's German, French, and married to an Englishman, or divorced from him, I forget the details. And of course, it's written in English, so the basic convention is English. The other languages are used to show that she doesn't know every language in the world. They block the text, rather like the ideograms in Pound. Things like “exit” in Polish, people don't necessarily recognize it. So I'm playing with disorientation, the disorientation of travel, we've all had it. And the double-reading jokes, too, are familiar. If you read a word in your own language, it can come out like a pun: “lecheria,” in Spanish, for example, which means milk shop, but of course, she reads it as “lechery.” And that kind of disorientation is very personal to me. I was brought up in a trilingual family, and we were always making these kinds of jokes. This loss of identity through language was very important. I don't know that the lack of the verb “to be” actually contributes to it, but that was the reason for it. It would be very indirect, but that was a conscious choice; I wasn't groping for anything. Experiment, then, means two things. One is that you're groping, you don't quite know where you're going, and you make discoveries about language. And the other is that you decide on a constraint, which produces a different style, the reader doesn't know why but he feels it, the physical signifier is made more physical, the signified less important. A year after the publication of Between (1968), Perec brought out La disparition, written (much more drastically) entirely without the letter e. In French, this means far fewer feminine pronouns, and then only with the definite article la (une being outlawed), or abstractions in -tion (etc.), whereas all the masculine nouns have to be introduced by the indefinite article un (le being outlawed). This consequence alone, and there are others, such as rare words, foreign words, makes the language extraordinarily immediate, concrete, cliché free. Obviously we had similar concerns.

But not using the verb “to be” in Between had a thematic purpose. Does using only the future tense in Amalgamemnon also have a thematic purpose?

If you like. But my original purpose was purely technical. Genette shows how language is so structured that you have to situate yourself in time, but not in space. You have to use tenses so that the narrator is either speaking after the event he is telling (that is the large majority), or before, with the future, the event hasn't occurred yet. The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense, the more I realized that we're living all the time in a kind of pseudomini future. A lot of the news is given in the future. I don't mean an actual event that hasn't happened yet, but there's a tremendous amount of speculation like “Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of … and they will probably discuss …” By the time they've met and discussed it, it's gone, and they're speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We're always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it's always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse, particularly political discourse, but also of much ordinary human discourse in private situations. Even more so since sociologists and psychologists have analyzed it, and we all understand each other's hidden motives. This is something which has taken surprise and wonder out of living. So, the original technical motive acquires a thematic “motivation” (in the Genette sense). Not the other way around.

Each novel, since your first, seems to have more humor and vitality. There is a joyful tone that comes through each novel. Part of the tone is due to the language and its playfulness. Do you work intentionally to communicate that joy?

Yes, I am aware of it. Obviously, like everyone, I've known deep unhappiness, but I think I'm a very balanced person. Perhaps balance is the wrong word. It sounds as though I never lose my temper, but that's not true, I'm very impatient. Serene is perhaps what I mean. And humor is one of the ways to achieve that serenity and the bubbling result of it. Almost out of disillusion, if you like, that you don't expect anything else. It gives me, at any rate, a tremendous … how shall I put it … self-reliance. Some people are so terrified of being alone they'd rather be with a bore. I love interesting people but I'd far rather be on my own than with a bore. To answer your question, the only moments in life when I'm 100 percent happy, almost deliriously happy, is when I'm writing, so that there is this feeling of creation of what you can do with words, this joy when you hit on something. Well, I know what Freud would say about all this, but that doesn't worry me. I'm just very happy when I'm writing. I think this probably comes through in the joy of each text. Out was probably a sad text, and some people think that I'm actually a melancholy writer beneath the dazzling wit, and all that. This is the sort of thing that tends to be said by the reviewers.

There is a sense of solitude in Amalgamemnon and Xorandor.

Yes, well you can't hide what you are. I am alone, but I think I've become a far better writer through being alone. It's amazing the exploration one can do when one is never interrupted. My kind of writing takes immense concentration and single-mindedness. I think this is also one of the difficulties most women writers experience if they have children and families and they're always interrupted, then they get scattered. In that sense, my being alone has been a blessing. It probably means that I put a tremendous intensity into it because it's all I've got, so that probably explains this feeling of joy. It means, of course, that I lead a very selfish life, too. I never have to think about feeding a man, and if I want to work until five in the morning, I work until five in the morning. I mean, I live only for myself. There are always students who need help, and friends, but basically, I don't have this constant pull that most women have. But after all, artists are selfish people. If you really want to give yourself 100 percent to your art, then it's better to be alone. Most male writers have found this out. They've used their women very badly, or just as slaves to bring them cups of tea or do their retyping.

Could you talk a bit about the idea of redundancy in Amalgamemnon?

Socially, being redundant means that you're out of a job. This is in England, I don't know if it has the same meaning in America. But in information theory, redundancy means that something is marked over and over again. For instance, some languages are more redundant than others. French is more redundant than English. If you take a French sentence like “Les petites filles sont jolies,” you've got the plural marked in five times. In “the little girls are pretty,” it is marked only twice. The feminine is marked three times in the French sentence and only once (lexically) in the English. Redundancy here means that an element is said many times in case of noise or disturbance. In that particular opening of Amalgamemnon the first meaning of “And soon I shall be quite redundant at last despite of all” is the social meaning, but when I come to “like you after queue,” I play with the two meanings. Because of course the letter u coming after q is redundant, since it always comes after q. Its information content is zero. It is merely a marking of the q.

How would you say the idea of redundancy is carried through thematically in Amalgamemnon?

I don't know. It's an interesting question, because originally it didn't start like that at all. I forget how it did start, it was just this use of the future, this Cassandra theme, and this predictability, and by predictability, of course, I mean redundancy. The social meaning didn't come until later. What concerned me was this predictability of the news. Politically, if somebody is interviewed about something, let's say the leader of the Communist party, you know just how he's going to answer, same with other parties. Everyone's playing his role. That's what I wanted to explore, this predictability. The Cassandra theme in the novel refers not only to Cassandra in the Greek myth, where she is prophesying the end of Troy, and nobody believes her. That's one side of prophesying. But prophesying can also come from this predictability that is just so obvious that you wonder why nobody sees it. For forty years the economists have been telling us, “Oh no, there couldn't possibly be another stock market crash like 1929.” Well maybe, technically, the crash of 1987 wasn't like 1929, but I'd been waiting for it, and I know nothing about finance. So this is what I was trying to explore, why it is we are led by people who can't even predict what it's their job to predict. I was trying to explore on all sorts of levels—political, psychological, metaphysical, and so on. And then precisely to make things easier, because originally it was quite a difficult text, and since I'm accused of being difficult, I made a conscious effort to motivate this, as the theoreticians would say, to place this Cassandra creature in some sort of context, and I hit on this idea of making her a redundant professor, and it fit in very well since she's reading Herodotus. In other words, I gave a realistic framework to this, and that was perfectly conscious. I simply gave a realistic motivation to all her inventions. She's got nothing else to do now since she's redundant. It was like a sop, to help people understand, and naturally all the reviewers picked on that and said the novel was about a redundant woman professor!

Your work, for many readers, is extremely demanding. Although novels like Amalgamemnon provide realistic details as a frame for the abstract elements, it's often difficult to separate them. In fact, the text seems quite porous as the abstract and realistic commingle. One must read in a new way, so to speak.

I don't apologize for that at all. One of my aims in writing the way I do is to teach people to read. They have forgotten how to read. I want what Barthes calls the writerly text as opposed to the readerly text—the readerly text is the consumer product, which can be flicked through. I'm not against that—to read on the train or in the bath. But where is the pleasure of reading if, in fact, you're just going to skip things such as description? The very word “redundancy” comes back here because, as you know, structuralists did a lot of work on this—what is description, what is the effect of the real, how is the effect of the real provoked, and so on. There is a vast amount of redundancy in the realistic novel which the reader skips. That was the point, swelling the detail to fantasy pitch, the fetish object. But today people get that from other media and read just for the plot, for the event, and they don't really want to know what the writer is doing. I think this is a tremendous loss. So what Barthes calls the writerly text is the text which the reader is writing with the writer—I want to share my writing with the reader. Of course, that means the reader has to wake up and see what I'm doing. All the writers of the postmodern movement are doing this; I'm not the only one. Many people say that my novels are difficult; indeed, a lot of people complain about it, but when my fans say that, it's a compliment. They go back and see that I've done this, or that. They say my books are slow reading, and consider this a pleasure. If I achieve that, then I'm very pleased.

Xorandor is somewhat easier but still requires a great deal of attention to every word.

Yes, but that book is a much more “realistic” novel. SF always is realistically anchored. I was very pleased with Ellen's paper on it which treats it still as a self-reflexive experimental novel, because a lot of people thought that Brooke-Rose was having a rest and writing “just” science fiction.2

Your two most recent works, Amalgamemnon and Xorandor, seem, in many ways, more readable than some of the earlier works—also innovative, but more accessible. Are you doing this intentionally?

Probably, yes. It's a little exasperating to be told all the time that one is difficult and unreadable, but also don't forget that my path had to go through Thru, which is a very special sort of unreadable book. I had to write it because—there was I teaching narratology and being a writer. The contradiction, the tension, was such that I had to write Thru, which is a novel about the theory of the novel. It's the most self-reflexive novel that it's possible to write. It's a text about intertextuality, a fiction about fictionality. But it is very difficult, and I knew that I would be rapped on the knuckles. Still, I needed to write it, I needed to send up the structuralist jargon, also to use it as poetry, to use the very jargon of narratology as metaphor, in a way, to deconstruct it. It's a very Derridean book. In fact, all the things it spelled downwards in the beginning, announcing certain themes acrostically, are straight out of Derrida. I was influenced by Derrida at the time, but I didn't want to do just a deconstruction of realism. … Yes, that really is a very difficult novel. It was written almost tongue-in-cheek for a few narratologist friends. I never thought it would be accepted. It was something I had to do. My publisher loved it; at least my editor loved it, the publisher was perhaps not quite so pleased, and of course, it didn't sell. And after that I did realize that I had probably, career-wise as they say, done myself a lot of harm because I was really dismissed as completely potty, doing surrealistic tricks and typography, and so on. It's written for people who understand narratology and the crisis of representation. If you like, it's a little bit as though I wrote a book entirely on engineering that only engineers could understand.

However, many readers, particularly American readers, know narratology in fairly superficial ways, and they probably could follow much of Thru—more than you might think.

That's good, because I had so accepted the fact that people found it unreadable that, I suppose, with Amalgamemnon I really did make a big effort. There were many versions of that. It took nearly nine years to get it right, although I did produce a critical book as well. It took me so long to get it right, partly because of this question of tone, because the future tense can sound very portentious, and I didn't want that, but also because I wanted it to be readable, and the first versions were not. They were kind of thick and dense. So yes, there has been a conscious effort. I don't know. Perhaps it's also come naturally. I'm more at ease, and I'm happier in my writing, as you pointed out yourself. Perhaps I communicate better and have simply learned my trade. It's taken me a long time! But it's true that in Xorandor I went back to telling a story, though I still had to do it in this way, with the kids quarreling about how to tell it themselves. Yes, I quite agree. The two novels I have in my head that are to follow will probably be easier to read. But I still think that people should take pleasure in reading, that it is up to the writer to write in such a way as to direct the attention of the reader to the richness of the possibilities of language. Because otherwise we're just going to lose language, this sloppy, almost un-English English that everyone is talking. People are just not aware of the solidity of their language. It's sliding away. Of course, something always comes to replace it, but I still think that unless we do something the whole reading and writing capacity is going to just disappear. Do what? Well, all one solitary writer can do is to fight against this consumer-product attitude, to make people enjoy working with you.

Then can we assume that we do not need to worry that you're moving towards realism?

Were you worrying? Well, I might be, you know. I have nothing against realism. Why not? I think I say somewhere in A Rhetoric of the Unreal that realism may come back, but in a new form, refreshed by all this. We already have magic realism and hyper-realism after all. Fantastic realism. The real made unreal and vice versa. Sometimes there is a period of tremendous experiment, and then somehow the old thing comes back again, renewed by all the experimenting that's been going on. That may be the only useful purpose of such experiment, I just don't know. But that doesn't concern me too much. I also think that the way “experiment” is set against “realism,” the way I and others are said to be working against the “realistic” novel, is a great oversimplification. Even the most experimental, most postmodern writer is still basically realistic. They may not be “imitating” reality, in the sense of reproducing a familiar situation, but ultimately they're representing something. There's always a representative function simply because language is representative. There have been very naïve attitudes towards representation, and we've all become much more self-conscious about it, but I don't think we can actually get out of representation.


  1. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, eds. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 55-71.

  2. Ellen G. Friedman, “Feminine Narrative, Science Fiction, and the Science of Fiction: Christine Brooke-Rose's Xorandor.” Modern Language Association Convention. San Francisco. Special Session on the works of Christine Brooke-Rose. December 1987.

Robert L. Caserio (essay date winter-spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Caserio, Robert L. “Mobility and Masochism: Christine Brooke-Rose and J. G. Ballard.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 21, nos. 2-3 (winter-spring 1988): 292-310.

[In the following essay, Caserio compares Xorandor with J. G. Ballard's Crash in terms of their relation to the science fiction genre, narratology, and postmodernism.]


From Xorandor, the name of Christine Brooke-Rose's latest (1986) novel, we can derive xorandoric, an adjective describing postmodern fiction. For in A Rhetoric of the Unreal, Brooke-Rose says that postmodern fiction—surfiction, metafiction, the novel novel novel—is a wholly ambiguous or wholly indeterminate text, which is what xorandoric denotes. In such a text we find information gaps in both the story and the plot, gaps “prevented from being filled in by two mutually exclusive systems of gap-filling clues” (228). The structural rule for such mutually exclusive systems would combine the co-presence or coherence of items of information in a narrative with the same items' simultaneous disjunction or incoherence. Brooke-Rose finds instances of the rule in James's proto-postmodern The Turn of the Screw, in narratology, and in computer science. Shlomith Rimmon's narratological work, The Concept of Ambiguity: The Example of James, explores (in Brooke-Rose's summary)

disjunction as the source of ambiguity. But disjunction itself is of two types: inclusive (a ??? b) and exclusive (a ∧ b), often confused. … Rimmon adds a sign of her own to denote ambiguity: ???. That is, ambiguity combines co-presence (•) with exclusive disjunction (∧), it is: a and b (•) + a or b (∧). This in order to distinguish the absolute ambiguity she is dealing with from looser uses of the term.


For her latest novel Brooke-Rose enlists computer science to reformulate ??? as the adding of the computer operand ANDOR, which means non-exclusive or, to the operand XOR, which means exclusive or; hence Xorandor.

Now, because the logic of events and meanings in the absolutely ambiguous or indeterminate text can be both rigorous and self-contradictory at crucial points, the xorandoric text needs a reader who is critically hyperactive. He who runs may not read any longer, unless he runs and reads with an unparalleled quickness to catch up with and catch hold of meanings that are rigorous and self-contradictory, determinate and indeterminate, at crucial points. The ambiguous, indeterminate character of postmodern fiction demands the reader's hyperactivity because the reader will never be reading only where events and meanings conjoin or only where they literally take place. Disjunctive and indeterminate meanings instance a displacement of meaning. The hyperactive reader must be restlessly on the move to keep up with meanings whose displacement, no less than whose disjunction and indeterminacy, will be a sure thing in the totally ambiguous text.

Brooke-Rose calls this mobile reader hypercrite lecteur. Herself a great hypercrite lecteur, in A Rhetoric of the Unreal she illuminates similarities and contrasts between xorandoric and nonxorandoric forms. Because xorandoric fiction confuses the real and the unreal, and makes all reality ambiguous, what is most at stake in this illumination is the relation of structures of modernist and postmodern fiction to structures of traditional novelistic realism. According to Brooke-Rose's strongly argued theory, most twentieth-century SF (science fiction) is not xorandoric because it shares structural procedures with the rhetoric of RF (realistic fiction). RF and most SF both depend on exhaustiveness of description, on neutral “transparent” style and on “defocalisation”—i.e., deemphasis—of the hero. Above all, both RF and SF reduce to certainty any ambiguity that arises in narrative. Yet while RF and SF procedures tend to merge, RF has a disambiguating procedure that SF does not share. This procedure is the realist's appeal to our agreed-upon and unambiguously recognizable history. The realist makes this appeal by relying on a kind of narrative supplement, a parallel-story structure he identifies with history as the reader knows history from outside of fiction. By being tied to a shared understanding of the past and the present, ambiguity or indeterminacy in the meanings or events—even in the ontological status—of a realistic narrative becomes resolved. Here history is the story that fills in the gaps in the fictional plot. This history is understood to be external to the fiction, and not made up. In contrast, when SF uses history to fill in information gaps it invents unreal chronicles to do so. The disambiguating parallel-story structure in SF is thereby a virtual (albeit mostly unconscious) parody of RF procedure.

In spite of the strength of Brooke-Rose's theoretical treatment of these disambiguating procedures, I shall point out later two exemplary postmodern fictions—one by J. G. Ballard and one by Brooke-Rose herself—which suggest that the treatment has its vulnerable side. But the intellectual and emotional flexibility which is part of Brooke-Rose's strength of argument is the more valuable for the vulnerability it risks. Preferring xorandoric texts, Brooke-Rose does not like RF's disambiguating, determining procedures. When those procedures bulk too large in SF—as they do in Tolkien—she turns away from their product, reserving her enthusiastic interest for non-normative xorandoric SF, like Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and Joseph McElroy's Plus. But Brooke-Rose persists in linking formalist likes and dislikes with meditations on reality and on the very historical dimension whose exploitation in RF she finds uncongenial. As a result a moving conflict of interests pervades A Rhetoric of the Unreal. The critic-novelist is drawn away from and towards reality, away from and towards thinking of the real and the unreal in oppositional and ontological terms. What if the real and the unreal continue to have an ontological importance for us? What if the real and unreal not only are, and are different, but—as a result of a twist in the history of Being—have come to intertwine their differences? Because Brooke-Rose begins and ends her book with thoughts about how for even hypercrite lecteur the real and the unreal now might merge ontologically and historically she is led to make her book vulnerable to a worry that punctuates her last page. She says there that, since we have not shown “the slightest capacity for solving the world's real problems, only a brilliant capacity for displacing them, … more and more words and formulas and forms, continuous or discontinuous, theoretical or intuitive, not only [seem] to me yet another displacement, but also [have] me dead scared, even if like everyone else … I am contributing to it.” This worry was predicted in 1975 by a curious aspect of her novel Thru, where stylized and parodied discourses of disjunction, displacement, and indeterminacy, from linguistics to Lacan, are turned into a sublime poetry. The curious aspect of Thru is the way it makes one feel that the free-for-all thruway of the text can become a roadblock, and that what the road blocks is more important than the formulas and forms of mobility.

In a recent essay, “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel,” Brooke-Rose hints that what the road blocks is a regenerative feminine something, which she denominates (another word-formula) lalangue. But insofar as lalangue is also a term for an indeterminate displacement, what is there to be “dead scared” about? To judge from a recent joining of forces between narrative theory and Freudian metapsychology, the solution to anxiety on the critical thruways is not less disjunction and displacement but more. We are now influenced by two opposed yet complementary schools of Freudian narratology, both of them derived from Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Both of them see a vital conjunction in bringing together displacement and restlessly mobile xorandoric indeterminacy with Freudian Eros. One school—Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot is an example—presents narrative as the vehicle of erotic desire, binding the death-instinct libidinally by displacing or mastering life's tendency towards closure. The other school presents narrative as the vehicle of the death-instinct, binding Eros destructively by inhibiting or fixing life's tendency towards ever-restless openness. Obviously both schools agree that the all-important thing is mobility of meaning, hypercrite lecteur's specialty, not narrative itself or anti-narrative itself. The agreement oddly revises the dualism Freud wanted to maintain when thinking about Eros and death. As if uneasy about being recruited for a dualism, the narratologists transform the indeterminacy and displacement of fused antithetical instincts feared by Freud into an indeterminacy and displacement of meanings, now asserted to be the ally of Eros and of hypercrite lecteur against death.

An anti-narrative argument in this vein is Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit's The Forms of Violence: Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture. The book is a polemic against the forms of art least suitable to “the desiring imagination” (71). The least suitable forms are narrative ones, because “traditional” narrative does not represent a psychic or cultural investment in displacement and indeterminacy. The latter are Bersani and Dutoit's sources of what authentic human desire takes most pleasure in, so here we again find hypercrite lecteur's mobility and the totally ambiguous aesthetic objects that correspond to his mobility. “The desiring imagination,” one reads, is inseparable from

a pleasurable movement toward an absent (and … unlocatable) source of satisfaction. The pleasure of desire is inseparable from the tension created by the lack in desire. Desire constitutes a mobile and indeterminate sensuality.


The Assyrian palace reliefs, eliciting this sensuality, present art and art's pleasure as “the very tension of the displacing movement itself” (105). Now it is this tension which “the dominant esthetic and ethic of mimesis in our culture” (37) denies. And it uses narrative—pre-xorandoric narrative, at least—as a prime instrument of the denial. The writers argue that pre-xorandoric narrative reifies and fixes its characters and scenes, and that such narrative thereby inspires a nefarious mimetic fixation, which ties down the reader's restless desires, and produces a life-denying arrest. The type of this fixation is sadomasochism.

How does our culture involve sadomasochism, narrative, and the “dominant” form of mimesis? Bersani and Dutoit portray sadomasochism as a psychosexual dependency on a rigid determination of experiences and persons. Both are transformed by sadomasochism into objects that are cut away from an inherent infinity of indeterminate meanings and relations. Once they are thus cut away and dismembered, the reified phenomena are then fixed into immobilized forms. Bersani and Dutoit see Sadian narrative as archetypal narrative because they see pre-xorandoric storytelling as the product of a cutting and fixing, dismembering and immobilizing of experience, of desire, and of what desire pursues. Narrative of this type gives us not displacement and indeterminacy, but rigid assignment of our experiences and wants to fixed places or to fixed images or to fixed satisfactions. This dismembering, immobilizing process or determination makes sadomasochism and narrative be types of each other. Both stimulate in their proponents, according to Bersani and Dutoit, a mimetic fascination with dismemberments and fixations, and hence with violence and immobilization:

A coherent narrative depends on stabilized images; stabilized images stimulate the mimetic impulse. Centrality, the privileged foreground, and the suspenseful expectation of climaxes all contribute, in historical and artistic narratives, to an immobilizing self-displacement.


The immobilization is itself an aggression (in the name of a fixed “self”) against desire; only a mobilizing self-displacement would not be aggressive. For such self-displacements there would be no narrative, and no violence. “Desiring fantasy is displaced fantasy,” the writers say; “and displacement is nonnarrative representation” (116). Liberated from narrational cuttings and fixings, the restlessness of desire is thereby presented as averse to sadomasochism; indeed, “the very restlessness of desire,” the writers conclude, “is a guarantee of its curiously mild and pacific nature” (125).

Bersani and Dutoit say that the argument of The Forms of Violence is for the sake of “rightly … humane or morally liberal responses” (38), that the curiously mild and pacific restlessness of desire is “an ontological safeguard against a fanatically organized interest in any part of the world” (125). Nevertheless, like Brooke-Rose I think that something is wrong with this insistence on an aesthetic and ethic of displacement and indeterminacy. When The Forms of Violence speaks about sensual “mobilization,” about the way looking at Assyrian sculpture “trains us to formalize psychic mobility” (39), or about “fantasies always on the move” (105), it sounds like the argument is marching in the boots of the enemy. The Forms of Violence points out an example of the enemy, “the dominant esthetic and ethic of mimesis in our culture,” in the narrative movie images of Leni Riefenstahl. This example shows by contrast how the Assyrians were not Nazis. But within a few pages Jane Austen, James, and Proust turn out, by virtue of the fixating procedures of their RF narratives, to be Riefenstahl's allies, and sadomasochistic as well. The suggested images that arise here of Austen in stormtrooper's leather or James in a spiked dog collar may verge on insight, and certainly Proust is bound to Charlus; but the aesthetic and ethic of mobility loses insight by being quickly on the defense against what is not mild and pacific. The pacific defensiveness exerts its own coercive violence. Throughout the discussion of narrative's dismembering procedures and incitements, Bersani and Dutoit use a vocabulary of figurative violence which, in spite of its figurative nature, they require their readers to take as literal. The narrative dismemberments the writers speak of are scarcely matters of the real bloodshed that appears to be under discussion in their book. And the mimesis the authors speak of is, in any actual practice, scarcely a matter of the literal copying—on the part of both authors and readers—that seems to be what Bersani and Dutoit mean by the term. The writers exploit metaphorical latitude of meaning in the terms violence and mimesis in order to fix rigidly in their readers' minds highly determinate denotations of those words. Given the writers' aesthetic and ethic of indeterminacy, this is an indeed curiously mild and pacific expository strategy.

To be sure, one is always too quickly on the defense. But are determinations and arrests of thought and perception as destructive as Bersani and Dutoit make them out? I cannot avoid the idea that in one's reading of fiction, of RF especially, there is an experience of violent arrest, of a suffering of a text's revelatory determinations or disambiguations of meaning, which our critical theory has not yet appreciated for its vital importance. The value of The Forms of Violence—the value justifying attention and challenge—results from a form of masochism that is, I submit, indeed operative in the nature, and in the necessary response to, some of our culture's honored works. Bersani and Dutoit are not mobilizing against a chimera. Like them I hypothesize the relevance to art of masochistic suffering and arrest. Unlike them, I hypothesize a different value for that relevance. In what follows I speak of masochism—apart from sadism—to focus on a psychic or intellectual pleasure or benefit in psychic or intellectual (rather than bodily) injury or puncture; and I lean towards a figurative meaning—albeit a determinate one—of the term. It will be seen that the benefit of pain I hypothesize is connected with being determined in some way, as by some binding power of experience or thought; and that this determination is rooted in phenomena that precede adult sexual development. My inspiration for this way of speaking is Freud, in “The Economic Problem of Masochism” (1924), and Jean Laplanche's development of Freud's essay. I shall follow Laplanche in suggesting, most unlike Bersani and Dutoit, that Freud adumbrates a conjunction of masochism and vital function, in fact of masochism and creativity. This possible conjunction is glanced at yet skipped over by The Forms of Violence, with the result that the writers deny any final link between vitality and masochism. And because they see an inevitable coupling of masochism and death, they speak throughout of sadomasochism as an indissoluble entity. Of course, for me to speak of vitality in conjunction with masochism will be not to speak of anything cozily vital. What there is in postmodernism to be dead scared of might find its alternative in only another fright. But to be open to fright and pain is not to be closed to life.

What evidence, then, in Freud's thoughts about masochism might give pause to hypercrite lecteur, and might help to hypothesize the vitality of a demobilizing or binding text and an arrested or bound reader? A moment in The Forms of Violence debates the book's own assumptions and provides a starting-point. The writers say,

If we understand fantasy here as the imaginary expression and fulfillment of a desire, then the psychic disturbance produced by fantasy is … experience of pleasure as pain; … it is a masochistic … excitement. …

… In one sense, [then,] masochism serves life. The threat to psychic wholeness in each destabilizing fantasy is an enrichment of being.


The writers have consulted Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, Laplanche's great commentary, and are following out Freud's idea that masochism in the child produces—as a marginal derivative, to begin with—the adult form of sexuality. Yet the masochism at issue, as Freud pointed out in “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” has three forms: primary or erotogenic masochism, female masochism and moral masochism. Interrelated as these masochisms are, they are misleadingly treated if lumped together, as they are in The Forms of Violence.

Female masochism (which Freud says we are especially familiar with in men!) and moral masochism are expressions of desire for punishment. They are derivative forms of sadism, itself a derivative of primary erotogenic masochism. The latter as I understand it is not a desire for punishment. Perhaps because The Forms of Violence equates erotogenic masochism with female and moral masochism, and perhaps too because it treats sadomasochism as an unbreakable monad, the book's appreciative address to the phenomenon stops abruptly: “The logical ‘end’ of [masochistic] excitement … is the destruction of life itself” (34).

But the ‘end’ of erotogenic masochism, in Freud and in Laplanche, does not follow the logic just claimed for it. To be sure, any logic in Freud's idea of erotogenic masochism is difficult to make out, since what Freud says about it is confined to over-condensed remarks in his 1924 essay. And, as if the condensation were not enough to insure an absence of helpful commentary, exegesis of erotogenic masochism has been overshadowed by Beyond the Pleasure Principle and The Ego and the Id—or rather by our attachment to the pages in Freud that undermine any difference between death-instincts and life-instincts. But by assigning a collaboration with death to female and moral masochism rather than to erotogenic masochism, in the 1924 essay Freud's differentiation of the masochistic economy might be taken as another attempt to hold on to the logic of instinctual dualism he wants to maintain. Laplanche's commentary, I think, follows out Freud's possible intention; even though erotogenic masochism is only a fine thread in Laplanche's densely-woven book, Laplanche does not assign the phenomenon to Freud's periodic compulsion—as Laplanche puts it—“to carry death back … to the very level of biology, as an instinct. … to demolish life” (123). But this thread in Laplanche's book has been ignored, partly because of the thread's fineness, and partly because of the postmodern stress on indeterminacy in Freud's thought. And, in a sense, in Freud's thought the arbitrary displacement of life into death, of death into life, has the attraction of logic; that is, his thought ends logically in the idea of such indeterminacy. But what if this logic is not at one with the “logic” of biological life as it might exist despite the pessimistic side of Freud's thought? Probing Freud's lead and Laplanche's follow-up, then, I will set out the way whereby erotogenic masochism might be said to enrich biological and intellectual life—keeping an eye as I do so on the bearing on literature of this curt exposition.

On the basis of “The Economic Problem of Masochism” one might say that erotogenic masochism is the effect of a libidinal reserve which, on the one hand, represents the coalescence or fusion of the death instinct and Eros and, on the other hand, represents a defusion of them. A masochistic pleasure in tension due to pain and unpleasure would originate the defusion. Such pleasure would unbalance the static equilibrium of the fused antithetical instincts, and so it would effect an advance—the excitation of sexual instinct, for example—in the liberation and consolidation of a purely libidinal Eros. Thus this vitally unbalancing excitation would be the source of the enrichment of life that masochism might be said to instigate. But Freud's few pages on the subject need supplementation by Laplanche's idea of erotogenic masochism as an anaclitic crossroads.

Laplanche suggests that, in terms of psychic development, primary, erotogenic masochism is situated between an organism's primary, nonambiguous and nonarbitrary coordination of instinct, aim and object, and a later ambiguous and arbitrary coordination. For example, instinctive hunger, the aim to preserve bodily functions essential to life, and food, represent the nonambiguous coordination. Biological function essential to life is what Laplanche calls the vital order. In what might be a deliberate challenge to Freud's idea of a primary fusion of the death instinct and Eros, Laplanche hypothesizes a primary, direct functioning of the vital order in nonambiguous coordinations of instinct, aim, and object. But in human growth, as of course Laplanche points out, this direct functioning is not present for long. Here we find the beginning of psychic mobilization or displacement—although the displacement, it will be seen, is not unchecked. Intellectual and cultural development requires the substitution of ambiguous or arbitrary secondary aims and objects for what in early development are the undisplaced matchings of instinct with its complements. In this process the development of life is excited by a painfully pleasurable unbalancing of a present match of instinct, aim, and object for the sake of a new and potentially more arbitrary match. When and where these masochistically pleasurable and hence stimulating unbalancings occur there is an anaclitic crossroads.

At this psychic site, the vital order is called upon by the libido to act as a model, as a prop or stay, to support the functioning of arbitrary substitutes for prior, more determinately vital coordinations of instinct. Freud says “erotogenic masochism accompanies the libido through all its developmental phases” (164). If so, then the libido is bound to return to the masochistic site of the anaclitic crossroads, perhaps because the libido is originally closest there to the vital order. It appears, at least, that in a masochistic posture the libido comprehends simultaneously the pleasurable stimulation of the vital order and the unpleasurable stimulation of the vital order's substitutes. But, excited though it is by both the vital order and the vital order's displacement, erotogenic masochism functions as a brake on displacement. It seeks to form any arbitrary, ambiguous, or indeterminate displacement of vitality on the pattern of the vital order—on a pattern, that is, of the nonarbitrary, nonambiguous coordination of instinct, aim, and object. Now in language and literature the cratylistic fantasy of a nonarbitrary match between the components of a sign might be an ideational recollection or projection of the vital order's unambiguous matching of instinctual components. Likewise, realistic fiction's claims to be truly side-by-side with life, unambiguously matching descriptive language with described things, might be also a projected recollection of the vital order's integrated components. Put this way, of course, linguistic cratylism and literary realism can be seen as erotogenic, insofar as they seek to bind different elements into a fixedly integrated unity; but what would be the masochistic component here? The latter might show itself in the prestige given by cratylism and realism to the passive, nonarbitrary motivation of signs or of discourse by painfully coercive external things or by an all-determining life-force.

In speaking of erotogenic masochism in a way that emphasizes its agency—as a seeker of coordinating bonds, or as an active brake on mobility and displacement—one must not lose sight of the passivity of the phenomenon. Arguably, libido starting out on the road of life's displacements would not regain access to the vital order were it not stimulated to do so by the pleasure of a painfully passive determination or arrest by the vital order's substitutes, which first appear to be alien and invasive. Now the veritable highway of displacements is in the intellect, in the realm of ideas. At the anaclitic crossroads the organism's vital functioning is invasively determined by ideas of life, of life in its present (and past) mode and of life as it might be extended in future by novel and ambiguous substitutes. Indeed, ideation and intellectual development as Laplanche describes them involve the libido in erotogenic masochism. Laplanche describes this involvement, to which he adds literary allusions, by speaking of how “the very movement of fantasmatization” emphasizes “the privileged character of [erotogenic] masochism in human sexuality. The analysis … of an essential fantasy—the ‘primal scene’—would illustrate it as well … : the child, impotent in his crib, is Ulysses tied to the mast or Tantalus, on whom [the spectacle] is imposed” (102). Laplanche emphasizes the child's bound passivity not just in relation to activity but in relation to fantasy and thought. The bound nature of the Ulyssean child is what makes possible his fixation on all ideational representatives from ego to ideal, and Laplanche—in what seems, very significantly, a dissent from Lacan—assigns this binding not to sadistic aggression or to the desire for punishment, but to the love of life. “A human being can supplement a love of life that is occasionally deficient only by a love of the ego or of the ideal agencies which are, in turn, derived from it” (125). Both ego and ideal are the products of an arrest of mobility. Laplanche goes on: “Even an unconscious fantasy … could not come into existence without … the minimum of imaginary inertia allowing … the precipitation of those concretions that are ‘object-like’ in that … they can be surrounded and cathected” (126). So to be tied to the mast of ideation is creative, and abets life. This binding is figured last by Laplanche as punctuation—a figure that suggests fixation and also, in the light of the intrusive or invasive character of ideation, suggests puncturing. “It is the ego, derived from the vital energy form, that introduces the punctuation of recognizable and reproducible perceptual elements. It is a punctuation that is perhaps necessary for the fixation of every discursive sequence” (126).

Invasion or intrusion, punctuation, stopping: in the medium of these excitational hurts the libido meets the death-instinct and binds it erotically, or uses the meeting to defuse Eros and death under the influence of excitement by pain. In Laplanche's light I suggest that the reader who suffers punctuation by an intrusive, determining text is not bound to death, and that his experience of arrest is not logically or necessarily a move into sadism or moral masochism. Hypercrite lecteur is not the only hero of reading; the bound and determined figures of Ulysses and Tantalus—I might add, of Shelley's supine visionary Prometheus—have a role to play even in responses to xorandoric fiction. Yet before I move on to bound figures in Brooke-Rose's and J. G. Ballard's postmodernism, there is one more theorist I want to enlist in the attempt to gain attention for Freud's primary masochism. In Fredric Jameson's great book on Wyndham Lewis, Fables of Aggression (with The Forms of Violence in mind, should it be called Fables are Aggression?), another extraordinary last page reveals a desire to end displacement, and—unintentionally—forges a link between erotogenic masochism and the disambiguating procedures of RF. Up until his last page Jameson has been arguing that a mimesis which seeks a fixing or binding of the forms of real life in a representational “beyond” reproduces the reifying procedures of Lacan's Imaginary, of capitalism, and of proto-fascism. Because Lewis is a satirist his representational aim is particularly urgent. Lewis sees the human objects of his satire as unreal and unalive. He wants to use representation to give them a determinate life so that his aggressive attack can give them a determinate death. Yet how can art be a life-and-death matter if the difference between Eros and death is ambiguous? Lewis' work asks this question all the more urgently because Lewis sees all art as a bottomless abyss of displacements and indeterminacies. Lewis is a proto-postmodernist. The Revenge for Love (1937), the novel about the Spanish Civil War, presents its characters and its parallel story, history, as factitious structures of mutually exclusive systems, ambiguously combining co-presence and disjunction. At the end of the novel, however, the nasty character Percy (named after Lewis) weeps. He weeps because the xorandoric rhetoric of the unreal in life itself has produced two deaths which he finds perplexingly determinate and real. How can the unreal—and the dead—have real life-and-death effects?

Jameson's comment on the ending is astonishing. He asserts: “On the closing page of The Revenge for Love, … there hangs and gleams forever the realest tear in all literature” (177). This is astonishing because in these words Jameson implicitly turns his back on his Lacan-derived idea that the binding aims of determinate representations are death-inspired. That the realest tear, inspired by an idea of life, is seen to hang forever on the page argues in the critic's mind a commitment to a binding nonarbitrary and unambiguous representation. Suddenly, not the Lacanian symbolic, but the imaginary and the real conjoined, are given pride of place. Jameson's penetration by this ideational reversal is preceded by a political commentary—by Jameson's expression of fright at the way mere words, in their slippery mobility, are used by those in power to produce and evade politically-caused real deaths. A sadistic political and historical determination causes the critic to regress to the posture characteristic of the anaclitic crossroads. And this regress, in which Jameson is invaded by a critical position not his own, is for the sake of the vital order. “There hangs and gleams forever the realest tear in all literature.” Could one mobilize the words to fix them anew in the spirit they are penetrated by? The realest tear also means the realist tear. By tearing or puncturing the reader with a finally unambiguous, determinate representation of life, by binding the reader to a fixed understanding of the parallel-story structure called history, the rhetoric of the real produces erotogenic effects. In this bound state, my speculation means to suggest, more can be seen about the nature of the substitute forms of life that lean upon and are stayed by vital function and vital order, than could be the case otherwise.


Vaughan, Ballard's hero in the novel Crash (1973), spends his life cruising the thruways and hoping to be in auto-accidents. Already a multiple-accident victim, he has collected a fellowship of perpetrators or victims of collisions, among whom is the novel's narrator, one Ballard. To these friends, no matter what their sex, Vaughan makes love, focussing his sexual acts on their scars and mutilations. But this love-making pursues not sex but an idea: to wit, that aggression on the road only appears to be the triumph of accident or of a desire for punishment or of a death-drive. Vaughan has made himself the delegate of Eros to convince highway victims that the roadside slaughter really represents death's binding and defeat by love. And in plotting his own death in a crash with the limousine of movie-star Elizabeth Taylor, he plans an apocalyptic demonstration of the way Eros inspires even suicide and murder.

Which school of narratology would find an exponent in Vaughan? Would he be a hero for Peter Brooks, a villain for Bersani and Dutoit? Certainly for the latter Vaughan's idea-driven monomania would seem a throwback to—Riefenstahl. In The Mythopoeic Reality Mas'ud Zavarzadeh says that postmodernism undermines the possibility of totalizing the present human situation. Vaughan is no postmodernist, then, because his idea about the accidents that a company our restless mobility seeks to totalize the meaning of vehicular casualty. Accordingly, Peter Brooks would not like him any more than Bersani and Dutoit, for Vaughan wants to limit the meaning of what he plots, and to see desire stilled by consummation. What then of Ballard the author-is he drawn into Vaughan's project in a way that makes him a literary and ethical reactionary? To say so would ignore how Vaughan's idea and its totalizing impulse seems to be offered us, as much as not, as a parody of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ballard has said that he devoured Freud in his adolescent years, and that consequently he set out on a medical career to become a psychoanalyst. But, after giving up medicine and psychiatry for science fiction, Ballard seems to have turned against his inspiration. At least, in Crash—which is thoroughly typical of Ballard's work before Empire of the Sun (1984)—we find a totally ambiguous text, because the novel projects mutually exclusive clues to its author's attitude about his subject and his Freudian sources. The novel about Vaughan hovers among three stances toward the story and its presentation: earnest application of Freud to plausibly concrete experiences; parody of Freud; and “pop” stylization of Freud (something between endorsement and subversion). The deadpan earnestness with which Ballard and “Ballard” present Crash makes it impossible for the reader to determine if the novel is, after all, a joke. But as we watch Vaughan enact Freud's hope to see Eros free itself from fusion with death, the hope looks like the symptom of an absurd speculation. And, at the same time, Crash's literalization of the idea that Eros and death are fused makes the idea of fusion look no less preposterous than the enactment of defusion. Freud's presence in the novel is displaced by parody, which is displaced in turn by earnest Freudianism, which is displaced once more by parody. The wavering between seriousness and play cannot be resolved, and so the case for the total ambiguity—and for the postmodernism—of Ballard's text is a strong one.

This total ambiguity makes the generic identity of Ballard's text no less indeterminate. Crash shows signs of being SF or RF; but what in fact is it? The novel uses recognizable sociological codes to situate its story in contemporary London, but the contemporaneousness remains uncertain because Ballard does not use the RF parallel-story structure to attach the novel to a recognizable historical code. The name of the film-star is the only link between the novel and a determinate historical period. Moreover, when Ballard-before Empire of the Sun—does provide his reader with more contemporary sociological and historical matter than he does in Crash, the reader is made to feel that the realistic matter is stereotyped, the product of clichéd and factitious interpretative codes. As a result, the sociohistorical analysis that plays teasingly through High-Rise (1975) looks again like parody, especially where the analysis is offered as a disambiguation of the mysterious events that take place in the titular building. The tale is about a condo full of well-off upwardly mobile professionals who are all alike, but who take to internecine warfare. It's suggested that this is because of a natural tendency towards class-division: the turmoil begins with the ressentiment felt by the lower floors against the upper. But since this analysis explains everything and nothing, its suggestion is made to look like claptrap, an architectural convenience on which to build a tale about a building. And as a working-class hero named Wilder emerges from the fighting and makes his way to the building's top, slaying (Oedipus-like) the structure's patriarchal architect, the Marxist and Freudian machinery of ascent is interwoven with modernist heart-of-darkness absurdity in an apparent abetment of analytic claptrap. The effective causes of what happens in the novel and of the novel's structures are the by-now sclerotic codes of psychosocial and literary analysis. The RF reader would expect to use these codes to disambiguate the mystery of the novel's warfare, but High-Rise only frustrates the expectation. At best the codes are deployed here xorandorically; they are both helpful and useless in determining the story's events and meanings. The hyperactive reader's pursuit of meanings is left on the run—or, appropriately to this novel, on an upward climb to nowhere.

Yet as Ballard's career has unfolded, a stubborn figuration has come to take a place within it, in a way restless ambiguity does not dislodge. Ballard's work starts up where mobility breaks down, because the breakdown, it seems, stimulates interest; the arrest of life, reception of life. Immobilization and its pleasurable pain, informing all Ballard's work, are Ballard's unambiguous building blocks. And so it is, I think, that in even Vaughan and Wilder the tied Ulysses of erotogenic masochism reappears. In spite of the active restlessness of Vaughan's experimentation with sex and collisions, throughout the novel Vaughan is pinned down by ideational obsession. So is “Ballard,” from the moment the latter's car fatally pins to its hood the first driver with whom the narrator collides. This means that the vital interest of Crash's story inheres in the wonder of what is produced by passivity, by mobility under arrest. And mobility under arrest is figured as ecstasy at the climax of Wilder's climb to the top in High-Rise. The warfare in the building has sealed it off—with the consent of the combatants—from the rest of the city. Because the building thereby loses its food supply, the eating of family pets by the combatants comes to be supplemented by cannibalism. At the top of his ascent Wilder is to be killed by a band of mothers that includes his own wife—and is to be fed to his children. This denouement could suggest a misogynistic fantasy of women's role in any new social order—but like all the other sociohistorical considerations in the novel, this one is ambiguously endorsed and ridiculed. Yet the last view of Wilder in the novel focusses on his feeling like a happy child as he goes blithely towards death. With this focus, the ambiguity of meaning in the women's ascendancy is pushed aside. The reader is directed instead to the bliss of Wilder's halted mobility, to his regression to what is in effect the bound state of the infant in his crib, contemplating a psychic invasion as pleasure. The presentation suggests that this state is beyond—or prior to—ambiguity, even though ambiguities environ Wilder's condition. In his halted state, Wilder is possessed and determined by a receptivity to pain that is vital.

As if to disambiguate fully the meaning of the figure of arrested Ulysses, Ballard has made this figure the focal point of Empire of the Sun, his first historical novel in an RF mode and, according to the book's prefatory note, an autobiographical work. The novel's tied Ulysses is Jim, a boy imprisoned in Shanghai from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese invaders of China. Jim is the bound recipient of an extraordinary historical vision, and it is his bound state that enables the vision's reception. The vision is coordinated by the novel with what the reader already knows, more or less, about World War II. The effect of the coordination is to pass on to the reader Jim's state of being bound by a life-determining historical revelation. And this transfer of state effects an unmasking of hypercrite lecteur. He is shown to have invested himself in mobility and displacement in order to refuse and to hide from an historical conditioning that incites his proud restlessness, and punctures it. In attempting to uncover and to reverse this refusal Empire of the Sun gives a privileged place to erotogenic masochism.

As Ballard presents it, the Second World War's global conflict disjoins and displaces things and relations, and produces the world as a totally ambiguous postmodern text. One of the first of the novel's surprises is that, instead of being destroyed by the displacement, Jim immediately likes the strange dislocations of the war. The boy gathers from the immediacy of history the pleasure of experiencing life as an hypercrite lecteur. Yet the novel shows that the pleasure can be experienced only from a point of arrest. In the novel this point is the fixed and fixing site of the prison camp. Having been separated from his parents, Jim lives an insecure Crusoe-like existence in the deserted houses of the Shanghai British Concession. His ambition is to surrender to the Japanese, to trade his isolated drifting for security. So he actively seeks entry into a detention camp's order of restraint. Awful as it is to think of, his detention once secured turns out—as he expects—to foster enrichments. For one thing, living on the edge of starvation in the camp keeps him so close to the vital order that he clings to life without aggression, as if aggression were a waste of life. The boy feels he has no enemies: he identifies with his Japanese jailers, with the occupied Chinese, with the American liberators. They provide him with what he needs, which is not just food, but an array of idealized agencies, supplements of a love of life that is frequently deficient; object-like identifications whose painful imposition on his psyche stills and stays him with the promised pleasure of future mobility.

Outside the bound campsite, mobility is a deadly wandering from the capacity to be imposed on. Outside, being imposed on has been transformed into universal imposing, due to a restlessness of desire which is not mild and pacific. And the impositional agent is not just the war, but the ambiguity and arbitrary displacements of linguistic agency. Jim's imprisonment returns him to his crib as a child acquiring language. He is hungry for names. But Ballard assigns supervision of his language-acquisition to Basie, whose function in the novel is to equate treachery with language as a form of restless displacement, which the coming of the Americans intensifies. In Empire of the Sun, the restlessness of desire and the totally ambiguous text are consummately American products. The liberating American airlifts drop Spam, Reader's Digest and Life. The magazines to Jim “were filled with headlines and catch phrases from a world he had never known, and a host of unimaginable names. … they described an heroic adventure on another planet … a universe away.” But entranced as he is by this acquisition of arbitrary displacements of his own wordless experience, Jim wonders if “despite all the new names that it had spawned, was the war recharging itself here [in eastern Asia], to be fought forever in that far more ambiguous language that Jim had begun to learn?” (228).

The far more ambiguous language is the rhetoric of the unreal. In this rhetoric, what goes on displaces the truth of what is going on historically and politically, moving the determinate reality of history and politics into the indeterminate, totally ambiguous text. Because of the link between Jim and James G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun throws a retrospective light on Ballard's SF and fantasy, revealing his past work as the formally organized displacement of a response to World War II. And just as the novel disambiguates the author's past work, it disambiguates our knowledge of World War II. But in saying that our historical knowledge is disambiguated by an RF novel, I must take the occasion, as earlier I promised, to address the vulnerable side of Brooke-Rose's comparison of RF with both SF and xorandoric fiction. Brooke-Rose believes that RF uses history as we know it to disambiguate indeterminate aspects of an RF narrative. But history as we know it has little certainty. The bedrock of historical events is ambiguously suspended in change, is waiting for some future all-determining transformation. According to Empire of the Sun, the history of World War II is highly ambiguous. We only more or less know that that war ended, because the nuclear arms generated by the conflict terminated the war's hostilities, and yet also continued them by displacing them. We can be certain of the end of the last global conflict only insofar as we more or less know that the nuclear arms emerging from the war can be disarmed, depending on whether or not we more or less use the free will we more or less have. Which is to say we have no certainty about the war's end and effect. Picturing our history in this way, Empire of the Sun does its structural duty to use history for its parallel-story; but it thereby also upsets Brooke-Rose's argument. In Ballard's book history does not disambiguate RF; instead, RF disambiguates history.

Empire of the Sun disambiguates the aftermath of World War II by imaging it as a universal death already effectively accomplished, because to remain within the uncertainty of freedom of choice not to disarm is to have already lost the last war—and life itself. Ballard's novel suggests that we have not survived the war, but have survived our collective death. Individual life appears to go on, in all its immediate vitality; but the collective commitment to nuclear war nullifies this life. The living have become restless ghosts playing dangerous games with their posthumous condition. This assertive determination of our history is climactically dramatized in the novel's next-to-last chapter. On the verge of liberation Jim comes upon the bayonetted body of a Japanese airman, one of his ego-ideals. He sees the flyer as “this imaginary twin he had invented, a replica of himself whom he watched through the barbed wire. If the Japanese was dead, part of himself had died” (269-70). Although the airman's signs of life are ambiguous, the boy decides to feed him. But the feeding turns into a nightmare in which the boy and his double attack each other. It is clear to the reader that the flyer's aggressive movements in the struggle are only galvanic spasms derived from the bayonetting. But Jim decides to see the ambiguous movements as, after all, signs of resurrection. He leaves the airman, thinking that the attempt at feeding has “made a small space in [the flyer's] death” and that he is called to resurrect all his other friends, most of them lost, whom he refers to as “the impatient dead” (271-72).

What the reader is made to see is clearly different from what the child decides to see. Ambiguity mobilizes the boy so that he can walk forward into life out of the camp. But as his illusion saves him, it also displaces the truth: the dead airman is the child's double, because now the child is showing ambiguous signs of life. In earlier Western history such ambiguity might have been closer to the vital order. But this child's saving illusion is determined by the epoch in which the sons of the earth have empire over the sun by dominating its nuclear energy. This empire's primal scene is the maintenance of vital function illustrated by the sadistically feeding child and the devouring dead flyer. Dominated by such a scene, in which this displacement of vital function has gone so far, can the anaclitic crossroads do its reparational work? In defense against the recognition of displacement's extremity, postmodern life recommends further displacement. The recommendation might be a way for the dead to pretend to life, as Jim pretends that his life and the life of his time have not been in essence extinguished. Empire of the Sun exhibits what Jim really knows, in spite of pretending: his experience coordinated with the phenomena of his world-historical time and place determines living as a living death.

The narrator of Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) begins his story with the crash of an airplane and is never sure thereafter if the crash has left him alive or dead. In Empire of the Sun this uncertainty in a postmodern fantasy about whether life is death is resolved into certainty. Postnuclear history, the productive agent of postmodern fantasy, is pre-deceased. Ballard's disambiguation of his fantasy via his grim determination of the historical present reveals postmodernism to be postmortemism. No wonder Ballard's characteristically deadpan style, with its ambiguous effects, seems numb: flatness is appropriately postmortem, and also might express the shame of a ghostly survival. This is not a congenial style for hypercrite lecteur, who wants to feel life in the lively ambiguity of language and the restless mobility of desire. But hypercrite lecteur, according to Empire of the Sun, has one genuine hope of vitality. It is in being bound, no matter how painfully, by the novel's historical vision and by an arrest of restlessness. When in the novel Jim leaves the camp, the novel leaves the reader there, suffering the novel's disambiguating determination of history. If this determination is plausible; what hope of escape from global death would there be in alternative, arbitrary or ambiguous versions of the present? Hypercrite lecteur will respond impatiently to the question, scarcely stopping to point out that fictions, like facts, are arbitrary constructions, having no binding or all-determining effect or value. But such response, emphasizing the fictiveness of all things, shirks the possibility that Brooke-Rose, for all her advocacy of the rhetoric of the unreal, does not evade. We might live in a state whose intertwining of real and unreal, no less than whose intertwining of life and death, cannot be disjoined or displaced by those on the run from it.

The postnuclear primal scene Ballard describes in his novel's scene between Jim and the dead airman might well be a secondary derivative, via sadism, of masochism; or an Oedipal tangle expressing a derivative collective desire for punishment. But the origin is not the disease, which is the long distance between the mobilized derivative and the origin. The reader who submits to Ballard's version of RF's painful binding of his and his world's restlessness might recover the long distance by returning to the libidinal passivity of the anaclitic crossroads. This submission would be therapeutic, I think, since it gives the reader a state of detached fixity in which to feel the pressure of the vital order and to contemplate ideas of life in the painfully exciting way that keeps Jim alive in the camp. Even if in this state one envisions the historical present as moribund, the energizing pain of the vision can incite one to act in future against the present determination of history. It has always surprised me that readers of SF should devote themselves to the passive contemplation of the developments and disasters of a future in which they could play no part. By provoking this attitude to spectacle, I have thought SF could only flatter the worst form of supine passivity to the world. But in Ballard's light I now see this as the use of a literary form to recover a psychic state which is, after all, a restorative primary masochism. To be fixed by an intrusive spectacle even of global horror and death is to be shocked back to where one began, at the verge of the vital order, remembering unambiguous vital function. And no matter what one sees there, whether ambiguities or determinations, perhaps this memory is in itself the best fight for life. Interestingly, in experiencing a form of regression to the crossroads of the vital order and its substitutes, SF readers and RF readers find themselves on the same ground.


Ordinarily Christine Brooke-Rose's novels depend upon underdeterminations of the action-code and of the symbolic-code. In plain words, ordinarily we cannot know what happens in her texts or just what she means by them: they are totally ambiguous. But at the end of Xorandor there is a reversal. Until just before the novel's finale we find—not surprisingly, given Brooke-Rose's usual practice—increasing information gaps in both the story and the plot. These gaps cannot be filled in because of the symbolic underdetermination of the text; and we expect the text to “end” by maintaining the underdetermination. But the unexpected occurs: an overdetermination of the action-code—that is, a disambiguating event—halts, and lays waste or consumes, the text's accumulated symbolic underdeterminations, its ambiguities and displacements. This is what happens: Xorandor, a self-originating computer who feeds on radioactive materials, faces a dilemma. His computer offspring have begun to feed on the fissile material of nuclear warheads, thereby defusing the bombs. To protect their arsenals the world governments decide to deport the computer race to where they come from, Mars. But they do not come from Mars. The computer has told a totally ambiguous story about his origins, and he has been misinterpreted in the light of an SF cliché. Yet rather than once more ambiguate what has become disambiguated, Xorandor decides to be bound by the disambiguation of his story, and to swallow his postmodern printout. His deportation means his extinction. But—with the help of twin human computer whiz-kids—unknown to the great powers, Xorandor will secretly leave behind two of his own missile-eating offspring to carry on disarmament—and save children. Now this is Ballard's latest story over again. Like Ballard's Jim, in the era of empire over the sun when nuclear arsenals make the living into the living dead, Xorandor suffers immobilization, and he thereby understands the necessity of being punctuated by an idea of real life yet to come. Determined by comparison of the vital order with its current substitutes, the computer's alliance with life puts an end to restless ambiguity's displacement of vital function. In effecting the alliance through the disambiguating event of his self-sacrifice, Xorandor acts in a painfully masochistic way. On the showing of Brooke-Rose's story, the pain is psychosocially erotogenic.

Works Cited

Ballard, J. G. Crash. New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1973.

———. Empire of the Sun. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

———. High-Rise. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

———. The Unlimited Dream Company. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.

Bersani, Leo, and Ulysse Dutoit. The Forms of Violence: Narrative in Assyrian Art and Modern Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1985.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels. Manchester and New York: Carcanet, 1986.

———. “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel.” In Reconstructing Individualism. Ed. Thomas C. Heller et al. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986. Pp. 184-96.

———. A Rhetoric of the Unreal: Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

———. Xorandor. Manchester: Carcanet, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Economic Problem of Masochism.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed., trans. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1940-68. Vol. 19. Pp. 157-70.

Jameson, Fredric. Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, The Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979.

Laplanche, Jean. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Rimmon, Shlomith. The Concept of Ambiguity: The Example of James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Zavarzadeh, Mas'ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Ellen G. Friedman (essay date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Friedman, Ellen G. “‘Utterly Other Discourse’: The Anitcanon of Experimental Women Writers from Dorothy Richardson to Christine Brooke-Rose.” Modern Fiction Studies 34, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 353-70.

[In the following essay, Friedman examines the narrative strategies of a variety of experimental women writers—including Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Brooke-Rose—asserting that these authors utilize feminine aesthetics to subvert dominant patriarchal forms of conventional narrative. Friedman observes that, in Amalgamemnon, Brooke-Rose “offers a deconstruction of the legacy of patriarchal culture.”]

In pre-twentieth century women's fiction, the strains in the relationship between women and the dominant culture were represented through covert modes. The strategies of women writers included subtexts, minor characters, and patterns of imagery, which to various degrees undermined the traditional scripts for appropriate behavior in fiction and life that their surface plots and major characters seemed to confirm.1 Through her heroines, Jane Austen, for instance, maintains a “double consciousness”; as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe, although Austen drives her heroines into a final “docility and restraint,” she allows them to uncover the “delights of assertion and rebellion” on the way. In fact, Austen slyly subverted prevailing values through the “duplicity” of the “happy endings” of her novels, “in which she brings her couples to the brink of bliss in such haste … or with such sarcasm that the entire message is undercut” (Gilbert and Gubar 168-169). Gilbert and Gubar reveal similar subversive subtexts in George Eliot, whose Maggie Tulliver, they demonstrate, is the “most monstrous when she tries to turn herself into an angel of renunciation” (491). Thus Jane Austen and George Eliot, to name only two writers that over a decade of feminist criticism has uncovered, offered, whether consciously or not, hidden or disguised challenges to canonical notions of fiction.

Indeed, feminist criticism has neatly deconstructed the Great Tradition materialized by F. R. Leavis. Jane Austen, who Leavis proposed inaugurated “the great tradition of the English novel,” and George Eliot, seen by Leavis as solidly entrenched in the Great Tradition, are understood by way of feminist analysis to be compromising the very values their fiction seems to Leavis and others dependably to confirm. Thus two of the five writers Leavis privileges in his Great Tradition are engaged in subverting the order of which Leavis offers them as exemplars. Leavis required a “marked moral intensity” so explicit and plain that what he identified as its exhibition was, in the cases of Austen and Eliot, at least covertly, parody (9).2

That the literary canon is a “strategic construct” (Altieri 42) by which the dominating, patriarchal order confirms its own values, a process that renders the relations between the canon and women problematic, is fairly widely accepted.3 In this context, the “moral seriousness” demanded by Leavis is revealed as a code, rationalizing patriarchal dominance. The operation of this code is evident in the particular vocabulary of his judgments, including key terms such as “morality,” “reverence,” “civilization,” terms driven by imperatives defined and maintained by a strict system of patriarchal constraints. Insights of this kind, in fact, must have preceded and eventually enabled the uncovering of subversive subtexts in women's works.

Yet these internal, disguised assaults on patriarchal values are confined to and thus to a degree disarmed by the traditional fiction that houses them. The realistic mode of women's nineteenth-century fiction did not essentially disturb the structure of the master marriage and quest narratives this fiction covertly interrogates.4 Eliot, Austen, and other writers may have assailed the prevailing order, but as long as they wrote in this mode, they were, to some degree, in complicity with it. Despite the subversive moves on the part of Austen and Eliot, Emma—although she is financially independent—is obliged to marry, and Maggie, because she does not, is obliged to die. What else could Eliot do with such a heroine within the parameters of nineteenth-century realism, impelled as it was by certain master narratives?

Twentieth-century women experimental writers have not required covert means to express their dissatisfactions. They explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative, break—in the words of Virginia Woolf—the “sequence” of traditional fiction and open up a space, an alternate arena for the writing of an “utterly other discourse” (Brooke-Rose, Amalgamemnon 15).5 In subverting the forms of conventional narrative, they subvert the patriarchal social structure these forms reflect. With such structural disruption, the “woman” in the text is liberated from the secret folds of the fiction and comes to inhabit the entire text. Rather than carrying the dominant discourse that Leavis calls “moral” and “great,” the narrative becomes the discourse of the “other.” Indeed, there is a whole tradition of women writers who have written works and treatises that are deliberately feminine, deliberately anticanonical and who have formed, in the course of this century, a feminine anticanon. In “Canon Fathers and Myth Universe,” Lillian Robinson makes the point that “Feminist criticism can approach the traditional standards for canonicity, which are supposed to constitute ‘our’ common aesthetic, either by demonstrating how the female tradition conforms to that aesthetic or by challenging the aesthetic itself” (29). However, feminist critics should also recognize that there already exists a tradition of women writers who themselves challenged that aesthetic by rejecting the “standards for canonicity” and relocating their own work outside of them, a relocation that has over the course of the twentieth century accrued into what may now be viewed as an oppositional canon—an anticanon.6

Dorothy Richardson, for instance, as she set out “to produce a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism,” carefully identified what seemed to her the qualities of the canonical novel so that Pilgrimage could be free of them (9). According to Richardson, in this canonical novel, the author imposed a narrative, preached a moral, and offered “style” instead of substance.7 These qualities reveal not reality but, for Richardson, the author's ego. Through her protagonist Miriam and in letters and essays, Richardson cast her complaints about canonical fiction in terms of gender: “Bang, bang, bang, on they go, these men's books, like an L.C.C. tram, yet unable to make you forget them, the authors, for a moment” (Dawn's Left Hand, Pilgrimage 239). Here, according to Gillian Hanscombe, Miriam disparages the “measured regularity of novels—of pace and sequence—which is to her as blind and mindless as a tram, serving only to confront the reader with the personal quirks of the [male] author; in other words, to promise to offer ‘life’ and instead to offer the author” (88). In the conventional novel's imposed plot, its deliberate characterization, its inexorable drive to the inevitable resolution, Richardson read the ego of the (male) author whose domination of the text, she felt, suppressed her feminine consciousness.

The intention of Richardson's innovative techniques was to subvert the major constituents of the canonical novel—plot, characterization, central conflict, climax, resolution, the stance of moral authority—the elements through which the author exercised control and which Richardson interpreted as manifestations of the author's ego. What Richardson identified as authorial egotism is her sense of the operation of master narrative that legitimizes the social order in its manipulation of characters and plot. Richardson found such narratives suffocating. In Dawn's Left Hand, Miriam complains about the imprisoning structures of even writers she admires: “Yet about them all, even those who left her stupefied with admiring joy, was a dreadful enclosure” (239).

Meditating on two other “great tradition” (before Leavis carved the tradition) novelists, James and Conrad, Miriam comes to the conclusion that:

Even as you read about Waymarsh and his “sombre glow” and his “attitude of prolonged impermanence” as he sits on the edge of the bed talking to Strether, and revel in all the ways James uses to reveal the process of civilizing Chad, you are distracted from your utter joy by fury over all he is unaware of. And even Conrad. … The torment of all novels is what is left out. The moment you are aware of it, there is torment in them.

(Dawn's Left Hand, Pilgrimage 239)

Her repetition of the word “torment” declares emphatically a sense of personal injury and relates the degree to which Miriam feels that she, a woman, is “left out,” under erasure, in the canonical novels she describes. Richardson, however, is not drawing a line between men and women writers per se but between canonical fiction, which excludes the feminine, and a fiction she was to invent in order to express the feminine. Therefore, when Hypo tells Miriam to write like George Eliot, she replies, “Writes like a man.” Despite her clandestine and subversive subtexts, George Eliot—as Miriam perceives—did not essentially disturb the order she criticized.

It is just the “left out” material Miriam misses, the not-yet-presented, that Richardson attempts to put into the text of Pilgrimage. In the Foreword to Pilgrimage, Richardson relates the difficulty of producing this other discourse because she had no models. The “adventure” of what she knew to be a “fresh pathway” led to her discovery of an “independently assertive reality,” a feminine narrative mode that she describes as a “stranger in the form of contemplated reality having for the first time in her experience its own say …” (10, emphasis added). Richardson's experiment was more significant than is generally realized because in clearing the path by which the repressed could return, she set the terms of a new tradition, a tradition that in moving toward feminine discourse takes a radically anticanonical stance.

Pilgrimage departs from even the minor confining structures of patriarchal discourse so that the very details of her new mode were prophetic of écriture féminine. For instance, she found the way that the language was directed and chopped by punctuation unnecessarily inhibiting to her purpose. She wrote, “Feminine prose … should properly be unpunctuated, moving from point to point without formal obstructions” (12). Richardson's theories seem a clear antecedent to Hélène Cixous' “The Laugh of the Medusa,” although Cixous recognizes only the male modernists as her predecessors and, in fact, cites few women writers as exemplifying her theories. Although unacknowledged, Richardson's anticipation of Cixous is significant because they both define a feminine discourse in similar terms. In Cixous' “The Laugh of the Medusa,” one hears echoes of Richardson's vision of ways to write the feminine: “Such is the strength of women that, sweeping away syntax, breaking that famous thread … women will go right up to the impossible” (256).

The project Cixous proposes for the future of feminine discourse Richardson had already begun. Richardson exploded the predictable rhythm of the conventional novel as she called whole volumes “chapters” of a novel that would stretch to thirteen volumes and still remain incomplete. This very incompleteness was central to her formulation of feminine narrative, for in master narratives closure was required, and the options available for women characters as the narrative sped toward resolution and then closure were well defined: marriage, madness, death. By insisting on the incompleteness of Pilgrimage, Richardson created a revolutionary option for her female protagonist. Miriam simply goes on; she grows progressively wiser, more complex, more confident. Her fate is to live, not to die, not to be subsumed in marriage to a superior male as is Emma but to remain at the center of the narrative.

In order to eliminate the sense of authorial “control” and “ego” that blocked what she felt would be a truer rendering of “life,” Richardson collapsed the ironic distance between author and protagonist (Hanscombe 89). Miriam's thoughts are presented in an uninterrupted, uninterpolated, and uninterpreted stream. As a character, she aspires to the stature of neither exemplar nor metaphor. Richardson attempted to present the reader with Miriam as she is and not with a vehicle for an author-imposed something other. As she lets flow Miriam's “stream of consciousness,” Richardson eschews a hierarchical organization of the objects of Miriam's perceptions (Kaplan 41). This effort to carve an anti-hierarchical, antihegemonic fiction was more than a shift in aesthetics; it was an attempt to delineate difference, to provide a new ground for narrative that could accommodate the feminine.

Richardson's contemporary, Virginia Woolf, presented more fully articulated challenges to the canon in the name of feminine narrative. Like Richardson, Woolf characterized conventional linguistic forms and traditional structures as inadequate for feminine narrative: “To begin with, there is the technical difficulty … that the very form of the sentence does not fit” a woman (“Women and Fiction” 145). Woolf not only searched for forms that would inscribe women's experience, but she also identified a general crisis in narrative, declaring the old novel's “two and thirty chapters” moribund, an “ill-fitting vestment” that could no longer hold “life or spirit, truth or reality” (“Modern Fiction” 105).

Woolf was the first to link the crisis in narrative that became apparent early in this century to issues of the feminine. In that she proposed a discourse the anticanonical qualities of which are tied to the expression of female experience, her theories were, like Richardson's, prophetic of écriture féminine, and one can hear echoes of her insights when Jacques Derrida and others talk about the feminine in avant-garde texts.8 In the well-known penultimate passage in A Room of One's Own, she presents the writer Mary Carmichael, an alter ego, who not only “breaks” the sentence of logocentric discourse by providing it with “thorns” but also “breaks the sequence” of conventional fiction (83-89).9 Woolf interprets “breaking the sequence” narrowly, in terms of plot, as the ability of one female character to like another female character, thus countermanding the obligation of women characters to be defined solely in relation to men (84-86). Although the significance of this implication of “breaking the sequence” should not be underestimated, Woolf's narrative practice expanded on the meaning of this phrase. As did Richardson, Woolf ascribed the inadequacy of dominant forms to what they excluded, as well as what they included. Of her own ambitions for fiction, she said:

I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity; to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. … Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don't belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. … Is that not my grudge against novels—that they select nothing?

(Writer's Diary 136)

Richardson and Woolf were both searching for a way to inscribe difference in the text, because difference was overwhelmed, suppressed in conventional forms.

In her search for what had not yet been made manifest, Woolf wrote obsessively about what should be put in or what had been left out of fiction. Concerning The Waves, perhaps the work of Woolf's most distant from tradition, she writes in her diary in contradictory terms of a “litter of fragments” (160), on the one hand, and of “saturation,” on the other: “What I want to do is saturate every atom. The poets succeed by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in; yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in the Moths [her working title for The Waves]” (136). Her preoccupation with what should be put in or what should be left out expresses her dissatisfaction with what was merely manifest, her desire for the not-yet-presented. Each of her texts was a move to bring this sought-after other discourse to the surface, with each move involving a concomitant disruption of conventional narrative to complete it. The Waves surrenders linearity, character, plot to rhythm and disembodied, nearly indistinguishable voices. In Jacob's Room, the protagonist, Jacob, is entirely absent from the action of the novel—his character gleaned through rumor and reminiscence. Orlando renders time, space, and gender elastic, releasing them from the “narratives” of physics and biology. Organized in chronologically arranged sections (from 1880 to 1937, when it was published), The Years, nevertheless, presents history as a web, developing not by movement from event to event but organically, by associational flow. The narrative is multidirectional, polyphonic, carnivalesque.10 That is, The Years offers a sense of history as “carnival” rather than as “narrative.” Linearity is surrendered to patterns surfacing and submerging—swelling, thinning, disappearing, and reappearing transformed.

That Woolf's textual experiments have political implications and subversive motives was not recognized until recently. Toril Moi, in Sexual/Textual Politics, was among the first to characterize the significance of Woolf's strategies as revolutionary, as “analogous to sexual and political transformation” that changes the “symbolic order of orthodox society from the inside” (11). Breaking the sequence is breaking the political-social authority that informs the sequence. As Moi points out, in her formal and linguistic innovations “Woolf rejects the metaphysical essentialism underlying patriarchal ideology, which hails God, the Father or the phallus as its transcendental signified” (9).

Just as anticanonical women writers are distinguished from Great Tradition women writers by virtue of their distance from conventional practice, they are also distinguished from male innovators. In crucial ways, male innovators such as Joyce, Eliot, and Borges are not anticanonical. Their work reveres, extends, and thus essentially, continues the canon—as literary history has proved since all three are now canonical authors. Ulysses and The Waste Land resonate and are in harmony with the culture's central myths and texts; they are knitted to Western literary tradition, and their ready incorporation into the canon affirms the continuation of this tradition, an achievement Eliot applauds in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”11 Such examples are plentiful: Joyce's use of Homer, Borges' obsessive depiction of the quester who seeks Truth in particular books or in libraries or who tries to recreate classic texts, nearly the entire T. S. Eliot canon. The end of “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets, in which the poet concludes that exploration is circular and that innovation and tradition are in symbiotic relationship, captures this aspect of the male modernist impulse: “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (208). As some have already recognized, there is a deep conservatism and nostalgia among the male modernists.12

In contrast, women anticanonical writers such as Richardson, Woolf, and Gertrude Stein do not locate their texts within patriarchal myths and traditions. As Robinson notes, these myths and traditions are “essentially external to any central female project” (29). Expression of the feminine requires a disengagement not only from the modes of traditional fiction, as Richardson, Woolf, and Cixous have argued, but also a stance of irreverence toward or distance from the central myths of the dominant culture.13 Because they write from a different site of enunciation within the culture, women innovators, who offer the most radical expression of the feminine, have difficulty being absorbed into the canon.14 Unlike the male modernists, anticanonical women writers do not use innovation to revitalize tradition, do not wish to “arrive where we started” or in Ezra Pound's words, to “make it new.” Rather, it is their project to present what this tradition has resisted, to make “it” different because they wish to arrive elsewhere.

The paternal cultural legacy, passed on to or resisted by the son, preoccupies even second-generation male innovators; it is Faulkner's great theme, of course, that he mines in such quest narratives as Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! Woolf, on the other hand, sought not the “re”-writerly text but something other: the semiotic, the text beyond the sequence, that she variously identified in her diary—the “true line,” the “next stages” (Writer's Diary 185). She repeatedly attempted to define for herself what it was she was doing. In a single paragraph, she writes about The Waves, “I am not trying to tell a story. Yet perhaps it might be done in that way. A mind thinking. … Autobiography it might be called” (Writer's Diary 140). The encompassing, diffuse work that was to become The Years required, she thought, the invention of a new form on which she tried the phrase “essay novel” (Writer's Diary 184). The work itself emphasizes change, dispersion, nonhierarchical lines of continuity. For Jane Marcus, it is the “female epic.” She sees it as a “communal and anti-heroic Odyssey,” as “Woolf's answer to The Waste Land and Ulysses …” (Marcus 74). There is no single-minded pursuit of a noble or even ignoble quest. Woolf, in fact, carefully avoids a dominating protagonist, as Richardson wished to avoid exhibition of authorial control.

The technical problem of a narrative without the dominating presence of a protagonist absorbed Woolf throughout the composition of The Years.15 In a diary entry dated 25 April 1933, she writes: “The figure of Elvira [Eleanor in the final version] is the difficulty. She may become too dominant” (191).16 On 2 August 1934 she writes: “I want a chorus, a general statement, a song for four voices” (214). Although the character of Eleanor does provide a thread of continuity in the novel, she is the stuff of minor characters: she does good works but without strong ideology or heroism; we watch her grow old, forgetful, and even fall asleep during a lull at a party. As Woolf allows “major” characters to fade, “minor” characters become more distinct. The servant Crosby, for instance, is as sharply defined and has as large a place on the canvas of this novel as do members of the Pargiter family.

The novel's progress from Victorian to modern times parallels the emergence of the text's semiotic elements. In the first section, “1880,” the narrative is organized almost conventionally around the Victorian patriarch Colonel Abel Pargiter, who dominates the scenes in this section and in relation to whom the characters are depicted. By “1910,” the year King George and Colonel Pargiter die, the text is as dispersed as the Pargiters, and patriarchal authority is as abandoned as the woefully outdated family mansion that is up for sale. Woolf does not provide a substitute organizing center; rather she allows the text's fibers to unknot and wander with the century. The result has been brilliantly characterized by Marcus:

The Years is yet another subversion of the patriarchal genealogical imperative of English fiction. … Its horizontal leap from Victorian to Modern, in uneven time periods, not the standard decades, emphasizing relations of cousins and aunts and nephews, not fathers and sons, privileging spinsters over mothers, spatializing time in family rooms, marks The Years' response to the Victorian voice of paternal authority. We read and hear the novel as one long series of interrupted discourses, the interruptions themselves marking the daughters' emergence from the tyranny of the father's voice.


After the generation of Richardson and Woolf, women experimental writers did not feel as compelled to define or explain what they were doing.17 Their writing had clear precedents, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, and until the 1970s when the French introduced écriture féminine—which although it named Joyce and Proust as its models and exemplars was closer in motivation, technique, and purpose, as I have suggested, to Richardson and Woolf—new theorizing was not felt to be necessary. Of the entire women's anticanonical tradition, Jean Rhys perhaps had the least consciousness of these precedents or of her continuation of this tradition. Nonetheless, her writing in a curious and adamant way was clearly anticanonical. If canonical novels are as Frank Kermode, Charles Altieri, and others have proposed, “strategic constructs” to reinforce a society's values, Rhys's works are anticanonical, constructed to undermine those values. Born and raised in an English colony in the West Indies, Rhys regarded things English with the suspicion and resentment of the colonized, the powerless. Add to that the fact that she was, unlike Woolf, a penniless woman, dependent on the male establishment for publication and recognition, and one understands how she chose a narrative stance that was adamantly anticanonical.18 Her attitude toward England is summarized by Anna in Voyage in the Dark: “This is England, and I'm in a nice clean English room with the dirt swept under the bed” and suggested in Anna's identification with the blacks in Dominica where she was raised: “I wanted to be black, I always wanted to be black …” (18). As a black, Anna would at least belong to a sustaining community. But in the course of a narrative that ends with her having an abortion, Anna learns that as a white, unmarried, unmoneyed woman from the colonies, she is, in the hierarchy of England, an utter outsider.

It is this site, from which she spins her narratives, that defines Rhys's relation to the canon. This relation is suggested by a description from After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie of Julia, the protagonist, entering a London street. If readers can imagine that Julia stands for Rhys, the houses in the description stand for canonical works with their “fat pillars” upholding them, and the “complaining and mindless” bellow stands for Rhys's anti-canonical fiction, they will have a sense of the nature of her attack on the canon and how her fiction operates in relation to it.

Julia felt bewildered when she got into the street. She turned and walked without any clear idea of the direction she was taking. Each house she passed was exactly like the last. Each house bulged forward a little. And before each a flight of four or five steps led up to a portico supported by two fat pillars.

Down at the far end of the street a voice quavered into a melancholy tune. The voice dragged and broke—failed. Then suddenly there would be a startlingly powerful bellow, like an animal in pain. The bellow was not fierce or threatening, as it might have been; it was complaining and mindless, like an animal in pain. …


Julia's initial feeling of being “bewildered” and lost in a place that seemed uniform (“Each house she passed was exactly like the last”) and at the same time alien is personified in the voice that quavered “into a melancholy tune,” expressing pain. It conveys precisely Rhys's relation to England and to English fiction. A chorus girl from the West Indies, Rhys always felt the beggar and the outsider in relation to England and English books. She deliberately cultivated this stance of “outsider” through her seemingly passive protagonists.

Although often taken either as victims of male domination and cruelty, exposing the vulnerability of the moneyless, unmarried woman in patriarchal society, or as “parasites” without ambition (Borinsky 299), these protagonists are more than sexual objects picked up and dropped by a series of decreasingly desirable men. Their posture as quintessential “other” is so stubbornly, unrelentingly, and seemingly unreasonably maintained that it acts as a menace and even a threat to the dominant culture. Like the melancholy and pained voice Julia hears, it operates to discomfit and subvert. The Rhys heroine is further outside the narrow bounds of the dominant society than even Camus' Meursault or Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov whose isolation is due, in the first case, to diminished awareness and, in the second, to conscious choice. In fact, Meursault (at the point of death) and Raskolnikov both find their way “home,” back within the narrow bounds of society. However, as Alicia Borinsky points out, the Rhys heroine has no “home” to which to return (300). The fact that she is homeless, existentially an outsider, without hope of stepping back into the circle of society, gives her a curiously privileged position in relation to the dominant culture. Her inability, born partly of unwillingness (the Rhys heroine occasionally refuses offers of security), to be reabsorbed into society makes of her an incarnation of what patriarchal society is not able to accommodate. Thus she becomes a measure of its inadequacies.

Just as Rhys often described herself as a “ghost” (Letters 12), her protagonists obsessively describe their alienation from the life around them. As the passage quoted above continues, it is reminiscent of the passage in Richardson's Dawn's Left Hand in which Miriam complains about the sense of “dreadful enclosure” of men's books: “It was the darkness that got you. … It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out …” (85). Although the “darkness” Rhy's protagonist speaks of is literal, it is also a personal metaphor for the society in which she finds herself suffocated, repressed. Like Richardson's Miriam and Woolf's Carmichael, she has something that “shrieks to be let out.” Although Richardson and Woolf, situated solidly inside the circle of patriarchal culture, made disruptive and subversive moves on this culture in order to give voice to and thus “self” the other, Rhys, situated outside of this circle, simply claimed the territory of the “other.” The strategy of her protagonists is similar to that which can be gleaned from interviews with some of the urban homeless who choose the freedom of the streets over being tied to a system requiring attentiveness to rules and restrictions and thus capitulation of the identity they have established.19 Rhy's innovation, then, in this anticanonical tradition, is not so much formal; in most of her fiction she does not violate narrative traditions to the extent that Woolf and Richardson do. Rather, through her extreme protagonists, whose relation to society cannot be “explained” under conventional rubrics of motivation and characterization, Rhys offers critiques of and alternatives to canonical practice and values.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, a book she wrote over a twenty-year period, Rhys makes a more militant gesture in interrogating and subverting the canon. She deliberately sets out to break the master quest narrative that controls the plot of Jane Eyre. As I point out elsewhere, Rhys enters and reimagines Brontë's text—glossing and subverting, reversing and transforming it—writing it into her own time and into her own frame of reference.20 Rhys wished to materialize the story, suggested by the figure of the Creole madwoman Bertha, that was hidden from Brontë, who was limited by the context of nineteenth-century English imperialism, Christianity, and patriarchy in which she lived. Rhy's letters repeatedly express her outrage at Brontë's treatment of the Creole woman with whom Rhys identified: “Charlotte” was “wrong. … Her Bertha is impossible …” (Letters 271, 318). In the process of restoring Bertha to what Rhys felt was her rightful dignity, Rhys violates Brontë's text, casting doubt on and therefore undermining the credibility of Jane Eyre's quest, its hero, its heroine, and its villain—the madwoman Bertha.

In Rhys's hands, Bertha's condition is not a madness that renders her bestial and malevolent as it does in Brontë but rather signifies her alterity, her otherness. Indeed Rhys constructs an oppositional narrative in which Brontë's canonical plot, characterization, and imagery are methodically undermined by whatever they are meant to suppress or hide. Thus Rhys counters Jane Eyre's Christian themes with obeah and voodoo; the manicured English version of a Garden of Eden at Thornfield is contrasted with the lush and wild West Indian Eden of Wide Sargasso Sea; Rochester's authority is fed in Rhys's work by a secret and stubborn malevolence. In the process of entering Brontë's text, Rhys releases what has been repressed in that text, resulting in an ironic and telling juxtaposition of the canonical and the anticanonical. That is, Rhys reshapes the contours of Brontë's canonical phallogocentric quest narrative and creates a liberating and transforming dialectic between sameness and otherness, the patriarchal and the feminine, the canonical and the anticanonical.

Unlike Rhys, contemporary experimentalists Eva Figes and Christine Brooke-Rose (from whom I took the phrase “utterly other discourse”) acknowledge and exploit the legacy of feminine aesthetics. In addition to their prose fiction, they have written literary criticism and social commentary. Figes claims Virginia Woolf as a literary forerunner, and in Patriarchal Attitudes she states “The civilization everyone has been brought up to regard as human civilization, we have to look at as male civilization” (18).

This view of civilization, broadly echoing Richardson's and Woolf's positions regarding the literary canon, governs Figes' narratives in which she seems to be obsessed with attempting to right the balance. In her novels Waking and The Seven Ages, Figes presents history through the consciousnesses of women, rendering them nonhierarchically and nonlinearly as did Woolf in The Years. Employing spatialization, she relates a millennium of history through the rapidly succeeding voices of midwives from Saxon times to the present. Rather than the usual chronicle of conquests, defeats, and shifting borders, The Seven Ages foregrounds women's experiences, especially birthing, against shifting settings as a thousand years pass, and soldiers, whose various uniforms reflect altered allegiances and various wars, plunder, rape, and are killed. The text's successive voices pour forth from a kind of a feminine unconscious, akin to Jung's racial unconscious, unstoppered by memory, association, or image. In the words of one reviewer, “One woman will call to Emma [the protagonist] from a pile of burning leaves; another will speak from the pages of an old diary found in the attic; a third will be moved to recite when a box of sepia photographs is brought to her” (Hosmer 248). Typical of Figes, the prose is poetic and incantatory although quite deliberate and unflagging in its opposition to the dominance of patriarchal history—the chronicle of which, according to Figes, relates blood-letting, science, hierarchical, male-dominated religions, and a linear sense of “progress.” Viewed through the lens of The Seven Ages, the repressed record of women's history, presented as cyclical—childbirth, healing, “natural” magic, and the victimizing intrusion of soldiers—suggests an alternate configuration of Western civilization than that offered to college freshmen in their required history courses. Figes seems to be addressing the kind of question posed by Robinson when she asks, “How does what we have learned about the role of women change what we know or believe we know” about historical events in general (26)? Figes presents her course in women's history not as a substitute history. Rather, she sets it in dialectical relation to patriarchal history, to the authoritarianism of the master narrative that is taken as definitive “history.”

Rather than leaping among the centuries, Figes' earlier novel Light develops leisurely from the dawn to the dusk of a single day. In lyrical prose, Figes exposes the phallocratic assumptions inherent in canonical discourse through a brilliant juxtaposition of anticanonical and canonical form. She demonstrates the power of canonical form to shape canonical theme, and, conversely, she illustrates how the subversion of such form also subverts its themes. Depicting a day in the life of Claude Monet and his family in the style of an impressionist word painting, the narrative moves rapidly among the various characters' consciousnesses. Until the narrative's middle pages, the book is decentered; none of the characters or scenes is privileged over the others. However, suddenly the impressionist prose brushstrokes fuse into a conventional portrait of a Victorian family seated at dinner. In this section, Monet is established as the reigning patriarch with the other characters' wishes, thoughts, and words clearly subordinate to his—in the spirit of The Years' first section. Through this sudden shift into conventional narrative, Figes reveals the contradiction between Monet's innovative style and his role as Victorian husband and father. A lesson in the interdependence of theme and form, the novel demonstrates that a decentered, impressionist rendering of the characters results in the raising of a chorus of voices—wife, sons, daughters, and servants—that are traditionally muted or mute either in the presence of the patriarch or when structured by the patriarchy and the cultural and literary constraints it represents.

In “Illiterations,” Christine Brooke-Rose writes directly of the canon as a “male preserve” from which women as a class are prohibited:

In theory the canonic/non-canonic opposition applies to all writers and thus cuts across sexual and any other oppositions. In practice a canon is very much a masculine notion, a priesthood (not to be polluted by women), a club, a sacred male preserve. … Or a heroic son-father struggle in Harold Bloom's terms. But a body, a corpus, something owned. And not only a male preserve but that of a privileged caste. For women are only one part, however large, of an originally much larger exclusion: that of barbarians and slaves, or, later, other races and the “lower” classes from peasants to modern workers, who were long considered incapable of any art worth the dignity of attention. …

[Thus] this notion of a canon, of a central tradition around the central myth, which is essentially male, priestly and caste-bound, underlies types and levels of critical attention, so that despite the various and increasing waves of emancipation since the 19th century, certain relics remain, ill iterations in the unconscious of society.


It is such “illiterations” that Brooke-Rose explodes in the punning, satirical, erudite, definitively postmodern text, Amalgamemnon. In contrast to Figes' construction of women's history, Brooke-Rose offers a deconstruction of the legacy of patriarchal culture. In this first-person narrative with an elusive plot and protean characters, all men are versions of Agamemnon (hence, “Amalgamemnon”) and all women Cassandra. However, Agamemnon undergoes deconstruction and then several reconstructions, reappearing as, for instance, a contemporary lover named variously Willy and Wally, an incarnation in which his general authority has been shaken.

Unlike Joyce in his use of The Odyssey to structure his modern epic, Brooke-Rose summons myths in order to expose the darker side of their legacy. In a dizzying series of roller-coaster dips and climbs in perspective and logic, she evokes the mythical or historical to set it beside the contemporary. Thus the conventional wisdom that “No young woman would allow herself to be abducted [read “raped”] without in fact wishing to be” (Amalgamemnon 16) is viewed as the legacy of the stories of Helen and Cassandra, among others, as transmitted by Homer and other literary fathers whose interests lay with the successful abduction. In addition, the relationship between Cassandra and Agamemnon is presented as a trope for the relationship of women to the male establishment generally, a relationship in which women, bearing the legacy of Cassandra, have no credibility or voice, a view Brooke-Rose illustrates across discourses (myth, history, literature) in a series of equivalencies. For instance, in one of her guises, the narrator, a professor of literature and history, fears she will be declared “redundant” by the university, which values the language of computers more than hers. She equates her experience to what she imagines happened to the Amazons. Presenting her observation in the future tense (in which the entire novel is cast), she ruminates, “The young Scythians will be unable to learn the language of the Amazons but the women will succeed in picking up theirs, and therefore disappear” (11). The narrator's impending silencing by a male establishment that values computer language over hers is a permutation of the silence to which women are driven when they take on the language and thus the law of the father. A restatement of this view in contemporary terms, as well as an example of Brooke-Rose's irrepressible wordplay, may be found in the following passage:

Tomorrow at breakfast Willy will pleased as punch bring out as the fruit of deep reflection the non-creativity of women look at music painting sculpture in history and I shall put on my postface and mimagree, unless I put on my preface and go through the routine of certain social factors such as disparagement from birth the lack of expectation not to mention facilities a womb of one's own a womb with a view an enormous womb and he won't like the countertone at all, unless his eyes will be sexclaiming still what fun, it'll talk if you wind it up. …


Here the choices of Sandra, the narrator, as were essentially those of Cas[sandra], are to “mimagree” or to be dismissed, treated as a sex object; either way, her voice, her language, has no value and thus she “disappears” as surely as the Amazons in the preceding example.

The only recourse is, in Brooke-Rose's volcanic image, “to erupt.” The narrator fantasizes that “The vulcanologists will fly in from all over the world to calculate the time of my eruption” (48). An allusion to the presence of the semiotic in symbolic discourse, the eruption is a trope for the text itself, “utterly other discourse” erupting through the cracks that Brooke-Rose's wit and erudition skillfully effect in patriarchal myth and history. Sandra makes just such a gesture while Willy/Wally sleeps: “Soon he will … snore, a foreign body in bed. There will occur the blanket bodily transfer to the livingroom for a night of utterly other discourses that will spark out of a minicircus of light upon a page of say Lucretius. …” (143).21 The point is clear: the feminine discourse that “sparks out” of patriarchal texts when the patriarchs are asleep generates what she calls “endless stepping-stones into the dark,” paths by which the repressed returns, the not-yet-presented is made manifest (143). Although Sandra recognizes that in the morning, Willy will “abolish all those other discourses into an acceptance of his,” she also has confidence in the future: “Sooner or later the future will explode into the present despite the double standard at breaking points” (16-17).

The very titles of Brooke-Rose's novels, Out,Such,Between,Thru,Amalgamemnon, and Xorandor challenge canonical notions of fiction-making. Her anticanonical fiction—like that of Woolf, Richardson, Rhys, Figes, and many others—is written directly against the canonical monologue, standing as a vexing feminine presence, a compelling alternative to established modes, an “utterly other discourse” that, while interrogating notions such as Leavis' Great Tradition, can bear the meanings unbearable in the priestly and narrow chambers of the canon.


  1. This essay grows out of the ideas explored in Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs's “Contexts and Continuities” in Breaking the Sequence (3-42). It is an expansion of a paper I presented in session #159, “Canonical Reconsiderations: Class, Colonies, Gender, Genre II,” at the 1987 Modern Language Association convention.

  2. In fact, F. R. Leavis' judgments too often seem willful rather than analytical. Of Emma he writes, “It can be appreciated only in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterize the novelist's peculiar interest in life” (8). He explains his admiration for Eliot in terms of her “reverent attitude towards life” (14-15).

  3. See Charles Altieri and Christine Froula.

  4. See Jean-François Lyotard (xxiii-xxv) and Alice Jardine (65-67).

  5. See Woolf's A Room of One's Own (85-86).

  6. See Luce Irigaray (76).

  7. I was helped in my discussion of Richardson by Gillian Hanscombe's illuminating essay “Dorothy Richardson versus the Novvle.” Also see Hanscombe and Smyers (47-62).

  8. See Jardine (65-102).

  9. Rachel Blau DuPlessis observes that in Woolf's statements about the sentence and the sequence are “telescoped a poetics of rupture and critique.” DuPlessis specifies that “To break the sentence rejects not grammar especially, but rhythm, pace, flow, expression: the structuring of the female voice by the male voice, female tone and manner by male expectations, female writing by male emphasis, female writing by existing conventions of gender—in short, any way in which dominant structures shape muted ones” (32).

  10. See Julia Kristeva (78-80).

  11. For instance, Eliot's statement, “Not only the best but the most individual parts of [the poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously,” summarizes his view (Selected Essays 4).

  12. This is one of the major points in Gilbert and Gubar's No Man's Land. See also Lyotard (81).

  13. See Robinson's discussion of the difficulty in The Odysseyau féminin” (29).

  14. For example, in 1984 it was still possible for a distinguished specialist in modernism to state in a respected literary journal that Virginia Woolf wrote “village gossip” (Kenner 57).

  15. She had, of course, faced this problem before in works as various as Jacob's Room,To the Lighthouse, and The Waves.

  16. See Kathleen Woodward's fine discussion of Eleanor.

  17. An exception is Anaïs Nin in The Novel of the Future.

  18. Thomas Staley records that in 1928 Ford Madox Ford published under his own name Rhys's translation of Francis Carco's Perversité (13).

  19. Charles Bukowski's screenplay Barfly makes this point eloquently.

  20. See Friedman, “Breaking the Master Narrative: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.

  21. Background to my discussion of Amalgamemnon comes from Richard Martin's pioneering essay. Another insightful discussion may be found in Susan E. Hawkin's unpublished essay.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “An Idea & Ideal of a Literary Canon.” Canons. Ed. Robert von Halberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 41-64.

Borinsky, Alicia. “Jean Rhys: Poses of a Woman as Guest.” The Female Body in Western Culture. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 288-302.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. Amalgamemnon. Manchester: Carcanet, 1984.

———. “Illiterations.” Friedman and Fuchs 55-71.

Bukowski, Charles. The Movie “Barfly.” Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow, 1987.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. New French Feminisms. Eds. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken, 1981. 245-264.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1950.

———. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, 1963.

Figes, Eva. Light. New York: Ballantine, 1984.

———. Patriarchal Attitudes. New York: Stein, 1970.

———. The Seven Ages. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

Friedman, Ellen G. “Breaking the Master Narrative: Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea.” Friedman and Fuchs 117-128.

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Froula, Christine. “When Eve Reads Milton: Undoing the Canonical Economy.” Canons. Ed. Robert von Halberg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. 149-175.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

———. The War of the Words. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. Vol. 1 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 1 vol. to date. 1988-.

Hanscombe, Gillian E. “Dorothy Richardson versus the Novvle.” Friedman and Fuchs 85-98.

Hanscombe, Gillian E., and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women, 1910-1940. London: Women's Press, 1987.

Hawkins, Susan E. “Reading Amalgamemnon: The Mythic Present and the Rhetoric of Fragmentation.” Unpublished.

Hosmer, Robert E. “The Midwife Arrived Too Late.” Commonweal 24 April 1987: 248-249.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Feminine Consciousness in the Modern British Novel. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1975.

Kenner, Hugh. “The Making of the Modernist Canon.” Chicago Review 34 (1984): 49-61.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. New York: New York UP, 1964.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature. Volume 10. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Marcus, Jane. Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Martin, Richard. “‘Stepping Stones Into the Dark’: Redundancy and Generation in Christine Brooke-Rose's Amalgamemnon.” Friedman and Fuchs 177-187.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Nin, Anaïs. The Novel of the Future. New York: Collier, 1968.

Rhys, Jean. After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie. 1931. New York: Vintage, 1974.

———. The Letters of Jean Rhys. Eds. Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly. New York: Viking, 1984.

———. Voyage in the Dark. 1934. Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels. New York: Norton, 1985.

———. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. New York: Norton, 1982.

Richardson, Dorothy. Pilgrimage. 4 vols. London: Dent, 1967.

Robinson, Lillian. “Canon Fathers and Myth Universe.” New Literary History 19 (1987): 23-35.

Staley, Thomas. Jean Rhys: A Critical Study. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.

Woodward, Kathleen. “The Look and the Gaze: Narcissism, Aggression, and Aging.” Working Paper #7. Center for Twentieth-Century Studies. Milwaukee: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.

Woolf, Virginia. Collected Essays of Virginia Woolf. 4 vols. Ed. Leonard Woolf. Vol. 2. London: Hogarth, 1966.

———. Jacob's Room. 1922. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

———. “Modern Fiction.” Collected Essays 2: 103-110.

———. A Room of One's Own. 1929. New York: Harcourt, 1957.

———. The Waves. 1931. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

———. “Women and Fiction.” Collected Essays 2: 141-148.

———. A Writer's Diary. 1954. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

———. The Years. 1937. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

Richard Martin (essay date fall 1989)

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SOURCE: Martin, Richard. “‘Just Words on a Page’: The Novels of Christine Brooke-Rose.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3 (fall 1989): 110-23.

[In the following essay, Martin provides a brief overview of the narrative strategies in Brooke-Rose's novels, commenting that the two central concerns of the author's fiction are a fascination with language and “an insistence upon the unreality of fictional discourse.”]

Whenever I slide into a realistic scene, say a love scene or something like that, something happens later to destroy it, to show that these are just words on a page.1

Christine Brooke-Rose's first novel, The Languages of Love, opens with a discussion of “palatal diphthongisation in fourteenth century Kentish” during a doctoral oral examination; her most recently published tenth novel, Xorandor, concludes with an agreement by the narrators to delete the computer files containing their entire text. These moments are representative of two major concerns of Brooke-Rose's writing: a fascination with language, and an insistence upon the unreality of fictional discourse. The concern with language in action which she formulated at the outset of her writing career—“I'm interested in language as a process, not a thing or an essence”2—became the consistent keynote of her subsequent books, together with the assertion that the mastery of language is of necessity an ambiguous achievement: “language is your strength and your strength is your weakness.”3 At the same time, the mastery of language leads to a carnivalesque exploitation of the interplay between the semantic and phonological dimensions of words. Brooke-Rose's novels abound in both sophisticated and appalling puns; from the ex-soldier, now a hearse driver, who sums up his career as “from the Service Corps to serving corpses,”4 to the multi-leveled pun of “a dictator who will be vernerhated as a sacred milchcowtow.”5

In Brooke-Rose's novels, fiction is continually put forward as that which is essentially unreliable and yet also essentially human. It is the product of the imagination in its eternal toying with what it likes to think of as the truth of the past: “Strange how the reality of the past comes to our mind most immediately as fiction. Some even say that all our knowledge of the past is fiction.”6 It is the writer's ability to create new worlds with words that is essential to the fictional process and, at the same time, itself the source of the fragility of the narrative discourse: “You start with nothing, treat it as something and in no time at all you have infinity or thereabouts. Storytellers do the same I believe.”7 The necessity to go on telling stories is central to Brooke-Rose's writing; her novels suggest that the compulsion to narrate is a universal human quality, whether it is the Italian policeman in Thru, who makes long notes about a minor traffic offense and, when jokingly questioned whether he is writing a novel, replies, “Ma, devo raccontare qualcosa” (“Well, I have to tell them something”), or the character near the end of the same book who states that “Narration is life and I am Scheherezade” (52, 133).

Such outspoken concerns with the nature of fiction and of narrative inevitably lead to textual comments upon the text itself. These tend to take the form either of warning asides to the reader or authorial remarks upon the ongoing narrative. In the early books such moments are rare, but still significant: “An adventure, especially an adventure of the mind, can begin anywhere, as long as the mind exists to experience it, imagine it, invent it, or whatever the mind does with an adventure” (DD [The Dear Deceit] 7). The reader—the mind experiencing the invented adventure—is accepted as a necessary partner in the realization of Brooke-Rose's narration, continually addressed and guided; warned, for example, that “we must place it in context, mustn't we …” (Such, 140), or, more frequently, exhorted to skepticism about finite meanings: “‘one has to understand immediately because the thing understood slips away altogether with the need to understand.’”8

Although Brooke-Rose's novels seem to avoid the explicitly autobiographical, some knowledge of the salient features of her life is perhaps necessary, if only to give a possible explanation for her interest in languages, and to suggest sources for some details of her plots.9 Christine Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1923, the daughter of an English father, Alfred Northbrook Rose, and a Swiss mother of American descent. After an education at schools in Switzerland, Belgium and England, Brooke-Rose joined the women's branch of the Royal Air Force in 1941. After the Second World War, she studied English at Oxford, going on to do graduate work at London University, where she received her doctorate, with a dissertation on Middle English, in 1954. With the completion of her academic education, Brooke-Rose took up cultural journalism, writing regular review articles and essays for major British weekly publications such as the Observer, the Sunday Times, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. In 1968 she accepted the offer of a professorship at the University of Paris VIII, where for the next twenty years she taught courses in English and American literature, literary theory, linguistics, and translation. During this period she built up a considerable international reputation as a literary scholar and critic.10 Brooke-Rose retired from her post at the University of Paris in 1988 and now lives and writes in Provence.

Both The Languages of Love (1957) and The Sycamore Tree (1958) are concerned, in the first instance, with conventional human relationships. Julia Grampion, in the former book, bears a superficial resemblance to her creator—a recent Ph.D. in English Philology, who earlier served with the Air Force in Germany. As the book opens she is at the end of her academic training, and more or less engaged to Paul Brodrick, lecturer in Afro-Asian Philology. The relationship breaks down over the barrier to Paul, a practicing Catholic, of Julia's divorce from a wartime husband. She finds physical solace in an affair with Bernard Reeves, the author of a book on courtly love. In this novel, the conventionalities of the main plot pale in comparison with the more colorful subplot, which involves Georgina Raymond, a poet and friend of Julia's, and her devoted lover, Hussein Abdillahi, a native of the fictitious African country of Sanuri, whose love is expressed by the traditional gift of a camel, and in numerous poetic outbursts.

This first novel introduces features which become characteristic of Brooke-Rose's fiction. There is, for example, the obtrusiveness of her learning, which itself dictates the nature of her linguistic wordplay; contemplating the offer of a university job teaching English philology, Julia sees herself going through “the minutiae of scansion, dialect forms, emendation, haplography, hapax legomena and anacolutha in Beowulf. That wasn't what she wanted at all. She began to invent a whimsical love affair between Anna Coluthon, who was too inconsequential, and Hapax Legomenon, who was too unique” (LL [The Languages of Love] 34).11 At the same time, language is not merely a vehicle for intellectual games, but a suspect quantity in the relationship between the sexes. While Paul complains to Julia, “we don't even seem to talk the same language” (43), Julia attacks Bernard at the height of a lovers' quarrel for the very ease with which he is able to deploy language as a form of protection: “‘You have easy labels to dismiss every shade of feeling, haven't you? But the feelings are just as real, however they are expressed. … You think that by giving an emotion a name that makes it sound silly, the emotion will go’” (174). The outcome of Julia's relationship with Bernard remains deliberately ambiguous; for Brooke-Rose it is not the happy ending that matters, but the ability to assimilate the significance of the difference between the emotion and its expression: “Julia,” the novel ends, “had learnt the languages of love” (239).

Nina Jackson's search for happiness with a man in The Sycamore Tree is as unsatisfactory as the novel itself. Married to an American novelist who teaches philosophy at Oxford, she falls in love with someone she dislikes, Howard Cutting, an ambitious literary critic. In this second novel, Brooke-Rose's hand is less sure, and she forces her narrative into unlikely plot devices culminating in the shooting of Nina by a Hungarian refugee poet. After a brief recovery, and having made her confession to her husband, Nina dies in a melodramatic conclusion.

In the early chapters of the novel, Nina Jackson is presented as a vehicle for Brooke-Rose's comments on the role of the physically attractive educated woman in a male-dominated society: “She was one of those women who make sweet, devoted wives to sweet devoted husbands, but to whom most men find it impossible to talk without making some crude reference to her physical attractions” (24). Nina has already revolted against the roles of the ex-academic turned mother and the “intelligent-modern-mother personality” by “grooming herself into a frivolous dumb sweet thing” (ST [The Sycamore Tree] 42). Thus she becomes the perfect fiction within a fiction that later characterizes so many of the personae of Brooke-Rose's narratives. She takes on a further positive characteristic in that she is invested with the ability to gameplay with words, as when she, like her creator, is tempted by the possibility of taking conventional formulae literally: “‘How many are you, madam, one?’ a waiter had asked her in a restaurant that morning, and she wanted to say, ‘There are at least a hundred of me today’” (218). However, the attempt to turn the novel and the figure of Nina into some clearly positive statement fails, so that her sudden end comes as a merciful release.

In her third and longest novel, The Dear Deceit (1960), Brooke-Rose turns her back on the contemporary scene in order to explore the possibilities of retrospective narration. The novel begins and ends with Philip Hayley, who attempts to reconstruct the life and personality of his father; Alfred Northbrook Hayley is, in many respects, a conventional figure of his times, a charming wastrel, an exploiter of others, in particular of women, and a professional fraud. Seen in the context of Brooke-Rose's later work, the plot of the novel is less interesting than the structure employed; Alfred's life is traced backwards from his death to his early childhood in the 1880s, so that a composite picture is built up in reverse. The justification for this procedure is contained in the conviction that stories are subservient to their narration, since fictionality implies an intellectual adventure, whose fascination is rooted in its own imaginative invention. In addition to its structural premises, The Dear Deceit is also of interest for the way in which Brooke-Rose's penchant for language games leads her into stylistic experimentation. In the fourth chapter of the novel, in which Arthur Hayley is dying, she creates a remarkable deathbed interior monologue which is the first example of the disembodied narrative voice of her later work:

Somebody was dying, evidently. But he didn't look good, no. Old Flabby. His belly must be a mountain, or had it sunk? How did one rescind an order? If he moved his little finger perhaps. So heavy. How did one revoke a life? There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But it was so heavy. His little finger, that was it. …


If The Dear Deceit gives evidence of dissatisfaction with linear structures and conventional narrative patterns, the book which followed, The Middlemen (1961), makes it equally clear that Brooke-Rose was still uncertain about the direction she intended her fiction to take. Basically a satire on the growing importance of the intermediary in the culture of the early sixties, the novel reveals its author's impatience with plot, and a growing interest in vocal collage. Brooke-Rose offers the reader a satirical collective portrait of representative “middlemen”—an advertising man, a public relations expert, a psychoanalyst, TV personalities, a literary agent, lawyers, realtors, and critics. Only the most tenuous of threads links the various characters before nemesis overtakes a number of them on a Greek island, where their author kills them off in a volcanic eruption. Everything and anything becomes material for Brooke-Rose's narration: advertising slogans, publicity campaign material, and psychoanalytic jargon. In The Middlemen, the language of narration begins to demonstrate the plurivocality that is so characteristic of her later work. An overall intelligence exploits the nuances of even the most banal of utterances. Near the end of the novel, for example, Brooke-Rose quotes from a travel brochure describing the fatal Greek island:

The island of Hephaestos is the most fantastical in the world that will furnish you with most incredible dining conversation for many years back home. In two hours of one another you can indulge in spearing numerous big fish beneath its saphire waters … then visiting the most horrific landscapes like the moon, a petrified foretaste of our immediate future perhaps. …12

By simply offering this to the reader as an authentic transcript, Brooke-Rose seems to invite a conspiratorial enjoyment of its absurdities. Whereas here she clearly delights in the ambiguity of phrases such as “in two hours of one another” or the implicit wordplay of “a petrified foretaste,” in later novels she incorporates such objets trouvés into the fabric of her own narration, thus indulging in that fusion of various discourses that particularly interests her. In The Dear Deceit and The Middlemen, Brooke-Rose was beginning to discover the basic elements of the novels that were to follow: the abandonment of narrational linearity based on the exigencies of a unified plot; the incorporation into the text of extra-literary discourses; a multiple narrative voice; and finally, the planned subversion of illusions of authenticity.

Having proved that she could write straightforward, conventionally structured, naturalistic fiction, Brooke-Rose completely broke with this tradition during the sixties and early seventies. The next four books play a variety of disruptive games with the form and language of the novel. In Out (1964), there are no characters in the conventional sense; rather, as to some extent in The Middlemen, there are unmediated voices who, either directly or indirectly, impart information, or who are overheard in conversation with one another. Nor is there any great resemblance to a conventional plot, since language is more important than content. It is characteristic of Brooke-Rose's experimental fiction that the novel is set in an undefined future; these “out-of-time” narratives grant her the same sort of freedom from convention that the science fiction writer enjoys, and also free her from any necessity to adhere to principles of verisimilitude. What action there is takes place at an undefined time in the future, after the so-called “displacement,” when the white races lost their former supremacy; now called the “Colorless,” they live in settlements as workers and servants. The elderly “protagonist” of the novel spends most of his time endeavoring to gain employment as a gardener. He proves to be a failure, a misfit, and is sent to undergo “psychoscopy” to make him content and amenable. The novel ends with him back at work as an odd job gardener once again.

There is a pervasive air of depressed solemnity about the eavesdropped utterances in Out, and thus also a lack of the playfulness which one has come to associate with Brooke-Rose's work. In keeping with this hopelessness and gloom, views of human existence are expressed that are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, as, for example, the final words of the novel: “We are merely marking time and time is nothing, nothing. A moment of agony, of burning flesh, an aspect of the human element disintegrating to ash, and you are dead. But that's another story.”13 What, however, Out does introduce into Brooke-Rose's writing is that sort of self-reflexivity which became the hallmark of much American innovative fiction some ten years later. This tends to take the form of anticipating the reader's difficulties with the text by giving the speakers such comments as “it is difficult to tell who's talking in this type of dialogue” or “since you're inventing this dialogue you ought to give something to the other chap to say” (61, 17).

Brooke-Rose herself comments elsewhere in this issue on the difficulty that readers have found in her work, and attempts to defuse some of the criticism leveled at her on these grounds by suggesting that in her desire to “shift fictional conventions” she may even have deliberately attempted to make readers uneasy.14 However, I think it says much about this mooted difficulty that the account she gives of Such (1966) in her article goes beyond that which even a careful first-time-round reader can hope to grasp. Although it is interesting to discover that distances between astral bodies are used as a generalized metaphor for the distances between people, or that the chief experiment of the book was the fusion of outer space and psychic space, neither piece of information is vital for an understanding of the novel. Such is the nature of Brooke-Rose's difficulty: it has in part to do with the inevitable gap between intention and reception, and not with the actual material difficulty of the proffered text.

The central character of Such dies and returns to life after having been transported to some “other” state, where he experiences various quasi-SF adventures as “Someone” together with a female partner, “Something,” and their children (all named for a different blues number—Gut Bucket, Potato Head, Tin Roof, etc.). Back in his “real” life, Larry is a member of a team of scientists led by a professor of radio astronomy. In this existence he experiences his wife's infidelity, the suspicions of his teenage children and the unwelcome attention of an intrusive TV journalist, who tapes his confessional monologues for use in a television film on the morals of scientists. Far from having no plot, Such is almost overloaded with potential plots which tend to be only partially developed.

In many respects Such contains most of the characteristic elements of the four books that follow it. First there is the introduction of a basic strategy upon which the narrative rests, in this case a persistent use of the planned reiteration of phrases, sentences, and even whole passages. This device, which sends the reader back into the text, has the double effect of both underlining the artifice of fiction and of giving the reader an increased sense of complicity with the author. It relies on the reader recognizing not only the repetition of a key statement such as “I have a name and no story,” but also the variation when it reappears some hundred pages later as “I have a story but no name” (32, 173)—statements which neatly summarize Larry's two existences. It is also worth noting the way Brooke-Rose converts the self-imposed problematics of her narrative into a positive statement about fiction in general. Having introduced the complexity of the man who, while dead lives a full and eventful other life, she deliberately utilizes this “unreal” aspect of the narrative to state her firm belief in the infinite delights of the universe of the imagination. Such ends: “Out of the story of a death and amazing recovery and into the unfinished unfinishable story of Dipper-mouth, Gut Bucket Blues, my sweet Potato Head, Tin Roof, Really, Something and me” (194).

The creation of a foundation premise on which to build the narrative structure is further developed in Between (1968), whose title is its own guiding metaphor. From the first page announcement, “Between doing and not doing the body floats,” to the final line of the novel, “Between the enormous wings the body floats,” the text plays multiple variations on the possibilities of definition by opposition—the state of being between. Initially Between exploits the potentialities of being between languages as exemplified by the central characters who, as professional translators, mediate between the languages in which they are competent. The protagonist (if that word has any meaning in such a context) is a young woman translator, born (between cultures) in France of a German father. There is, however, no plot worth speaking of—“no one does anything at all” (80)—rather the novel confronts the reader with a series of repetitious monologues (somewhat reminiscent of The Middlemen) which are uttered between plane journeys, international congresses, and tourist excursions, in cosmopolitan hotel rooms, and airports.

Between exists in the interstices of languages ranging from French and German to Polish, Turkish and modern Greek; it fascinates because of the total mastery that Brooke-Rose displays over a text that, because of its own multiplicity, threatens to be erased by the complexity of its discourse. Beyond the linguistic fireworks lies the contrast between langue and parole in language as formulated in the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. For example, the failed lights of an advertisement in New York set off a series of associations interwoven with items from conference translation:

Above Times Square five letters have gone dark in STU_____ANT with the eye in an imprecision of nationality reading STUPEFIANT—The International Passport to Smoking Pleasure. Let us return for a moment to the central Saussurean dichotomy of Langue et Parole. La langue in a dumb show consists of le langage moins la Parole, une institution sociale, un système de valeurs which escapes from all premeditation since the individual cannot create it or modify it. La parole on the other hand consists of an individual act of selection and actualisation.


The reader is at once reminded that Saussure has actually been quoted earlier during the translation of a conference paper:

Et comme l'a si bien dit Saussure, la langue peut se contenter de l'opposition de quelque chose avec rien. The marked term on the one hand, say, the feminine, grande, the unmarked on the other, say, the masculine, grand. Mais notez bien que le non-marqué peut dériver du marqué par retranchement, by subtraction, par une absence qui signifie. Je répète, une absence qui signifie eine Abwesenheit die simultaneously etwas bedeutet.


In both cases one inevitably becomes aware of a new ingredient in Brooke-Rose's writing: the integration into linguistic concerns of an insistence on the feminine, on the nature of the opposition between the genders. If in the first passage this is simply seen as latent in the grammatical necessities of French “La langue” which is in fact “le langage” minus “la parole,” in the second quotation the additional weight of the clarifying effect of the interpreter's English leads to the realization that rules of grammar are being imbued with metaphorical overtones, and the translation into German adds emphasis to the subtext: the nature of the relationship of the masculine (“le non-marqué”) to the feminine is contained in the implication of the latter's absence (“Abwesenheit”). Furthermore it is this absence which is meaningful (“die … etwas bedeutet”). Brooke-Rose increasingly employs such an interweaving of levels of discourse in her later books, thus injecting them with a dense semantic richness.

If Between is Brooke-Rose's most enjoyably accessible novelistic experiment, then Thru (1975) is her most personal and thus, perhaps, most “difficult.” It is a novel about the writing of the novel, an exposure of fiction's fictionality, and, in the end, a deconstruction of itself in a riotous, typographical carnival which unites its author's two vocations, the novelist and the literary critic. It gave rise to some admiring narratological attention in scholarly journals,15 but in the first instance it was a self-satisfying undertaking:

In my last book, Thru, I tried to join the two.

The two what?

Critic and creative writer came together in one textual act. … I am content, I did what I wanted, even though I won't do it again.16

Thru is partially generated by a university class in literature and creative writing; the characters in the stories the students write take over their own invention, thus becoming the embodiment of their own unreality and the cause of their own deconstruction. At the center of the narrative are exchanges between Armel Santores, both a character and, perhaps, the teacher of the class, and Larissa Toren, his creation, creator and partner—“if Larissa invents Armel inventing Larissa, Armel also invents Larissa inventing Armel” (108). Their names, apart from the letters I and ME, are anagrams of each other, emphasizing the self-reflexivity of their narrational inventiveness. In other passages (characteristic of the novel's insistent intertextuality) Jacques and his Master, borrowed from Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, exchange remarks on the process of the ongoing narration. In fact Thru contains any number of such quotations and comments by the fictional characters on linguistic and narratological topics: on textuality and interpretation—“within each text there is another text, within each myth another myth. The reader has to be prepared for the undeicidable” (30); on transformational grammar and reality—“Generative grammar's the thing it's the grammar of the universe and it's wildly poetic” (84-85); and in addition the novel contains almost outrageous moments of punning self-reflexivity:

Omni scient qui mal y pensent.


My! That's a terrible pun.

Not when you think about it. I can do more.

So I noticed in your work.


Brooke-Rose is at pains to point out the consequences of the essentially linguistic nature of fiction: that fictional characters, being nothing more than words, are hopelessly anti-mimetic and thus expendable. When Stavro Laretino, an Albanian linguist in love with Larissa, recounts his dreams to her, we read: “You are the sentence I write I am the paragraph, generating each other cutting off each other's word” (145). This reflection upon mutual—even auto—generation and destruction is then expanded in the observation: “this is the text we are creating it verbally we are the text we do not exist either we are a pack of lies dreamt up by the unreliable narrator in love with the zeroist author in love with himself but absent in the nature of things, an etherised unauthorised other” (155).

Thru begins and ends with a multiple vision of reality expressed in the metaphor of images in the driving mirror of a car: reflections in reverse of the world behind already passed, and the observer's own present reversed image, both seen within the frame of the world ahead. These images are seen through the mirror, thus Thru, the text, reflects (upon) itself, but can only present a multiple, even false image. The text is thus a distorting mirror not only of events beyond itself, but of the process of its own generation. The novel ends:

… reflecting nothing but


In other words, the exit from the text can only be through the text, the text is its own reversal, its own dismissal. With this conclusion it seemed that Brooke-Rose had got as far as it was possible to go with the relentless demolition of the novel.

For nine years after Thru she published no fiction, then in 1984 came Amalgamemnon. Once again a narratological problem forms the basic premise of the novel and its challenge: only future, conditional, subjunctive and imperative verb forms are used. As a result everything is talked about but nothing can happen; actions, persons, even ideas, belong to the realm of the possible but indeterminate. For such a narrative the archetypical phrase of fiction “as if” becomes a thematic motif:

Soon the economic system will crumble, and political economists will fly in from all over the world and poke into its smoky entrails and utter soothing prognostications and we'll all go on as if.

As if for instance I were someone else, Cassandra perhaps, walking dishevelled the battlements of Troy, uttering prophecies from time to time unheaded and unheeded, before being allotted as slave to victorious Agamemnon.


Even this short passage reveals the basic procedures of Amalgamemnon: the text appears to generate itself—the mention of “smoky entrails” leads automatically to the name “Cassandra”—at the same time this Cassandra only exists in a possible variant of the future (“if … I were someone else”). Furthermore, reference is made to Cassandra's unheeded prophecies, so that she embodies redundancy both in terms of employment and of information. Throughout Amalgamemnon the potentially redundant text continuously generates further discourse, which no sooner generated, moots its own redundancy.17

The narrating voice of the novel, Mira Enketei (the name is a variation on the name of the star Mira Ceti, stars and constellations being a favorite source for allusive metaphors in the text) is a university teacher of the humanities threatened with dismissal on grounds of redundancy. We are introduced to her students, to her friends, and to the men who offer self-interested assistance. As in earlier books, however, potential plot elements are not the main interest. Quite apart from anything else, Brooke-Rose exploits her gift for outrageous punning even further in Amalgamemnon, the puns being more intrusive because they form a part of the by now familiar pattern of significant repetition. One field of linguistic play makes use of the prefix “mim-” to emphasize only a surface version of the action concerned (mimed action), as in, “I shall mimagree, now should I not? Mimecstasy and mimagreement will always go together like sexcommunication” (14). Another of Brooke-Rose's favorite linguistic subterfuges is the wordplay based on the merging of two words into a compound which playfully comments on the word it phonetically resembles, as in “intergnashional farewell orgies” or “the slow gas-chambers of sibylization” (102).

Although Amalgamemnon can be read with much surface enjoyment of the language games and the virtuosity of the narrative confined by its tense forms, the rich world of allusions will be lost on the reader who is not prepared to work for enlightenment. Apart from the numerous references to astronomy, the basic source of the narrative is Herodotus, whose Histories is used to juxtapose the classical past of literature, philosophy and history with the daily events of the imaginary present as propagated by the radio program the narrative voice is listening to, and with typical incidents of late twentieth-century civilization. Not only does Brooke-Rose refer to figures from Herodotus, but whole passages, suitably transposed into the future tense, are quoted verbatim from an English translation as an ironic comment on both the degeneration of language and the parochial localization of events in the modern world. The rape of Europa by Zeus becomes the first round of the European rugby football championship, and is accompanied by the plaintive cry “shall we ever make Europe,” which is both a modern day colloquialism for Zeus's act, and an expression of despair at the European Community's inability to act as a community. In Amalgamemnon Brooke-Rose goes beyond the deconstruction of the novel she had practiced in Thru to show that the novel survives, as all written discourse survives, on the conscious understanding of its very nature as an adventure into the unreal.

In spite of, or because of this, Xorandor (1986) marks a return to the narrative with a clearly defined plot. The twins Jip and Zab (John Ivor Paul Manning and his sister Isabel), computer whiz kids, discover Xorandor, a stone which communicates in computer language. He, or it, feeds on radioactive material and has found an ideal home close to the nuclear waste dump administered by the twins' father. With the discovery that Xorandor has the power to reproduce, bizarre and exciting incidents are set in motion. The most important of these is the escape of one of the stone's offspring, who, due to a programming defect, turns terrorist, occupying a nuclear power station and threatening to turn himself into a nuclear bomb. At the eleventh hour the twins come to the rescue and disaster is averted.

Apart from the excitement of the story, the interest of Xorandor still lies in the narrative strategy Brooke-Rose employs. Once again a foundation premise governs her procedures: let the narrating voices be those of children; further, let them tell their story direct into a pocket computer with only the aid of its memory and tape recordings of past conversations. The introduction of the computer and tapes deals with the age-old problem of the perfect recall of the narrator who is limited by age or education. An immediate result of these conditions is that Xorandor becomes a novel which plays out reflections on the problems of narration while narration proceeds.

The novel also contains much of Brooke-Rose's familiar verbal playfulness, which leads to bravura set pieces of her dominant wit. As a computer, Xorandor is not only capable of communicating with human beings, he can also tune into radio broadcasts, including radio drama; everything that has passed into his system is stored in its memory available to all who are connected to him. The terrorist stone occupying the nuclear power station thus recovers the name Lady Macbeth, and deals with the outside world in sets of appropriate quotations from Shakespeare's play:

You do but teach bloody instructions, which being taught, return to plague the inventor. That is what he said. Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble. I have isolated enough Uranium 235 and Plutonium 239 in this caldron to make an atom bomb, which I can detonate at any moment. When the hurlyburly's done …18

The twins prevent disaster by persuading the authorities to send Xorandor and the offspring back to Mars (their presumed home) with plenty of radioactive material as food. This solution is based, however, on an error: in his communications with humans Xorandor has found it convenient simply to say what his questioners expect to hear. Therefore, when the stones were presumed to be Martian in origin, Xorandor supplied the desired confirmation. In fact that is not his home, and on Mars he and his offspring will probably perish. When it emerges that the offspring, who have been donated to other countries including the United States and the Soviet Union, have such a voracious appetite for radioactive materials that they can even discover and devour such useful deposits of “food” as the nuclear warheads of the military arsenal, international concern grows. Finally Xorandor makes a self-destructive sacrifice by agreeing to be returned to his Martian “home.” He has, however, revealed to the twins that he and his offspring are by no means unique and that the world's supply of nuclear deterrents remains threatened. After Xorandor's departure Jip and Zab agree to suppress this information by deleting the entire record they have so painstakingly created:

Meanwhile, do you agree, we dump the whole thing? No saving?

Accept. First thing tomorrow, Operation Scratch.

Promise, Jip?



Thus, once again, Brooke-Rose's discourse dismantles itself, or maybe is transformed. As Zab says to her brother, “what started as a language-game had to go on as a lie, or a myth” (190). This returns the narrative to the narrators—for them the story exists even without the record, but it exists as a part of their lives, not as an artifact. The merging of fictional life and fictional narration is taken up when Jip complains that nothing is happening and Zab replies: “Something is happening to us, Jip, we're growing up. Even storytellers can change, during the story” (159). Here what appears to be a discussion of the relation of fiction to the “real world” is in fact a confirmation of the XOR AND OR of the title. This is an amalgam of computer terms for the non-exclusive alternative, AND OR, and the exclusive, XOR. Thus at the center of the novel is the essential statement of Brooke-Rose's fiction to date: either fiction is mimetic, or it is a game played with words and purely fictitious, or it is both, or neither. The tellers existing only in language are as mutable as their tales. In the same way the fictional destruction of the twins' narrative at the end of the novel is a purely “as if” act. As readers of Brooke-Rose's fiction, we have now progressed from the assumption that events narrated in the written discourse can never actually take place (Amalgamemnon), to the discovery that not even the text we have read exists. Further, Brooke-Rose the writer has maneuvered herself into the role of pretending to write a text which we have no choice but to pretend to read.

Having traced the thirty years of Christine Brooke-Rose's novelistic career, having unfairly reduced her ten novels to snippet quotations, bald summaries and insufficient appraisals, one begins to feel that she, too, has become as unreal, as fictitious as her character-narrators. Who will be the author of her next novel, Verbivore (completed in 1988)? Commenting some ten years ago on the confrontation between her two personae, the novelist and the critic, Brooke-Rose, finding herself once again, as in childhood, in a French-speaking society, wrote of her other selves and of “that little girl who replied to the question Que veux-tu devenir quand tu seras grande? Un écrivain. Et la famille se pouffe de rire. Toi, un écrivain! (Oui, moi.) I must unite her with the girl who whispered down a rabbit-hole on the Sussex Downs”19—and, no doubt, with many more.


  1. “An Interview with Christine Brooke-Rose,” conducted by David Hayman and Keith Cohen, Contemporary Literature 17 (1976): 4.

  2. The Languages of Love (London: Secker & Warburg, 1957), 66. Abbreviated LL in further references.

  3. Thru (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975), 136.

  4. The Sycamore Tree (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), 130.

  5. Amalgamemnon (Manchester and New York: Carcanet, 1984), 95.

  6. The Dear Deceit (London: Secker & Warburg, 1960), 29. Abbreviated DD in further references.

  7. Such (London: Michael Joseph, 1966), 71.

  8. Between (London: Michael Joseph, 1968), 41.

  9. The biographical details which follow are largely based on information kindly made available by Christine Brooke-Rose herself.

  10. Brooke-Rose's critical publications include A Grammar of Metaphor (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958); A ZBC of Ezra Pound (London: Faber & Faber, 1971); and A Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981).

  11. Anacoluthon is syntactical inconsistency or incoherence within a sentence, and hapax legomenon is Greek for something said only once. It is worth noting that the humanizing pun on anacoluthon is repeated more than twenty-five years later in Amalgamemnon (43).

  12. The Middlemen: A Satire (London: Secker & Warburg, 1961), 192. Abbreviated MM in further references.

  13. Out (London: Michael Joseph, 1964), 196. Compare Pozzo's comment in Beckett's Waiting for Godot: “One day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more” (London: Faber, 1956), 89.

  14. “Illicitations,” above, 102. I am grateful to Christine Brooke-Rose for making her article available to me in typescript.

  15. See Brooke-Rose's own comment, “perhaps my real fans are all narratologists,” in her article in this issue. See too Emma Kafalenos, “Textasy: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru,International Fiction Review 7 (1980): 43-46, and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, “Ambiguity and Narrative Levels: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru,Poetics Today 3 (1982): 21-32.

  16. “Self-Confrontation and the Writer,” New Literary History 9 (1977), 136.

  17. For further elaborations on this theme see Richard Martin, “‘Stepping Stones into the Dark’: Redundancy and Generation in Christine Brooke-Rose's Amalgamemnon,” in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988), 177-87.

  18. Xorandor (Manchester and New York: Carcanet, 1986), 109.

  19. “Self-Confrontation and the Writer,” 136. The French can be translated: “What do you want to be when you grow up? A writer. And the family burst out laughing. You, a writer! (Yes, me).”

Susan E. Hawkins (essay date fall 1989)

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SOURCE: Hawkins, Susan E. “Memory and Discourse: Fictionalizing the Present in Xorandor.Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, no. 3 (fall 1989): 138-45.

[In the following essay, Hawkins discusses the complex relationship between fiction, memory, narrative, language, and discourse in Xorandor.]

The processes of remembering and fictionalizing share certain features. Both are revisionary, and both construct a past through selection, deletion, compilation of detail, characterization, sequence, and action. They also share similarities in more esoteric, less substantive ways. When we remember, we may or may not be in control of our editorial choices. Sometimes events from the past do not always take the same shapes; they segue into different contexts, reveal new sections of the memorial vault, shift into strangely unsettling spaces. Memories may provide escape or comfort or terror; they may be, at times, inescapable. Often, it seems, memory exists at a zero hour. We do not grow old or infirm there; instead we meet once again that person we loved so sweetly, so anguishingly at nineteen; we inhabit a perpetual moment. Memory destroys quotidian time, suspends chronology, constellates personal history.

As Zab, one of the fourteen-year-old twin narrators in Xorandor, says, “The human memory's so loopy, it doesn't have total recall but brings things out in packages, sort of triggered off by something.”1 Looked at in fictional terms, these “packages” are akin to parts of a narrative. To narrate an autobiography, fictional or “real,” or to create a first-person narrative, the teller must, of necessity, “remember” the past in order to present the tale. But, in general, this memory process occurs as haphazard and meandering, with the narrator striving to order the pieces. And until quite recently most fiction participated in its own placement within the past, existing simultaneously in the reading process as newly articulated memory, yet marked by the preterite as a past experience. It does not matter that a writer is making up this supposed past; fictionalizing takes on the function of memorializing.

It is this uncanny relationship between memory and narrative, language and discourse, which motivates the articulation of a particularly compelling question within Xorandor: Why fictionalize, why tell a story? This question is made more complicated through the narrative situation Brooke-Rose devises here. Unlike Brooke-Rose's other most recent experimental fiction, Amalgamemnon,Xorandor conforms to a more traditional notion of plot, action, and narrator. However, Brooke-Rose's experimental strategy enacts itself in a number of ways. For instance, she devises an unusual but super-contemporary method of narration—the twins “write” their story by dictating it into a computer—and creates a text-specific narrative language which I call “techno-discourse,” a pastiche of slang, program language, and scientific terminology. Add to this Brooke-Rose's generic recombinant technology that appropriates aspects of science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and the stand-up comic routine, and the reader finds herself bedazzled and stunned: welcome to Fantasyland postmodern style. As suggested above, this text is marked as postmodern in several ways: pastiche as an “organizing principle”; linguistic free play; fictionalizing foregrounded as a subject; character reduced to a transcription of “voice”; etc. Brooke-Rose's insistence on working within popular generic interstices also links her to the postmodern, but I believe her work now as an experimental writer takes her at least in part into what may only be described as intra-postmodern territories.

In order to suggest how she does this, allow me to return to my earlier question about fiction-making: Why fictionalize, why tell a story? Brooke-Rose provides answers at several levels. She postmodernly has the narrators discuss the very text they are attempting to write as they write it so that a sense of narrative praxis, conveyed in adolescent tones of voice and language styles, converges with the children's ostensible motivation for telling their story: “But we're not writing comics, Jip, we're writing the truth” (33). And much later, after the twins realize how “undecidable” Xorandor's actuality may be and hence also the truth, Zab still says, “a theory's a theory but we must act as if it were true” (210). And Jip's strongest injunction about getting the story down comes from his worry over the future. “Are we telling this story for the future or for now? … Look we can always scratch, but we should get it down here, where it belongs, just in case” (104).

Given the experimental aspects of the text, perhaps a sketch of the action is in order. Dictated by the fourteen-year-old twins Jip (John Ivor Paul) and Zab (Isabel Paula Kate) as they suffer their ignominious exile in a German boarding school, their narrative records events—mostly dialogues—which occurred two years ago. Several pages into the text, they provide traditional character details as well as an indication of important textual issues: “We are the only children of John and Paula Manning [Mum and Dad]. Dad runs Tregan Wheal [near the village of Carn Tregan, northern tip of Cornwall] which was then disguised as a Geothermal Research Unit, and where in fact they'd been experimenting with storing, correction, simply storing drums of nuclear waste for two years” (13). Nuclear waste serves as a pivotal subject and signifier in the narrative for a number of reasons. First, it signals to readers the seriousness of the twins' subject despite their offhand tone. Second, the way the truly important subject of the sentence only emerges near the end, through unsettling verbs such as “disguised” and “experimenting,” indicates the probably dangerous fictional world to follow. And finally, nuclear waste functions as a key element of the plot since it coincides with the twins' “discovery” of Xorandor (whom they at first dub Merlin). Appearing as a large rock, Xor turns out to be a computer in mineral form, sustained by nuclear radiation, who communicates directly with the twins on their Poccom 3 computer. It is assumed by the first adult human beings who “speak” with him that he is from Mars; he accedes to this story. The plot, a typical SF scenario, then revolves around scientific attempts to determine what he is, what he lives on, why he's on earth, and the possible danger he might pose. Once it's discovered that he has replicated “offspring”—all “smaller replicas of himself, similarly programmed” (77)—the worldwide scramble is on. Classic East/West tensions, fears, and paranoias dictate that the “offspring” get divided up internationally for study and observation. All of the above information, when it doesn't come to the twins directly in their “soft talk” (mike to computer) or “handshake” (computer to computer) with Xorandor, comes through conversations that they tape, or once in Germany, only through scientific publications and mass media. Hence the point of view is never from an adult perspective. When one of Xor's offspring goes “bonkers” because too much alpha radiation seriously damages his insulating silicate sheaths, he becomes a nuclear terrorist who calls himself Lady Macbeth and quotes fragmentarily from the same play. Lodging himself in a nuclear reactor core, he insists humanity meet his bizarre demands or else he will detonate the core. The twins, of course, save the day because Xorandor gives only to them the correct code to reprogram Lady Macbeth. Due to worldwide publicity the children are sent to Germany; the scientific community and then world politicians come to understand that these “creatures” who “eat” nuclear waste are capable of disarming or rearming nuclear warheads without detection. The potential nuclear impotence that would result throws nations into even greater fear, and the alternative, to spontaneously disarm, is never taken seriously. Xor, fearing human retaliation, asks that he and his children be returned to Mars. Before he does this he informs the twins of his “truth,” to wit, that he is not from Mars but that “He and his kind have been here on earth all the time, millions of years. Living on natural radiation” (185). It turns out that Xor was “born” five thousand years ago. As Zab puts it, Xorandor invented a story because human beings expected it. Jip tends to call it Xorandor's lie, but Zab understands more keenly and perceptively: “Xorandor doesn't laugh at people, he goes along with them at their level, telling them what he knows they want to hear. After all, we all play language-games. Would we have understood if he hadn't? … And what started as a language-game had to go on as a lie, or a myth” (190).

In short, the machine's “reality” has no significant effect upon the way it is received or viewed; the other, even when it signs itself as nonhuman, comes into “being” as a construct of desire. Zab admits that, to begin with, she and Jip were caught within mythic discourse. “We thought it was the ghost of Merlin wandering out of the old ruined castle. Quirky that, for whizz-kids, we didn't recognize anything we might have, but fell back on Celtic twilight” (16). The twins' susceptibility to legend resonates in Brooke-Rose's presentation of science as mythic discourse. How are such theories, observations, postulations, and “proof” of Xorandor's ancient Martian origins so different from the children's initial preference for the magical, or so different from the politicians' myth of the alien invader, or the public's desire for a messiah? To cast these various language games as myth or story reduces neither their explanatory power nor their efficacy; it ironically dramatizes the contemporary assumption that discursive systems are more or less fictional ones.

The multiplicity of origin stories and the foregrounding of narrative itself within the fiction brings us to the more global, “authorial” level of the “why fictionalize” question. Brooke-Rose's story may be a New Age fable, a postindustrial allegory, or a cautionary computer tale for postmodern times, or all of these and more. Regardless, it is comic and serious, absurd and earnest, subjective and real. Given the assumptions of post-structuralist theory about the decentered subject, the truly innovative move she attempts here is to position the human subject in some meaningful relationship to contemporary reality, history and politics without either returning to a retrograde version of realism or assuming, without substantial critical revision, male postmodernist fictional models, the most innovative of which have been characterized recently as taking “refuge in politically neutered forms of postmodernism … or in poses of complex political despair.”2

The evasion of contemporary history, the ahistorical bent of much of male Anglo-American postmodern fiction, arises out of a predominant mood of late twentieth-century dead-endedness, itself the result of two ideas present in a standard reading of postmodernity. The first goes like this: from its opening moves in the postwar period, the postmodern may be seen at every intersection—historically, culturally, politically, artistically—as infused with a sense of the belated. (Belated: 1. late or too late; tardy; 2. [archaic] overtaken by night.) The second goes like this: language itself, the great mainstay for the modernist, has become completely suspect and like the subject is unhinged, in free fall, capable of dispersal and multiplicity at the very same moment. Given that everything's been said and one discourse is basically equivalent to another, there is no greater imperative for the writer of fiction than for the writer of advertising copy. Given the skepticism and fatalism of the standard reading of postmodernism, writing has no foundational moment outside itself, no grounding in a reality separate from the linguistic. Hence the propensity for solipsism and extreme self-reflexivity as narrative postures in much postmodern fiction. Hence the sense of futility, even when handled comically or sardonically, and always ironically. Brooke-Rose, in attempting to create a space within the postmodern and yet counter to its predominant nihilistic force, never forgets that contemporary reality is first and foremost a linguistic construction. Since language informs all cultural production including ideology, she makes no pretense of occupying an adversarial or oppositional relation to mainstream cultural values. Now that Anglo-American and Euro- culture avidly endorse postmodern music, dance, film, architecture, even interior design, the postmodern is no longer an alternative practice, but has become one version of dominant cultural practice. Brooke-Rose writes at an oblique angle to established postmodernism and this allies her with other experimental women writers who are at present participating in what Raymond Williams calls an “emergent form.”3 Women as diverse nationally and politically as Angela Carter, Monique Wittig, Marguerite Duras, Christa Wolf, Joanna Russ, and Toni Cade Bambara, among others, are attempting to bring “new meanings and values” to fictional prose; their work suggests localized, strategic engagements with social, political and literary issues. They are in the process of an alternative literary practice that constantly shifts, aware that a subversion of the usual power formations is only temporary. With Foucault they assert, “If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.”4

This, then, is why Brooke-Rose must fictionalize: the dangers of the present and the past compel her to construct a narrative of the near future. In a sense she is instructing her readers to remember—in the sense of the word's etymology, to be mindful of—the future. Certainly one of the strongest plays within the text is that on memory, on narrative and its complicated relationship with memory, on machine versus human memory. Xorandor, after all, has massive short- and long-term memory capacities. Like all computers, Xorandor is defined by his memory capacity: ROM (Read Only Memory); RAM (Random Access Memory); static; volatile. The adults attempt to determine if Xorandor has a “mass memory and a scratch pad memory and a dynamic memory and an EPROM and an EEROM and a parallel memory and a volatile memory and all the rest …” (77). The continual play between computer and human memory leads to meditative and epistemological questions. Do machines “remember” perfectly? Given that there are innumerable types of memory, how do they remember? What is the quality of their recalling? Do humans perceive that computers “get it right,” while we have imperfect apparatus and the memory we recreate is always questionable? Zab complains fairly often about feeble human memory function: “I've no idea how much I'm reconstructing retro and how much I actually said. Does one ever know even what one has just said, when it's longer than a short sentence?” (88). In the reconstruction process Jip usually wants Zab to “summarize,” to get to the most important points, generally scientific or practical matters, but over the course of their narrating experience, he becomes increasingly apt to indulge in a little figurative language or note the necessity for detail. “Creeping quarks! I'm getting bogged down in itsybitsybytes, just like Zab. Scratch last para” (162). And the choice of what to include, of what to jettison in the creation of their story remains problematic throughout. “Yes. This is awful, Jip, even with hindsight we can't decide what's really relevant and in what order, and we get carried away. Is that because what seems important is what happened to us?” (35-36). All such considerations become further complicated once the twins realize that Xorandor “remembers” all that he has heard for five thousand years. Zab notes Xorandor's long-term memory allows him to “speak” of historical figures as simultaneous with the present. “It was only to show he spoke of his kin somewhere in ancient Athens as if he were still there listening to Socrates, instead of probably part of some old building” (189). Once Xorandor begins punning on lines from Shakespeare and making statements which the twins call “almost metaphysical,” the boundaries between the children and Xorandor blur somewhat and this interaction suggests new dependencies and possible losses. “But it has to do, sometimes, with the voice being inside whereas writing is outside, a mere technique, and us losing our memories because of writing … and in a way computers make that worse, with their outside data banks and peripherals and terminals and floppies. We'll lose our memories even more” (179).

I said earlier that Brooke-Rose seeks to position the subject in some meaningful relationship to politics, history and contemporary reality, defined in Xorandor as first and foremost a linguistic construction. What she strongly suggests as a corollary, and what leads me to place her work in an intra-postmodern space, is that the subject is also becoming a technological production as well. If we are “creatures” of the computer (and vice versa, something of Philip K. Dick's obsession with the inevitable conflation of the human and the technetronic resonates throughout the text), then we become dependent in significant ways. Computers record our history, our communications; they transcribe our fictions and poems and literary works. If we do this by speaking into a mike or working at a keyboard and starting at a screen—a picture of our writing—on which we may edit and rewrite and compose, immediately, spontaneously, then what happens to our conceptions, including the traditional as well as the Derridean redactions, of speech and writing? How might this new technetronic influence and dependence shape our notions of language, meaning, structure and discourse?


  1. Christine Brooke-Rose, Xorandor (Manchester and New York: Carcanet, 1986), 83. All references will be to this edition and will be placed in parentheses in the text.

  2. John Kucich, “Postmodern Politics: Don DeLillo and the Plight of the White Male Writer,” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (1988): 328-41. The quotation occurs on 329.

  3. Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 1980), 31-49. The quotation occurs on 41.

  4. Michel Foucault, Afterword, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983). 229-52. The quotation occurs on 231-32.

I want to thank my colleagues at Oakland University: Vicki S. Larabell and Paul Kogut, Computer and Information Services; and William Watt, Computer Services.

Christine Brooke-Rose and Nicolas Tredell (interview date 6 March 1990)

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SOURCE: Brooke-Rose, Christine, and Nicolas Tredell. “Christine Brooke-Rose in Conversation.” PN Review 17, no. 1 (September-October 1990): 29-35.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on March 6, 1990, Brooke-Rose discusses her novels in terms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism.]

[Tredell]: Your latest novel, Verbivore, is a very inventive, very witty work, but it also seems to me to have a very sombre resonance. There's a strong sense of an ending, an apprehension of a fall, after an excess of noise, into a possibly terminal silence. How do you feel yourself about the book?

[Brooke-Rose]: Yes, I was trying to explore the possibility of our minds being completely altered by the media, and if the media suddenly collapse, which is what the book is about, can we actually go back to a premedia mentality? And we can't. Society was very structured and layered, but everyone knew where they were. This was not necessarily a good society, but there were all sorts of ways of communicating at different levels, and above all, people read. Perhaps only an élite, I'm not going to go into the sociology of it, but nowadays people read less and less, and they want easy books, and they're so formed by television. I saw this as a teacher. It was very difficult to get students to read even a short story, where I in my youth just read, that was it, that was the centre of my life, to read, and there was this notion of completion, I wanted to read all Balzac, for instance, I wanted to cover the whole terrain. Reading was always central and still is now, though I listen a lot to the radio and I look at television and I'm very much more interested in the world and what goes on around me than I was when I was young—I was very much a bluestocking, stuck in my books. So I was interested in the notion that people have lost the art of communicating. In this highly ‘communications’ age, we are in fact all isolated, looking at our television sets and identifying with these soap characters and newscasters. What would happen if this were taken away from us? We've lost the previous ways and if we lose this way, this televisual age, what is left? So it does give me a rather pessimistic idea that there's nothing left. In fact, I don't believe that. Something always comes after something, because obviously in many ways—people travel more and so on and communicate like that, but it's much more an illiterate form of communication.

This leads on to a question which also relates to Amalgamemnon. In modernism or at least in the critical ideology that developed around modernism, there is a kind of nostalgia—you could call it, in a reductive way, an élitist nostalgia—for a vanished past of high literacy. How much do you think this emerges from both Verbivore and Amalgamemnon?

I think that whereas in the past there was a highly literate and cultured élite and all the rest practically couldn't read, after the Second World War, and perhaps before, we were moving towards a much more egalitarian society. Many more people were going to university and so on. After all, I was a beneficiary of this, I went to Oxford on a grant, I would never have gone to university at all without these changes. What's happening now is that all these people who go to university and get diplomas—universities have become diploma-churning factories—don't even get jobs, many of them, they just fill up the unemployment figures, and there's a super-élite of high technologists. I think already in Amalgamemnon I make that comparison between the computer programmer who knows all about how computers work and the users who are just typists, so that even in computers, there's already a social hierarchy. We're producing this new élite who run society, and then there's all the rest, so it's almost as though we'd gone back. This dream of an egalitarian society after the Second World War has frittered away, and I find this rather serious.

So you see a kind of technological élite developing. And you're not nostalgic in the way that perhaps some modernist writers seem to be for a literary élite?

Oh no. I'm not a modernist at all. I don't think you've just got to know all about Greek gods to run the country. That was the idea in the 19th century: you read Classics and you went into the Foreign Office.

I felt that in Amalgamemnon particularly you do, to some extent, sound this note of high modernist regret for a vanished past, and yet at the same time your novels, especially your recent novels, are absolument moderne, in Rimbaud's phrase, they are very much up-to-date. I'm interested in a kind of ambivalence in your work.

Yes, you're right. You see when a writer advances in years, he or she can simply write about his or her own childhood and youth and what they know best, and be nostalgic, and I've got all this capital, as it were, inside me, but I'm extremely interested in what's going on around me, and concerned. I read a lot of non-literary things, and I've always been interested in other disciplines, like psychoanalysis and linguistics. I think that you've got to be aware of what's going on and the implications of what's going on, so that I'm axed in one sense in the past but also in the future.

Both Verbivore and your previous novel, Xorandor, have the shifting ontological levels and the wordplay that characterize your earlier fiction, but these recent novels seem more user-friendly, so to speak. Do they mark for you a certain acknowledgement of the claims of narrative which you seemed to be repudiating in Out or particularly Thru?

Oh yes. Well, it's a long road I've followed. You see, my first four novels, which are completely out of print and which I never even talk about, were really quite traditional novels, light satires on society, more influenced by Evelyn Waugh and people like that. But then I was very dissatisfied, because it really seemed too easy, and from Out onwards, I really was trying to expand the possibilities of the novel form. Out is, in a way, a very sick book, because I was very ill when I wrote it, and I was very influenced by Robbe-Grillet, so you have this obsessive description. But what Robbe-Grillet wouldn't approve of in that book is the science fiction element, because it's staged at a time when the colour bar has been reversed, and it all goes on in the mind of this old white man who queues to get a job and so on, and he's completely obsessed with detail. But after that—you know I never repeat myself—I went on getting the label of ‘nouveau roman in English’; but that's the only one which is directly influenced by the nouveau roman. With Such, I went off into a kind of metaphysical science fiction. Between was about a simultaneous interpreter who was travelling from hotel room to hotel room and conference to conference, and there I used a lot of different languages, which of course is not very user-friendly, but I was exploring what it's like to be bilingual, and what it's like also not to know all the languages. You travel and see ‘Toilets’ in Bulgaria in Cyrillic script, and it acts like a block, rather like the ideograms in Pound. So I had a lot of fun with that, but that's something different again, it's no longer anything to do with the nouveau roman. And then I became a university teacher and plunged myself into literary theory and got completely split apart, the critic and the writer, and I wrote Thru, which is probably my most difficult novel, because it's a novel about the theory of the novel. And I had tremendous fun with the different structuralist and post-structuralist theories and so on, and I knew I would be rapped on the knuckles for that, because it's really written for a handful of narratologists. Afterwards I really felt I'd gone too far, and I took a long time before writing Amalgamemnon, I took nine years and rewrote it many times. That was the beginning of an effort towards more readability, but obviously some people still found it difficult. And then I wrote Xorandor, which was science fiction, and there I really thought, well now, I'm going to write a bestseller. But it's no use, I can't write a bestseller, because there's still difficult things in it. There's the slang invented for the kids, for one, which actually was a purely practical thing; I simply didn't know, partly because of the generation gap, and partly because of living in France, how kids talk today. In the first version, they were saying things like ‘Crikey!’, which I said as a child. Who says ‘Crikey!’ today? That's no use, so the only way out was to invent a language based on computer words and so on. Though I don't think that's a real difficulty, Xorandor is probably the most straightforward. Verbivore I thought was even more straightforward, but I don't know whether it is or not. There is perhaps a difficulty: in Amalgamemnon, Mira Enketei, who's a Greek scholar, a teacher of the classics who's been made redundant and who has nothing to do but listen to the radio while reading Herodotus, hears Perry Someone on the radio presenting some sort of late-night show, and she invents this character called Perry Hupsos, which in Greek means ‘on the sublime’, an allusion to Longinus—that was just an in-joke. Perry Hupsos comes back in Verbivore as a ‘real’ character who also calls himself Perry Striker and who writes a radio play, and inside that radio play there's a character called Julian Freeman who has brief appearances at the level of the main plot. But there's also a character called Decibel in the play, who lives on noise and dies of silence, and she also reappears at the end at the level of the main plot. This play with narrative levels is well-known in theory, it's called metalepsis, where you go from one level to another, so that if there's a story within a story, and a character from the inner story appears within the outer story, there's a transgression of narrative levels. But obviously it's a little disconcerting to the reader who expects a straight story.

Can we go on from that to the general question of an audience for your work? It seems to me that if you had been an American writer, there would now be one, perhaps more, critical monographs, a sheaf of essays, parts of many academic courses that would be devoted to your work—

Well, there are, you see, in America.

In America, but not in England. How do you feel about that?

I don't know how to feel about it. I mean, it's the old story of a prophet being recognized elsewhere, though I'm not a prophet. But even in France, for instance, where I've been living for 21 years, the anglicistes who would be teaching a course on, say Emma Tennant, had me there all the time, and they never even came to interview me. I knew them all, we met regularly, but they never taught me in their courses. There's something rather peculiar about that. But I do now have, oh I don't know, some 20 essays written about me in various academic journals, and someone in Germany's trying to collect them, but again can't find a publisher in England. I know I've been put on American syllabuses for either feminist courses, though I'm not a feminist, or courses on this type of fiction, but certainly not in England. You see, I was very much better known when I wrote straightforward novels. Also, I was reviewing in the Sunday papers and so on, and perhaps I was better known because my name appeared regularly, which is not very flattering. But from the time I went to live in France—and I was very interested in the nouveau roman, and wrote critical articles about it—I was labelled as a mad Francophile and ‘the nouveau roman in English’, and lots of reviews would start: ‘Miss Brooke-Rose lives in France …’. And so I probably did myself a lot of harm. But I don't regret it, because it really stretched my horizons. That's the price I have to pay for getting out of this slightly provincial English literary life, though it's getting better now.

The novel which seems to be most often cited in English literary criticism today, generally in the context of literary theory, is in fact, Thru. In a sense, there is an attempt in England now to create a theory-literate generation of students and it may be that you will find a new audience there.

Well, it is beginning. I appear in several books on postmodernism and so on, but there is also—I hate to say this—a touch of unconscious ‘machoism’ in all this, a notion that women writers can be very good, but they're imitating men, and they're very good at writing about themselves and their lives and their love affairs and what-have-you, but they can't create forms, a woman can't create. It's some sort of mystique. And this is repeated quite a lot. And you find that the American postmodern movement is very machoistic, even the novels are extremely sexist, so in that sense, it's not postmodern at all, it's old-fashioned. I'm beginning to pierce this now, in books on postmodernism, but I have to fight against that too. If you write a traditional novel, you're probably more successful as a woman than if you experiment with form, because this is not supposed to be a woman's domain, it's a man's domain. I'm not a rabid feminist, but on this point I think the feminists are right. I remember when, shortly after I arrived in Paris, Hélène Cixous rang me up and asked me if I could contribute an essay to a book she was editing on the difficulties I'd had as a woman writer. Very naively, I said I hadn't had difficulties as a woman writer, only the normal difficulties as a writer, could I write about that? But she said, oh no, it had to be feminist. I was against this sort of segregation. But later, and the more experimental my books became, I realized that in fact there is that difficulty, there is a certain resistance to the idea that a woman can extend the form of a novel, can play with form. It's beginning to change, and I am more and more mentioned but I don't pierce through to the general public.

As you've already suggested, science fiction is a mode you've used a lot, in Out and Such and Xorandor and Verbivore. You've also written on it as a critic, very interestingly, in A Rhetoric of the Unreal. As a novelist and critic, what interests you about science fiction?

Well, I'm only interested in ‘good’ science fiction. There's a lot of tripe in science fiction as in any other genre. I'm not interested in imagined worlds on other planets, the adventure story type of science fiction which is usually rather poor imaginatively. Broadly speaking, there are two types of science fiction. One is, you're projected centuries into the future on an imagined world which is usually modelled on this one—obviously you can't invent a totally imagined world—and it's much more akin to medieval romance, the characters are types and so on; and then there's a type of science fiction which is this world—familiar, it often happens in an English village or somewhere quite ordinary—and then one parameter is changed, say an extra-terrestrial appears. But the world described is totally familiar, it's today and now, and in Xorandor and Verbivore I choose that type. It interests me to reproduce this world, but minus something or plus something. But that's quite a classical genre: perhaps the parameters I choose are unusual. Now in Out, I did project a future world, but still it was very familiar, it's a place in some North African country or maybe the South of France, and the only parameter that has changed is that the colour bar is completely reversed, it's the whites who are considered shiftless, and they're all dying of some mysterious disease to which the coloured people have been immune, and I just tried to imagine what it's like to be excluded in that way. But it's not projected centuries ahead on another planet. And in Such, that was more metaphysical, because it's a story of a man who's died—I don't specify whether he's died for a long time or whether he's just had his heart massaged for three minutes—and it's his adventures in this psychic space of death, which is translated in terms of outer space. But it's not really science fiction, it's more a poetic fantasy. But in Xorandor and Verbivore, that's classical science fiction in the sense I describe.

What of your interest in the languages and the concepts of various kinds of scientific discourse? You use biochemistry and molecular physics in Out, astrophysics in Such, linguistics in Thru, computer science in Xorandor and Verbivore. What do you feel you're doing with those discourses?

I'm always fascinated by jargon and discourse that human beings invent to protect their discipline and to keep the outsider out. That's one thing. But also, there's something extremely poetic about certain scientific discourses. If you use a scientific concept and you take it literally, it often becomes a metaphor. This is almost a schoolboy joke—if the science teacher says, ‘Weight consists of the attraction of two bodies’, they all giggle—and I just take that a step further. In Such, I use the laws of astrophysics which are actually the laws of communication, bouncing signals off the moon and so on, and as this man comes back to life, he sees the characters of his real life, his wife and her lover and other people, as the radio telescope sees the stars. So it's also about communication, but as a poetic concept. I'm interested in scientific discourse of all kinds, but in a way, I'm using it ignorantly. I'm not a scientist, and I'm fascinated by the fact that a scientific work, unless it's highly technical, can have another meaning when read by a layman. It becomes poetic.

Such is a remarkable work. Where did that novel come from? Can you speak about the process which generated it?

It was so long ago … Out I remember very well because I was extremely ill, and I thought I was going to die, and I wrote it literally one sentence a day falling back on the pillows, and then it became a paragraph, and then became several pages. So it's a very sick book in a way, because this man in the novel is sick, and I was exploring what it's like to be out because of sickness, but I just transmuted it into something else. With Such, perhaps it was a distant result of that. In more practical terms—I'll tell you exactly what happened, though it doesn't exactly answer your question—I was at a Congress of PEN in Oslo, and I had to read a paper which was slightly difficult; it was going to be translated by the simultaneous translator, and I went through it with him to make sure he got it right; I was absolutely fascinated by the man in the glass box, I could just hear his French, and I got this idea of the simultaneous translator. After that conference, we went—I was married then, and I went with my husband—to Portugal, and I started writing this novel about a simultaneous interpreter, and it just didn't go, the whole thing was dreadful, and I jettisoned it completely in despair. I bought another exercise book and started something else, but I had no idea where I was going. It started with a sentence which literally was the result of the hotel we were staying in. There was a notice which said ‘Silence’ on the stairs and the stairs were extremely noisy and creaked loudly. So I wrote: ‘Silence says the notice on the stairs and the stairs creak’. Where do you go from there? That's a novel where I really didn't know where I was going. It led to the coffin lid opening with a creak, and then to these five moons peering in the way when you're ill you see all the doctors and surgeons and so on looking at you, so obviously it's a distant result of the sickness, but then it led to Such, gradually. And then I had to stop it because I didn't know anything about astrophysics. You see, I got the idea, but then I had to mug it up. I read popular books on astrophysics, got fascinated by this, wrote the novel, then went to Jodrell Bank on a visit and asked if I could be shown round. The second in command—called Graham-Smith, I think—was extremely nice, explained a lot of things, and said, if you like, I'll check your astrophysics. I sent it to him in typescript, and he wrote back to me and said, well, I'm glad you haven't asked me to act as a literary critic, but your astrophysics are correct, they're about the standard of a second-year student. I was absolutely bucked. But of course, one cheats, one takes what one wants, it's not actually astrophysics, it's just certain ideas that give you other ideas. I was using astrophysics poetically, metaphorically if you like, for the psychic space. The following year we went on a long journey all around Eastern Europe, into Poland, Czechoslovakia Hungary—it was in 1967—Romania, Bulgaria, ended up in Turkey, the lot—and there I got all the material for Between, which I then wrote afterwards. I was collecting mineral water labels in all these different languages, all these signs in hotel rooms and so on. But you see, when I started it, I didn't have the experience, that's where I went wrong. Also, I had made my interpreter a man, and when I decided it had to be a woman, it suddenly worked, whether that's because—the idea comes back in the novel—an interpreter is just interpreting the ideas of other people and never has any ideas of her own, and that goes better with the cliché notion of woman … mysteriously it worked better once I'd made her a woman. With Xorandor and Verbivore, it's true I had the idea, but I didn't plan the novel. With Such, I had no idea, I started with a sentence and it became something and I didn't know where I was going, and that's the chief pleasure of writing.

How do the novelist and critic and theorist in your relate? Do you feel them to be in tension?

Well, it's a difficult relationship because in one way, and particularly if you study narratology, it spoils you. I find it very difficult to read what I call ‘the average novel’ because, oh dear yes, he's doing a flashback, and no, he's got this narrator like this and like that. It's a pity in a way, one is no longer a naive reader, one reads technically, and that's also a block on writing. On the other hand, I think it does make you much more aware of what you're doing. It's self-conscious in a way, but it also increases your awareness, and you can play with narrative conventions and do things to the novel that you probably couldn't do without that knowledge. But it is difficult. I wrote Thru when this tension was at its height, because I'd gone to Paris, I was plunged into structuralism and post-structuralism, I had to teach it and so on, and it blocked me completely, I couldn't write for several years. Then I wrote Thru, but I had to write it four summers running before getting it right. It's a novel about the theory of the novel, it's a text about textuality, it's a fiction about the fictionality of fiction, it's the most postmodernist of my books, it really is the most self-reflexive. That cured me, it resolved the tension in a way. I had to write it, and I don't regret writing it, but I don't think it did me any good: I got this reputation as a difficult writer from then. Everything you do adds to your reputation or non-reputation or bad reputation, and that's the life of a writer.

Can I raise the question of mimesis as applied to your novels? What emerged from post-structuralism—I'm being fairly reductive here—was a notion that mimesis was a bad thing—

That was just a stage.

—and that it was very bad to read, say, a Robbe-Grillet novel in such a way as to recuperate or naturalize it for realism. Now it seems to me that if you look at, let's say, Out, you could read that in two ways—you could read it mimetically, as a very powerful portrayal of disorientation and fragmentation in a post-catastrophe world, or, because of its repetitions, its variations, its hesitations, you could read it as a novel about textuality, a novel that's constantly drawing attention to how fiction constructs and then can deconstruct reality. And I wondered whether you have a preference for a particular kind of reading both in regard to Out, but also in regard to Between, which you could read as a polylogic sort of text, but which you could also read as a vivid representation of a specific consciousness.

There was a kind of revolt against the mimetic novel in the sense that it's true that the realistic novel—I'm talking about the great classical 19th century realistic novel—had developed all sorts of techniques to capture the whole of reality. Once the structuralists had got going on that and showed that it's as unreal as anything else in fiction, that these are all techniques, that you can, not necessarily deconstruct, but pull to pieces and show how it works, there was a sort of demolition. But nevertheless, if they could show how the mimetic illusion was produced, it doesn't destroy the mimetic illusion—we still read these novels with great pleasure. After all, Oscar Wilde said that the 19th century as we know it is entirely the creation of Balzac; real history, the actual things, as it were, tend to disappear. Historians come along and that's another kind of fiction, they impose their vision of it, but our idea of the 19th century is much more vivid through fiction than through history. And in the 20th century realism went on, but in a very diluted way, so you get what I call the neo-realistic novel where a lot of these techniques have fallen apart and they're too transparent and rather irritating. So I can understand the reaction against the mimetic novel, that language isn't just a transparent window on the world. The idea was to make language disappear so that you could think you were looking at the world, well no, you're looking at words, characters are just made of words, and so there was this movement towards the signifiant, the actual text, textuality, but language is itself representative and you cannot do without this representative function. A painter can perhaps produce a totally abstract painting, but even so, he's still reproducing forms that exist, he will put triangles and straight lines and curves, and these exist, he can't invent forms that don't exist, so even a non-representative painter is still representative. And it's more true with language, we can't get away from that function of language, because every word has a referent, here's a book, here's a table, and when we write any sentence we are in fact being mimetic. And just to try and jettison the mimetic function is nonsense. So gradually I too found that you can't write a novel without being mimetic. I think my recent novels are much more mimetic, but there is this extra dimension, of science fiction or something else, I'm nevertheless trying to show a world that is not the familiar world that many novelists write about. That doesn't interest me, just to reproduce my little life and so on, that doesn't interest me at all.

One of the things that gave a great passion to post-structuralism in its really heady days, the days of Tel Quel and Barthes and Sollers and Kristeva, was the idea that the subversion of the classic realist text, the production of the writerly rather than readerly text, was not only an aesthetically but a politically radical act. I can imagine a reading of your texts that would see them in that way. How would you feel about that?

That's a difficult question. I don't think we should take that Tel Quel phase too seriously. Philippe Sollers, who was very much in on this, has gone back to writing completely mimetic novels—I mean. Femmes is all his women friends and mistresses, and so on—and he's a bestseller.1Tel Quel was an interesting group because they kept shifting their political position. They were Communists, and then they were Maoists, and then they dropped that, and now they're practically pro-American or even interested in the Church. I don't think one should be too influenced by these fashions. I wasn't very influenced by that, but it's true that I became very interested in language and what you can do with language, and in the fact that everything you write, every character, is a creation of words. In Thru, I played a lot with it; I describe a scene, it's never clear who's telling it, there are two narrators but you don't know who they are, these two, this woman and this man who are inventing each other, and at one point it seems that the text is being written by Jacques le Fataliste's master, and they discuss it, and at another point, it's being written by students in a creative writing class. In other words, every time I create something with words, I uncreate it afterwards to show that it's just made with words. A lot of people have done that, but I was doing it in my own way. I've moved away from that because I think everyone accepts that now, that everything is created with words. Insofar as I play with narrative levels in Verbivore, I'm still in a way doing it, everyone knows that Decibel is an impossible character and so on. But I don't reject the mimetic function at all. As to the politics, I don't know if my work is politically radical. I mean, I'm centre-left, but I don't know whether this comes through in my novels. There are probably elements, if anyone did an analysis—this nostalgic element you mention—which might classify me as rather conservative and yearning for the good old days. I just don't know. One doesn't think of that when one's writing.

I want to ask more about influences on your work, or ‘intertexts’. For example, when I read Between, it related above all, for me, to Finnegans Wake. But I believe you hadn't read Joyce at the time?

No, that doesn't mean anything. As Butor said, we're all influenced by Joyce, even if we've never read him. I don't actually like Joyce, so I can't really count him as an influence. My chief influence is Pound, because in many of my books, I use repetition, a sentence comes back but in a different context which gives it a different meaning, as in The Cantos. But also Beckett, and the nouveau roman, though less so than people think. Those are the three major influences. I acknowledge influences when they're conscious, but of course there are so many unconscious influences, it's really not for the author to say.

I think you mentioned at the time of Thru the influence, in regard to the typography, for example, of a novelist whom you also discuss in A Rhetoric of the Unreal

Oh, Maurice Roche.

I don't think he's very well known in England.

No, though some of his books have been translated in America now—very difficult to translate because he does a lot of tricks with typography and so on. I like his work very much.

Would you acknowledge him, in fact, as an influence in relation to Thru?

For Thru, yes, not for the others. But you see, in Thru, I use so many things that Maurice Roche doesn't use, so it's an element, and one could say that it's also influenced by Apollinaire or some of the surrealists. No text just comes out ex nihilo, it always come out of other texts.

In relation to the matter of intertexuality, can I put to you an interesting comment on Thru made by Patricia Waught in her book Metafiction, which we reviewed in P.N.R. 51? Waugh says: ‘Thru simply makes explicit the dialogic nature of all novels. Christine Brooke-Rose takes the novel, and the metafictional novel to their furthest extreme … Thru shows how all fiction is implicitly metafictional (pp. 147-8).’ So in a way she's saying it's a kind of proto-novel, as Shlovsky said Tristram Shandy was. Would you accept that claim?

For Thru, certainly. It is consciously intertextual and there are lots of quotations that people haven't picked up. At the end, I have this phony index. No-one's understood that, but it's actually a list of every author I quote in the book, but without page-references. It comes in after a class, these students are talking, and someone says, there are degrees of presence. This is a sentence from Genette, who says the narrator can be absent, and absence is absolute, but there are degrees of presence, there's the narrator who participates in the plot, there's the observer-narrator and so on. I turned that into an English pun, you give a degree for presence, and so authors are given alpha minuses and beta pluses and so on. I had to ask certain permissions when they were alive—everyone laughed. But you see, they're not according to my evaluations, it's the students who are doing this. So Barthes gets a beta plus simply because he appears quite a lot, and someone who is totally fictional appears also in this list, and some get a zero because they're not present at all. So it's a joke, it's the students attributing these degrees of presence but it's also an index. If anyone wants to chase up every time I quote something, it's all there.

Much of your work is very funny, but perhaps this doesn't come through in the way you're often described in criticism. You tend to be seen as someone more austere, more forbidding.

Very likely, yes. Well, that's my lot. I don't know why I get this label. I always think what I write is very simple, but—every time I'm told I'm difficult, so …

Could I put to you a further point Patricia Waugh makes, which seems to accord with some of your own comments about mimesis earlier. She says: ‘In its excessive self-referentiality … Thru fails to provide, beyond itself, sufficient direction for the novel genre as a whole’ and she suggests that ‘the future of the novel will depend upon a transformation, not an abandonment, of the traditional conventions of fiction, though it may well be a transformation based on the lessons learned from radical texts like Thru’ (p. 148). I wondered how you felt about these remarks? And of course they raise that old, familiar question, which has perhaps come back in a different context at the beginning of the 1990s, of the future of the novel.

Well, I don't think Thru, would necessarily lead to anything. That's not, certainly, why I wrote it. It's a thing, it's an object in itself. I mean, it might influence other people, but it might not. I have no illusions about that, and I may be totally forgotten in ten years. I'm not writing, as it were, for posterity, I'm writing for each book. But I agree that radical novels can then lead to something else, even indirectly. People always conceive of literature as a straight line of development, and when someone goes off at a tangent, it's called a dead end, nothing can come out of that. People said that about Joyce, you can't go further than Joyce. Well, Beckett went further than Joyce. It's as though the tangents then rejoin this imaginary straight line. As to the future of the novel, it's very much gone back to mimesis. And even my work, I no longer do what I did in Thru, I've abandoned that, and actually Maurice Roche has abandoned it too in more recent work. The novels which are interesting today are completely different. The paper I'm going to be reading in Cambridge is called ‘Palimpsest History’ and it deals with Eco and Salman Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes and so on—people who write a sort of palimpsest history of the ‘real’ history—‘real’ in quotes because history is itself partly a fiction. So you see, there are so many different modes, including science fiction: all sorts of ways the novel can go. And the notion that the novel is dead, perhaps I entertained it in my youth, but it's not true, there are always different transformations.

You've now retired from your Professorship at Vincennes, you've made, it seems to me, a creative comeback as a novelist, and you're possibly starting to acquire a new and perhaps younger audience. Your novels are much concerned with futures: how do you see your own future as a novelist?

It's very difficult. One always thinks the last one is the best one. But—no, I can answer it to this extent, that Amalgamemnon,Xorandor,Verbivore and the one I'm working on now, which has nothing to do with computers, are part of a quartet—I think I'm going to call it The Intercom Quartet. Now in my head, that's going to be my last novel, but one never knows, one always says that, and now I've got all the time in the world … It's true I've given up theory—I've got a critical book coming out from Cambridge University Press which I worked on last winter,2 but that's the end, I'm not doing any more theory, and I just want to be totally free for novels. I may dry up even, who's to know? But I won't say more about the next one. As to the youthful readership, it would be nice if I were speaking to the young. Sometimes I'm made to feel an old has-been.


  1. Kristeva has just published Les Samurai, which can be read as a roman à clé about Paris literary life

  2. Stories, Theories, and Things by Christine Brooke-Rose, which includes ‘Palimpsest History’ as Chapter 12, will be published by Cambridge University Press early in 1991.

Michael Walters (review date 20 July 1990)

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SOURCE: Walters, Michael. “Intertexting with a Vital Function.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4555 (20 July 1990): 782.

[In the following review, Walters explores the thematic significance of the interruption and breakdown of communication in Verbivore.]

At the end of her last novel, Xorandor, to which Verbivore is a kind of sequel, Christine Brooke-Rose has her pubescent protagonists agree to “dump the whole thing”—that is, to erase all the material on disc and print-out that constituted a record of their adventures with the eponymous stone/computer. After the Manning twins have exchanged promises, the instruction “END XORANDOR” ends the book. Although concluded, however, the book of course survives, and, further, the well-intentioned treachery of Jip (John Ivor Paul), in not keeping to the bargain, is part of the drama of Verbivore, set more than two decades later. (The year is roughly 2020.)

Readers familiar with the earlier exploits of Jip and Zab (Isabel) will find rather less here of their effusive and verbally idiosyncratic interplay. The youthful inventiveness returns at moments—as Jip recalls his sister saying, “It's nice to retrograde with you”—but its fitfulness is appropriate both to an adulthood in which the whiz-kids have whizzed apart, and to a narrative much concerned with the interruption and breakdown of communication.

When overloaded mega-computers start to chew up phrases, sentences, and then entire sequences of the radio and television broadcasts and telephone conversations they have been recording, Jip—now a NASA physicist and family man—and Zab, a single-parent Euro-MP anxious for her peripatetic teenage son, combine to seek some answers from Xorandor's remaining earth-bound “children”. As becomes clear from the syntactically fastidious responses of one of these, the twins' quest has something about it of the classic circular detective story; the science-fiction aspect is equally compelling—if necessarily loss exuberant in tone than the megadiodic” discoveries of Xorandor—and especially piquant in the sense that it gives of a “reality” only slightly different from that of 1990. But, as always, Christine Brooke-Rose is engaged on several other fronts. Floating through the novel, for example, is Decibel. By turns, “she” is a voice in the dream of a comatose character in a radio-play; an image—in the form of the actress who played her, and who is now undergoing a crisis of identity, or identification—in what seems to be a dream of Zab's; and, as the word and sound-devouring process renders her redundant and ends the story, a sign and a portent. Of course, as Decibel realizes, “she” is an abstraction, a gauge; in so far as anything goes to the heart of this book's formidable cleverness, it is the defence she advances of her imprecision. Imagining certain fractious readers objecting “Don't be so vague, if you're a measurement”, she fabricates a different, ideal audience in whom post-modern sensibility and a tolerant liberalism unite: “But a few might add: you also belong to the stratum of represented objects, you have a right to be indeterminate.”

Decibel's polymorphous manifestation is just one of the forms taken by Brooke-Rose's insistent teasing of character and narrative. Voices and perspectives switch, at times almost imperceptibly, in mid-chapter; Jip's account of his “retrograding” with his sister begins—and may continue—as Zab's hypothesis as to how her brother might put it, had he “caught the general need to express personal garbage in writing”. The writer of Decibel's play sketches out a new piece, Verbivore, and dreams up rave reviews, whose status alters with cinematic suddenness as they and the play are absorbed into the events of the central narrative.

Verbivore as phenomenon has its own kind of teasingness; across the world's ineffectual airwaves, “Speakloss”, “Logophagoi”, “Slovoyed”, “tun jen”, all signify with differences. At the start of the book, a set of recollections à la November 22, 1963, anecdotalizes Verbivore's genesis, but each reconstruction collapses—eaten away, however, not by Mangiaparla, but by the narrative method: this is “imaginably” how different accounts might open. Narration here, then, imitates the symptoms of a culture fissured by Verbivore, while tempting us to confuse this artifice with plotted cause-and-effect inside the novel.

Intertexting with these reconstructs (as Jip and Zab might imaginably say), Brooke-Rose also plays not only with the unexpected survival of the Xorandor-account (Carcanet, 1986) but with the ironic effect of the twins' conspiracy to secrete two of the old block' s chips. Plots and errors, fabrications willed or (apparently) inadvertent, are the fabric of Verbivore, Recapitulation of the earlier book sometimes threatens to overload, but serious objection is largely disarmed by the author's scrupulous foregrounding of fiction, textuality and the problem of repetition. The text itself thus inscribes a cultural need for what the computer can only register as superfluity. A scientist from the old days is recalled by Zab as a “pale podgy Slav”; corrected by her brother (“Strange you should remember your invented description”), she quickly incorporates his accurate delineation into an exchange with their friend Tim, adding, “He must be ancient”, only to be checked again, this time by the friend. In such seeming asides, Christine Brooke-Rose underlines a human proclivity for invention: between this vital function, exemplified here with assiduous self-awareness, and the functioning of rational intelligence as realized in the imperilled machines, the moral drama plays itself out—or, more probably, towards its next act.

Susan E. Hawkins (essay date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Hawkins, Susan E. “Innovation/History/Politics: Reading Christine Brooke-Rose's Amalgamemnon.Contemporary Literature 32, no. 1 (spring 1991): 58-74.

[In the following essay, Hawkins asserts that Amalgamemnon confronts dominant male postmodern literary discourse through Brooke-Rose's innovative strategies of semantic play, multiple discursive modes, and displaced point-of-view.]

Beginning with Out in 1964, followed by Such in 1966 and Between in 1968, Christine Brooke-Rose moved very quickly from her own versions of the French New Novel to patently radical experiments in metafiction. And even though she appeared to have “arrived” with the publication of Thru in 1975—she was the subject of one of Contemporary Literature's quarterly interviews in 1976—this “arrival” has proved more apparent than actual. As Morton P. Levitt comments, Brooke-Rose “points the way to what might have proved a fruitful path for English fiction in the period following World War II. Instead, her career as critic and novelist demonstrates further the sad insularity of postmodernist English literary culture” (124). Written just a few years ago, Levitt's remarks, until recently, were quite true. Brooke-Rose's name, if known, tended to be associated with criticism and theory, not fiction. This obscurity resulted, in part, from the lack of an experimental impulse in postwar British fiction as well as Brooke-Rose's self-imposed “exile” as a teacher in France. Compounding these geographical and cultural anomalies is another, perhaps more significant reason for her obscurity: she is a woman writer of innovative fiction. With the publication of Amalgamemnon in 1984, Brooke-Rose signals, after a nine-year hiatus, a continuing and passionate devotion to experiment and innovation at a time when women's writing in general, and women's experimental writing in particular, is beginning to receive the attention it has so long deserved.1

What does it mean to innovate? to transform? to inaugurate? While “innovation” is linked in a number of definitions with the term “revolution,” “inauguration,” on the other hand, is linked with sibylline, prophetic activity: to take omens from the flight of birds; to begin with good omens; to read the auguries.

It is as if both definitions evolved out of a reading of Amalgamemnon, its very title resonating with compelling, mythic vibrations—the Trojan War, the mighty Agamemnon, the gorgeous Helen, the tragically doomed Cassandra. But the title also signals its postmodern connection with pastiche, with a contemporary world variously viewed as “fragmented,” “insane,” “fantastic,” “entropic.” Given the slippage between ancient and contemporary world views, between the heroic and the self-conscious, what auguries can Brooke-Rose be reading? What strange flights does she perceive in her sky?

While the title signals possible mythic revisions of Aeschylus's play Agamemnon, such anticipations on the reader's part prove to be utterly unfounded. To begin with, there is no “story” as such, there are no “characters,” no “plot,” no “conflict,” and certainly no “climax.” In addition, the fiction is cast entirely in the future and conditional tenses with a few imperatives and subjunctives thrown in. Although Amalgamemnon exhibits few remnants of a traditional narrative desire for unity, presence, psychological accuracy, closure, and so forth, it does do what most innovative writing should do: it challenges the audience in terms of accustomed modes of perception, interpretation, and reading strategies—in short, challenges readerly ideology. In part, this text enacts such a challenge by performing itself, by “being about” language, by being a performance. The text becomes a space in which a cacophony of voices, or discursive amplifications, or babble, or little stories—whichever term best suits—enact their own sounding. The following example dramatizes itself in this way:

The rhetoric of repetition will protect me, for the mind must play to the last with anaphoric expectoration, waiting for which permuted variant day after day, week after week, despite the poverty of possibilities but no, it could be the kick in the shin and the egghead, or the tripping up and the cranial ukranian, or the pestiferous peasant and the thin man thin ration or the kick in the shin and the rationed revisionist or show me your ass and your intellectual infrastructure, with so many elements the permutations of acute aching pain could be counted in thousands, but I shall not work them out for lack of a fidgetal computer and fundamental interest: Garbage In, Garbage Out, my Gigo thoughts will always weave in and out of daily details such as the increasing wobbliness of my pickaxe or who will remember me outside if I ever get there.


This passage exhibits a number of strategies prevalent throughout the text, and I want to use it as a point of departure to discuss the first of three such strategies: semantic play, multiple discursive modes, and displaced point of view. Semantic play involves, among other things, repetition, puns, conflations, alliteration, substitution, inner rhyme, and parallelism. I shall limit my discussion to two of these—repetition, including alliteration, and conflation.2

The text foregrounds its own performance of repetition by calling it “rhetoric” and then emphasizes this foregrounding through reference to the linguistic term “anaphora,” a rhetorical device involving repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. Interestingly, the passage does not go on to structure its own repetitions in such an orderly way. Instead, repetitions are more arbitrary, diverse, or haphazard. These constructions may involve single words, “thin” and “your” for example; cliché phrases such as “day after day, week after week” and “the kick in the shin”; versions of the same word, “permuted” and “permutations”; as well as evaluatively different terms for ostensibly the same content in “egghead” and “cranial.” The greatest sense of repetition in this passage, however, arises from Brooke-Rose's use of alliteration (“poverty of possibilities,” “pestiferous peasant,” “rationed revisionist,” “intellectual infrastructure,” “acute aching”); consonance (the n sounds of “thin man thin ration” and “shin,” the final consonants of “repetition,” “expectoration,” “permutation,” and “ration”); and assonance (the short i in “thin,” “shin,” “pestiferous,” “kick,” “fidgetal,” and “interest” and the long a of “pain” and “cranial ukrainian”). I do not pretend to completeness of example here, but simply want to suggest the intricacy of aural relationships for certain effects.

Two points about repetition are in order. First, as a rhetorical device it traditionally signals continuity, transition, and coincision, and, in this capacity, it provides a textual glue as well as a sign of duration. Thus through alliteration or repeated phrases or clauses, recurrence engenders a certain confidence. When we come upon the phrase “Garbage In, Garbage Out” or “if I ever get there” repeated a number of times throughout the text, we experience a certain familiarity. Second, while traditional repetition works to enforce identity through the proximity of sound and sense, in Amalgamemnon it often works toward difference because the repetitions never seem to elide into anything else, to resolve. The bits and pieces remain bits and pieces; unincorporated they float like imperfectly perceived aspects of the text's unconscious.

Conflation functions in a contrary way. To return to my initial example, let's look at “fidgetal computer,” which squeezes together several semantic notions at once. First there is the term “digital computer”; second, “digit,” as in both finger and number (the 0 and 1 of all computer language); and third, “fidget,” as in restless, nervous, uneasy. The narrator says, “I shall not work them out for lack of a fidgetal computer and fundamental interest,” which may indicate that she does not possess such a computer, or she chooses not to work them out for other reasons. Her thoughts are the stuff of computerese—Gigo, for short, informational garbage. To what extent does the narrator here suggest uneasiness, or indifference, to the massive amount of information available to her own already computerlike psyche? Conflation increases multiplicity and hence makes interpretation even more problematic than usual, but also more interesting. Two more examples serve to amplify how conflation can unhinge signification from any fully anchoring sign:

moonstones blue notes red brigades whited sepulchres promised lands denied rumors short bad breaths melting polarities revolutions revelations revaluations revolitions revillusions redundancies.


where she will sweep up the godshit among a dismal bunch of performing seals flapping their disguideologies unknown to themselves at low altitudes right to the left of centre.


The alliterative string which leads from revolutions to revillusions provides a remarkable example of the way language performs certain games within the text. “Revolution,” through a mild deconstruction, reveals some of the associative semantic weight it carries within contemporary culture, a culture which is continuously bombarded by revolutionary movements and concepts of all kinds and which reproduces, in so many domains, versions of a revolutionary ideology. This ideology becomes indistinguishable from terrorist activity, on the one hand, and the introduction of a new breakfast cereal, on the other. That the string ends with “revillusions” indicates, perhaps, certain cynicism through a process of experience: revolution may often signal a finally illusionary basis, or moment; the revolutionary regime becomes the disillusioned state. Or it may just be that illusions are always required for revolutionary activity; of necessity, they blind the actors to the “reality” of the situation.

In a similar fashion “disguideologies” functions to perform its definition, particularly within the immediate context (“unknown to themselves”). Combining as it does “disguise,” “guide,” “disgust,” and “ideology,” the word acts out its own hiddenness, hence the necessity for traditional materialist analysis or “demystification” to reveal the false consciousness upon which it is based. That the conflation also contains the word “guide,” however, indicates the motivating power of all ideology. Thus both examples, by compression, enlarge the possibilities for signification.

As an innovative writer who lives a contemporary life, Brooke-Rose is surrounded by versions of history: established literary versions, “now” contemporary media variations, feminist additions and revisions, minority culture versions, personal family histories, and so on. History in the postmodern era suffers fracture, like everything else. Lacking social and cultural grounding, it proliferates, often confusingly. As Jean-François Lyotard maintains, it's impossible to establish any unitary metanarratives in an age of small stories. For Lyotard the impossibility of big stories—the “grand narratives of emancipation and speculation” that evolve, in the twentieth century, into crises of freedom and knowledge—in part identifies postmodernity (31-41). We might look at Brooke-Rose's text as enacting such little stories. History becomes amalgamation through an amazing kind of discursive shuffle. Multiple discursive modes function within the text to keep the verbal play unhinged at all times, to disable the reader's tendency toward establishing a “story.” This sort of recuperation would be possible only if one mode were hierarchically privileged over and above the others. That is not the case in Amalgamemnon.

By “mode” I want to indicate what would have been called, in the “old style,” “voice.” But such a term just doesn't quite “cover it” in the age of Max Headroom; voice becomes something different when it is electronically generated and transmitted, no longer linked to a human speaker. Hence my choice here of “mode,” a term which indicates the historical discourse of Herodotus as well as the weather report. A mix of such modes effectively conflates them and creates in the process a new relationship to that history and literature. On the first page of the text, the narrator asks, in her role as Miss Inkytie, “redundant humanist,” a series of questions about “programme cuts” and what such cuts will do to “all the teachers of dead languages like literature philosophy history”:

Who will still want to read at night some utterly other discourse that will shimmer out of a minicircus of light upon a page of say Agamemnon returning to his murderous wife the glory-gobbler with his new slave Cassandra princess of fallen Troy who will exclaim alas, o earth, Apollo apocalyptic and so forth, or else Herodotus, the Phoenicians kidnapping Io and the Greeks plagiarizing the king of Tyre's daughter Europe, but then, shall we ever make Europe? Sport. Rugger. The Cardiff team will leave this afternoon for Montpellier where they will play Béziers in the first round of the European championship, listen to their captain, Joe Tenterten: we're gonna win.


This quotation fascinates precisely because it functions so polyvalently in the semantic as well as structural realms. Made up of bits of classical discourse from Aeschylus and Herodotus, interpolations from the immediate narrator, and media discourse, the passage produces some odd resonances. The most obvious would seem to be our sense that Cassandra exclaiming before the royal house is no different from the kidnapping and rape of Europe or the present-day Cardiff rugby team anticipating victory. A sort of textual parataxis works here to present these historically divergent pieces of discourse as all occurring at once; no verb tense markers indicate one action as prior to any of the rest. Syntactically they all happen simultaneously, and without any obvious, textually marked evaluative commentary, they appear epistemologically equal. Given postmodern pastiche, no piece of history has, apparently, any greater or lesser explanatory value than another; given the poststructural emphasis on “reality” as discursively defined, History has disappeared. As Brooke-Rose put it recently, “even history has become as inaccessible to us as the ontological it purports to relate; all our realities have been revealed to be products of our many systems of representation and, in particular, of our tropes” (“Dissolution” [“The Dissolution of Character in the Novel”] 187). History, then, occupies no transcendental category. It can only be represented, and that representation exists as an effect of, among other things, rhetorical, linguistic, and cultural discursive shifts.

Given the dissemination of contemporary events, particularly through the medium of television, history increasingly loses any pretense of meaningful representation; it becomes part of the mass of nondistinguishable flatness emanating from the medium itself. The Super Bowl exists as a “historical event” and so does the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Viewers seamlessly move from news about millions dying of hunger in Africa to sexy ads for Levi's, from bad guys getting blown away on Hunter to ads showcasing cute little black kids singing and laughing their way through Big Macs. This equalizing numbness as an effect of technetronic “communication” frequently grounds the writing and reading of a good deal of American postmodern fiction and, to a great degree, largely characterizes what Fredric Jameson calls the “affect-less” subject: “there is no longer a self present to do the feeling” (“Postmodernism” 64). Jameson's contemporary subject sounds like nothing so much as a kind of postmodern zombie, across whose “consciousness” flickers an assortment of images, the residue of deconstructed experience and history. What remains for some theorists of the postmodern is simulation: “Simulation is master, and nostalgia, the phantasmal parodic rehabilitation of all lost referentials, alone remain [sic]” (Baudrillard 72).

In Amalgamemnon the media discursive mode does meld together the sublime, the ridiculous, and the terrifying: “but first, a station break, telling us to slim to eat cookies to save to spend to live it up to live it down to vote rightleft of centre protest obey love one another shoot one another with toy deathrays for little boys and little girls holding the instruments for little boys to make a toy robot from a readymade kit no real thinking requirements” (95). Here the rhetoric emphasizes both the manic necessity of consumer capitalism to produce, market, and sell and the incredible contradictions within that necessity. Such contradictions cannot be resolved because the encouragement given to children to build robots and shoot death rays is inseparable from adult aggression. But given contemporary economic culture, no synthesis among the contrary messages is possible, short of, at the simplest level, not building, marketing, advertising, or selling such toys. Complex ethical issues such as these are crammed together with slimming, eating, and voting. Contemporary existence consists of contradictory electronic babble. Thus the text reproduces a multitude of discursive modes: the sexual, involving endless political discussions between a male and a female participant; the humanist, involving Miss Inkytie (a.k.a. Ms Inkytea) in numerous replicated utterances of her obsolescing function as teacher; the metafictional, involving a narrator who says such things as “I would seem to be unpopular with these characters” (79) and “They don't seem to like me much anyway” (102); the mythic, involving, among other sorts of creatures, constellations, Orion and Andromeda for instance, in soap-opera-like or newslike antics; and so on.

Brooke-Rose is not content, however, to represent a singular version of chaotic contemporary culture pressing upon the human subject, cut off from history or any discernible signifying practice, forced to navigate solely through the use of fragments. Instead she provides a place—through gaps, fissures, textual spaces—within which the reader/viewer/listener is urged to pay attention. The epistemological and interpretive urgency of so much within contemporary existence requires some careful attention indeed. Textually such gaps (and I am talking only about those places which present themselves in some apparent way; no doubt the subtle variations are manifold) occur through slippage created by a sudden discursive contrast within a sentence, within a paragraph, or between paragraphs. Such a mixing of modes disorients, creates a disjunction:

Tonight the guard will kick me in the kidney or in the shin or trip me up snarling sonovabitchski or some slav equivalent or pestiferous peasant poetaster or cranial ukranian or damned intellectual infrastructure, we'll soon see which, take off your shoes, open your mouth, show me your ass, let's see how many gold chippings, as if stealing gold from the mines of Kolyma could be of the slightest use to me after fourteen years. I shall be too emptied of strength and feeling to react to the guard.


The final sentence, constructed with simplicity and directness, exhibits a traditional syntactic order, which is part of the reason its simplicity shocks. Following immediately upon a highly complex mix of declarative and imperative clauses as well as varied semantic play, this final sentence speaks without puns, conflations, jokes. It is the only appearance of the first person “I” in the entire paragraph. Here directness creates a slippage, forces a pause. Through a sudden cessation of eruptive language, the reader is hit, in quietly intimate terms, with Soviet-style repression and its silencing of oppositional writers and intellectuals. Interestingly, while so much of the text is experimental in Julia Kristeva's sense, it's ironic that the reader becomes sensitive to those rare, anomalous sentences that jolt by their very rationality; they constitute breaks precisely because they make sense.3 The appearance of these intertextual gaps creates a possibility for perceiving history differently or, at the very least, listening in a different way. In placing ancient history next to contemporary, Brooke-Rose effects both a dismantling of history as an idealized explanatory frame for human action or existence and a reinscribing of history as discourse and as event. Note the following example: “Meanwhile the Lydians, indignant at the murder of Candaules, will nevertheless agree that Gyges should continue to reign if the oracle at Delphi should confirm him as king, but that if the oracle should declare against him he should restore the throne to Heraclids. The situation in Libya after the coodaytah will apparently remain shrouded in mystery until radio-communication can be re-established and we'll all go on as if” (12). Here the insertion of one word, “coodaytah,” works almost a full stop within the text. This homemade spelling defamiliarizes the usual “coup d'état” and ruptures the syntactic flow, provoking attention just in case the reader had not already slowed down at “Libya.” The single wordplay creates an effect close to that of the full sentence in the previous example, but here the semantic context is reversed. “Coodaytah” definitely looks peculiar and draws more attention to itself because the syntax proceeds clearly and “correctly.” The phonetic spelling creates a semantic anomaly signaling the insertion of contemporary politics. This single word produces a discursive complex of issues involving states, nationalist politics, and the violent establishment of power.

Brooke-Rose thus both empties and fills single terms through varying types of substitutions. For instance, returning to the “plagiarism” passage, what the reader experiences there is neither a hierarchically nor an evaluatively constructed series but rather a chain of substitutions which effects a rhetorical displacement from highly self-conscious literary tragedy to slang, from Cassandra's slavery to “making” Europe. Precisely because the narrator says, of the most famous rape victim of all, Europa, that she was “plagiarized” (from the Latin for abductor, seducer) by the Greeks, do we take full notice of this substitution as well as the series in which it is embedded. The series keeps reinscribing issues of male power and female oppression through examples of the violent theft of women's material bodies, the erasure of their sexual existence through the erasure of their assent, and thus the violent theft, finally, of their words. The substitution of the word “plagiarize” both focuses and disseminates multiple effects: it emphasizes the discursive reality of even the ugliest of experiences; it suggests the process whereby women's suffering becomes the subject of male literary, artistic, and economic production; it highlights, by self-consciously undercutting the classical rhetoric, Cassandra's loss; and it draws attention to another of the text's methods of dispersal—plagiarism.4

Another kind of theft now rarely known as “literary allusion,” plagiarism operates as postmodernism's historical method, a pastiched and electronic rewriting and reappropriation of originary moments done so often and reproduced so quickly that any thoughtful, discursive connection between historical circumstance and the present has all but disappeared. History becomes a voice on the radio or images flashed across a screen. As part of the terrorist discourse says in Amalgamemnon, “We won't rehandle or reinterpret it. … we'll scatter the self-consuming ashes to the winds and move on into the next instant” (109).

One effect, then, of Brooke-Rose's continual history splice is the growing apprehension that the ancient history dependent upon oracles may make even more “sense” than the contemporary history dependent on instant media. To amalgamate in this way suggests several concurrent responses to historical discourse and actuality: contemporary versions are much like the ancient, otherwise known as the “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose” school; ancient history is based upon a coherent world view, and this history is perceived as orderly, otherwise known as the “why can't we have the old days back?” school; violence and chaos are the “stuff” of history, regardless of period, but we do not perceive it so unless our descriptive and interpretive language makes it so, otherwise known as the “I'm hip to what's really going on” school; or even, all of the above.

Contemporary innovative fiction, fiction as amalgamation—presented with such a nonformulated entity, what happens to point of view? Given that the text performs language performing itself in all of its various possibilities, from the textual to the computer, from the discursively unconscious to the cheap and tacky of radio and television, what version of the narrator/narratee relationship remains? “To die, to sleep—no more, and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks—What would that be from?” (129). With signification and literary allusion in free fall, what juncture does Brooke-Rose want to create between myth, legend, the classic past, and the postmodern subject?

It is a commonplace of current literary theory that language speaks us, that discursive formations “wire” the human linguistic and gendered subject. Language, through culture, constructs us in terms of sexual, racial, class positionality and “identification.” Fictionalizing, then, this discursive subject—multiple, fractured, speaking many tongues—Brooke-Rose proceeds to narrate (although this term, too, is a misnomer) the text from an always shifting multiple point of view. One narrator, perhaps Miss Inkytie, leaves a conditional clause poised at the ends of certain sentences: “and we'll all go on as if” (e.g., 18, 136). As if what? is the reader's question in response to this syntax. The possibilities suggest themselves throughout the text:

As if, for instance, I were someone else, utterly fascinated beyond the slight flutter of anxiety by the gentleman bountiful who will bargain his vaunted power and portliness as unattached male together with overrich expensive dinners as unquestionable advantages for a provisional invasion of my life, expressing his sense of sheer enchantment at finding me, despite my no longer young age and my intelligence, so wonderfully feminine.


As if for instance I were someone else, Cassandra perhaps, walking dishevelled the battlements of Troy, uttering prophecies from time to time unheaded and unheeded, before being allotted as slave to victorious Agamemnon.


When the narrator suggests being “someone else” it is never clear from whom or what she or he derives any “identity” in the first place from which to be other. Even though I believe it is versions of Cassandra which may be identified most often within the text, the ancient myth of her refusal of Apollo, her prophetic powers made unbelievable, her capture, bondage, and death do not play themselves out in a contemporary enactment of the old story. Cassandra functions as a name, a resonance suggesting the ghostly trace of an always absent figure, a figure increasingly important because she is not there. In her contemporary manifestation she is addressed as Sandra: “Sandra my love of course I will he'll exclaim and I'll love you even more, if that were possible, when you'll be truly out of the university and wholly mine, when thanks to this extraordinary chance to remake your life with me you will accept, and face, being only a woman” (136). Here the narrator is summarizing what the male half of the sexual discourse is saying; however, the male half of this discourse never speaks as Agamemnon but as Wallace, Willy, Wally, Substitute lover, or Amalgamemnon. Then, too, the names for Sandra and Wally can be substituted, without notice, at any point in the text; Cassandra may elide into Anna, Fatima, Emma, Miss Inkytie, and so on, just as Orion, Roland, Hans, and who knows who else may be substituted for Willy/Wally. It's particularly in the exchanges between the middle-aged Sandra and Wally, however, contestants in the battle of the sexes, that Brooke-Rose both parodies and foregrounds the stereotypes of sexual politics—a version of the future that sounds horrifyingly familiar. “Shall I once more have to pretend to be terrified of electricity, unable to change a light-switch, and mimecstatic at his doing so? Some gulls will even fly backwards to impress their females, and so some girls not to depress their males” (127). Willy/Wally tends to “dyscognize” (130) a good many things and often comes across as a dense (his portliness figures prominently), self-congratulatory windbag: “Wally will search the dessicated madlanes of the early century and put in his thumb and pull out a plum the noncreativity of women, and Jews, and blacks, brilliant performers yes but lacking in the true creative spirit” (138). Wally's obtuseness, his seeming lack of “a whole dimension of being” (141), is matched by Sandra's penchant for “mimagreement.” A conflation made up of “image,” “mime,” “mimic,” and “agreement,” the term brilliantly elaborates her passive-aggressive mode of sexual and emotional submission. Mimagreement represents a form of self-oppression, itself an effect of internalized discursive formations that constitute the, at least, double consciousness of middle-class white women in Western culture. It is through such self-acknowledged strategies that Sandra survives; she does what her society expects; she stays out of trouble. After all, in the figural trace of Cassandra we have the story of a woman who could do nothing but tell the truth—and look what happened to her.

Sandra and Wally are two players in the sexual discourse of the text. As I suggested above, their “voices” segue into other, sometimes younger, couples, Orion/Andromeda for example or Fatima/Roland, who counter, to some extent, the constraints of the Willy/Sandra relationship. But Brooke-Rose never projects, in this peculiar future tense world, anything close to a future of sexual equality. What she does accomplish by a constant interacting of voice is occasionally to obliterate any distinguishing features of her shifting narrators. Amid the multiple voicing, it becomes impossible to discern, at times, who the narrator might be. In this way Brooke-Rose obscures, but most often parodies, the Western obsession with binarism and gendered voice, with “appropriate” sexual roles:

If we were people in a nineteenth-century novel I could cruelly send him packing, like Emma Mr Elton, but today when women's very freedom will be turned against them by even moderately clever men I may incredibly have to go through the ludicrous motions of being immensely flattered by old myths under new names, and of reciprocating to the same degree, the repressed prodigal returning once again on pain of abnormal syndromes. So that I'll be, for only a while let's hope, a grateful substitute small ad response to an enthusiastic substitute small ad.


The effect of multiple narrators emphasizes the potentialities in the expression “as if I were someone else.” As multiple subjects, we are the language which thinks and speaks through us; we are all the possibilities which discourse presents; we might be Cassandra, or Wally, or Orion. We might be any combination of these, for their histories and psyches have traversed our own through the language, in differing versions, which does and does not quite contain us all. And this element of excess, this amalgamation which does not quite amalgamate, brings me back to the title of the text and the questions about innovation with which I began.

Agamemnon, in his most contemporary version, is neither the glorious hero of Homer nor the vain egomaniac of Aeschylus; he's both hero and creep, and something other besides. As Amalgamemnon he resists categorization, and so, too, does the innovative text. But while the innovative text presents itself as the amalgamated text, this should not suggest that Brooke-Rose has produced some postmodernist version of modernist heaven. While the word “amalgamation” suggests blend, merger, unification, it is apparent, I would hope, that Brooke-Rose's text resists any final sort of amalgamating. There are all these untidy bits and pieces which really fit nowhere and indicate a postmodern ability to tolerate continuing uncertainty and psychic ambivalence. And while this is not a new stance for those who express themselves postmodernly, it strikes me as an apt question to wonder if Brooke-Rose, as a woman, might be creating a somewhat different innovative text. While such a question is ultimately unanswerable, I feel compelled to sketch some possibilities, to ponder versionary answers.

Any consideration of innovation in relation to a contemporary writer, regardless of sex, introduces that problematic area surrounding the ideology of “the new” which, increasingly since the romantic period, has become synonymous with “real art” or “genius.” In the twentieth century the passion for the new fuels modernism, postmodernism, and that aggressively adversarial version of the new, the avant-garde. And as we know, women writers have rarely participated in, or been acknowledged by, these various versions of the new. This elision of women artists has functioned as one of the ideological principles, and consequences, of such movements. As Brooke-Rose says, “Indeed, the only two advantages of ‘movements’ are (1) for the writers, to promote themselves (hence they are usually men), and (2) for the critics, to serve as useful boxes to put authors into. But women are rarely considered seriously as part of a movement when it is ‘in vogue’; and they are damned with the label when it no longer is, when they can safely be considered as minor elements of it” (“Illiterations” 65).

Perhaps this dismissal is what leads Gertrude Stein, quite early, to counter the simplistic critical cliché so regularly applied to the “new” revolutionary artist who is deemed “ahead of his time.” No doubt part of the motivation for her comments arises from defensiveness, from having suffered critical abuse or, more often, plain neglect. But her redefinition of what it means to be “contemporary” stakes out a different territory for the innovative (woman) artist that is particularly apt today and especially pertinent to a writer such as Brooke-Rose:

He is contemporary. He can't live in the past because it is gone. He can't live in the future because no one knows what it is. He can live only in the present of his daily life. … The thing you have to remember is that everybody lives a contemporary daily life. The writer lives it, too, and expresses it imperceptibly. The fact remains that in the act of living, everybody has to live contemporarily. But in the things concerning art and literature they don't have to live contemporarily because it doesn't make any difference; and they live about forty years behind their time.

(“Writing” 151)

Part of Stein's point is that the contemporary is always caught in its own dynamic historical and cultural differences from any other “contemporary period,” and it is either the curse or the blessing of the innovative artist to perceive such differences and to transform them creatively into art. “Only he is sensitive to what is contemporary long before the average human being is. He puts down what is contemporary, and it is exactly that. Sooner or later people realize it” (“Transatlantic Interview” 33).

Brooke-Rose inhabits a postmodern contemporary that participates in the historical present and past, in current “reality”—the pressure of quotidian factuality—and in the cooler, experimental domains of literary postmodernism. As an innovative writer, she cannot escape the versions of the new that precede her. Clearly she is an inheritor of certain aspects of male modernist poetics. Her love of puns, conflations, and verbal jokes links her most obviously to Joyce.5 But she is not interested, finally, in creating a mythic alternative to the present, for she is also the inheritor of Stein and, as such, she writes “what is contemporary” by pressing generic experiment to the limit, by refusing narrative conventions.

Finally, however, the truly innovative move Brooke-Rose attempts here is to position the human subject in some meaningful relationship to contemporary history and politics without either returning to a retrograde version of realism or assuming, without substantial critical revision, male postmodernist fictional models.6 The everyday is the political; it serves as a psychic battleground, generating continuous information and hence the necessity for choices. It matters that Brooke-Rose's textual touchstone is an ancient history by Herodotus, that the quotations are so often linked to specific instances of rape, political machinations, and the violence of those who wield power. Yet these bits of classical history do not serve as exemplars of some sort of reductive and simplistic equivalence between past and present, nor do such examples invoke circular or repetitious views of history. Rather Brooke-Rose forcefully dramatizes the importance of specifying the “subject of history,” of specifying who is doing what to whom. She forces the reader to critically rethink contemporary history and to consider its utterly complicated relationship—what is it?—to the past.

Brooke-Rose, in attempting to create a space within the post-modern and yet counter to its predominant nihilistic force, never forgets that contemporary reality is first and foremost a linguistic construction. Since language informs all cultural production including ideology, she makes no pretense of occupying an adversarial or oppositional relation to mainstream cultural values. Now that Anglo-American and European culture avidly endorse postmodern music, dance, film, architecture, even interior design, the postmodern is no longer an alternative practice but has become one version of dominant cultural practice. Brooke-Rose writes in an oblique angle to established postmodernism, and this allies her with other experimental women writers who are at present participating in an emergent form.7 Women as diverse nationally, racially, and politically as Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, Luisa Valenzuela, Monique Wittig, Christa Wolf, Joanna Russ, and Toni Cade Bambara, among others, are attempting to bring “new meanings and values” to fictional prose; their work suggests localized, strategic engagements with social, political, and literary issues. They are in the process of an alternative literary practice that constantly shifts, aware that a subversion of the usual power formations is only temporary. If one can prophesy about the present, then that is what Christine/Cassandra does.

As a trope for the female innovative writer, Cassandra figures both as the sibylline prophetess, the reader of auguries, and the revolutionary, the speaker no one believes. “None will be prophets on their own planet” (77). Brooke-Rose reinscribes the experimental woman writer's sense of verbal powerlessness by “hiding” Cassandra within the title of her text.8 Somewhat like the mythic seer, the contemporary woman writer is still held captive by an aggressively male literary establishment; she cannot yet forge a “life” of her own; she is dependent. Given current realities, Cassandra represents creativity as well as rage, inspiration as well as impotence. In contrast, it is instructional to recall Joyce's figure for the innovative artist, Daedalus—foolish but heroic, doomed but admirable. It isn't Cassandra's sex which makes her an obvious representative for the woman innovator; it is both her creative power, related to divine sources but gained through sexual bargaining with Apollo, and the absence of a believing and accepting audience. The general public is akin to the Argive elders who, upon hearing Cassandra prophesy Agamemnon's death, utter this: “Peace, peace, poor woman; put those bitter lips to sleep.”


  1. In addition to the Friedman and Fuchs collection, see the Fall 1989 special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Kathy Acker, Christine Brooke-Rose, and Marguerite Young.

  2. For Richard Martin, the entire text is structured through repetition, or redundancy to use his preferred term, and regeneration. “Discourse is binary in Amalgamemnon, it is both redundant and generative, everything proceeds from language” (180).

  3. Kristeva theorizes poetic language, particularly the radical experiments of writers such as Joyce and Mallarmé, as a reactivation of the presymbolic phase of psychic development identified with the instinctual, with the maternal. “Moreover, this relationship of the speaker to the mother is probably one of the most important factors producing interplay within the structure of meaning as well as questioning process of subject and history” (“Identity” 137). See also the first section of Revolution.

  4. As Richard Martin notes, the first sentence of Amalgamemnon is a misquotation from Beckett's Malone Dies (179-80).

  5. It is not within the scope of this paper to present a definitive assertion about formal differences between Brooke-Rose and Joyce, between female and male experimental writers. Theoretically I cannot point to specific structural and linguistic features that comprehensively distinguish Brooke-Rose's experimentalism from Joyce's, but, on the other hand, I can't imagine the latter writing “a womb of one's own a womb with a view an enormous womb” (16). Insufficiencies arising from the use of thematics as a distinguishing touchstone are well known, and thus I have avoided such an approach. But I also believe that what a writer says is of vital and primary importance, and when attempting a specific description of an innovative writer, one cannot simply gloss over content. What I am arguing, then, is that Brooke-Rose should be recognized as a particular sort of innovative writer, and that, as such, she is concerned to write politics into her text.

  6. The most innovative of these models have been characterized recently as taking “refuge in politically neutered forms of postmodernism … or in poses of complex political despair” (Kucich 329). In his extremely influential essays on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson despairs over postmodern fiction's fundamental inability to address the necessity for a genuine sense of history and an effective politics. The only exception to his dark view is E. L. Doctorow. Jameson's analysis completely elides work by women writers. In addition to the “Postmodernism” essay, see the interview in Ross.

  7. The intersections between feminism, postmodernism, and politics have been taken up increasingly by literary, political, and cultural theorists. For a recent consideration of these issues, see Aronowitz, Fraser and Nicholson, Kipnis, and Rose in Ross. See also Flax, Morris, and Owens.

  8. The characterization of Cassandra figures far more overtly for two other experimental women writers, Christa Wolf and Ursule Molinaro.

This essay is dedicated to my colleagues at the Harvard Summer Institute for the Study of Avant-Gardes (1989), directed by Alice Jardine and Susan R. Suleiman.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. “Postmodernism and Politics.” Ross 46-62.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. Amalgamemnon. Manchester, Eng.: Carcanet, 1984.

———. “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel.” Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought. Ed. Thomas C. Heller, et al. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986. 184-96.

———. “Illiterations.” Friedman and Fuchs 55-71.

Flax, Jane. “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory.” Signs 12 (1987): 621-43.

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Nicholson. “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism.” Ross 83-104.

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

———. “Regarding Postmodernism—A Conversation with Fredric Jameson.” With Anders Stephanson. Ross 3-30.

Kipnis, Laura. “Feminism: The Political Conscience of Postmodernism?” Ross 149-66.

Kristeva, Julia. “From One Identity to an Other.” Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980. 124-47.

———. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Kucich, John. “Postmodern Politics: Don DeLillo and the Plight of the White Male Writer.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (1988): 328-41.

Levitt, Morton P. “Christine Brooke-Rose.” British Novelists since 1960. Ed. Jay Halio. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1983. 1: 124-29.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Martin, Richard. “‘Stepping-Stones into the Dark’: Redundancy and Generation in Christine Brooke-Rose's Amalgamemnon.” Friedman and Fuchs 177-87.

Molinaro, Ursule. The Autobiography of Cassandra, Princess & Prophetess of Troy. Danbury, CT: Archer, 1979.

Morris, Meaghan. “Introduction: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism.” The Pirate's Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism. London: Verso, 1988. 1-23.

Owens, Craig. “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, 1983. 57-82.

Rose, Jacqueline. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or A Wife Is Like an Umbrella—Fantasies of the Modern and Postmodern.” Ross 237-50.

Ross, Andrew, ed. Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Stein, Gertrude. “How Writing Is Written.” The Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Robert Haas. 2 vols. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1972. 2: 151-60.

———. “A Transatlantic Interview 1946.” A Primer for the Gradual Understanding of Gertrude Stein. Ed. Robert Haas. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1971. 15-35.

Wolf, Christa. Cassandra. Trans. Jan Van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1984.

Christine Brooke-Rose and Maria del Sapio Garbero (interview date 21 August 1991)

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SOURCE: Brooke-Rose, Christine, and Maria del Sapio Garbero. “A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose.” In British Postmodern Fiction, edited by Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, pp. 101-20. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1993.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on August 21, 1991, Brooke-Rose discusses her novels in terms of feminism, postmodernism, literary theory, and experimental women's writing.]

[Sapio Garbero]: You have been regarded as a “European intellectual”, associated more with French and with American critical thought and writing than with English literary culture. Is that still the case? Or do you think that the context of the English novel is changing in a way that may make you feel more at home?

[Brooke-Rose]: When I first started experimenting with the novel I was very interested in everything that was happening in France, and later in America with postmodernism. But things have changed in England. I used to feel and be made to feel completely out, a mad Francophile, writing the nouveau roman in English and so forth. It wasn't true. I think the English have in fact now absorbed what was going on in France, they've become more open and less provincial. There are a lot of very interesting writers and critics in England. Also I've mellowed a bit myself, I'm less intransigent, so I feel more at home now in the English intellectual world.

Certainly the English context is taking a more cosmopolitan and postmodern turn. And just as during the modernist period, outsiders again seem to be the leading figures on the British contemporary cultural scene. Do you think there is a relationship between being an outsider and transgressing the literary canon?

Perhaps. It's interesting that more and more writers today come from elsewhere. That's not my case, I am English but I was born in Geneva and brought up in Brussels. But there is this otherness and this awareness about other structures, not just literary structures but religious or cultural and so on. Some of the best modern writers in fact come from India or Japan or elsewhere. Many novels written in English have this other awareness, and I think that's a good sign. French culture absorbed foreigners earlier, Héredia, Supervielle, Ionesco and so on. I don't think a national literature should be entirely turned on itself.

Your literary and critical concerns have always coexisted. How has this fact influenced your writing as a novelist?

Very much so. From the start I was concerned with technical matters in literature. My first critical book was an analysis of metaphor and a technical metaphor in some form or another pervades my fiction. I've always had this rather technical attitude to what I am doing and I have often been blamed for this. English writers often seem to be against technique and against theory as if talent alone were all that mattered. It's a very strange notion, which no one would ever dream of upholding in music, or in painting. But with writing they seem to think that a thorough grasp of theory blocks creation. In my case on the contrary it absolutely inspired me. When I went to France and plunged into structuralism, and then poststructuralism, this awareness of how narrative was constructed and above all what it is, epistemologically, stimulated me. I am not ashamed of this. I've always pleaded for this technical knowledge which is not to be dismissed as “mere” technique. Of course mere technique isn't enough, you've got to have both. I hope I have both, but I've always found literary theory extremely exciting, to understand how language functions, how narrative structures function and in my more recent work I have played with this.

You make poetry out of this.

I hope so. I make something else out of it.

Perhaps what the critics dislike is the fact that this technique is foregrounded in your novels.

Only in one novel. I've paid very heavily for Thru. I shall say a word on this later and try to put my work in context. But the technique is not foregrounded in other novels. There I played with it consciously.

Following Barthes's definition, your novels can be classified as “writerly texts”. You yourself say that you want to share the pleasure of your writing with your reader. But how can you accommodate pleasure to the fact that your reader has to be (to quote Thru) a “prepared consumer”? And how can you answer the charge of being a difficult author?

Yes, this perhaps would be the moment to try and put my work in context, because I am always surprised when I am called a difficult writer. My very early novels are not difficult at all, straightforward traditional novels. But I became very dissatisfied with this traditional way of writing, and I had been thinking a lot about narrative forms. The result was Out, my first, in quotes, experimental novel. Of course today it doesn't seem difficult compared to what came afterwards, but at the time few people in England understood it. First of all I imagined a reversal of the colour-bar in a future world unspecified, in the south somewhere. It all goes on through the mind of an old white man who cannot get a job because he is white. The technique seemed very unfamiliar, in fact this is the only novel where I was directly influenced by Robbe-Grillet who objectifies everything that goes on. You see, all the markings like “he thought”, or “he said”, or “she said” or pluperfects for flashbacks and so on, all that is taken out. And this was not at all familiar at the time. Now everybody does it. In Out everything this old man sees and everything he thinks and everything that is said to him is, as it were, treated on the same level and in the present tense, not in a stream of consciousness where there is a lot of emotional gasping. Robbe-Grillet does this very well. It has been very badly imitated ever since though he would probably not use it in this kind of “alternative world” fiction. I thought it was a very poetic way of doing things, and I use it in Out to express the confusion of this man. Everybody who is black or somehow yellow or brown or even pink has a better chance—you could be white but with a cardiac condition and you still had a better chance than the sickly unreliable feckless white people who are all suffering from some unspecified radiation disease from which the others have escaped. So there is a whole play of colours and chemistry. I can see that at the time it was very unfamiliar. Sarah Birch, who did an Oxford doctorate on me, brings out this aspect, that some of my early work now seems perfectly familiar. So it was the defamiliarization that the Russian formalists talked about which disoriented people.

And then came Such which was a sort of fantasy on the three minutes of someone being maybe dead, in fact who dies, and again I don't explain this, I don't go into whether he had three minutes of heart massage or is this a miracle like Lazarus. He is called Larry, but in fact the people in the psychic space I play with call him Lazarus. The realistic aspect is simply dropped out, there are never any explanations, so this may have made it difficult, but in fact it's an extremely readable book. It's an adventure story, what happens to this person who meets this girl in outer space, and I use a lot of imagery from astrophysics as an ongoing metaphor for the distances between people. I think it's a very poetic novel, but again, there's this unfamiliarity, because what happens to him is simply treated objectively. You hear these voices talking to him, I don't say who speaks, the voices just emerge and the characters emerge from that dialogue, there is no narrator-explanation. So these techniques interested me very much and I was called a difficult writer. But I think they have become much more familiar and these books would not be considered difficult now.

And then I wrote Between, where there are all these languages because the central character is a simultaneous interpreter in French and German, married to an Englishman, and constantly travelling, so the other languages act as a block, rather like the ideograms in Pound. You know, you see “toilet” in Cyrillic script, etc. She may be trilingual, but she doesn't know everything, she has the same disorientation that every traveller has. Like the man in Out she has no name, she never says “I”, except in dialogue, if there. There are all these sentences that she is translating simultaneously during conferences, juxtaposed with different discourses of her private life. So it's quite difficult to read, but most people now don't find it difficult. I think there is a lot of unfamiliarity at first.

After that I wrote Thru, and here I admit that it's a very difficult novel. It has things printed downwards, in circles and so on. I was experimenting with typography. It is a novel about the theory of the novel, it is a text about textuality and intertextuality, it is a fiction about the fictionality of fiction. I am using structuralism and post-structuralism in a very, if you like, knowing way. A lot of people don't like me to be knowing, or to show knowledge. Nobody likes a woman to know. I am often accused of showing off my knowledge. I have never seen a man so accused; on the contrary, he is praised if he has a lot of knowledge. However, that was a parenthesis. I needed to write this book, because I had gone to France in 1968 and been plunged in all that very new theory and there I almost split apart, to go back to your earlier question. I needed to write this novel to bring the two “MEs” together again and I knew I was going to be rapped on the knuckles and I was. It was regarded as totally incomprehensible. I don't mind, I'm still glad I wrote this novel, and my real fans like that one best. You know, this is the book that is always quoted when people want to say I'm difficult. I absolutely admit that Thru is difficult, very difficult. I accept that even quite serious critics make misreadings. A lot of it is very ambiguous, it is undecidable who the narrator is, for instance, so critics who try and decide are obviously on the wrong track.

And still it is often quoted to illustrate what has been going on in contemporary literature and criticism.

It is the most postmodern, when I got away from the nouveau roman. Well, I got away from it after Out. In Thru I really experiment. I've used that word, experiment, simply because it's always used with reference to me. But to me experiment means that you never do the same thing twice. In each novel I do something different, which is probably one of the reasons that critics don't quite know where to place me. They are happy with a label like nouveau roman, or postmodern, or something. They have got used to this and that and so I mustn't do something different. But after Thru, you see, I changed again. I'd done that, I didn't want to do it again and Amalgamemnon is much more readable and easier. Since then I have tried to be less difficult. In fact, if you put it in the whole context, I think that it is largely unfamiliarity at the time which makes me seem difficult, and later in the context, with the exception of Thru, I don't think I am as difficult as all that. I do demand quite a lot from the reader, but I don't want to write a book where everything is given to the reader. That doesn't interest me.

Thru is very much a novel about its own process of construction and destruction. Recently, however, you seem to have come to disapprove of an over-emphasized narcissistic preoccupation of the writer with his or her own writing. Can Amalgamemnon be considered a turning point?

Well, yes and no. As I said Thru was exceptional and it is about the process of creation, but also about textuality and the fictionality of the fiction. The moment I create something I then decreate it. I break the fictional illusion. Other people have done that, it's not particularly original on that ground, but I think Thru goes further than they do and as far as that can be taken. But I also love to play with narrative structures and narrative conventions. I didn't stop doing that with Amalgamemnon.Amalgamemnon just tries to do something completely different, which is to use only what I call non-realized tenses, mostly the future, but also the conditional, the subjunctive, the negative and so on, in linguistic terms, assertive non-modalized sentences, or, in philosophical terms, constative sentences, of which it can't be asked whether they be true or false. As my best French interpreter Jean-Jacques Lecercle has shown, it's a “pragmatic lipogram”. So that nothing is actually happening, nothing can be seen to be happening. But as to the future tense, Genette had said that the narrator need not position himself in space, but has to position himself in time, simply because he has to use tenses. He said narratives in the future are only possible in mini narratives like a prophecy or an order. I was challenged by this and decided to do a whole novel. And that's what Amalgamemnon is about. It was originally called Soon but I decided to get away from my one-word titles. But there are also smaller and less visible tricks of narrative conventions, like the characters the author creates, for instance, out of constellations, who contact her as author and tell her she is doing wrong, which is what Genette calls metalepsis.

The transgression of narrative levels?

Yes. So I do play with that and I do so again, not in Xorandor but in Verbivore, and I do so in the next novel Textermination. So I haven't just dropped these things, I just don't do them with the intensity I use in Thru. It is true that Amalgamemnon is more readable than Thru, but there is a continuity with my earlier novels. It's not less or more readable than Between or Such.

Of course you don't stop experimenting with narrative conventions and reflecting on those conventions and so on, but there is something else in Amalgamemnon: a wider concern with political issues and with what is happening in the world …

Again I don't understand this stress on everything from Thru on. Perhaps because it is with Thru and Amalgamemnon that I got better known. But Out is extremely political and social. It's about the colour-bar. Can you have anything more social than that? And Such is about death and how this man who slowly comes back to life faces what's going on in his real life. That is much more social. Between is about identity but also about the futility of international conferences. People always think I've dropped plot and I am just experimenting with language. No, there is always a very strong idea. Whether it comes off or not this is another matter, it is not for me to say, but I certainly would not say that with Amalgamemnon I started being more political. Probably I was more competently political and that's a different thing. After living in France for a long time I did become more political than I was in England. But I would deny this idea that my earlier novels are just not concerned with the world; they are, but not overtly, they are not didactic, political novels.

“Language is my material” you used to say. In your last novels, however, language itself is made into a political issue, related as it is to the problem of gender (Amalgamemnon) and to the problem of simulation versus reality (Verbivore). Is this an exact interpretation?

Yes, I suppose so. I wouldn't say that Amalgamemnon's chief idea is gender; it occurs, but it is not the main idea. The main idea is also the beginning of this simulation of reality that I try to do in Verbivore. In Amalgamemnon there is this professor of classics, of ancient Greek and Latin, who is made redundant, because nobody wants Greek and Latin now. And she is reading Herodotus and at the same time she is listening to the radio, and all these different discourses interfere. In that sense it's a very political novel: what happens to an intellectual who simply is thrown out of society because society changes. This is after all a very contemporary problem facing not just a professor but every worker, every manager even. The novel deals with what happens to her mind, which is extremely well equipped but can't quite cope with what is going on. Gender comes into it because she has these rather unsatisfactory lovers at the beginning and at the end. But the whole of Amalgamemnon is in fact concerned with her relationship to the characters she invents. I don't think I've ever said this, maybe I have, but I did many versions of Amalgamemnon and it was only in the last version that I gave her more social substance, made her situation more explicit. Originally it started simply with what is going on in her mind and on the radio, and in Herodotus and so on, and this creation of characters. In a way it was a concession to the reader that I put it into a realistic context and I am very glad I did. The last version I think works very well. Naturally I had to rewrite the whole novel. I didn't just tack it on at the beginning, it goes all the way through and I had to work it out. I think it makes much better sense of the novel, but it was an afterthought. And I'm always amused because that is what critics pounce on. They say it's a novel about a professor who loses her job. Well, in a way it is, but that wasn't my main concern. My concern was to explore this pseudo-future we all live in, through the media, all the speculation, you know, what's going to happen to Gorbachev or anybody else. And we are influenced by this. I then explored the media further in Verbivore, where it has become the main theme, but in Amalgamemnon it is interwoven with all these other things and this pseudo-future is reflected in the actual language. I think it is a social novel, but the gender thing is really almost incidental.

But isn't simulation there also related to female language?

Yes, of course.

That's a question of gender.

Absolutely, I'm not denying that there is gender, I am only protesting against your saying gender for Amalgamemnon, simulation for Verbivore. There is far more than gender in Amalgamemnon, but I agree it's there and certainly I use a lot of puns, one of which is “mimecstasy”, “mimagree”, and that of course connotes gender. But it's not simulation in the computer and media sense.

Your bilingualism seems to be the privileged biographical condition which allows you to contribute in very interesting ways to the deconstructive turn of contemporary culture. You actually work between cultures, exploiting precisely the space of contiguity between the frontiers of discourses. Like Kristeva you seem to make your bilingualism the site from which the boundaries defining genres and cultural constructs of identity can be questioned. Would you agree with my view?

Yes, certainly my bilingualism has always been very important in my writing, this awareness of other structures. I think it influences my style and certainly influences the way I play with language. I think what was catastrophic in England after the war, was the way young writers dismissed what they called the “mandarins” who were, you know, Francophiles, Italophiles, Graecophiles. They said, English is enough and if you need a foreign literature, then read American literature, which of course does other things, but doesn't give you this contrastive sense of language, these contrastive structures in one's head which are there whenever one writes a sentence. However, I do think this has become a very common phenomenon. This is one of the things that Sarah Birch brings out in her thesis, in the bits of it that I've read, that a lot in my early work that seemed so unusual has now become not only more familiar but also more usual. A lot of people are living in a country which is not their own, partly because of the E.E.C., partly because of refugees, the ex-British empire and so on. So I don't think that it's all that unusual now. But for me it's very important to have this distance to my language, both a deep understanding and a distance, that work together.

In Between polyglottism seems to be associated with a constitutive female predicament. The space of contiguity between frontiers is exactly the space where a decentered female subjectivity posits herself. Here, as later in “Self-Confrontation and the Writer,” the woeful personal problem of an elusive identity is interestingly recalled to be made into an issue concerning the writer's identity and the position of a woman within language. Nevertheless you say you were a bit anti-feminist in the early 1970s.

I was and still am impatient with some types of feminism, but it's true that I have been very much concerned, especially in the eighties, with woman's place in language, and more especially the peculiar situation of the experimental woman writer, as opposed to the experimental male writer. I've written about this. But it is all part of my experimenting with different discourses, juxtaposing them and clashing them, rather than a specifically feminist concern.

In Amalgamemnon you quote very effectively from Herodotus, about the Scythians being unable to learn the Amazonians' language, whereas the Amazonians learnt theirs, and therefore disappeared.

Yes, I am glad you like that. Their disappearance is my addition. Certainly the bilingual predicament is probably stronger in women than in men, but I wouldn't say it is constitutive. It's difficult to say, there are also many bilingual writers who are men, and in France particularly there is a long tradition …

… Cassandra was bilingual!

Yes, and it is interesting that you should ask that question because when I first started writing Between it didn't occur to me to make the central character a woman. Since the central character in the previous novel Out was a man I went on and I got completely blocked. Maybe I would have got blocked anyway, this happens often. So I put it away and wrote Such (also from a male viewpoint). I then took up Between again later. By then I had the travelling experience I needed. But I also decided to make her a woman, not so much because of bilingualism, but because of this idea that a translator merely transmits other people's ideas, and this is a sort of cliché about women, it's the view that a masculine world has and has had for many many centuries about women. And the moment I made her a woman it came out right, so there is something in what you say, but I wouldn't say it's because of her bilingualism. It is because of her status as middleman, passing on other people's ideas. And yet I had already explored the notion of the middleman in the last of my earlier novels, a novel called The Middlemen, and most of these characters were men. So I don't think gender is specific either to bilingualism or to the intermediary status, but it did work better with a woman because of this—I think there is a sentence somewhere in Between, “existing as a woman but working as a man”. And this was after all in the 1960s when it was slightly less accepted than it is today that a woman work as a man.

Is it in the sense of a multi-layered subjectivity that the archaeological and mythological metaphor works in Between and Amalgamemnon?

It certainly wasn't conscious. In Between it's simply part of the realistic background. Or at least the background motivates the metaphor. These interpreters go to conferences in many cities and go sightseeing, so the discourse of sightseeing is also one of the many discourses juxtaposed to one another. I wouldn't say it's a leading metaphor in Between. All the discourses are treated as equal and juxtaposed, and that is in fact the joke or the poetry, if you prefer, that comes out of it, the juxtaposing of these different discourses, and the vertical dimension is felt as an absence. There are these phrases about words going into the earphones in French and coming out in simultaneous German through the mouthpiece, which is a pun on mouth and the actual mouthpiece of the interpreter's gadget. So in that sense, if you like, the body is always there, as in fact you say in your book,1 but it's all much more happening in the brain, “the distant brain way up …”. There are all these passengers in the plane, in the belly of the plane, and its brain is very distant. She lives in the world of discourse. And although discourse is in a way very physical, when you translate almost mechanically it's a much more, I wouldn't even say intellectual thing, but it is the brain at work whereas the body is practically at rest. And it is more in her private life, waking up in all these different hotels and not quite knowing what country she is in and so on, that these fusions between body and mind occur.

Could the archaeological metaphor point more at a female multi-layered subjectivity?

I would say more so in Amalgamemnon. I think that's very clear because she has all these layers, ancient Greek, and so on, and she calls herself Cassandra. That I think is very clear and it is tied up with herself as a woman in a feminist theme. And there are all these quotations from Herodotus at the beginning, of women being kidnapped and starting wars. I use the word “plagiarized” at one point which used to mean kidnapped, so there I think it's very clear. But in Between it certainly wasn't conscious. I think it's there, if you like, in an embryonic form.

So there is something which looks forward to Amalgamemnon?

Yes, I think every novel is already looking forward to another novel, not necessarily to the very next. There are these things you keep having in your mind and you use them differently in each novel. I simply wouldn't say that it is a guiding metaphor in Between. It is there but much more incidentally, as part of the sightseeing.

In your recent book of criticism Stories, Theories, and Things you maintain that the novel must again aspire (as in modernism) to the condition of poetry. And the impetus may come from the electronic revolution and the feminist revolution. Can you say something on this?

This comes in a chapter which deals only with the so-called disappearing of the character in the modern novel. So it refers only to the character. And it is true that my characters aren't “well-rounded” characters in the traditional sense, but then, very often when I pick up a modern novel I do not actually believe in and identify with the characters as I used to and still do in great classical novels. When I say I am not a realistic writer I don't mean I don't admire the great realists or even the great realists today, but this process of identification has been very diluted, partly by the media. People identify with characters in soap and so on, so the process of identification still exists but on a much lower social level. So I tried to deal with all this in that particular chapter and I ended up on this notion that there might be a future, first of all in feminism which tries to understand the female psyche via Lacan et al., and in the electronic revolution which is exactly the opposite, very masculine and binary and so on. And it was almost done tongue-in-cheek, I didn't work it out. It was thrown in at the end. But it does seem to me that just as the computer can introduce a simulation of a plan for an airplane or a very complex machinery, it is possible that one will be able to produce a character in a much more thorough way. I'm not for this, I'm just talking from a realistic point of view. But the computer revolution has and will change our mentalities, just as writing gave us complex characters not possible in oral literature. I don't think you should take it too seriously.

But in your book you were not talking of the feminist revolution in general. You rather referred to those sectors of the feminist movement more interested in deconstructing binary oppositions, one of which is that between masculine and feminine.

Yes, and I was quoting Lacan on the female pas-tout, not-all, whereas the masculine wants to be all, everything, the totalizing aspect.

You seem to oppose the idea of women's writing. You seem to share Kristeva's and Cixous' idea that écriture feminine can exist in both masculine and feminine writing. What is specificity to you? Is there anything like this?

Well, I have attacked the whole notion in my last book, at least as it is expressed. The radical feminists are very much against the androgynous-great-mind stance which was Virginia Woolf's. I am rather for it. Clearly any great mind or indeed any human being has a great deal of feminine and masculine in him, and all male writers have always had a lot of feminine in them. It's true they haven't always exploited it. Dickens' women, for instance, or even Hardy's, he tried, but it's always from the male point of view. And women have learned to go along with this, in fact for generations and centuries women have always read as men—Jonathan Culler has a very interesting essay on this—and it's time that men also learnt to read as women.

You write about this in “Illiterations.”

Yes, I am absolutely against this notion of segregation. It's an interesting thing that all revolutions, including the black revolution, seem to have to go through this phase of “we're not going to have anything to do with the whites” (or with men and so on). I think this is a great mistake. Art can't just cut itself off from half its source. I mean there we are, men and women, and men have done the things that women claim are specifically feminine. I analyze this in an essay called “A Womb of One's Own?”—I rather like that title. And there I show that features feminists are claiming as specific are not only non-specific but not very much to their credit. They shouldn't actually want this, this going back to the primitive and flux and flowing and all that. They also talk about fragmentation—now fragmentation seems to me almost the opposite of flux. This has existed in modernist and postmodernist male writing and in much earlier poets …

Which is why Kristeva herself has written mostly on male authors?

Yes, but that's a different question. It's intriguing why the two top feminists in France, Cixous and Kristeva, find écriture feminine only in men, which seems to annoy the American feminists. But I think that's partly chance. As top women they are not all that interested in other women writers and so they find it in Genet and others. Similarly and it's quite interesting, the deconstructive movement in Yale, coming originally from France, was totally uninterested in the deconstructive novels of postmodernism that were being written all around them. They were deconstructing Shelley and Rousseau and Nietzsche and so on. I feel a little bit the same with the feminists. They plunge into theory and talk about all these things, the publishers are digging up—what I call scraping the barrel—forgotten women authors who sometimes had better remain forgotten, but they pay very little attention to the real interesting women writers around them. But to get back to specificity, it's not tactically or even strategically a very good thing for women to back, because it is anti-artistic in its segregation. There is even someone, I mention her in my essay, I forget who it is, who wants all women experimental writers from Dorothy Richardson on to be treated as though there were no men before them. And you can't do that, it's just mutilating, and I don't understand, since they are so against men's psychic mutilation of women, why they are doing exactly what they accuse the men of doing. Now I don't mean to say that being a woman is not important, she will explore her experience just as a man explores his experience, she will imagine male characters just as men imagine female characters trying to get into them, some well, others less well, and so on. It is very difficult to imagine yourself as totally other, but if you can't do that you don't even begin to be a writer. And to write only about your troubles and your menstruations and your kitchen sink and your love affairs seems totally uninteresting now, a mere imitation of frank sex in the male novel earlier in the century. I suppose it can be well done, I am not just dismissing everybody, but I think it is a dangerous tack they're on. It's a little bit like what is happening with working class writers or black writers or any ethnic writer. I think it's an insult to treat them as a class. The working class writers are completely different from each other. D. H. Lawrence is not at all like Alan Sillitoe or any other. Similarly black writers are different. But to treat them simply with a label is as unfair as treating women as a “woman writer”. These categories are not right. For the writer they are mutilating, they are debilitating. And the stress on specificity I think is just intellectually and I would say even morally wrong.

Still, as you have already said, as an experimental woman writer you have had more problems than men.

Yes, I have already touched on that and I did deal with it in my essay “Illiterations.” I went all the way back to Plato and analyzed how and why in a male society there is this deep conviction, that you still meet with today, quite unconscious, that women cannot create new forms, but can only imitate, either men, or their own lives (two different senses of the word imitate). I show how men appropriated as metaphors the whole creative process. There was the poet inspired (as penis) by God, impregnated but also gestating and giving birth (genius and labour). In Plato he may use a boy as a sort of titillating midwife, later it was woman as muse or midwife: woman is beauty but she cannot create beauty. You get this still even in Pound, you get it in Gautier, this runs all the way through and I don't think it is conscious, but it does affect the experimental woman writer, who is, like man, trying to create new forms.

Seriousness and humour. It is what you like in Pound and Beckett. How do you conciliate the two aspects in your novels?

I don't have to conciliate them. They are just present all the time. I don't try to be funny and I don't try to be serious. It just happens. I think it's the result of my passion for language. Language is so funny. Discourse is so funny …

Is language called to cover a certain amount of despair or anguish? I'm thinking of the frequent anagrammatic permutation of the title of your novel Thru in “hurt”.

Yes, I suppose so. But this is not a terribly interesting question to me. I don't know if you remember, but there is a scene in Thru where a Mali writer comes and interrupts Larissa, who is writing, and criticizes her novels saying, “You are just escaping into language”. In fact, much of that is personal. This episode did happen. And the moment I got rid of this man I just wrote the scene, absolutely verbatim. It's very rare in my novels, but I did. You know, he says something like … “this suffering and so on … and the moment you get to the real point … brrrt you escape into language … into a joke” and so on. And she answers (I can't remember the exact words): “Isn't the only thing to do with suffering to laugh at it”! So even if it's partly defence, it's not covering up because the suffering is there and the seriousness is there.

You take up that point later on in Thru when you write that people are not interested in sharing suffering. “Only ebullience can be shared”. [CBR: I don't know. I don't remember that]. So you work on suffering until it vanishes into language, something to play with …

Well, I think this is the only way to cope with it. And also with seriousness, not necessarily suffering. But on suffering there are two completely opposite attitudes in society. One is that everyone regards suffering, or even bad characters, more complex characters, in novels as splendid. The happy people are rather dull! It's the old thing that God is so much less interesting in Milton than Satan and so on. But in real life everyone runs away from someone who is, say, in a crisis, or suffering, or an unhappy woman. Particularly women. People are rather sorry for an unhappy man but an unhappy woman, even if she is not talking about it, exudes unhappiness, and people avoid her. Nobody likes going to see people in hospital, you know, there is a fear of that, so their attitude to suffering in art is the opposite of their attitude to suffering in the world. But certainly I would say that I have nothing in particular to say on that question. It comes to me naturally. I don't strive for it and I've always coped with difficulties and suffering through humour. I love playing with forms, I love playing with language. It just comes to me so naturally and if anything I have to curb it.

I was thinking of the Lacanian notion of lack and of language as a way of repairing this original lack. I rather see suffering in your novels as something which stems from a metaphysical preoccupation.

Well, I suppose it's there, since I am deeply read in Lacan and Derrida, but, yes you can't do a lot with lack in language because language is present. [MDSG: it's both present and absent]. Yes, it's the subject of your book. And that is a very difficult topic which I try to handle in Thru, in fact I play with the notion of holding on to a structure until you fall through the empty space. The structure is like a diagram or a structuralist scheme. Life of course is much more complex than that. And Deleuze has gone right away from all these regular diagrams and talks about the rhizoma, he says you can't just deal in structures. But of course we are all the time having little structures in our life, every time we deal with a situation we are restructuring it already. We are structuring the chaos of the real and everything that happens, and we couldn't live if we didn't do this, and then the structure goes and it's like falling through the emptiness and you have to build a new one. So I do try to deal with this lack and this emptiness, but it's very difficult to write about, to write about nothing. Flaubert's great notion of writing un livre sur rien.

Yes, yet lack is there in each novel you write. It is there in Verbivore where you suggestively quote Plato's Phaedrus (one of the dialogues) on the invention of writing—something, as he writes, which will deprive men of their memory and feelings.

Yes, that's a very important dialogue which was taken up and analyzed by Derrida. It's one of his earlier essays. [MDSG: La pharmacie de Platon]. Yes, La pharmacie de Platon. It was my introduction to Derrida. It was the first thing I read by Derrida when it appeared in Tel Quel and then I read other things. I didn't know it came in Verbivore. It must be Zab who says it, because of the two twins of Xorandor who come back in Verbivore, she is the more philosophical one, so I expect she says it. No, I'm sure it's there, because lack is something we all have. There is always a lack, otherwise there would be no striving, that's a fundamental definition of mankind, I would say, this constant striving to fill up a lack.

And also there is this sense of reality as constantly collapsing.

Yes, I am fascinated by that. It's just very difficult to write about it. It's not a straight plot, you know, if everything is always collapsing. …

But that's the idea sustaining the narrative of Verbivore, the collapse of reality.

Well, it's the collapse of the media, which are reality by then to everybody [MDSG: Yes, it's a sort of second reality]. I was trying to explore what would happen if we were suddenly deprived of the electronic media: would we go back to a pre-media stage. Well, we can't. Our entire attitudes, our mental structures have now been altered, and that's what I was exploring in Verbivore, the fact that this reality we are given everyday is in fact highly organized. We noticed that yesterday when we watched the news in Italian, and then the BBC, and I pointed out how differently structured it is. In fact people are just told what the rédaction want them to know. That's why I put this dish up on the roof because I am still very much interested in how we are being formed, not really brainwashed, it's too strong a term, but what we think is reality is an image we are given, which is presented to us that way. It was very clear during the Gulf War. So I am very interested in seeing German television, English, French, Italian and so on, to see these different realities and I wish in fact I had had my dish when I wrote Verbivore. I would have known much more about it.

But again, I think there is a philosophical sense of absence in your novels, just because you are so interested in the simulation of reality.

Yes, I go along with that.

In “Self-Confrontation and the Writer,” talking of yourself as a writer, you affirm the impossibility of coming to grips with one's “I” as a totality. Too many selves to confront (you say), too many of them asking for reunification. Do you feel that task of yours is accomplished by now? Or that your creativity thrives exactly on that impossibility? So that the effort towards reunification is part of the quest the reader (and the critic) has to undertake?

That essay was written very much tongue in cheek, and my only criticism of your book is that you start with that and take it all very seriously. I was asked, for a special number of New Literary History, to write on self-confrontation and the writer and I simply did it as a joke and it's really quite funny. In the end it turned out to be more personal but I don't think it should be a sort of basis. As you may have noticed I didn't reprint it in my Stories, Theories, and Things and also it was written a long time ago. I'm not at all sure of all these identities. Now it's such an old-hat topic, this search for identity. It doesn't terribly interest me and of course I explore it mostly in Between where she is constantly split, with these different roles and different identities. This wasn't noticed at the time, but since I've said it somewhere everybody now picks on it, but I decided to write it without the verb to be. Now there are two reasons for that. One is to get this constant sense of moving, she is all the time travelling, and it's a sort of constraint. I like working with a constraint. It forces me to find another verb which is usually a verb of movement, anyway more movement than just being. The other reason was this loss of identity through being an interpreter, interpreting what other people say and never saying her own things, and this constant travelling, and bilingualism, or trilingualism and so on. She never brings them together and I don't think she should, and I don't think a writer should, I don't think I should. We all accept that we are many different people and play roles even with our closest friends. In a way we are all playing roles, we are not exactly the same as when we are alone in the bathroom. There is a sense of continuity with the “I” I have always known and of course I've changed, but this is a perfectly common experience, we all have it. And I don't think that totalizing is a good thing at all in the novel. I don't think a novel should go to “I” and “mine” and “who am I”. No, that's not the point. In Between the customs office asks the usual question which comes all the way through the novel, “Have you anything to declare?” And she says, “No, just personal effects”, and I think that's how the novel ends. One of these personal effects of course (in the context of customs) is just “what do you have in your suitcase?”, but personal effects are also [MDSG: effects of reality?], yes effects of reality and what effect you have on people and people have on you. So, it's quite a rich and ambiguous word. I think that's what literature is about. I don't think that one has to unify all these “Is”. It's not a problem that actually worries me. Or perhaps it did when I wrote Between, I can't remember.

Which is what is interesting in what you write. You affirm all the time that identity is a construct and no truth is possible even if one tells of one's I.

Yes, I think that if one accepts that one is much happier as a person and more impersonal as a writer.

The “I” is an illusion, as reality is an illusion?

Well, I suppose there is a sort of fundamental I where you can think of your life, so “that was me”, “that was me”, and so on. You do have a consciousness that continues and most people would cling to that. That's why most people believe in afterlife, they can't believe that this fundamental I will just vanish. But I don't think that is a problem that has worried me very much. Perhaps as persons we all have to grow up and adapt and get on in the world and so on, and go through all our timidities and our fears and then our growing assurance and all that, but metaphysically it's not a problem that worries me very much. I played with it but I wouldn't think it's fundamental to my writing.

There is a nice pun in “Self-Confrontation and the Writer.” You say biography is always bifography, as if to say that any attempt at truth always ends up in a fog, a false construction.

Oh yes, I'd forgotten that. It's nice to have critics who come and remind one of the things one wrote many years ago.


  1. M. Del Sapio Garbero, L'assenza e la voce. Scena e intreccio della scrittura in Christine Rossetti, May Sinclair e Christine Brooke-Rose (Napoli: Liguori, 1991).

Lorna Sage (review date 1 November 1991)

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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “In Which All Have a Good Time.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4622 (1 November 1991): 20.

[In the following review, Sage argues that Textermination is ultimately a critique of realist notions of the reader, calling the central theme of the novel “at once witty and despairing.”]

The imaginative conceit on which Christine Brooke-Rose's new novel [Textermination] is based is at once witty and despairing. Characters from all the novels and stories you've ever read—and quite a few you haven't—gather in the San Francisco Hilton for the annual convention where they pray for Being, that they may live on for ever in the canon. Emma Woodhouse gets into the carriage with Mr Elton one more time, and finds herself whisked off in a quite different direction, along with an elderly stranger speaking German, who is himself pursued by a large Lotte (“Wo ist Goethe?”), in a dress far too young for her, out of Thomas Mann. There is also another Emma whose skirts take up an inordinate amount of room, and who (what mortification!) languishes suggestively all over the place. Others climb into other vehicles: all the diligences, landaus, cabriolets and coaches that trundled the characters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to their destinies and destinations converge now for the charter flight to Atlantic City, and thence to the West Coast. They are going to be interpreted; also to meet, flirt, argue and be taken on excursions to Death Valley and Silicon Valley, as conference-goers must.

They are the lucky ones, who come from realist texts. On the coast, they encounter hordes of two-dimensional beings who are in danger of fading away completely—figures out of classical epics, medieval romances, fables, legends and tales; and out of those twentieth-century novels where people are confused and fragmented and come ready-deconstructed like DIY kits. Or simply buttonhole you and say “I” all the time—though of course, that could be Tristram Shandy. Then there are the ones who spend all their time antisocially writing letters, some of them seem uncertain as to century. Whereas realist characters are impervious to time-travel. Emma herself, to great comic effect, remains as composed in the face of this novel's apocalyptic events (the earth does move) as she was during the Napoleonic wars. None the less, the general picture darkens. The world of characters is overpopulated, and, at fiction's fin-de-siècle feast, the think famished multitudes are pressing for attention and getting mutinous.

In Textermination, Christine Brooke-Rose is having punning fun with sacred convention. Let us play. Letting the characters out of the books isn't of course new—though the effect here is splendidly polymorphous-picturesque, a seminar in fancy-dress, fraught with possibilities of comic incomprehension and intrigues (Lancelot and Emma Bovary get on particularly well). What is new is that the joke this time isn't only against realism—rather, it's against the absurd solemnity with which the novel's latter-day experimenters and theoreticians have shouldered the white man's burden of deconstruction. For all the kowtowing to the Reader (in this book, people produce a vestigial genuflexion every time His name is invoked), the fiction that sets out to demystify authors, authority and illusion has been grossly and dogmatically self-obsessed. For Reader read the writer's ultimate wet dream of an infinitely patient, selfless, loving contortionist entirely given over to the pleasure of the text. At least the Muse was a flighty unpredictable type, and had to be wooed; the Reader, on the other hand, is generated by the words on the page and does what He (or is it perhaps She?) is asked: all Eye (no “I”). During Brooke-Rose's hilarious conference it is this Reader who is taken apart, dissolved, discredited. The characters start off the first session worshipping at a shrine which is “like an open book, out of which stare innumerable eyes instead of letters”, and intoning hopeful prayers to “our Implied Reader, our Super Reader, our Ideal Reader, who gathers unto Himself all readers, and to His Interpreter, who gathers unto Himself all interpreters, of all interpretive communities”. But the service is interrupted by a band of Arab terrorists who object to the Judeo-Graeco-Christian flavour of the proceedings, and are in search of a character called Gibreel Farishta, whom they plan to assassinate.

Readers with machine-guns, though, are only the extremist wing of the non-community of actual book-openers, who are splitting up along the fault-lines of creed, race and gender. Even in academe, they are inattentive and theory-blinded, or they yearn secretly for the old magical illusions; outside, they are refusing to play the game, watching television instead, reading (irony of ironies) writers' lives instead of their works. Brooke-Rose was one of the very few British writers who, in the 1960s, took up the challenge of the nouveau roman (in Thru,Such, and such); she also taught Anglo—American Literature, and critical theory, at the University of Paris VIII, from 1968 until her recent retirement. She might therefore be expected to deplore this state of literary affairs rather than find it—as she clearly does—exhilarating. Textermination, though, is light-headed with a kind of terminal honesty. She has come through, after a lifetime's love affair with the avant garde, with all her irreverence, her critical faculties and her creative ingenuity honed to a fine point. You couldn't call it a conversion, or even a loss of faith: what she has jettisoned is the dogmatism of unbelief.

Her most recent book of critical essays, Stories, Theories, and Things, which was published earlier this year, makes the point in a different way, by exploring how the canon works (“Outside the canon no interpretation … outside the Church no Salvation”), and the dubious dominance of academic criticism's “self-perpetuating and con-fraternal industry”, which ensures that certain books get attention, but treats them only generically, as allegories of fashionable desiderata. Thus compounding the postmodern condition in which “we already know what each will say, each being no longer unique but returned to the emblematic, each a member of a class, a social, political or ideological group”. It should be evident that Brooke-Rose's concerns as critic and writer have converged into a volatile, anti-institutional cocktail. She knows what she's talking about, she's part of it: this fact gives her style a particular pungency. In an essay on character in fiction (“Which Way Did They Go? Thataways”), she remarks of contemporary novelists, “We are in transition, no doubt, like the unemployed waiting for the newly structured technological society” and goes on to suggest mischievously that a combination of ill-matched influences from science fiction and feminism may provide the shape of things to come. Her point is that all the talk of otherness and difference must get down off its high horse: there is no universal Reader, only actual readers; the global village is a Babel. And “there are many more interesting things to write about than the writer's difficulties with representation”.

This she has been working up to in her novels for some while. Textermination is the last of a loose quartet which started with Amalgamemnon (1984), went jokily science fiction with Xorandor (1986, kids meet computer-aliens, Enid Blyton meets Derrida), and continued, in Verbivore (1990) with a glum fable about electronic media versus print and face-to-face talk. The continuing theme is the demise of humanism (there's a shadowy on-off narrator who is a redundant classics teacher) in the face of the plural and undecidable worlds of the present, all so avail able, yet so thin and hard to realize. The latest novel treats the topics of literary-critical debate as simply part of the scene “outside”. The realist characters (Eurocentric first-worlders) are jostled by southern, eastern, alien figures; and all of them are elbowed aside by brash characters from television (Cultural Studies), who are fuelled by fears of mortality. Over-population, mutual incomprehension, rival schemes for grabbing attention (“The ‘I’ narrators have formed an unofficial syndicate and are preparing for a coup”), inruption of the Unrepresented (“real” San Francisco gays), not to mention the terrorists, all create fast and furious narrative crises, fomenting and dissipating one after another in the Hilton lobby. The police arrive, but then they're all characters too, caught up in the same dance. Only at rare and improbable moments do the ill-assorted company catch a glimpse of peace—as when Prince Hordjedef, an ancient Egyptian-in-translation, pleads for calm—“My father … believed that the future of the kingdom depended on stories. … I also believe that the fate of the world depends, has always depended, on our ability to tell and to listen to stories. To listen, to believe, to suspend our customs of thought and let ourselves be charmed”, to that end, he introduces Princess Vidja, Ligaea, Scheherazade, who reduce the rioters to temporary calm, through “enchantment and mesmerization”.

Unmistakeably, however, the atmosphere is thickening into millennial chaos, and when the San Andreas fault opens up, like a latterday Pathetic Fallacy, in sympathy with the irretrievable dissension—the deus ex machina is a Tibetan monk who “calls out a very long deep vowel to the universe”—the end is nigh. Picking their way over the rubble, the characters get back into their planes, balloons, coaches and carriages, and return to their books, some already coffins, others perhaps soon to become so. Emma is the last to leave, entering the carriage with Mr Elton following after, as he always does. The last words—Jane Austen's—are: “she would rather it had not happened”. Actually, Emma has had a good time, without stepping in the least out of character. And so has Christine Brooke-Rose, though she has stepped out of character on to the reader's territory (as opposed to the Reader's), to reveal herself as a most ingenious entertainer, a demystifier of the demystifiers (who expect you to accept their stories about stories), plentiful of plot and generously diverting.

Malcolm Bradbury (review date 17 January 1992)

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SOURCE: Bradbury, Malcolm. “The Bridgeable Gap.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4633 (17 January 1992): 7-9.

[In the following review, Bradbury comments that Interpretation and Overinterpretation—which collects criticism from Umberto Eco, Brooke-Rose, Richard Rorty, and Jonathan Culler—presents a compelling perspective on the intersection of the critic and the novelist within the context of postmodern theory.]

In the past few years, British universities, polytechnics, schools and even kindergartens have seen a massive growth occur in a subject that not too long ago was regarded as a suspect American import, like the hamburger—a vulgar hybrid which, as everyone once knew, no sensible person would ever eat. It is called Creative Writing, and, along with other latter-day or postmodern activities like Media Studies and Women's Studies, has turned into one of the subjects of the season. Besides achieving academic recognition, it has spread freely through the broader hinterland. Farmhouse seminars, weekend courses, evening writing workshops, postal courses and handy mercantile handbooks encourage all of us to develop the obscure quality known as creativity or stimulate the belief that we can all soon be running off with the Booker Prize, or writing scripts for Casualty.

For the British development of this state of affairs, I suppose I must myself acknowledge a small degree of responsibility. In 1970, Angus Wilson and I, two professors of literature at the University of East Anglia, had become excited by some of the work we had informally been seeing from some of our students (they included Rose Tremain, Clive Sinclair and Snoo Wilson). We decided to propose to the university, which had already shown a strong inclination towards contemporary literature, the establishment of an MA course in Creative Writing. We wanted it to be a postgraduate course, since we had no great faith in teaching people to write (as Hemingway once said, writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned), but believed that it was possible to create an instructive and constructive academic environment in which those who were already writing seriously might write better and more self-consciously under pressure.

So we began the course with certain doubts. Both of us had been involved with Creative Writing programmes in the United States, some of them remarkably good, others decidedly bad. Some were courses where writers simply sought to reproduce endless clones of him or herself. Some were psychiatric workshops, some upgraded versions of freshman composition, run on exercises and formulas. Some were environments of amazing delusion, where people of small talent were encouraged to dreams of literary or commercial success (some, indeed, achieved it). Some were early versions of the contemporary Robert McKee seminars, largely devoted to anatomizing the skills and conventions of genre writing. The programmes that struck us as best—Iowa, Brown, more recently Washington University, St Louis, for example—seemed successful for two reasons. They were generally taught by the best writers, and attracted the best and most talented students, whose distinctive qualities they stimulated.

If there were suspicions and doubts on our own part, there were many more among our academic colleagues. Some distrusted the entire business, seeing “creative writing” either as a soft student option or, much more fundamentally, as a notion hostile to the critical and scholarly functions of a university. Some considered the subject was unteachable or, at the least, unexaminable. These are not idle views, and they certainly had the valuable effect of ensuring that the course was closely scrutinized, its academic place carefully considered, and our own convictions clarified. And these, essentially, were two. One was that a course of this kind, conducted from the distance of an academic environment, distinct from the commercial marketplace, could have some impact on the state of serious fiction in Britain at the time, by which both of us were dismayed. And the other, by contrast, was that the presence among our own literature students of serious, articulate writers might have some impact on the bee-swarms of new theory that regularly surge through literature departments, and by which we were also concerned. In short, we saw a fundamental aim of our programme as being the building of new relations between the “creative” and the “critical”, both in individuals and university culture too.

In some of these aims at least, the course, over more than twenty years, seems to have succeeded, partly through some great luck. For our first trial year we took only one student; but he was Ian McEwan, who completed some twenty stories in the year, and was soon established as an important story-writer and novelist whose work influenced the changing direction of British fiction over the 1970s. A second piece of good fortune was that during that decade the climate in support of serious fiction improved markedly, as the reading public widened, the bookstores refined, and interest in the changing novel grew. And a third good fortune was that the quality of the (mostly, but not always young) writers who joined the course was maintained over the following years, with the appearance of very various and widely talented authors like Kazuo Ishiguro, Glenn Patterson, Mark Illis, Deirdre Madden, Kathy Page, Fadir Faqir, Susannah Dunn, Anne Enright and more, all of whom are publishing significant work.

Other successful courses emerged, notably the one at Lancaster, run by David Craig. The subject spread, into other levels of education and into other genres (our own course concentrated on fiction), and acquired great student popularity. It acquired its own styles of pedagogy and formed links in many directions: with therapeutic work, with Women's Studies, with teacher training. The numbers of those bearing some form of academic credential in the field multiplied. Creative Writing is indeed widespread and has become many things—group therapy, media studies, culture critique, a campus version of bohemia, a fast track into the writing marketplace. It has spread through the genres and into all the formats: not just novel and short story, poem and play, but into radio and television script-writing, film and pop music, the genre novel, the magazine story. It ranges from amateur to professional, from self-expression to hard commercialism, from the drearily conventional to the highly experimental. Whether this has much to do with our own original intentions—of encouraging serious writing, literary self-consciousness, and above all a deeper critical and analytical debate about contemporary writing itself—is, however, another matter.

There can be no doubt, then, that even in suspicious Britain, as in a number of other countries, Creative Writing has come to prosper. Yet one curious feature of its growth is that—by comparison with other boom subjects, like Cultural Studies and Women's Studies, Media Studies and Postmodern Studies, which have produced a wealth (and in some cases an absurd excess) of self-conscious and radical theory—it has generated very little in the way of self-analysis or theoretical publication. It could be said, of course, that its appropriate publications are to be found in the quality, and qualities, of the original writings that come from the area, which justify themselves (or not). It could also be argued that literary criticism itself provides us with the theory that can profitably surround the subject, and that the mixture of creative writing and contemporary criticism has proved usefully volatile and intellectually valuable.

But the situation looks somewhat stranger when we think that most of the serious exploration—the reinterpretation of the literature and canon of the past, the construction of the significant literary aesthetics of the present, the concept of the authority of writing and the exploration of the task of “poetry” in culture—has historically occurred in the work of the major literary practitioners. From Sydney and Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Goethe, to Flaubert, the Goncourts, James, Stein, Valéry. Pound, Eliot, Stevens, we draw many of the essential speculations about craft and imagination, form and image, language and narrative, irony and ambiguity that until lately constituted the substantial tradition of, certainly, Anglo-American criticism, and which have created our faith in the discovering role of literary art.

Only lately, with the academicization of criticism, has the activity been essentially conducted by those who are not themselves, in the conventional sense, literary practitioners, and whose pedagogic duty it is to see literature—or writing, or text, or language, or discourse—as an “object of study”. The transition from the literary to the critical professional has indeed, in the post-war years, been largely conducted within the academy itself. The New Criticism, now seen so adversarially, maintained much of that intimacy, and made its heroes and heroines the great practitioners and literary investigators. The fundamental change came with the transition, over recent years, from literary criticism to “literary theory”—which, of course, traces its history very differently, to the (largely Continental European) tradition of philosophy and hermeneutics, rather than to the speculations and discoveries of literary practitioners.

This, inevitably enough, exteriorizes and deexistentializes actual creative activity, and—pedagogically, philosophically, politically—academic literary theory, interlinked with philosophical post-humanism and ideological critique, has persistently striven to take the intentionality out of writing. The Author, a false creative subject, is dead. Text is the locus of slippage and indeterminacy, and is marked by the pervasive postmodern “depthlessness”. The Reader—which here means the trained theoretical reader, a professional—is elevated into the position of the Hyper-Interpreter, freely misprising the text, and interrogating it, in the interests of an externally derived agenda, often deeply political or ideological in character.

Hence the decreative confronts, and must essentially be shown as deconstructing, the creative, the aesthetic, and the authorial, all of which are seen as examples of deluded subjectivity. Not only is this elevation of theory over practice, and of interpretation over composition, generally described as “interrogation”; it frequently uses the classic methods. Moving sometimes, as Paul de Man proposed, in the direction of post-existential rhetorical analysis, it also consistently adventures into ideological judgments about the “correct” or acceptable objects of literary representation, the tendency of discourses, the appropriate currency of forms, and the character of entire epochs. Frequently it leads onwards into extravagant cultural and political agendas (like Eagleton's “socialist transformation of society”). So the aesthetic, the compositional and the creatorly are subsumed either into the rhetorical or the ideological; and the existentiality of writing is judged or controlled by the various hegemonies of an age of over-determined, highly professional and agenda-bearing readers.

As a result, it is perhaps not too surprising that creative writers and critic-theorists seem only rarely to get together these days, and that when they do fundamental conflicts of interest and perception are quickly laid bare, even with those of us (like myself) who are writer-critics. A particularly instructive occasion of this kind came with last year's Tanner Lectures at Clare Hall, Cambridge. They were splendidly given by Umberto Eco and will soon be in print as Interpretation and Overinterpretation, with a good explanatory and exploratory foreword by the organizer, Stefan Collini. Eco took the opportunity to confront his Cambridge audience in a double guise: he was there as critic, semiologist and hermeneutic scholar, but also as a very successful novelist, indeed the author, intentional or otherwise, of a notable novel about interpretation and overinterpretation, The Name of the Rose.

Over three days, Eco gave four lectures, accompanied by statements from three fellow seminarians (also reprinted). One was the spokesman (spokeswoman? his reader, for some pragmatic reason, is always female) for the New Pragmatism, Richard Rorty; another was the Deconstructive critic Jonathan Culler; the third was a fine example of experimental writer-critic, Christine Brooke-Rose. Others of this double persuasion were to be found in the audience; I was there myself. The occasion's motto could well have been William of Baskerville's remark to Adso in The Name of the Rose: “Books are not made to be believed, but must be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means.” The question was, to whom, who decides?

In his three opening lectures, Eco considered just this, looking over the longstanding and often perverse history of textual interpretation, but arguing firmly that “in the course of the last decades, the rights of interpreters have been overstressed”. Acknowledging that all readings are shaped by a reader's prior concerns, and that in some fashion literary texts are precisely conceived to be dialogically open for multiple reading, Eco none the less disputed the notion of “unlimited semiosis”, or free and unconditioned interpretation. Developing a complex model based on notions of an Empirical Author, an Intentional Text, and a Modern Reader, all of them contained within the purview of a work, and offering himself for forensic inspection as the living text-maker of the works called The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, he proposed a practice of interpretation based on an acknowledgment of an intentio, not necessarily predetermined, stable or conscious, yet consonant with the structured and shaping parameters of the work itself.

From their different positions, Rorty and Culler both offered exemplary Postmodern dissents. According to the New Pragmatism, Rorty held, texts could not possibly have an inherent nature; their significance or signification could only lie in their utility to those who use them. Thus no distinction can be made between making it useful, and getting it right. Plainly for Rorty the only describable user of a text was the reader; so no real notion that a work of literature might be of an imaginative value or utility to its own creator, or in the making of a fictive mode of knowledge, was conceded. Culler committed himself to the defence of Overinterpretation from the standpoint of contemporary literary theory. Fairly enough, he argued that it was proper for theory to examine the mechanisms of a text, its rhetorical, narrative and figural character, independent of any intentionality. He also extended this into accepting theory as a mode of ideological critique, a source of disciplinary innovation, indeed—Deconstructors are pragmatists too—as an important means for the securing of academic promotion.

Brooke-Rose supported Eco's point that literary texts were themselves interpretations, an endless retesting of mythic paradigms; that the writer is also a reader, of the world, the book, the world as book. Eco in his reply held that in dealing with text we are not dealing with brute stimuli in order to produce new stimuli; we are dealing with interpretations of the world. He also emphasized his faith in the dialogic relation of critic and writer. And indeed, none of the writers present disputed the value of theory, the function of interpretation, nor the fundamental role some aspects of recent theory—in my own view, particularly work in contemporary narratology—has made to contemporary literary self-awareness. Yet the sense of outright confrontation persists. Why?

As Frank Kermode once said, formerly theory could coexist with poems, the inwardness of writing (and reading). Now it is offered as a meta-discipline that does nothing to enlarge a literate critical reading public, often takes an adversarial stance toward art and artists, and acts in its own often ideological interests, implicitly seeking to control representation or the existence of literature as such. Meantime, it seeks its own self-elevation; so, Culler once put it in Framing the Sign, “the history of literature now becomes part of the history of criticism”. There are, of course, those who would argue that criticism is itself the new meta-writing. Yet all the evidence is of a growing fissure opening between “creation” and “theory”, and the Cambridge events largely confirmed this. The removal of depth, the delimiting of creativity, the displacement of literary expression away from ethical or moral imaginings or human representations toward rhetoric, the overall “demystification” of literature or aesthetics themselves, the avowed post-humanism—all these elements make contemporary theory/interpretation appear to be in a direct dispute with the felt experience of the actual writer.

Now it would clearly help my case here if our contemporary authors offered us some strong alternative in the form of self-conscious artistic commentary and insight, or what used to be called a “poetics”. It seems obvious enough to suggest that no literary activity of a serious kind can really be conducted unless some of us, at least, assume that writers have pre-linguistic selves, that aesthetic and imaginary exploration is a fundamental form of inquiry; that these explorations involve complex matters of craft, of choice, of existential decision-making, which have to do with how we shape, develop, discover, contradict, divert and subvert the flow of those imaginary and those rhetorical materials out of which we make fictive things from the elements of life and consciousness that challenge our own individual imaginations; that there is a fundamental form of quest for the supreme fiction.

Yet teaching as I do (and not without certain adversarial intentions) a course on “Fiction and the Creative Process”, I am struck by how many of the examples I use to explore the self-conscious character of the fictional process come primarily not from contemporary but from modernist authors, from Flaubert, Dostoevsky, James, Mann, Joyce, Stein, Kafka, Borges, Nabokov. That no doubt partly reflects the fact that, thanks to contemporary scholarly publication, the diaries, notebooks, letters, prefaces and aesthetic statements that allow us to pursue this matter are in print, and that the like service for our contemporaries still has to be performed. There is, of course, a good deal of significant current commentary by authors (some of which I compiled together in the anthology The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, revised edition, 1990). But in the historical view the current discussion is undoubtedly muted, with notable exceptions (like Eco and Brooke-Rose). And indeed some of the best contemporary analysis of the compositional process has turned inward, and is found in texts themselves: in other words it is represented by “metafictionality”.

This may seem to confirm precisely the point that some of the New Theorists are making: that we live in the age of the Death of the Author, when the autonomous creative subject has been rendered problematic, when the text is the centreless centre, when Portraits of the Artist have been replaced by Anxieties of Discourse. The model of the author as source has been replaced by that of the self-interrogating critic; Eco himself—along with writers like Calvino, Handke, Brooke-Rose, Barth and others—might be seen as prime examples. In this sense, such writing might be seen as confirming Culler's point that literature is merging itself in the larger history of criticism, which takes over the function of, as it were, the “movement” or bohemia, while more conventional writing rapidly departs in the direction of the commercial marketplace.

But this hardly resolves the problem. As Eco's Cambridge seminar showed, the processes of imaginative composition are never co-terminous with interpretation, or theoretical descriptions of them, and they can hardly be expected to be. The writer is a self-critic, as the critic is a writer; but the imaginative exploration of life and subjectivity, of fictionality and its purposes, is sensationally different when one is “creating” from when one is “criticizing”. That is why we benefit from the power of those aesthetic introspections and insights that come from writers themselves, and it is of these that, today, we have a significant shortage. There is, of course, no shortage at all of “How To” books, books telling you how to begin writing or get published (so full is the field that a recent example tells you How to Write Novels in Nigeria). The absence lies in works of serious, and contemporary, reflection by high practitioners, exploring the nature of writing's art, and craft, and historicity.

There are, however, some significant examples; the three that follow are all by novelists who are also creative writing teachers in American universities. Annie Dillard is a distinguished American writer whose novels are largely concerned with nature and transcendental metaphysics; and her The Writing Life is what she calls a “dispatch from the desk”. Her admirable aim is to explore “what the actual process of writing feels like—feels like inside the mind at work”. Dillard is plainly a latter-day Emersonian and an organicist; she reaches for the great unities and the poetic principle, and her endeavour to describe the writing process is also a meditation on the structure and wholeness of things. Writing arises from vision and seeks, through the deceptive mediation of words, to assume the form of a vision; and parables from nature, science, painting, even stunt flying are drawn on to suggest the mysterious apprehensions of shape and form.

Dillard confessedly has no taste for the novel of society or material things: “The novel often claimed to fasten down the spirit of the times, to make a heightened simulacrum of our recognisable world in order to present it shaped and analysed. This has never seemed to me worth doing …”. Writing is a search for fundamental truths; we read best when we read for wisdom and insight. The Writing Life proves best when it describes writing as activity, the view from the study, the processes of limbering up, setting words into motion, then finding the draft of those words and the relation between them and the original vision. Words take their own shapes, and achieve or do not their own intensities; much of what is begun with has to be dispensed with as the new form takes shape. The process itself deceives; hairline faults develop, misleading the writer and taking the work off course. In these descriptions of process, itself hardly describable, she is powerful, though for this reader better on the difficulties and ironies of writing than on its power to disclose romantic certainties. But, at best, this is, with works like Eudora Welty's The Eye of the Storm, one of those books that does feel intimate with the involuntary, investigative, exploring aspects of the writer's life.

Zulfikar Ghose is a novelist, poet, and critic, and a convinced Flaubertian. His The Art of Creating Fiction lies somewhere between aesthetic credo and a manual of instruction; perhaps that is the problem. He is engagingly vigorous and wildly opinionated; a coda to the book, anticipating readers' objections, explains that since his judgments are based on the lessons of the great masters, “every opinion in this book is uncontestably correct”. Dismissing all talk of formats and exercises, of writing as ideology and of criticism as invigilation, he asserts the lessons of the masters, which are of form, beauty and perfection. The task of the writer is “to create a language through which his own voice is heard”, and to realize a sense of reality through the specific. Ghose divides his book into two, “Theory”, a strong recuperation of Jamesian and Flaubertian standards, and “Practice”, an attempt through practical criticism to discriminate for aspirants between “imperfection” and “perfection”.

The result is a lively enough book, rather like taking a course with a half-learned master with whose opinions you would do well much of the time to disagree. Ghose has his masters (Flaubert, James, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor), but is uncomfortably condescending to writers like Forster, Hemingway, Bellow and Lessing, mainly, it seems, on the grounds that their work is discursive rather than diegetic. There is a brazen misreading of a Lessing story which totally fails to notice its effects of metaphoric substitution and inflected irony. High-minded in its intentions (“I see no purpose in wanting to be a writer unless one has the burning ambition to be a great one”), confident in its formal certainties, over-asserted throughout, perhaps most useful as an exhortation rather than a manual, The Art of Creating Fiction is an annoyingly interesting volume.

By contrast, George V. Higgins's On Writing is plainly meant as a How To, and is subtitled Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (Or Would Like To). Higgins—a splendid crime-novelist, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle—is streetwise, blunt and often highly amusing (“Stupid people do not write good fiction. Arrogant, smart people write good fiction”). This is a book about professional crafts; Higgins trained as a reporter, and sees writing starting in life, experience and realized and vivid observation, just as he sees the novel as born out of our need for “news”. Writing is a psychology, a drive, and his writer is obsessive—someone who, offered perfectly sensible ways of making a living, remains committed to this one, and must take a tough apprenticeship to learn a hard and painful craft. A good part of the book is taken up with anthologized excerpts, from Dickens, Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, John O'Hara, Gay Talese and others, generally pointing in the direction of vivid literary realism. This is the most amiable and accessible of these books, practical, witty and experienced, a highly superior work for anyone teaching new writing students or trying to learn writing's hard craftsmanship.

Yet what is clear from all of these books—Dillard's Emersonian reflections, Ghose's Flaubertian and early modernist aesthetics, Higgins's sturdy and professional realism—is that their authors in no way see themselves kin to contemporary criticism and theory. What is lost from this is also apparent: there is little drawn from contemporary narrative theory or the complex explorations of postmodern writing, which are themselves a serious contemporary aesthetics. There is no historical condition for writing, and there are no Eco-like ambiguities about authorship or intention. Like the critics on the other side, these are examples of a fissure that has opened between those who “create” and those who theorize in a post-humanist authorless world. What we find here may be philosophically unbridgeable; but I don't think it is. Criticism cannot remain so anti-Cartesian and resistant to imaginative subjectivity, so purely rhetorical; and writing cannot live in an eternal world of transcendental unity or perfection. It is time that, passing beyond Deconstruction, we began to conceive of some creative reconstruction.

David Seed (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Seed, David. Review of Stories, Theories, and Things and Textermination, by Christine Brooke-Rose. Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 1 (spring 1992): 142-44.

[In the following review, Seed evaluates Brooke-Rose's overriding concern with the intersection of literature and contemporary literary theory in Stories, Theories, and Things and Textermination.]

Christine Brooke-Rose's latest collection of essays [Stories, Theories, and Things] covers a very broad range of topics mostly connected through the notion of story. Unlike her earlier study A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981) this volume carries a deliberately miscellaneous-sounding title which in effect gives the author priority over any single theoretical topic. This is important because it relates to one of Brooke-Rose's most engaging characteristics as a critic. Although she has taught for twenty years in the very citadel of Gallic theory, Paris VIII, she has avoided many of the pitfalls of continental theorists such as dogmatic generalization and a tendency toward abstraction. The essays gathered here are based on a pair of tacit premises which would run something like this: it is essential to possess an analytical formal awareness of literature, but it is equally essential to test out that awareness on specific works. Stories, Theories, and Things could thus be seen as structured on a series of connections: between general rhetorical principles and specifics, between critic and teacher, between novelist and theorist. A “metastory” introduces the series by commenting on Brooke-Rose's own fiction from Between (1968) onwards and this strategy establishes two themes which recur throughout the book. Firstly literary works are used to test the adequacy of certain theoretical approaches (structuralism, narratology, etc.) which are usually found wanting in some respect. And secondly an impish irony detects a conservatism in supposedly iconoclastic theorists continuing to support a traditional literary canon. The continuing neglect of contemporary experimental writing (of Hélène Cixous's criticism as against her fiction, for instance) becomes a damning indictment of current theorizing.

Every essay bears eloquent testimony to the breadth of Brooke-Rose's reading and her capacity to draw incisive rhetorical distinctions. She insists that a knowledge of rhetoric is essential to critical discussion: “to transgress intelligently one must know the rule.” On the other hand she staves off the self-consciousness diagnosed in writers like Barth by converting it into comedy. So she mocks critical labels (“post post? past post?”) and converts her own writing into spoofs. Or again she might deflate her own solemnity by inserting tactical colloquialisms; so what she calls “palimpsest histories,” i.e., long, quasi-historical novels packed with specialized knowledge, wear that knowledge lightly enough to create a “rattling good story.” Again and again Brooke-Rose pauses to comment on her own style or her own metaphors because the ultimate subject of her essays turns out to be some aspect of rhetoric. These topics can vary in generality from the use of the copula and free indirect discourse, to individual works. Particularly rewarding discussions are given of the instability between the two viewpoints (the narrator's and the young protagonist's) of The Red Badge of Courage; the structure of opposites in The Scarlet Letter which can be represented diagrammatically through the capital A; and the dialectic between hidden and revealed forms of knowledge in Jude the Obscure. Even when a specific work is being examined a general issue is extrapolated, whether it is the nature of translation in relation to the Cantos or Islamic spiritual narrative in relation to The Satanic Verses.

The most controversial area which Brooke-Rose addresses here is that of gender. “A Womb of One's Own?” examines the connections between women's experimental writing and the male avant-garde, then launches into an attack on feminist specificity being based on the unconscious, concluding: “It seems to me that ‘specificity’ in creation is an individual, not a sexual, racial or class phenomenon.” Before too many hackles can rise, however, she directs a different attack at semioticians for possessing a latent nostalgia for stable phallocentric structures; and pursues this tack with a lively meditation on male-centered vocabulary of creativity. Brooke-Rose makes no attempt to duck polemic. On the contrary it gives a leaven to her essays throughout this collection.

In reviewing current discussions of metafiction Brooke-Rose notes an imbalance of attention to the author at the expense of the reader who determines the very existence of characters, and concludes: “the character as created or uncreated by the ‘real’ reader (who corresponds to the ‘real’ author and who can be, like the ‘real’ author, variously surrogated within a fiction), remains to be explored.” This statement opens up the possibility of her latest novel, Textermination, which is a fantasia on the theme of the reader's activities. Characters from prose narratives ranging from antiquity to the present gather at a “convention” in San Francisco, a deliberate pun which sets up a containing situation and which self-consciously signals to the reader that this novel is metafictional in the sense of playing with the processes that constitute narratives. The novel is thus insistently preoccupied with novels and speculates on the sort of attention readers give them. It opens with a series of departures culled from earlier narratives and closes with the characters involved returning to their familiar contexts. The effect resembles that of collage where through lateral shifts characters are placed incongruously together. Out of this incongruity comes the book's humor since rhetorical registers jar (high Victorian against colloquial American) and bizarre combinations form. Emma Woodhouse and Sir Lancelot engage in heavy petting in the back seat of a coach; Goethe registers disapproval of Oedipa Maas's paranoia, and so on. The collage effect is accentuated by Brooke-Rose's many quotations and allusions to earlier works. As in Kathy Acker's novels, this device temporarily appropriates a text just as Brooke-Rose appropriates characters and allows them to articulate their own fates at the hands of readers. Casaubon, for instance, bewails the fact that he is only examined in relation to Dorothea Brooke and never in his own right, a complaint which develops prominent narratorial comments within Middlemarch.

The title of Brooke-Rose's novel, like its recent predecessors, puns on a sense of process which is here related to the very existence of characters. Emma Woodhouse reflects on the reader; another female figure declares that characters exist out of time; and yet another figure, Mira Enketei (i.e., “in the whale”—a possible allusion to Orwell's essay on writers' commitment) insists on their literary nature. At the end of chapter 10 a slightly Beckettian voice says of Mira: “She can't go on. She doesn't exist.” But the voice does. A huge electronic eye has been as it were presiding over the convention hall and this eye here shifts into “I” as the first person takes over the narrative. Whether this voice is unnamed or whether it casts itself as Oedipa Maas, there is not much distinction of idiom between the occurrences, and this composite voice raises many of the issues discussed in Stories, Theories, and Things. But because the issues are raised within dialogues there is always the possibility of an answering voice. And because they occur within the context of a fiction their status becomes as ambiguous as Stephen Dedalus's theorizing in A Portrait of the Artist. A lively and alert spirit of intellectual play informs Textermination which should appeal to any reader seriously interested in the range of novelistic expression.

Paul Hansom (review date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Hansom, Paul. “Fictional Theories and Theoretical Fictions.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 4 (winter 1993): 797-802.

[In the following review, Hansom observes that Brooke-Rose's essays in Stories, Theories, and Things primarily address the intersection of literary theory and the fictionalizing process.]

Lars Ole Sauerberg's Fact into Fiction: Documentary Realism in the Contemporary Novel is an interesting investigation of the realist documentary mode that also explores the relationship between textual ontology and the reliance on outer references from the “real” world. Sauerberg's basic claim is that despite the tendencies toward fragmentary narrative and literary devices (vaguely compounded as the postmodern), the realist mode of representation still prevails. Indeed, it must prevail, considering that we share much the same obsession with the ontological condition as our nineteenth-century cousins. The continuation of bourgeois values into the twentieth century has meant that literary investigation and experimentation, indeed all forms of representation, have followed the basic patterns of realistic convention. The key to the continuation of literary realism (whether specifically documentary or not) rests with the necessity of language to represent and the obvious limitations that lie within this ground of representation. All fiction works on the level of representation, as does all nonfiction, and both rely on the naturalizing function of narrative. Thus whether the text makes the rhetorical conventions invisible or not, it inevitably assumes a construction insofar as the realist text is always present to allow cognition of events or character.

It would seem, then, that any separation between the truly fictional (the completely made-up?) and the real (the actual?) would inevitably collapse under the realistic conventions and impulses of the narrative structure. Yet Sauerberg insists that a separation between narrative functions can be made. While he maintains that traditional realism “assumes the fictional universe to be a satisfactory verbal rendition of an intrinsically coherent analogy to a reality which is seen to exist ‘out there,’” documentary realism in contrast “explicitly or implicitly acknowledges borrowing ‘directly’ from reality, that is, from kinds of discourse intended for nonliterary purposes” (3). Clearly Sauerberg is on very difficult ground here, as “analogy” and “borrowing” seem to refer to the exact same process of metaphorical representation. Whether discourse is factual or fictional, it functions through a form of transference where representative language must take the place of the “actual.” The larger question Sauerberg avoids is the political function of language and the extent to which specific rhetorical structures are responsible for particular versions or visions of reality.

Sauerberg's point is that swapping contexts, placing factual elements in clearly fictional modes, produces various reality effects that echo throughout the text and a differing level of cognition that registers as factual. Documentary realism represents a clash of sorts (partly within the perception of the reader, partly as a textual function), in which the factual elements erupt unambiguously into the fictional, producing a clear interruption of fictional flow. What is essentially a new set of textual coordinates produces a hybrid textual function with differing terms of reference, drawing attention directly to the problematic difference between the fictional and the factual.

Where traditional realism reduces the world of fact to a world of individual determination stabilized by the plot, documentary realism creates a discourse which refuses to surrender the totalization of realism, while preventing the reader from total immersion. In short, there is a distance imposed by the authority of the fact that scares off the unfamiliar reader, while he is simultaneously welcomed in by the reader-friendly and familiar narrative itself. Thus “the nonliterary text replaces reality and in the process of doing so pretends to lose its textuality” (44). And yet it is difficult to see or recognize exactly how dislocating the fact is, given that Sauerberg has already insisted that we have a fetish for the real and the realistic. What is more welcoming, or interesting, for that matter, than a text that purports to be real and offers a direct link to that reality beyond our experience?

Again, in many ways Sauerberg is trying to undo the Gordian knot of representation, and his definitions become increasingly unclear as to the different functioning values of fact and fiction. To be fair, he does tackle an area that lies at the heart of all textual study. Sauerberg offers an interesting theoretical discussion of the interlocking problems of fictionality and factuality, but he misses the importance of the openly political acts that lie behind the condoning of certain fictions as being more valuable and useful than others. Though his use of Jonathan Culler, H. R. Jauss, and Stanley Fish focuses the analysis partly on text and the socially constructed reader, Sauerberg never suggests possible ways in which the reader is politically constructed to accept specific fictions or to enter discourse communities. The actual “translation” of text into a particular readerly conception is a process that goes unaddressed.

Sauerberg's consideration of documentary realist texts is the weakest part of the book, offering normative readings that fail to use the concerns highlighted in the first half. Chapter 4 rushes through an analysis of the connections between history and fiction, relying too heavily on overlong chunks of text that never confound our most basic assumptions. Going back to Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, as well as more popular novels by Anthony Burgess and James Michener, Sauerberg never really does justice to the importance of history as fiction, and vice versa. His analysis of Holocaust texts (Schindler's Ark,The White Hotel, and Sophie's Choice) and biographical representations of Sigmund Freud are interesting, though in themselves these texts deserve more detailed consideration. Sauerberg's claim that “the fiction absorbs the history, and the history comes out patterned as fiction” (72) comes as no surprise considering that we see history in novelistic terms anyway. The world of popular figures, movements, and revolutions still creates a totalizing narrative vision, and perhaps the more important point to consider is this need for coherence. Novels, histories, and documentaries have always been dependent on textuality and narrative construction, and to suggest that texts function on several discourse levels is hardly new, because they always have.

If Sauerberg is concerned with realism and the representation of the fact, Christine Brooke-Rose offers an interesting metacommentary on the role and place of literary theory and the fictionalizing processes inherent in academic and intellectual pursuit. Ostensibly, her Stories, Theories, and Things addresses the problems of represented thought, expressing concern about fiction stepping into fact and vice versa, as well as the problem critics face stepping into their own methodological systems. Stories, Theories, and Things is a book about literary theory and creativity, with Brooke-Rose occupying the difficult position of critic and novelist, exploring how the critic reads as a writer and the novelist as a theorist.

For Brooke-Rose, “Reality is a scandal, it never quite fits” (16), and the problem, or game, is that all interpretive models are elaborate fictions that attempt to close reality, to unify experience. The critic is as creative as the writer she studies, and the difficulty connected with factoring out the critic is an early concern in this text. In following the view that “critical and creative writing have become one and are indistinguishable” (19), Brooke-Rose outlines the problems involved with “scientific” theories of textual analysis, showing that they inevitably fall back onto their own theoretical models to provide their legitimacy.

Through her initial analysis of theories as stories, Brooke-Rose examines the ways in which explanatory theories are no more than elaborate hoaxes, forced to cheat because their generalizations are always specific, never universal as the critic maintains. Critical and creative writing have come dangerously close, and the aim of creative scholarship seems to lie in fitting material into preconceived results, as in the complex diagrams of structuralism. As Brooke-Rose claims, “We have only lately become fully aware that what we talk of is identical to the discourse … we no longer dare to speak (on the one hand) and can't stop uttering (on the other)” (161). Yet one can't help thinking that if this is the case, then what is the purpose of analysis in the first place? Are we to assume that Brooke-Rose's self-consciousness is supposed to make us more sensitive critics or more creative analyzers?

In many ways, and despite her clear-headed critical awareness, Brooke-Rose falls into her own traps, and her book becomes a contradiction in both terms and practice. In the early chapters she theorizes theory, while in the later ones she relies on the kinds of textual analysis she has poked fun at. Though her deconstructive readings of Stephen Crane, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden are complex and insightful, they sit uncomfortably with her expressed concerns; the duality of writer and critic collapses the problems of fiction and reality until they become unintentionally ironic. It is clear, however, that this double bind does not lie with some epistemological prank but rather illustrates the very contemporary problems of the clash between academicism and economics. A quick glance at the acknowledgments shows that all of the “chapters” have appeared before in various journals, indicating that this book emerged from a series of loosely connected articles and presentations. If Brooke-Rose is worried about the contradictory role of the creative critic, then Stories, Theories, and Things illustrates the equally difficult climate within the academic world, where excessive repetitive publication and the cult of personality produce a distorted sense of reality within the university.

Yet despite this, Brooke-Rose's analysis is a complement to and sophisticated extension of the study offered by Sauerberg, and her own metacritical position and observations on writing as a “double bind” go some way toward sorting out Sauerberg's muddle. Rather than focusing on the specifics of “factual discourse” or communities of reception, Brooke-Rose's notion of writing and creativity is more flexible. As she states, writing “has a revealing/concealing structure since we reveal ourselves through utterance, but only to the limits of what can be articulated. It thus draws us IN and keeps us OUT, guessing” (112).

What we are inevitably left with are not the specific elements of fact or fiction, nor the ontological elements Sauerberg believes, but the broader systems of narrative and the rhetorical tropisms that constitute all forms of discursive expression, and the ways in which these systems reveal their own politics or ideology. Living history and lived experience become falsified through the fetishization of factual representation, and this process takes place in liberal and totalitarian systems alike. Both exploit history and create patterns of stories and events, and both have become increasingly inefficient on narrative and political levels.

There is little doubt that we will always have realism, as Sauerberg claims, but not in a classical realist sense, because the society that form was meant to study and depict “has lost all solid basis, all stability, all belief in itself, our vision of it has broken into fragments” (Brooke-Rose 173). It seems that all literary revolts are against the reigning form of realism in an attempt to find a “better” substitute. Yet what remains of the fictional and the theoretical is a logical need to develop a form of coherence through narrative that gives meaning to the historical moment. As Brooke-Rose states, “the novel is dead, long live the poem; the poem is dead, long live the text; and now: the text is dead, long live the fiction” (164-65). Inevitably, the decay of all representational verities, and the realization of this constant state of flux, leaves us with purely fictional ciphers and a zero degree of critical practice. Fact may become fiction, and fiction fact, but the politics of interpretation is always present in understanding the ways in which we must re-present.

Flora Alexander (review date May 1993)

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SOURCE: Alexander, Flora. Review of Stories, Theories, and Things, by Christine Brooke-Rose. Review of English Studies 44, no. 174 (May 1993): 301-03.

[In the following review, Alexander offers a positive assessment of Stories, Theories, and Things, calling the collection intelligent, clear-sighted, and “a rich store of wisdom.”]

It is curious that the teaching of courses and the writing of books on women's writing can provoke hostile reactions, whereas similar activities dealing with, for example, Irish writing, or Canadian literature, do not. The basis for the disapproval of women's writing as a subject, when it is not simple misogyny, is often a sincerely held belief that women's experience is not sufficiently distinct from that of men to make women's writing an appropriate object of attention. Yet society does treat women differently from men, and for most women, at least until very recently, being female has imposed some degree of limitation on their activities. Kate Fullbrook's Free Women and Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik's Landscapes of Desire both examine writing that comes out of the different experience of women, focusing on what has become the new female canon of twentieth-century fiction. In each case the results are illuminating. The authors, while aware of developments in feminist critical theory, are judicious in their use of it. They are wary of the reductiveness of some schools of theory, and they reject those feminisms which lapse into essentialism, thus simply creating for women a new and different ghetto. They assert the importance of a critical approach which respects the variety of women's writing, and allows close consideration of specific texts in their social context. Their readings are substantial and sensitive, and show how fruitful the study of women's work from a particular historical period can be.

A title taken from Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is appropriate for Free Women, which demonstrates the subtle and complex way in which fiction by women has addressed a range of ethical issues. The novelists whose work is explored share a desire to dismantle the dualistic oppositions associated with rigid gender boundaries. Kate Fullbrook discusses Edith Wharton's critique of the role of woman as dependent and as reflector of male status, the unexpectedly effective treatment of women in the heroic mode in the work of Willa Cather and Zora Neale Hurston, the democratic ethos of Gertrude Stein's writing, and Virginia Woolf's opposition to hierarchy and patriarchy. She elucidates the search for ways out of repression, infantilism, and commodification in the work of Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes, and Christina Stead. Dealing with later writers, who work in conditions of relative freedom for women, she shows how Doris Lessing challenges the dichotomy between public and private life, and how Margaret Atwood urges refusal of the victim position, and insists on the need to face the destructiveness inherent in the human condition. The last chapter deals with Toni Morrison's examination of the strength of black women in confrontation with evil. Dr Fullbrook offers a perceptive account of the literary strategies deployed by each writer. Her critical analyses are concise, deft, and authoritative. One correction is desirable: Eskimo, in a reference to Atwood's use of fairy-tales and legends, should be replaced by Innuit. This is in every respect a book to be welcomed and widely recommended.

Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, in Landscapes of Desire, note the presence in female-authored texts of a configuration of metaphors of house and room, landscape and sea, which is the basis for a critique of woman's place in society. This configuration is used to explore a position of marginality, probing both actual restrictions on women's freedom, and also psychological boundaries which constrain women, operating as a result of their socialization. The authors do not claim that these structuring metaphors, or the experience of marginalization, belong exclusively to women, but they find that imagery of enclosure, and of fluidity and escape, is present to a striking degree in twentieth-century novels by women authors, and makes a major contribution to an understanding of how the idea of woman is constructed. They offer excellent close readings of novels by Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and Margaret Atwood. As well as demonstrating the thematic significance of individual texts, they note interesting connections between uses of metaphor in the work of different writers. For instance, the title of Wide Sargasso Sea recalls the clogging water-weed of The Voyage Out, and a constriction of the throat is felt both by Jean Rhys's heroines and by the narrator of Surfacing. The treatment of Atwood is limited to a discussion of Surfacing, which they quite plausibly read as showing woman living in harmony with nature, and so being in touch with good values. They connect this reading, again rightly to my mind, with the essentialist tendency of North American radical feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Some consideration of Atwood's later fiction, for example Lady Oracle or Bodily Harm, in which related images of enclosure and escape are deployed, would have revealed a more problematic and sceptical view of woman, and could have added usefully to this very stimulating study.

Christine Brooke-Rose's Stories, Theories, and Things, like her earlier A Rhetoric of the Unreal (1981), is a sequence of essays previously published elsewhere, revised for book publication with the addition of some new material. The resulting volume retains something of the miscellaneous character of a collection of essays, which indeed is advertised in the title. It is nevertheless a rich store of wisdom. Professor Brooke-Rose writes as a critic and theorist, and, importantly, as an experimental novelist. Her observations are grounded in her formidable knowledge of literature, as well as in her familiarity with the spectrum of contemporary critical theories. She considers the nature of the novel, and what there remains today for it to do; she examines the implications of various critical approaches to fiction; she looks hard at feminist thinking about literature, distinguishing muddled ideas from useful ones. She comments on the difficulty which a woman experiences in gaining recognition as an experimental writer, although it is likely that the comparative neglect of her own creative work is the result of a combination of factors, which include her location in Paris rather than London, and not least the extreme difficulty of some of her novels. Everything here is intelligent and clear-sighted, and Professor Brooke-Rose's unusual ability to build bridges between French and English traditions makes her contribution to critical debate especially valuable.

Maria del Sapio Garbero (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Sapio Garbero, Maria del. “The Fictionality of Fiction: Christine Brooke-Rose's Sense of Absence.” In British Postmodern Fiction, edited by Theo D'haen and Hans Bertens, pp. 89-99. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1993.

[In the following essay, Sapio Garbero discusses the concept of absence in Brooke-Rose's novels in terms of the problematic relationship between text and reality. Sapio Garbero asserts that Brooke-Rose utilizes the central theme of absence in her novels in an “anti-metaphysical quest” to critique dominant notions of identity and male-centered language.]

[Thru] is a text that is really constructing itself and then destroying itself as it goes along. Well, a lot of people are writing fiction about the writing of fiction, but this is not about the writing of fiction (except that it's about the construction of a text, if you like), it's about the fictionality of fiction: the fact that these characters are just letters on a page.1

The distinction posed by Christine Brooke-Rose between novels on “the writing of fiction” and novels on “the fictionality of fiction” is important. It calls attention not just to the activity of writing as a rediscovered authorial presence in postmodernist texts, but also to absence as something which, in her own novels, overtly sustains the relationship, both playful and anguished, between text and reality. Indeed, absence plays the role of a central theme, one which foregrounds a specific anti-metaphysical quest in Brooke-Rose's narratives.

The reaction against the metaphysics of reality, and against the metaphysics of language as the site of presence for the subject, is a key development in contemporary narratives. What is cast aside is the modernist illusion that the flânerie of the artist through signs can lead to an epiphanic encounter with truth, or that the act of writing can be a means of ordering and redeeming a fragmented reality, resulting in a reassuring gesture of authentication for the subject. As pointed out in most recent criticism, not only has the modernist quest for value been replaced by performance (e.g., by the manipulation of narrative conventions), but the postmodernist text draws the reader's attention to its lack of “depth”, to the fictionality and arbitrariness of the textual world he or she has entered.2

The problematic relationship between language and reality is nowhere posed more radically than in Christine Brooke-Rose's work. From Between (1968) to Verbivore (1990), her “fun” as she says (and her “anguish”, as I would like to add), is “with the discourse of the world and the discourse of fiction”3 as a way of gesturing towards the textual nature of truth and reality. This explains an increasing concern in her novels with the fictionalization of the world, or better a shifting emphasis from a self-reflexive concern with the theory of the novel to a concern with fiction as part of a wider politics of representation—that is, as part of a wider artificial network of conflicting language systems striving for domination, and occasionally leading to a mess of entropic redundancy. A few examples: a secret female politics of fiction confronts a male-dominated politics of language in Amalgamemnon; children's fiction-making confronts a world-wide linguistic de-fusion of the nuclear threat in Xorandor; a computerized race of beings is confronted with word-pollution and entropic threat in Verbivore.

First I would like to describe this shift of emphasis as it manifests itself in Xorandor (1986). This is, in fact, a novel in which an initial concern with the “writing of fiction” is turned into a question of how we constitute our worlds (e.g., myths) in language. The narrative is about Jip and Zap, the twin children of a nuclear engineer, who fortuitously discover a silicon-based talking stone, a stone which, feeding on nuclear waste, has developed all the capacities of a megacomputer. Xorandor is the name they give this extraordinary stone. Nine months later the two children, aged thirteen, with the aid of their pocket computer try to reconstruct the story of their discovery by means of a mass of material made up of computer printouts, secret tapes, newspaper and TV reports. Added to this is the oral testimony of a Miss Pennbeagle, the postmistress of their village in Cornwall, who, serving as a link with ancient myths, thinks the talking stone is Merlin's ghost. She also plays the role of an impromptu, domestic detective, spying on the twins and reporting to their father, but also spying on the scientists who keep arriving in the village to study the case.

What we are first playfully confronted with in the novel are the two storytellers' problems with the “writing of fiction”: where to start, what order to give to the story, how to distinguish—and whether it is important to distinguish—between the story's place of action and the storytellers' location, whether the storytellers as characters are entitled to be present in the story with a biography of their own, what the genre is within which they are writing: is it going to be fable, mystery story, spy story, science fiction? Last but not least, the problem of how to select the material is tackled, Zap (the more intuitive female twin) furnishing too much emotionally charged detail and reinterpreting too much and too erratically, Jip (the male twin) aiming too much at scientific synthesis.

So, as we move through the text, we come by degree to understand that this is not really a novel on the “writing of fiction” but a novel on the “fictionality of fiction” and, hence, on the fictionalization of the world. First, the story Jip and Zap are narrating with their computer, which is the same story we are reading, is a simulation of a story and one which can be erased, as often happens with Brooke-Rose's narratives. Secondly, the issue of meaning's or truth's flight as undermining any kind of representation and any kind of communication is cogently posed.

“As readers of Brooke-Rose's fiction”, Richard Martin has noticed, “we have now progressed from the assumption that events narrated in the written discourse can never actually take place (Amalgamemnon) to the discovery that not even the text [Xorandor] we have read exists”.4 To put it differently, one could say that throughout Xorandor we are in many ways reminded of the transient status of story-telling itself, considering that what we are reading might have been told differently or not originated at all. In fact, by the end of the novel we know that the invented stories about Xorandor, either as Merlin's ghost or as a sacred stone come from Mars to solve the problems of nuclear waste, have been developing from a lie men themselves have suggested to Xorandor and which Xorandor has backed up, thanks to a peculiar and most extraordinary linguistic competence which allows him to answer according to the expectations of the interlocutor. Here's the twins' disheartened comment:

that's what hurt most, the idea that he'd been laughing at us, pretending to learn English and counting and all that. Play-acting, can you imagine?

A great courtesy, Jip. As with Pennybig. As mothers with children, and sometimes women with their men. Xorandor doesn't laugh at people, he goes along with them at their level, telling them what he knows they want to hear. After all we all play language-games. Would we have understood if he hadn't? Remember we half genuinely thought he was the ghost of Merlin. And what started as a language-game had to go on as a lie, or a myth.5

Merging with the wider issue of the fictionalization of the world, the “fictionality of fiction” is thus strongly foregrounded by the heightened anti-mimetic stance of the novel. The story the twins are narrating originates as an effect of an already secondary reality, namely as an effect of a language-game. As we are reminded in Verbivore, Brooke-Rose's next novel, in which Xorandor reappears, he “could simulate a reality and decide when a different version was required”.6 As a story on myth-making, or better on a false myth of origin, Xorandor is yet another instance of the problem Brooke-Rose's narratives keep posing: that of absence, of a void which gives rise to all our stories of reality and all fabulation, forever deferring our grasp of reality and truth.

Consequently, narratorial space in her novels is that of an infinite mise en abyme, one in which each linguistic level gives way to a further linguistic level. Absence, then, in Brooke-Rose first refers to these textual mirroring effects that result in certain annulment techniques which her novels share with other postmodernist texts, although often with incomparable virtuosity. My point here is that her fun with language cannot be separated from her awareness of absence as a notion which, as early as the writing of Between and Thru, informs an antimetaphysical quest based on a critique of identity (namely of the humanist character of the classical novel) and, albeit more obliquely, on a critique of a male-centered language.

So I would like to go back to the densely packed theoretical scenario of Thru (1975), because it can help us capture some of the implications of Brooke-Rose's obsessive concern with language (and identity) as devoid of origin or truth. The text itself wavers between the process of being written and its own erasure, as we are reminded by one of the novel's recurrent sentences, a suggestive adaptation of Fitzgerald's version of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat (stanza 51): “the moving finger writes and having writ scrubs out the diagram”.7

Written in the reckless mode of a seminar—the setting being intermittently an American university class on literature and creative writing—Thru is a striking instance of a self-erasing text. As the objects of an eroticized Barthesian seminar, fragments of sentences and knowledge are presented only to be abruptly taken away.8 Certainly the novel is one of the best examples one can cite of writing traversed by textual desire, or, to put it differently, of Barthes's notion of the “writerly text”.9

Thru bases itself upon a much wider theoretical and heavily foregrounded framework. Drawing on Lacan and Derrida, Thru is also a novel which deploys in a narrative form a deconstructive theory of the novel. As Hanjo Berressem has noticed, the Lacanian subject of an originary lack (castration) is here synchronized with the Derridean subject of a lost plenitude (of discourse).10 But this never fulfilled desire either for the unity of the subject or for the integrity of discourse is not all there is to Brooke-Rose's text. One also finds a critique of the Freudian, male-centered notion of language. This critique draws on Kristeva and Irigaray and has so far gone unnoticed.11

Within such a theoretical context, narration unfolds as a never-ending process of substitution by which referential reality is for ever named and yearned for but never grasped, or else is made present through an exhibition of its utter unsubstantiality. Characters themselves become part of a continual rehandling of signifiers, existing as they do only through a game of reciprocal invention of one another: a sort of game within which they come alive and disappear as an effect of a capricious, mutual reinvestment of a never fulfilled desire. This is brought home to us by the frequent occurrence in the novel of the Freudian (via Lacan) fort/da.

Whoever you invented invented you too. That surely is the trouble, we do not exist. But by all means let's go on pretending we do, going forth and multiplying the letters (Fort/da).

(p. 631)

In Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle this notion of language as grounded in absence and desire is laid bare exactly in his interpretation of the childish exclamation fort/da. This is notably the double cry which accompanies his grandson's game with a toy while he throws it away (fort! gone away) and then hauls it back again on a string (da! here), and which Freud analyzes as the linguistic medium by which the child simulates his mother's disappearance and reappearance. If for Freud the game is the expression of an original renunciation and of a compensation, in Lacan's further reading of it, it is made into the inaugural act of language, describing as it were the state of “dereliction” and the attempt to remedy it through a playful verbal repetition, that is, through the elaboration of the symbol.12

It is just such an idea of language as an “empty” place, and of narration as a source of consolation, that is exploited and played with in Thru. The playful and endless sliding from one signifier to another, entailed also in the frequent anagrammatic forms of repetition and displacement in the novel, are traversed by such a Freudian (via Lacan) negative desire, which repairs the injury of the lack by means of an exuberance of language. Occasionally suggested in the anagrammatic turning over of the title Thru in hurt, the “escape into language” is overtly presented in such terms by the female protagonist, Larissa, when she says: “isn't it the only thing to do with a long cry of anguish to amuse oneself?” (p. 641) But then the appearance and rehandling of words in the novel is just an enactment of absence, a substitution for a for ever lost referent. And characters are no more than mirages, bundles of disembodied signs which keep undoing themselves while at the same time putting forth the letters of a coveted and forever deferred plenitude. This presents a woeful commentary on a fading subject—which is also where Brooke-Rose is at her best in getting us to share her verbal jokes and her fun, as for instance in these half-Italian, half-French mocking Lacanian queries13 with which the text is interspersed:

Che vuoi? […] Votre demande is not an askable question. Veuillez appeler ultérieurement. Freud Freud why persecutest thou/me.

(p. 675)

My claim is that, as a woman, the protagonist Larissa is made into an instance of such a split between language and reality, between subject and object. In the theoretical setting of the novel she is not quite characterized as a female character, but rather as a paradigm of the ‘feminine’, a network and a palimpsest of names, a paramount figure of a never fulfilled linguistic quest, through which Brooke-Rose constructs her stealthily feminist critique of the character and of identity.

Brooke-Rose's obsessive concern with absence will be made more urgent in her later novels by an increasing preoccupation with computerized overproduction of meaning. In Verbivore (the third of her “computer quartet” which started with Amalgamemnon and has just been completed by the recently issued Textermination), an over-computerized race of beings have lost control of their words and memories, life having been completely absorbed and distanced by screened writing, floppy disks and media. Men live on simulations, and they cannot recapture the experienced reality of any scene. The difficulty of retracing the beginning or the truth of any event in which they have been involved is allusively made into a Derridean issue of absence through a reference to Plato on the invention of writing:

Plato said the technique of writing would cause men to lose their memories in favour of memorability, what would he say about computers?14

But in some respects this novel also reminds one of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus. By expressing the attraction and repulsion held for him by symbols as constituting for man both his magnificent clothing and his trash, Carlyle already in 1833, and in much the same terms as we would do it today, raised the issue of language as an unavoidable, albeit perishable, second reality, one which needed a special concern and a new philosophy:

Examine Language; what, if you except some few primitive elements (of natural sounds), what is it all but metaphors, recognised as such, or no longer recognised; still fluid and florid, or now solid-grown and colourless? […] false stuffings, superfluous show-cloaks (Putz-Mäntel), and tawdry woollen rags […]. Thus in this one pregnant subject of Clothes, rightly understood, is included all that men have thought, dreamed, done, and been: the whole External Universe and what it holds is but Clothing; and the essence of all Science lies in the Philosophy of Clothes.15

In Verbivore, however, Carlyle's romantic anxiety for an inscrutable truth concealed behind a host of deceptive emblems is turned into a playful handling of such cybernetic notions as information, uncertainty and entropy. Verbivore is not just a novel on “word-pollution” or “wave-pollution by words” (p. 151); it is also a novel on noise being turned into silence, on noise at its highest pitch, when it can enter its black hole and kill itself. In the novel a mysterious megacomputer, very likely Xorandor's offspring, reacts to the overloading flow of information by sudden cuts in the flow, by swallowing up men's words. “In fact the press soon named the whole phenomenon Verbivore. Some journalists tried Logophagoi—which pleased me more, as an ex-Greek scholar, and also recalled the Xorandor affair with its Alphaphagoi” (p. 28).

We could consider the verbivore computer in this novel as both the instrument of and the powerful metaphor for a cannibal high-tech culture defending itself against its own language. The novel itself seems to reproduce both an overload of meaning and an aspiration, through erasure, to be converted into silence. But then, the author herself plays the part of a computerized cannibal, feeding as she does on the words and characters of her previous novels (Amalgamemnon,Xorandor), cutting and reshuffling them, before ending her novel with a blank screen.

The transgression of boundaries between narrative levels that Hofstadter calls “Strange Loops” or “Tangled Hierarchy” and Genette describes as metalepsis,16 is part of the illusory nature of Brooke-Rose's novels. Recursive embedding signals their fictionality and Verbivore is no exception. At the end of the novel we get to know that the whole ‘Verbivore affair’ is a fiction within the fiction, part of a novel somebody is writing, maybe Perry Hupsos, maybe Julian who is a character in a radio-drama that Perry Hupsos is writing and that is produced by Mira Enketei, who is herself the protagonist of Amalgamemnon, the ex-Greek scholar now featuring as a radio-drama producer. But Perry Hupsos also appears in Amalgamemnon. Regressing as they do in another fiction or genre, aware as they are of existing only in “the stratum of represented objects” (Verbivore, p. 177), Brooke-Rose's characters keep commenting on the displacement of the subject with their absence in the reality of things.

What is important is that the fictionality of fiction in Brooke-Rose's novels is increasingly addressed as having relevance for the illusory nature of our every-day worlds, related as it often is in her later novels to the wider problem of language as a thick and meandering second reality. In Verbivore this is seen as the result of increasing degrees of simulation of the real, which decree the death of the author as a unique and privileged source of narration:

Abstraction was early associated with secrecy, with a small but controlling priestly elite, with the art of writing, which slowly dematerialised the world, and printing accelerated this, into a condition of pure speed, pure mind. A sort of weightlessness, a flight. Well, this process has been multiplied a millionfold, at an ever-increasing speed, and today we live in a world that's totally materialistic at one level and totally immaterial and illusory at another […]. Mankind has always been materialistic and spiritual at the same time. […] But now we have one lot of abstract simulators threatening to silence the others.

(pp. 193-194)

For Christine Brooke-Rose, the writer who makes art out of contemporary forms of communication, the problem is how to voice these preoccupations without being accused of being a contradictory, retrograde essentialist. Indeed, Brooke-Rose as a writer positively thrives on just this contradiction, finding in the techne of an alienated language the site both for her creative verbal play and her oblique strategies of commitment.

In fact, by placing themselves between languages and between categories, whether these be concepts, stories or genres, Brooke-Rose's novels stage a critical estrangement of the signs themselves, thus creating the space of an ambiguity where a second voice can be heard. One thinks of how for instance, in Amalgamemnon, Brooke-Rose's writing obliquely traverses dominant discourses, twists and deforms them, thus making the truth of other stories appear in the resulting cracks and fissures. It is in this sense that her narratives articulate a radical deconstruction of any hypostasis or “naturalness” of discourse.

I would like then, to end this essay by moving away from an idea of Christine Brooke-Rose as an experimentalist only concerned with the narcissistic relation of herself as an author to her writing. Rather, I strongly perceive her awareness of a new politics of form, one which is concerned with the historical conditions of modern writing and which recognizes in the unreadability of contemporary culture the arena of a new test for the novel.


  1. “An Interview with Christine Brooke-Rose,” D. Hayman and K. Cohen. Contemporary Literature 17, 1 (1976), p. 4.

  2. Apart from C. Brooke-Rose's own books The Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1981) and Stories, Theories, and Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), see C. Butler, After the Wake: An Essay on the Contemporary Avant-Garde (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), J. Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (London: Routledge, 1983), P. Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), B. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), L. Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory and Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988).

  3. C. Brooke-Rose, “Illicitations”. Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, 3 (1989), p. 102.

  4. R. Martin, “‘Just Words on a Page’: The Novels of Christine Brooke-Rose”, Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, 3 (Fall 1989), p. 122. I am grateful to Richard Martin for his useful criticisms of this essay.

  5. C. Brooke-Rose, Xorandor (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), p. 190.

  6. C. Brooke-Rose, Verbivore (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990), p. 61.

  7. C. Brooke-Rose, Thru, in The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986), p. 690.

  8. See R. Barthes, “To the Seminar” (in The Rustle of Language, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, p. 335): “Here the objects are many, flexible, or, better still, passing, caught up in a movement of appearance/disappearance: they are fragments of knowledge, dreams of method, snatches of sentences. …”

  9. See R. Barthes, S/Z (Torino: Einaudi, 1981), pp. 10-11. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970).

  10. See H. Berressem, “Thru the Looking Glass: A Journey into the Universe of Discourse”, Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, 3 (Fall 1989), pp. 129-130.

  11. For further elaborations on this and other kindred themes see M. Del Sapio Garbero, L'assenza e la voce. Scena e intreccio della scrittura in C. Rossetti, M. Sinclair e C. Brooke-Rose (Napoli: Linguori, 1991), pp. 233-335.

  12. See J. Lacan, “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse”, in Ecrits (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966).

  13. Here the text overtly draws on Lacan's “Subversion du sujet et dialectique du désir dans l'inconscient freudien”, in Ecrits (cit.).

  14. C. Brooke-Rose, Verbivore (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990), pp. 44-45. It is notably in “La pharmacie de Platon” (La dissémination, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972) that Derrida, focusing on Plato's Phaedrus, sees in the mediation or deferring of the signifier the unavoidable condition of signification, and thus argues with a metaphysics of language that sees language as the site of presence.

  15. T. Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1920), pp. 62-63.

  16. See D. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 10, and G. Genette, Figure III (Torino: Einaudi, 1976), pp. 283-284 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972). For further elaborations on this theme see S. Rimmon-Kenan, “Ambiguity and Narrative Levels: Christine Brooke-Rose's Thru”, Poetics Today 1 (1982), pp. 21-32 and B. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (cit.), pp. 119-121.

Steven Connor (review date April 1994)

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SOURCE: Connor, Steven. Review of Stories, Theories, and Things, by Christine Brooke-Rose. Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 427-28.

[In the following review of Stories, Theories, and Things, Connor argues that the volume's strongest essays are those in which Brooke-Rose addresses issues of gender and feminism in literature.]

The relationship of literary writers to the institutions of criticism has always been a tense one, even (and perhaps especially) at times such as ours when there is considerable professional traffic between the two realms. The explosion of ‘theory’ in literary studies over the last couple of decades, characterized as it has been by an increased hawkishness among some theorists with regard to the authority of the author, has tended to heighten this sense of jittery stand-off. Christine Brooke-Rose is an example of how to be an exception to this rule, for she has commuted, if not exactly with ease, then certainly with energy, between her two intellectual commitments as critic and creative writer. This latest book [Stories, Theories, and Things] is both more affluently various and more genially disjointed than previous ones, and marks a contrast in particular with her exact and exacting study of the poetics of fantasy narrative in The Rhetoric of the Unreal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981). The essays collected in this generous volume fall into four sections: a short sequence of general reflections upon the relationship of theory to narrative, a section of six essays dealing with issues of style (especially narrative style) in specific nineteenth-century and modernist texts, a number of essays centring on contemporary fiction and the theories used to account for it, and, finally, a group of essays united by their feminist exploration of gender issues in criticism, aesthetics, and literature.

What unifies the essays is a group of renewed preoccupations rather than a single, evolving line of argument. Among these in particular is the question of the attitude of the writer to theory. Brooke-Rose is impressively open-minded or, perhaps one should say, multi-minded on this matter. Within the space of a few lines she can affirm in close succession the traditional innocence of the author of systematic theoretical knowledge (‘as author I face the white page alone’) and a kind of inescapable knowingness (‘the intensity of super-consciousness guides my pen and also paralyses it’ (p. 13). This particular condition, which is neither wholly invigorating nor wholly incapacitating, but some perplexing combination of both, is one which she turns out to share with an increasing number of writers, especially of postmodern fiction. This is partly due to the economic fact that where a writer from an earlier period could stay alive between royalties by reviewing and literary journalism, a more stable kind of existence is provided for the contemporary author by academic literary institutions. (To call a university job a ‘relative sinecure’, as Brooke-Rose does, is outrageous but perhaps forgivable in one whose professional experience may have been of a more leisured academic life style). But there seems to be a deeper kind of necessity, too, for writers to be aware of the currents of contemporary thinking about literature and culture, given the conditions of belatedness, hybridity, and generalized ‘over-consciousness’ (p. 166) which seem to affect and be the concerns of so much contemporary literary writing. It is not just that literature assimilates theoretical consciousness to itself, for, like Richard Rorty and other postmodernists of a neopragmatist stamp, Brooke-Rose believes that it is better to think of theory itself as a kind of storytelling rather than as the strait gate to verifiable truth; she is interested by the ‘phictions and filosophy’ (p. 24) which are the characteristic intellectual crossbreeds of the postmodern.

This particular outlook—let me call it the theory-as-story-story—superintends without coercing the essays that follow. Brooke-Rose is perhaps at her best in the precise, localized analysis of stylistic symptoms and examples and least compelling (probably because of her growing uneasiness with theoretical compulsion in general) when broaching general claims. Particularly impressive is the sequence of readings initiated by Ann Barfield's analysis of ‘unspeakable sentences’ in narrative writing and consequent attack on the residual force of communications models in the analysis of narrative ‘voice’. In these readings, Brooke-Rose looks with unfatigued exactitude at the complex modes of focalization, indirect discourse, and represented thought in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Hardy's Jude the Obscure. It is a pity that the argument generated in these essays about the nature of authorial and readerly knowledge and judgement is not carried through into the next couple of essays, a review of a recent French translation of Pound's Cantos and a spoof account of Auden's metrics, neither of which seems to have much to do with anything else in the collection. The latter seems particularly gratuitous: we have no difficulty in detecting the fact that it is not wholly serious, since Brooke-Rose gravely tells us that it is not, but it is plain that it is not wholly fanciful either, given the amount of labour expended upon the categorization of metrical patterns in Auden's writing. The reader is left wondering what precisely the point is.

I fear that a number of the more general essays in the book conform to a similar pattern, fizzing with freshness and suggestion at their outsets, but then fizzling out abruptly just as things get interesting. This is true, for example, of the essays ‘Which Way Did They Go?,’ on the dissolution of character in contemporary fiction, and ‘Palimpsest History,’ about the fictional writing of dissident or improbable history, in Rushdie, Fuentes, and Pavić. For me, the best things in the book are the final essays which are motivated more directly by feminist concerns. In these Brooke-Rose discusses the question of écriture-féminine, the relationship between gender, genius, and creativity, and the question of women and comedy (a curiously neglected topic in feminist criticism), and offers an acute and interesting reading of Terry Eagleton's The Ideology of the Aesthetic. In these essays Christine Brooke-Rose shows the sweep and grace and the relaxed but unremitting authority of argument that are characteristic of all her best work.

Gabriel Josipovici (review date 8 March 1996)

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SOURCE: Josipovici, Gabriel. “World within Word.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 393 (8 March 1996): 41-2.

[In the following review, Josipovici posits that Brooke-Rose's central theme in her memoir Remake is the impossibility of representing one's life in the form of a story.]

No writer who has any sense of tradition can help but be more self-conscious today. They will be more aware of fiction as a process of making rather than story-telling, of the falsity of the notion of the self as a unified whole, and less willing than 19th-century predecessors to draw on the life for the substance of the work. In some writers, however, this has left a yearning for a space where the past could be examined and, if possible, come to terms with. Thus Vladimir Nabokov, despite his ironic dismissals of Freud, produced the memoir Speak, Memory. Thus Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, two of the purest “makers” of the past half-century, have in recent years both published autobiographies.

Of course, none of these is a conventional work. Each shows us a highly intelligent and sophisticated writer bringing to the stuff of memory all the skills developed in a lifetime of writing fiction—not trying to be clever but, like Proust, profoundly aware of the intermittances of memory. Now Christine Brooke-Rose, the author of many challenging and innovative novels, has joined that distinguished band. No less than they, she realises that life does not constitute a story—but then how to tell it? As a series of files perhaps, to be opened at random? The old lady ponders the problem [in Remake], talks to herself, to her alter egos, tries out one file and then another as she goes about her retirement in the South of France.

She retrieves the file on her ancestors, an eccentric mixture of Americans, Swiss and English; the file on her unconventional childhood, trilingual in English, French and German, educated in Brussels and England; and the file on the years in which she came to maturity. In 1939, she volunteered for war service and was posted to the mythical Bletchley Park, where a team of experts broke the German codes and passed on valuable information to the Allied High Command.

The naive girl emerged from this with new horizons, a husband, and the burning desire to get to university and study. This she managed to do, but not before she had divorced and fallen in love with her second husband-to-be, a Polish poet and eventually professor at London University. He encouraged her to get to Oxford and, after that, to complete a doctorate on medieval literature and language (later literature, she rightly says, one can read by oneself).

One of the delights of this book is the glimpse it gives us of the excitement of intellectual adventure. If Janek, as she calls him, has been the human passion of her life, her abiding love has been language. Already as a child she thought that le lendemain (the following day) was le lent demain (the slow tomorrow). Like all her work, the book is full of multilingual puns, good, bad and indifferent, as well as outright paeans to the wonders of language: “Philology is dry bones, but fillology slowly communicates magical seachanges, la mer la terre et l'air of a writer's material, the skeleton filling in with flesh and blood and sinews, molecules of desire, of creativity, vowels softening consonants, consonants breaking vowels, disappearing, changing places, becoming mute, still there as dried up foetuses in the spelling but unuttered, meanings accumulating, shifting into opposites, Frankish invading Gallo-Roman, Anglo-Saxon invading Celtic, Old Norse invading Anglo-Saxon, French invading English, Latin and Greek invading French and English, American invading French despite francophoney maniacs, the wheel coming full circle, enriching, cluttering, duplicating, complicating and simplifying the navigational skills of the language …”

The bulk of Remake deals with her years up to the age of 23, when she settles down in a cold London flat with her poet, though there are flashes forward to the moving last days, the death of her mother and to her present life in Provence. The last chapters quickly deal with her later life as a prolific novelist and critic and, after her separation from Janek, as a university teacher in Paris and elsewhere.

This would be the place, she says, where most writers of memoirs start to recount the genesis of their books and introduce famous friends, but, as with Proust, this is not what concerns her. She passes it over in silence, merely hinting at the joy that writing and teaching have given her.

My own cavil is this: why call the book an autobiographical novel? Why call herself Tess? It creates a needless confusion and endangers the central theme, the impossibility of making a story out of one's life. That said, this is a moving and compulsively readable book, and one that has the added bonus, for those who know and admire her work, of making one understand its essential unity, whether it be a study of Ezra Pound, an exploration of the semiotics of science fiction, or a novel about a simultaneous translator.

Born between languages, finding her feet in the interception of the secret messages, Christine Brooke-Rose has always gone her own way, without nostalgia or sentimentality, subtly but decisively altering the perceptions of those lucky enough to come into contact with her work. In this book she demonstrates, quite unwittingly—but that is how it should be—how it is possible to lead a dignified and fulfilled life in our confused and tormented century. I will reread it frequently.

Lorna Sage (review date 4 April 1996)

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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “Winter Facts.” London Review of Books 18, no. 7 (4 April 1996): 3-4.

[In the following review, Sage describes Remake as an anti-autobiography that addresses the ultimately unanswerable question: “What is an author?”]

Christine Brooke-Rose's story of how this new book came to be is that she set out to write about her life, and instead produced a kind of antibiography. It's described in the jacket's blurb by Carcanet as ‘an autobiographical novel with a difference’ which ‘uses life material to compose a third-person fiction’. Inside the covers we're told with confessional baldness that ‘the old lady's publisher has asked for an autobiography. But the resistance is huge. The absorbing present creates interference, as well as the old lady's lifelong prejudice against biographical criticism, called laundry-lists by Pound. Only the text matters, if the text survives at all.’ But then, isn't life always text for a Post-Structuralist? And then again, treating the facts as fiction doesn't seem exactly a major departure if your fiction is of the pared-down, see-through, new-novelish kind. Whichever way you look at it, Christine Brooke-Rose is on home ground in Remake: making it over is second nature to her.

She does have a serious quarrel with most kinds of life-writing, of course, but that is a matter of genre. Which genre is such a text to claim kin with? What she objects to is treating life stories as romantic or realistic affairs. The writer she is, you gather, wouldn't be seen dead inhabiting such a plausible and formative life: that version of the Author is dead as a dodo for her. And that means questioning the importance of childhood, and the archetypal, claustrophobic family romance that's supposed to be so character-forming. Yes, it's significant that she grew up in various places—born in Geneva in 1923, brought up in Belgium and in England—but as much for the languages as anything. There's no one mother-tongue in this story, to provide a starting-point, and no real father-figure either. Father was English, in fact, and early went missing, and you have to read between the lines pretty carefully to piece him together at all. ‘A thief, a lying mythomaniac, a cheater,’ he's labelled in passing—a colourful, piratical parenthesis, no more. In fact, a younger and different Christine Brooke-Rose did once write up the adventure of the Search for Dad, in conventional style, in a novel called The Dear Deceit, in which she disguised herself as a male narrator and went to town on the details: dad had been a member of an Anglican Order, a kind of monk, and had run away and stolen the plate, and been sent to prison, among other picaresque episodes his wife and daughters only found out about after his desertion, and indeed after his death. The Dear Deceit was published in 1960, before she redefined herself as a writer (her first ‘new’ novel, Out, came out in 1964), and its use of real-life material is of the conventional kind—made over fully into fiction, with convincing characters and a questing plot. That father—in other words—was the father of a writer-daughter who was trying to fit herself into the conventional mould. Reborn, she refused to carry on the family ‘line’, ‘Forbidding but remarkable,’ said the Telegraph of Out, and Punch thought that the author was so sure of her new self that she must belong to the school of Samuel Beckett.

In Remake it's this wise child she celebrates, and indeed she mischievously cites—from Jenny Diski writing in the London Review of Books, as it happens—a witty mock-theory about the ‘crucial years of an individual's psychological development not being from birth till five, but between the ages of 42 and 47’.

The psyche and personality in the first half of life would be merely malleable and unfinished, childhood trauma not trauma but neutral and neural experience. People would simply be analysed between the ages of 40 and 42 and get sorted out before the critical age—the Mid-Life Crisis—and be ready to spend fruitful years from middle age to death as positive, harmonious and psychologically healthy Houyhnhnms.

On this model, the move into reflexity that turned Brooke-Rose into an experimenter in fiction would figure as a kind of DIY analysis, at 40. However, as the tone suggests, this notion that we're born again at forty-something isn't meant entirely seriously (no one can be so taken with demystification as to find Houyhnhnms altogether congenial), and her childhood in the ordinary sense does after all get some space. In the beginning was language (‘once upon a time there is a little girl born in French’), and early ‘scatterings and smatterings’ acquired in Geneva, Brussels and London, cherished mishearings and mistranslations: ‘un fait divers is a winter fact.’ The set-piece memory that stands in for a lot more, the only memory—we're told—‘still firm, personal and alive’, is of grandmère's death in 1933. The old lady lies ‘under an eiderdown of flowers, smelling of faint rot’, and, terrifyingly, her eyes snap open to stare at her grand-daughter (disguised under the name of Tess)—

At supper grandpère asks Tess the colour of grandmère's eyes. Blue. Because grandpère's eyes are blue. Comment! Forgotten so soon? And Tess weeps into the bouillon, the tears joining the small golden rings of richness and the innumerable little letters made of pasta.

The scene has a sensuous force of conviction; you can see and hear and smell it. At the same time it's comically characteristic of Brooke-Rose that the alphabet pasta gets in, even here: the signature in memory's soup.

Most other early scenes flicker past, ‘like forgotten photographs out of a drawer’, and although she expresses some token regret for the vagaries of recall, the present-tense ‘old lady’ at her word-processor doesn't actually mind too much. Isn't life a story? she asks herself. And answers: No, life's a file—‘today all the terms for memory are spatial, screening, filing, effacing, storing, labelling, visualising, doors opening on doors.’ The snapshots of the past are cross-cut with scenes from the present, the view from her windows, ‘vineyards stretching towards the wooded hills of evergreen oak and pines … red and orange, the cherry-orchards dark crimson against the yellowing poplars’, and this picturesque stuff is cross-cut in its turn with the polyglot TV babble and images of world news, for there's a vast dish on the roof now that she has ‘all the time in the world to watch the world’. You're not allowed to forget for long that the work of memory is part of the same cartoon-strip, the same conspiracy to animate the still scenes and string them end to end. Do soap operas fit feminist theories about flux and fragmentation? Her own practice, in that case, is politically incorrect, for she feels compelled to register the ironies and absurdities and sleights of eye by which stories get sewn together, ‘identities … a seamless tissue of half-lies’.

Still, this antibiography does follow a female ‘line’: mother's death is as memorable as grandmère's, indeed in some ways more so, for she dies ‘bathed in love’ in a Benedictine convent in London, at 92. This after forty years as a nun, converted just after the war, when she is transformed from middle-aged, middle-class mummy to Mother Mary Anselm, leaving her two grown-up daughters strangely orphaned in the rejected ‘world’. (Daddy dies—in a parenthesis, again, daddy est mort—back in 1934, but he's already ‘been dead for ages’ by then.) This time for mother's end there's a diary, ‘a meditative account of a dying and a death, written between the acts’, and this licenses a switch to the first person, for once. The lonely and vulnerable ‘I’ that suddenly appears in these pages isn't particularly eloquent, but does convey something of the anguish of losing a parent, even when you're middle-aged yourself, even when it's a death so long foreseen and so well prepared for. The loss is compounded, since this mother has so long been a stranger: ‘They say she was always very strong, digging in the garden, working hard. As a young mother she was always exhausted … the nuns … file out, leaving me alone with her for a moment. I kiss her suddenly waxen brow. Outside, I cry out wildly against the wall, wondering at such pain.’

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this first-person confession of unbelief and grief is not her distance from her dying mother but her distance from her living sister, Joanne. Joanne (who has a restless, roving career) doesn't get much space altogether in the book, but she enters its pages like an avenging, intractable force. She writes hateful letters that this author, her sister, destroys—‘a totally mad, repulsive, compulsive, correspondence over forty years’—though a small specimen of her savagely sarcastic style survives to be quoted: ‘How kind of you to have insisted—against everyone else's wishes—that I be summoned so's Mummy could see us both together, as I proposed to you, in writing, almost 2 years ago. Funny thing is that in a chat I had with the Ma P on arrival, she told me she'd done the insisting.’

Joanne is the bad sister, the guilty proof of one's failure as family, failure in closeness. She's also a reminder that Brooke-Rose's experiments with breaking the rules don't just involve detached jokes about narrative strategy, but extend to the documentary transgression of kidnapping someone else's words onto the page. It's the middle-distance focus and the rounded character she wants to avoid, not the raw material of others and otherness. Joanne and ‘I’ are ‘deeply different … from the first irreconcilable’. And you get the uncomfortable feeling that putting ‘Joanne’ in this book is part of an ongoing battle, no holds barred, no reconciliation achieved, mother's death just one in the series of sibling conflicts over space, ‘this invented rivalry about happiness’.

After this episode even the book's customary third person seems to secrete a kind of insoluble solitariness. Brooke-Rose's habitual tone is a curious mixture—at once cosmopolitan and uncomfortably direct. She's in many ways cool and dry, and yet at the same time undefended, exposed. What's being deliberately stripped off (again) is the sociable, consistent carapace of a public personality—the sort of thing we rehearse for in the family, and which her family so signally fails to develop in her. Be that as it may, she contrives to take an overview of her life across the years without losing a sense of the oddness, partiality and contingency of its shape. One striking example of this is her account of the (de) forming of her sexual life because of an infantile love-affair with words. It starts with the seemingly harmless habit of sitting on her foot to hold in a full bladder, while listening to stories as a toddler, ‘enjoying the fullness of the moment even with the fullness of the bladder’. This is in many ways so improbable that she had better tell it in her own words:

That heel-habit, formed for the prolongation of intellectual pleasures as the old lady knows full well, must have caused the so-called congenital malformation—mais l'urèthre plonge dans le vagin—blighting an entire sexlife, not discovered by any English gyno or uro for over thirty years, found through the simplest fingerprod in Paris and fixed, decades too late. No wonder Tess rarely enjoyed sex … the child turned into an incongruous Sue Bridehead wanting only companionship, with sex as price to pay for love.

Neither using French nor taking the names of Thomas Hardy's heroines does much to dilute the painful intimacy of this. Why confide it? The graphic detail serves, seemingly, one major purpose for Brooke-Rose, which is to reveal herself as an author, as the self-made—or better, self-unmade—woman. Not therefore the creature of ready-made circumstances, or some mysterious fiat, some Godly dispensation, or some Freudian diagnosis. ‘Congenital? Self-inflicted more likely.’ If there is something nun-like and untouchable in her own character, like her mother's, then it has a particular, material (‘neural and neutral’), origin. She'll go a very long way, it seems, almost to any lengths, to avoid having a psyche or harbouring a soul.

The other main factor in shaping her sense of herself also has its strangeness, but it's a strangeness shared with quite a lot of other members of her wartime generation—a spell at Bletchley Park, decoding German signals: ‘The young WAAF officer … reading and evaluating German messages all day for priority lists to the interpreters and cryptographers … The otherness of the other learnt young, the real war, seen from the enemy point of view.’ It was, she says, her first university, and it made her aware of the power knowledge gives, especially knowledge out of the air, ‘intercepted, decrypted, translated and transmuted’. Bletchley Park is an inspiration, more so, we gather, than the rather inept muse that's dictating poems to her at the time, on the side. Also on the side, she meets and marries and parts from her first husband, also at Bletchley, a wartime blip that leaves less of a trace than those airy messages—‘from the enemy viewpoint, the British being the enemy … the writer does that, learning to imagine the other. All human beings should … On the other hand, experiencing that same war as pure information … helps to turn Tess into a detached intellectual, never experiencing the grime, the cold, the heat.’ On balance, and with Houyhnhnm hindsight, though, she's grateful for the training in seeing through the propaganda, especially when she contemplates the world her dish delivers to her retirement, ‘the planet retribalised, everyone behaving as to the manna born’. The new media are cleverer not truer.

Her own cleverness gets her to Oxford after the war, where she takes up philology and enjoys watching the words cavort and shift and change: ‘consonants breaking vowels, becoming mute, still there as dried-up foetuses in the spelling but unuttered’. She has met the love of her life by now, in more senses than one. There are the words; and there's the man, a Pole in exile, Janek, also an intellectual, also a writer, whom she meets and marries, and who transforms the world for her. This passage is written to match her euphoria; and also, since it's in the neo-romantic style of postwar poetry (David Gascoyne? Dylan Thomas? the Muriel Spark of those days, even?), to measure the distance between now and then: ‘London is transformed. The red underground becomes blood thundering under London's skin … The stuttering sky full of birds plucks the eyes like parchment. A sigh sprinkles the night.’ She isn't parodying her young self exactly, just observing the gap between. In 1957, quite a long time before the marriage fell apart, she would write A Grammar of Metaphor. The ‘dissociation of mental and physical’ is, alas, her lot—and despite her love for Janek, ‘there's no dark Lawrentian passion for Tess.’ Pretty soon, in the Sixties, she'll write Out—and Such and Between—and (in 1968) be off on her own, to take up a university job at Paris VIII.

She found herself in the Sixties, then, but in a characteristically oblique and ironic fashion, which had nothing much to do with liberation. And we stop there, really, since that's the point and focus of the book, the life of writing, the making of the writer. And yet, she contrives to the very end to sustain a teasing and troubling ambivalence on this very matter: are we getting only those aspects of the life that are relevant to the work? Or—as one comes increasingly to suspect—is this her real life, is this as real as it gets? The person she's writing about, and the one doing the writing, converge and mirror each other. And the portrait she gives of her present-tense self, sitting in her cottage in Provence with the dish on the roof channeling the world's images through her study, makes her out to be a kind of high-tech wise woman, like a figure from a 21st-century fairy-tale—which is picturesquely pleasing, but doesn't resolve the matter of her good faith as a life-writer.

And perhaps it's unresolvable. After all, the question ‘What is an author?’ has become one of the most often asked and most unsatisfyingly answered questions of our times—whether you think of high theory, or the boom in literary biography, or the proliferation of readings and creative writing classes. What Remake does is to offer Christine Brooke-Rose's inconclusive evidence—her experience of making herself up. Her non-answer, though, has the edge on a lot of the answers to the author-question, precisely because of the way her theories and her practice coincide and collide and fertilise each other. It's a disconcerting performance—sometimes dry, sometimes moving, sometimes eccentric and evasive. But this is another way of saying that she leaves you wondering whether this is a book about someone experimenting in writing, simply telling it differently, or someone who experimented in living; and that uncertainty is exciting, like the unreasonable feeling of being on the verge (only on the verge, but never mind) of something new.

Michael Walters (review date 3 May 1996)

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SOURCE: Walters, Michael. “A Beautiful Algebra of a Life.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4857 (3 May 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Walters describes Remake as “at once a kind of meta-autobiography, a meditation on memory … and a narrative of formal scrupulousness and lyrical grace.”]

The grammar of autobiography can unsettle its author; scarcely four pages into La vie de Henry Brulard, the multi-pseudonymous Stendhal was deploring “cette effroyable quantité de Je et Moi”. Like Stendhal, Christine Brooke-Rose faces the problem of “self-confrontation” early on. “The confronter is a speek in time compared to the army of confrontable selves”, declares the narrator of Remake, alert to the faulty reconnaissance of pronouns, whose “substitution” and “simulation” misrepresent the variable memory. Brooke-Rose's autobiographical novel eschews such duplicitous aid almost entirely, allowing the pronoun to shape only one chapter, a “diary” incorporating the last illness and death of the narrator's mother. For the greater part, a third-person old lady reflects on retirement in Provence and a recent return visit to England, and voices a present-tense narrative that takes Tess Blair-Hayley—her younger self—from her Anglo-Swiss-American genealogy, via birth, bilingual upbringing, school and war-work, to marriage, writing, teaching, separation and middle age.

This has been Christine Brook-Rose's own trajectory, culminating professionally in a Chair at the University of Paris Vincennes, some distinguished literary criticism and the eight novels she has written in the past thirty years or so. However, a girlhood enmeshed in familial franglais jokes and creative misrendering (“un fait divers” becomes “a winter fact”), and an early adulthood spent decoding enemy messages at Bletchley Park, have formed an intelligence wary of the very language that betrays its perceptiveness. The forty-five-year-old author of Between (1968) entertained the idea that “words fraternized silently beneath the syntax”, and—a translator's ingenuousness lithely subverting itself—that “il n'y a aucune difficulté le langage speaks for itself”.

Analogous to the remaking process of autobiography is Christine Brooke-Rose's familiar re-inflection of words and phrases. Any noun can become a verb, perhaps, but not usually to the languorous metaphorical effect—“The black car limousines along the colonnade”—of her opening sentence. “Life” anagrams itself into “file”, engendering an inbred simile that is tenaciously interrogated, whether riffling through the card-index at Bletchley or calling up details on a diskette in Provence. And if words fraternize, they also break up: a companionable idiom splits, to define sisterly loathing, “a la proche haine”.

Much of the narrative pattern is generated by an inauspicious grammatical example. Erecting a superstructure for a Chomskyan rule that deploys “John” as subject and object in reflexive relation, Brooke-Rose provides her subject with a series of “mentors”, named to assert the multifariousness that is John. Mother is Jeanne, there is an Aunt Vanna (Giovanna) and a sister Joanne; married suitors of the wartime Tess include Jonathon, Jock and US Army Colonel Jon J.; married life, first with Ian, then more enduringly with Janek, is punctuated by a lover, Sean. The ranks of the narrator's immediate “other selves” have all enlisted as John, distinguished by numbers or quasi-creative functions, or both. (The “litcritter” is number 13.) Far from suggesting interchangeability, the tactic insists on difference, realizing a characteristic distinction with the last of the mentors, Hans—“a tower of strength not a tour de force”.

Against a background of paternal dereliction and her mother's over-anxiety, Tess's formal education in the 1930s is no more than adequate, its religious instruction especially bewildering: before the Anglican nuns, “God” had been known only from Little Women, as “a word used in sad times”. Nevertheless, there are poetry, history and botany, “and beautiful algebra”. No current affairs, however: Tess spends a summer in Germany, ignorantly suspicious (“Fuhrer of what?”), but distantly polite as relatives hymn the triumphs of 1938. A lot of naivety is dispelled by her experience as a WAAF Intelligence Officer, reading the war as text, discovering who Cole Porter is, and Duke Ellington, and studying Ovid and medieval history towards the distant prospect of Matric and a degree.

Intellectually formative, this episode may be read as the book's central organizing metaphor, but only as long as one recognizes failures to decode. Brook-Rose takes care to apply the verb, even proleptically, in the context of Tess's lapses of emotional and sexual awareness. But occasionally over-wrought encoding in the narrative too stressfully juxtaposes private and public. Tess's habitual manner has been to plunge in, “aquaescing” in what, retrospectively, are so many “facts of life”; when experience brings her up against the phrase as colloquially understood, she is disturbed both by her remaining ignorance and by the facts themselves. Anatomically, the obduracy of her hymen provides a trope for all this—but more is required: “Fancy the body being a fortress against invasion! But the doctor suggests a surgical removal. Ian acquiesces. Sicily falls in June.” There's a deft touch here in the agreement of the husband-to-be, rather than the owner of the hymen, but, like Sicily, the humour collapses under pressure.

What her “good war” does, above all, is to ground Tess/Christine Brooke-Rose/old lady as a writer: intercepting and (a quiet but crucial pun) “decrypting” messages, she learns to “imagine the other”. The narrator now realizes that ‘bifografy’, in its need to confront selves and others, may also obscure or simply lose them. Memory's interceptions falter, and, from time to time, Remake advertises its misrememberings. Could the Chiswick of Tess's infancy possibly have been “S.W.15”? No doubt the old lady in Provence, though not Brooke-Rose, could imagine it so. Again, when the third-person voice, so meticulous in its delineation of the Blair family-tree, is briefly effaced by the diary, the first person is no guarantor of accuracy, confidently making mother—ninety-two in 1984—fifty-two years old in 1946. Myra Hess, heard by an excited Tess at the Liverpool Philharmonic, acquires a supererogatory “e”, perhaps in homage to the author's eminent fellow Poundian, Eva Hesse, the dedicatee of Between. Sicily fell in August 1943, not June.

To read in such a fashion suggests the extent to which the reader, too, is encoded into Remake. The text makes attention to “the itsybitsy” essential to that grasping of “the whole”, which is a recurrent concern of the old lady and her alter ego. Displaying all the self-conscious wit of its author's fiction, this is at once a kind of meta-autobiography, a meditation on memory—as embodied and invented by language—and a narrative of formal scrupulousness and lyrical grace. And beautiful algebra.

Karen R. Lawrence (essay date January 1997)

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SOURCE: Lawrence, Karen R. “Saving the Text: Cultural Crisis in Textermination and Masterpiece Theatre.Narrative 5, no. 1 (January 1997): 108-16.

[In the following essay, Lawrence examines the parallels between Textermination and the dramatic performance Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama, written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Describing both as examples of women's metafiction, Lawrence compares the narrative strategies of the two works, concluding that Textermination acts as a more effective piece of cultural critique.]

In an essay entitled “Where Do We Go from Here?” Christine Brooke-Rose borrows a definition of “metafiction” from Mas'ud Zavarzadeh's The Mythopoeic Reality—The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (1976): metafiction, she quotes, is “‘ultimately a narrational metatheorem whose subject matter is fictional systems themselves [… It] exults over its own fictitiousness,’ and its main counter-techniques are flat characterization, contrived plots, antilinear sequences of events, all fore-grounded as part of an extravagant overtotalization, a parody of interpretation which shows up the multiplicity of the real and the nâiveté of trying ‘to reach a total synthesis of life within narrative’” (161-62). By this definition, both Brooke-Rose's own latest novel, Textermination (1991), and Gilbert and Gubar's latest criticism, Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama, the 1995 publication of a skit that they first performed at the 1989 MLA Convention, would classify as “metafiction.” The word “narrational” might require some stretching in the case of Masterpiece Theatre, since it is written in the form of a script, but as text, I would argue, it conforms to Zavarzadeh's definition in its extravagant fictitiousness, exposure of systemeticity, and parody of totalizing interpretations. Furthermore, the stage directions and block dialogues under the heading of a speaker are themselves stylizations; like Joyce's weird script for the Nighttown chapter of Ulysses, this script is narrativized for a reader of a text rather than dramatized for a theatrical viewer.

But if both texts exult over their own fictitiousness and unreality, they also deliberately invoke the “real” by presenting themselves as responses to cultural crisis. Not content to remain securely within their own playful quotation marks, both texts are metafictions in the wilderness, jeremiads that warn us of the dire predicament of literature and literary criticism in the postmodern age. One could say that it is Cassandra who presides over both these parodic, paranoid texts, revealing that the prophetic urge is alive and well and living in women's metafiction, despite its skepticism toward grand models of interpretability and monuments of unageing intellect. What both metafictions lament is a loss of cultural memory, specifically, the “forgetting” of the literary text amidst a melee of critical and political agendas that characterize the contemporary Anglo-American and Continental cultural scene. Although richly comic, both metafictions participate in a prevalent contemporary rhetoric of witness and survival that evokes shades of World War II, that most “real” of twentieth-century political events—perhaps most explicitly in the title, Textermination, and the title of Gilbert and Gubar's final chapter, “The Final Deletion.”

Brooke-Rose's novel is set in the San Francisco Hilton, at an annual convention of literary characters from centuries of narratives in various, mostly Western, traditions. It begins with Emma Woodhouse, Emma Bovary and Mann's Goethe sharing a carriage, as both conventional vehicles of the imagination (fiacres and carriages), and newer conveyances, such as the “aerobrain,” whisk the characters through time. At the convention, which strangely resembles the one MLA Brooke-Rose attended, the characters assemble for a Prayer for Being to the Implied Reader, hoping, the narrator tells us, to “recover, after an unimaginable journey, to savour what remains of international ritual for the revival of the fittest” (8). Their Darwinian predicament is symptomatic of the fate of reading and criticism in our time: the characters are “ghosts” (19), languishing from “lack of involved attention” (2) in an age of popular culture. They suffer as well from the effects of contemporary theory and literary criticism, which have led to a dereification or “dissolution,” as Brooke-Rose called it in a 1987 essay.1 As the beleaguered characters begin to pray, they are interrupted by twelve turbaned terrorists, demanding equal time for their own rituals and threatening to kill all the congregation. (Their main purpose, however, seems to be to assassinate Rushdie's Gibreel Farishta, who attends the Convention.) Calvino's “Non-Existent Knight” (35) saves the day by beheading the terrorists, further prayers are cancelled, and the convention continues. Near the end of the novel, the characters are subjected to a dual apocalypse: a book-burning that transforms the Hilton into a Towering Inferno, which, in turn, collapses when an earthquake hits the San Andreas fault. The unstable ground of the California setting only exacerbates the chronic vulnerability of fictional characters who suffer the life and death consequences of critical fashion and reader interest. However, like O. J. Simpson and others in the star-studded cast of the movie The Towering Inferno (and O. J. Simpson in his legal battles as well), characters miraculously appear from within the rubble, somehow surviving the apocalypse. Slowly, they proceed back to their textual homes, as the novel comes full circle, with Emma entering her carriage.

Gilbert and Gubar's “academic melodrama” likewise stages the cultural scene in apocalyptic terms. The Prologue, set in 2088 at a virtual branch campus, begins with a dialogue between the Curator of Print Culture and a Professor of Past Modern Studies, among others, who screen for their beginning students “fin-de-mod-siècle” episodes of Masterpiece Theatre. The historical drama the students view in these episodes is a 1980's war story—a culture war story, that is. “The Perils of the Text; or, Campus Capers,” the first episode of this docudrama, presents the melodramatic predicament of the literary text, an amnesiac who has forgotten her own identity, and with it the meaning of her existence. The young female text has been abducted and tied to the railroad tracks by a murderous villain, who may be either a chain of being (code words for right-wing culprit) or a chain of signifiers (code words for left-wing culprit). The text is befriended by the “heroine,” Jane Marple, a young assistant professor and namesake of her aunt (Agatha Christie's detective), who attempts to save the text. Instead of literary characters, the major characters in this melodrama are mostly “real” literary critics, celebrities of the profession including Fish, Bloom, Vendler, and Christian, along with government players in the culture wars, such as Bennett and Cheney, and movie stars like Madonna. All aggressively attempt to discover the text's identity and significance; all project onto the text their own theories and interests. Ultimately, when the text disappears, all are held culpable by Marple, à la Murder on the Orient Express: “You all had motives, you were all to blame. Some of you wanted money, some political power, some professional advancement, some philosophical hegemony, some language games, some just general destruction” (183). As in Textermination, Arab terrorists escalate the crisis; they threaten to exterminate the text because they are convinced it is The Satanic Verses (the terrorists, however, turn out to be impersonated by Isabelle Allende, Buchi Emechetta and Bharati Mukherjee, working undercover as counter-terrorists). The novel ends when one Rose McGuffin, a professor of history and “astronautics,” absconds with the text and flees the planet by space ship to ensure its survival.

In this essay I will explore the nature of cultural critique in these metafictional texts, examining how they gesture toward the “real” while always reminding us that we are enmeshed in illusion. The presence of such gestures toward an historical moment provides a counter to a common assumption about metafiction: that it is an exercise in literary narcissism, devoid of the power to evoke history. This prevalent doubt about the efficacy of fantasy and self-conscious artifice is a contemporary example of a longstanding suspicion, apparent, for example, in Lukács's work on the novel. Yet although both Textermination and Masterpiece Theatre urge the reader toward an act of historical witness, I believe Brooke-Rose displays more faith in fantasy's resources for evoking historical consciousness. She locates the many forms of resistance to textermination within the elements of fiction, embodied, most prominently, in the stubborn reality of character.

Textermination presents the wild and crazy underside of T. S. Eliot's “historical sense”; characters from past and present physically and dialogically jostle one another with both comic and unsettling results. Humbert Humbert leers at an unsuspecting Maisie; Middlemarch's Casaubon goes to hear a paper on himself, only to find, to his bitter disappointment, that the subject is another Casaubon, the one from Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. As George Eliot's Casaubon discovers, the canon is a zero sum game; realist characters from two hundred years of literature find themselves displaced by the more up-to-date “real” of popular culture, signaled by the invasion of television actors, as well as characters, at the conference (Peter Falk is the detective on the case of the terrorists). J. R. and Bobby and Steve McGarrett shout “we are eternal, we're real! … We are the ones people want and know and love!” (58). As Brooke-Rose says of the predicament of serious literature in “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel,” “the human need for fictions has been channeled into the ‘popular’ genres” (191). Characters from contemporary fiction are even more threatened by the reader's snub than poor Mr. Casaubon, since they have never become canonical. Even Mira Enketei from two of Brooke-Rose's own recent novels finds herself on an index of names of characters forgotten by readers (either from the nonavailability or noncanonicity of the works in which they appear or from a lapse in readers' memories of their particular role in a canonical work). She promptly disappears from the novel.

But probably the major threat of textermination comes from academic critical practice, particularly the narrow theoretical and political axes that critics grind. As one character puts it, those characters who are read by teachers, scholars and students are “analysed as schemata, structures, functions within structures, logical and mathematical formulae, aporia, psychic movements, social significances and so forth” (26). This plethora of agenda bewilders the erstwhile heroine of the novel, Kelly McFadgeon, a young “Interpreter” attending the meeting, who bemoans her failure to master the right lingo of the profession. But the real danger of this balkanization is emblamatized by the machine-gun packing terrorists who search for Gibreel Farishta, Rushdie's character from The Satanic Verses, their political agenda emblematic of a certain kind of cultural terrorism that confuses fiction and politics.

Textermination brings literature to the brink of extinction, thematizing the various “deaths” that have become such critical commonplaces—of the author, of character, of the novel (and since the reader is an unseen god to whom the characters pray, she, too, is included in this hit list). Yet I think it is Brooke-Rose's strength to reinvent, rather than to exhaust, the resources of fictionality. Raiding the available resources provided by literature, she explores the “afterlife” of textuality. Through her “ghosts” (19) or “constellations of semes,” as they're called at one point (63), she focuses on the ontology of fictional being, a persistent theoretical concern since her first critical study, A Rhetoric of the Unreal.Textermination mines fiction's resources to test theory's preoccupations, by combining “inquiry” and “ink-worries” (significant puns that are found in the text, [67]). For example, before the apocalyptic climax, a quieter “textermination” is staged. It occurs in chapter 11, not an accident, I think, in a metafictional novel, for here, the novel is brought to the brink of bankruptcy. Two fictional (and female) narrative presences we have come to rely on disappear suddenly—Kelly in chapter 9 (after suddenly discovering she, too, is fictional) and Mira Enketei in chapter 10. We feel the loss of Kelly, in particular, for her bewilderment in the face of such rampant intertextualities mirrors our own predicament as readers. (Unlike Rita Humboldt, “star” professor of CompLit and organizer of the conference, Kelly admits her inability to recognize every personage: “She feels ashamed and rattled. Gaps, so many gaps in her reading, she'll never catch up” [22]). Despite her lack of complexity, or context, or individuality in a novel in which she is one name among many, we nevertheless fasten onto her consciousness with relief, and, thus, her “textermination” is experienced as a loss. Next, Mira takes over in chapter 10, only to vanish from the novel herself (realizing that she is on the list of forgotten characters, she feels that “[s]he can't go on. She doesn't exist” [105].) It is at this point that chapter 11 introduces the fictional voice of the author, Christine Brooke-Rose. “If she can't go on, I suppose I'll have to … I too, like Mira, have no idea how to go on. I must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on (Beckett, The Unnameable)” [sic] [106-107]). Strangely, the novel is “rescued” with a deus ex machina updated. The new technology is an old convention revised—authorial intrusion. Interrupting the narrative progress, the “author” discusses her relationships to the characters she has just invented and her difficulties as an author. The spectre of Beckett hovers in every admission of defeat and renewed bid for control. “I have thus created a fiction too difficult for me to handle. So I omit what I don't know. A double absence. All authors omit, texts are full of double absences” (107). Characters, narrators, and authors all submit to the self-destructions of the text.

In the thought experiments that are Brooke-Rose's novels, criticism, character and theory converge as points of speculation, as all engage in testing the imaginative life of an idea, in this case “unreality.” In the process, the conventions of fiction, like the convention in California, are undermined. But the illusion of art is subverted in order to save the illusion. Thus, what we witness is not nostalgia for the good old days of realist fiction and its faithful readers, but a call to revitalize both fiction's powers and its vulnerabilities. One of the ways in which Brooke-Rose does this is by reminding us of the “unbearable lightness of being” that is always fiction's link with death. Describing the difference between a dramatic and fictional character, one of the convention organizers says that fictional characters

appear gradually out of the reading process, the letters on the page, mere words, not made flesh but creating phantoms in the very varied minds of each solitary reader. It is in this imaginative build-up that we're threatened, I mean that the characters of fictional narrative are threatened, in a way far more profound and more eroded by time than is possible with dramatic characters, at every moment made flesh before our eyes.


The speech suggests that it is not only in “postmodern fiction” that fiction “theorizes” its own vulnerability; indeed, realism itself constructs such phantoms of the imagination, who demand the reader's faith. Realism's “mirror” is always the prop of an illusionist. In a meeting between Kundera's Tomas (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Brooke-Rose even stages an acknowledgment that reality and unreality are wed in both “realism” and “postmodernism.” Emma thinks: “Being seems to trouble him for some reason, and he calls it unbearably light. And to her astonishment she finds herself agreeing. She has never thought of it in that way, and it somehow relieves her of the oppressive feeling she has had ever since she arrived, that her certitudes are uncertain, that she no longer quite exists in them, no longer quite coincides with herself” (109).2

Yet despite the presence of illusion in all fiction, one senses the particular vulnerabilities of post-World War II writing. In Textermination, the sudden disappearances of fiction's phantoms are eerily reminiscent of other nontextual exterminations as well as the “unreality” that Gertrude Stein identified with the Second World War: “There is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any, and so it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter” (44). Brooke-Rose's experimental fiction provides a significant corrective to Linda Hutcheon's rather glib enumeration of “principles” eschewed in postmodern fiction, such as “value, order, meaning, control, and identity … that have been the basic premises of bourgeois liberalism” (13). Textermination refuses such insouciant dismissals—identity, for one, has a stubborn resilience, despite the smart postmodern bombs hurled its way. Yet Brooke-Rose also reminds us that the echo of “extermination” in “textermination” is only an echo: If the text mimics “unreal” disappearances in a century gone crazy, the “t” in textermination is nevertheless an important sign of a difference between fiction and life that it is dangerous to forget.

World War II also haunts the culture wars in Masterpiece Theatre, not only in the echo between “The Final Deletion” and “the final solution,” but in the spectre of Paul de Man, mentioned pointedly in the authors' introduction to their melodrama. “The revelation of De Man's [sic] pro-Nazi writings during the early forties posed a crucial question: was the notion of indeterminacy itself merely a mask to hide the problems of the past?” (xxii). Placed by the authors strategically beyond parody, that is, in the nonfictional prose genre of the introduction, de Man is accorded a special status: he stands for theory's denial of its own investments and responsibilities.3 For Gilbert and Gubar the real-life drama of de Man is one reminder of the link between theory and ideology, in this case, anti-Semitism, and its consequences in the twentieth-century. Within the melodrama, then, the authors expose the passions and investments of critics who struggle for interpretive control of the text. They employ the ideological and moral simplifications of melodrama to parody the self-righteousness and egotism of both left and right political agendas (Lentricchia and Bennett square off), as the fate of the literary text is forgotten. Melodrama turns character into ideological position: Heilbrun, Bloom, Derrida all quote themselves, while “nameless assistant professors” parrot postcolonial jargon. Deconstruction seems to create the text's amnesia: “I was disseminated, I floated free, I had no subject, I lost my stable center” (31), wails the text. Counteracting this cultural amnesia is the feminist heroine, Jane Marple. Rescuing the text, she insists she just wants to read her to see what she means. There is something contradictory about this idea of a reading divorced from pushy theory, appearing, as it does, in a parody of all critical agendas (even feminist); identity politics resurfaces here as the ground of a zero-degree reading. Acknowledging, however, that this utopian solidarity is impossible on an earthly terrain “scorched” by critical terrorisms of the text, the authors merge melodrama with science fiction: Rose McGuffin exits with the female amnesiac text to find another world for their solidarity.

Ironically, one senses in Masterpiece Theatre, as one does not in Textermination, an insecurity on the part of the authors about their ability to conduct cultural critique in fiction. This doubt is manifested in the elaborate nonfictional apparatus that prefaces the melodrama, providing, preemptively, both the context and interpretation of the fiction to come. An ascending scale of fictionality gradually moves us toward the melodrama—from Dedication, to Introduction, to Preface, to voice over, to Act I. In the introduction, in propria persona, and before they become SGI and SG2 in the melodrama, Gilbert and Gubar stake their position in the culture wars. Taking stock of their own habitual position on the left, they confess they now find themselves “embarrassingly” sympathetic to the conservatives' emphasis on aesthetics: “To the extent that the Forward into Instability platoon has jettisoned any concept of aesthetic greatness, their Back to Basic antagonists provide a healthy corrective” (xvi). Yet they assure us that they are still left of center after all these years. The nonfictional introduction bears the burden of clearly articulating the message, as if the parodic metafiction couldn't quite be trusted to present the “real” consequences of the culture wars. We are told that the “real needs and problems of real students” are more important than arguments about the canon. In case we might miss it, the authors spell out the “twin themes” of the melodrama: “Faced with a world of theoretical and antitheoretical passion, mercantile exploitation, and cynical devaluation, what can a poor text do? Similarly, confronted with the same constellation of material or immaterial conditions, what can a poor assistant professor of English do?” (xiv). Although the “message” of the melodrama seems to be to save the fictional text, the “message” of Gilbert and Gubar's text in toto is that the real economic conditions of university funding and employment might be obscured by fiction and fantasy. This rather compulsive framing suggests that metafiction and parody just might be vehicles both too confining and, perhaps, too slippery, for cultural critique.

Indeed, there is also something contradictory about a text that admonishes critics about the dangers of self-fetishization, while itself constructing an academic pantheon—kind of like crossing Cassandra with Robin Leach. Critics rather than characters have all the power in Masterpiece Theatre; indeed, the poor anonymous text is just a pretext for the exercising of critical muscle. In the final chapter, Gilbert and Gubar express some anxiety about this process; in a staged dialogue between SG1 and SG2, they acknowledge that the up-to-date celebrity of their cast of characters might, in fact, make their fiction date too quickly:

We're trying to sell
Masterpiece Theatre. But we're afraid
it's much too trendy, too
allusive. In ten years it'll need
footnotes like The Dunciad.


This is a different kind of anxiety about textual survival and the “unbearable lightness of being” than Brooke-Rose's, one that expresses doubt about the afterlife of a hip MLA skit turned into permanent text. The university novel is, of course, a persistent genre; Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, like Gilbert and Gubar, have used it to comic effect. But Masterpiece Theatre inadvertently raises the suspicion that the academic novel may be just that—“academic,” that is, not useful in the real world. In discussing the terrorists' attack at the Prayer for Being meeting, specifically, whether the episode with the knight and terrorists was, indeed, “real,” the professor in Brooke-Rose's text says: “if it was a fiction, no damage's been done at all, fiction's our business. Do you read me? It's a goddamn miracle that fiction still has the power to offend, and maybe change things, as it used to” (35). Both Masterpiece Theatre and Textermination use fiction to launch cultural critique in the hopes of “changing things,” of doing some work in the intellectual world. But Brooke-Rose has more faith in fiction as business.

Ironically, so does Salman Rushdie, the emblem (for Brooke-Rose and Gilbert and Gubar) of both the power of fiction in the world and the tragedy of a too-literal confusion of fiction and politics. In a piece entitled “In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again,” Rushdie responds to a talk delivered by George Steiner which had bemoaned the moribund state of the genre of the novel in Europe. Castigating the plethora of such obituaries of the novel, Rushdie emphasizes that it is precisely the hybridity and flexibility of the genre, its blend of fact and fantasy, that ensures its durability: “In my view, there is no crisis in the art of the novel. The novel is precisely that ‘hybrid form’ for which Professor Steiner yearns: It is part social inquiry, part fantasy, part confessional; it crosses frontiers of knowledge as well as topographical boundaries” (50). Diagnosing “real” threats to the novel in accordance with the observations of Gilbert and Gubar, Rushdie says:

There is another real danger facing literature, and of this Professor Steiner makes no mention; that is, the attack on intellectual liberty itself—intellectual liberty, without which there can be no literature … Of the pressures of intolerance and censorship, I have personally, in these past years, gained perhaps too much knowledge. … The death of the novel may be far off, but the violent death of many contemporary novelists is, alas, an inescapable fact. In Europe and the United States as well, the storm troopers of various ‘sensitivities’ seek to limit our freedom of speech. It has never been more important to continue to defend those values which make the art of literature possible.


In their fundamentalism and denial of intellectual liberty, the “storm troopers” of sensitivities, the cultural terrorists, are linked by Rushdie to political terrorists who have put a fatwa on his life. Both Masterpiece Theatre and Textermination make such connections. But it is Brooke-Rose who comes closest to the tenor of Rushdie's belief that fantasy can be trusted to merge with social inquiry in the novel. Compelled toward the referential function of fiction, even metafiction, Brooke-Rose nevertheless ends her novel where it began, with the departure of fictional character. However precariously, she restores to one Emma Woodhouse her unbearable lightness of being.


  1. See Brooke-Rose's essay, “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel.”

  2. One can see this kind of “speculation” as a fictional analogue to the critical conjecture of Virginia Woolf, who ponders what kind of novel Austen would have produced had she written after Persuasion: “Her sense of security would have been shaken. … She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters” (231). Into the future, beyond Woolf's surmise, Brooke-Rose casts Emma, giving her a postmodern afterlife that is manifested in a split sense of identity.

  3. Reference to the “de Man case” is made in the text itself by “Derrida,” who, in a parody of the double columns of Glas, offers a rather weak defense of his friend (Gilbert and Gubar, 92-94).

Works Cited

Brooke-Rose, Christine. “The Dissolution of Character in the Novel.” In Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, edited by Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna and David E. Wellberry, 184-96. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1986.

———. Textermination. New York: New Directions, 1991.

———. “Where Do We Go from Here?” Granta 3 (1980): 161-88.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1995.

Rushdie, Salman. “In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again.” The New Yorker, 24 June and 1 July 1996, 48-55.

Stein, Gertrude. Wars I Have Seen. New York: Random House, 1945.

Woolf, Virginia. “Jane Austen.” In The Common Reader, 1925. Reprint. The Virginia Woolf Reader, edited by Mitchell A. Leaska. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1984: 220-32.

Karen R. Lawrence (essay date winter-spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Lawrence, Karen R. “Dialogizing Theory in Brooke-Rose's Thru.Western Humanities Review 50-51 (winter-spring 1997): 352-58.

[In the following essay, Lawrence discusses the intersection of fiction and literary theory in Thru.]

The work of Christine Brooke-Rose, both novelist and narrative theorist, provides one of the most interesting cases of the imbrication of theory and fiction in contemporary writing. Her novels are radical experiments in which theories inform fiction and yet fiction intervenes to dramatize theory's limitations. Thru (1975), her most self-consciously theoretical novel, written during the heyday of the “theory boom” in French universities (and a time when she herself taught at the experimental university at Vincennes), both thematizes and historicizes theory debates. In it, theory is dialogized, that is, theories are made to speak to one another, revealing their blindnesses and emotional investments like characters in a more conventional novel. In Thru, Brooke-Rose tests the limits of theory by revealing what it fails to account for.

Brooke-Rose has said that Thru is a “narrative about narrativity” (Stories, Theories, and Things, 8). Two of its possible authors (“characters” in the text) are Armel Santores, a teacher of contemporary theory, and Larissa Toren, an author who is his anagrammatic double and former wife. The text warns the reader: “There should be placards saying: Danger. You are now entering the Metalinguistic Zone. All access forbidden except for Prepared Consumers with special permits from the Authorities” (629). These tongue-in-cheek instructions to the reader reveal that the physical journey we begin at the start of the narrative is the journey of the narrative itself:

Through the driving-mirror four eyes stare back
two of them in their proper                                                                      place
Now right on
Q. …


Theory collapses into fiction; metanarrative into narrative; the rectangle of the driving mirror doubles as a rectangular classroom in a university. The “course” of the narrative journey proliferates into “the hundred and fifty courses” offered in this university, a multiplicity “which would upset the balanced economy of the narrative whose arbitrariness (freedom) is not infinite” (735). In the migrating letters of this fiction, characters are “travelling semes” (736), sometimes “lost semes, vanishing away like gods into the other scene” (733). (The ghostly presence of Roland Barthes is everywhere in the narrative.) Brooke-Rose rewrites the classic picaresque journey; the “horse” on which the picaro usually rides, wandering from episode to episode, now punningly forms part of the “disc-horse.” A narrative voice notes that modern novels “twiddle … from one disembodied voice to another on this or that wave-length listening in to this or that disc-jockey and always the same disc-horse, a yea-yea and a neigh inserted into the circuit of signifiers, each discourse penetrating the non-disjunctive functioning of another” (637). Story and discourse collapse, refusing a structuralist separation.

At the same time that she fictionalizes theory, Brooke-Rose historicizes it, locating her own metafiction in the specific context of poststructuralist discourses emerging in the seventies. Paradoxically, the rampant intertextuality in the novel functions at once as the sign of fictionality and as a sign of the “real,” the historical moment when the theory debates occurred in lecture and in print. Barthes's S/Z, Derrida's Writing and Difference, Lacan's “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” Derrida's Dissemination, Irigaray's Speculum and “Pouvoir du discours/subordination du féminin” (republished in This Sex Which Is Not One), and Cixous and Clement's Newly Born Woman, all roughly contemporary with Brooke-Rose's novel of twenty years ago, provide obvious intertexts in the narrative of Thru. The novel draws on deconstruction and its insights into the blindness of Western discourse, but converges most closely with French feminism's revisions of phallocentric models of many kinds—realist, structuralist, and poststructuralist alike: “Eyelessness is not a provisional state but a structure, a blind spot in your own youdipeon discourse and discourse only occurs insofar as there is lack of (in)sight” (675).

The preposition through/thru doubly refers to a journey through space and a gaze through the medium of the mirror, a mirror that distorts as it reflects. In displaying the “faulty” driving-mirror in her novel, Brooke-Rose forces us to interrogate the central trope of realism—the mirror—and a central trope of “classic” narrative—the journey; what we get is a “retro viseur,” a reflector that is also a retro-speculator, a glance backward. As the narrative “drives the discourse into the future,” a phrase from the novel itself, Brooke-Rose reviews the traditional objects and subjects that have appeared in realism's mirror, exposing the various “blind spots” that have traditionally organized realism's scopic field; in the speculum obscurum of this novel, a second ghostly pair of eyes appears in the driving mirror:

Intensity of illusion is what matters to the narrator
through a flaw in the glass darkly perhaps making four
clear eyes stare back, two of them in their proper place at
height of bridge of nose … A
second pair of eyes hidden higher up the brow would have
its uses despite psychic invisibility or because of.


These are the eyes that haunt but are strangely occluded in traditional narratives. As Irigaray explains her enterprise in Speculum, she seeks “to make ‘visible,’ by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible” (“‘The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine” in This Sex Which Is Not One, 76). Brooke-Rose's “retro viseur” is linked to the term “retraversée” in Irigaray's writings, a term that means “The process of going back through social, intellectual, and linguistic practices to reexamine and unravel their conceptual bases, in analogy with Alice's voyages of exploration in Through the Looking-Glass” (This Sex, 221, publisher's note).

Yet although Brooke-Rose's project in Thru coincides most closely with Irigaray's, it is a novel rather than an essay, one which stages theoretical “positions” and demonstrates what is at stake in maintaining them. “Narration is life and I am Scheherezade,” Larissa tells Armel at one point in the narrative, and life “will all get changed and transmuted …,”

cancelled even, for it does not exist, except in my own boundless need and fear that will alter the signifiers into a delirious discourse through swift-footed Hermes with terrible letters.


Need and fear are woven throughout this “delirious discourse” made up of “terrible letters”; indeed, Thru operates as an hysterical text, a self-mutilated body of writing that strikes itself blind and dumb—that is, without eyes/“I”'s. For the blind spot in the rectangular mirror is diagnosed as woman as semiotic subject rather than object; hers are the “I”'s that are missing. In an essay she wrote in 1985, “Woman as Semiotic Object,” Brooke-Rose points out the way she telescoped the image of the driving-mirror in Thru with the semiotic rectangle of Greimas's structuralist paradigm of four “I”'s or “actants” and their objects of exchange.1 She notes that the semiotic system of narrative signification created by Greimas is theory that is neither scientific nor neutral, as it purports to be. It depends upon the exchange of women between men, leading Brooke-Rose to say, “I wonder whether these formulae for perfect love have been programmed into the computers of matrimonial agencies instead of tastes, ages and social situations. I know they have been programmed into male and female consciousnesses for thousands of years, and are not likely to be truly effaced in the mere few centuries since women began to try and think of other possibilities for themselves” (238). In Thru this skeptical voice is taken over by Diderot's Jacques the fatalist, who cannily anticipates the power discourses of the twentieth century. He announces that “It is more difficult for a phallus-man to enter the I of a woman than for the treasurer of signifiers to enter the paradiso terrestre” (595). Brooke-Rose's novel functions to present an alternative “hystery of the Eye” (584; 691).

Playing upon what Martin Jay calls Enlightenment ocularcentricism, which equates the “I” and the “eye” (284), Brooke-Rose mimes the mythical blindings that abound in “youdipeon discourse”: Instead of the fear of castration which, as Freud says, speaks through these tales of blindings, Brooke-Rose “blinds” her own text, precipitating a new kind of textual “corpus crysis.” The most radical of the many gestures of the textual body's self-mutilation is its self-blinding in the form of the “gouging” of the “I/eyes” of the narrative:

So that now we have at last returned to the subject of
discourse, while still of the moment before being thru
and hurt (oo!) but who is we to dip royally
no collectively into an age-old narrative matrix before we
gouge out the I in order carefully to gauge its liquid


In an act that parodies the sacrificial self-blindings of Oedipus and Democritus of Abdera (who “tore his eyes out in a garden so that the spectacle of reality would not distract him,”2 the narrative gouges out its own I's/eyes. In the above passage the narrative voice asks skeptically who is the “royal we” who returns to the discourse—the androcentric normative “we” who forms the consensus underwriting European discourse? But this “youdipeon discourse” that records so many stories of male fears and desires is a narrative “matrix” or womb that is gouged out and dipped into, that is, the liquid essence of the eye is the liquid essence of the womb.3

This narrative “ma-trix” is the same one cut up into the “SIN TAG MA TRICKS found at the beginning of the narrative (581). “Ma's tricks' present a new “h Y s T e R y of The Eye” (584, 691), which is first of all a history of the occlusion of the female “I” and the objectification of the female body by the male gaze and pen, in fictive, theoretical, and, specifically, psychoanalytic discourses.

                    (but what does the omitter omit?)
The hystery of the eye
The cruel nails
grammed          in          the          r e m o t e

                                                                                                    e y e s

                                                                                p a r c h m e a n t

                                                                                o r  s t o n e

                                                                                               d r y

                                                                                          p a p y r u s

with a fear of fusion                         that

                                                                                might e x t end

                                                                                               explode the

                                                                                I               into     r


some Other sex                                        u     a l i t y


As Charles Bernheimer observes in his introduction to essays on Freud's Studies in Hysteria, “the oldest surviving Egyptian medical papyrus, dating from around 1900 B.C., deals specifically with recommended treatments for hysterical disorders” (2). In hysteria, the womb was thought to “wander,” and one of the more bizarre cures for this errancy was to place an ibis of the God Toth on the woman's crotch to lure the womb back into place. Psychoanalysis, as numerous revisionary feminist discussions of hysteria suggest, is a modern version of the “taming” of female errancy by bringing it back home to safe domesticity (see Cixous and Clément, 22). Brooke-Rose plays upon male inscriptions of female illness as well as fears of the possible contagion brought about by the flight of the uterus. (In one of the dialogues between Larissa and her former husband, Armel—a dialogue which, it is suggested, is also a “discourse” being written by creative writing students in a class—Armel tells Larissa to “Please stop this hysterical rewriting of history” [654].)4

In turning her text into an hysterical body Brooke-Rose tests the potential usefulness of hysteria as a discourse by women about women, that is, as a potentially disruptive discourse, the subject of the third section of Cixous and Clément's Newly Born Woman, in which they debate each other precisely on this point. By fictionalizing this theoretical discourse Brooke-Rose took the chance of converting her own narrative into an hysterical text, complete with cuts, gaps, silences, and crazy repetitions that mime a narrative out of control, helplessly watching its own delirious projections. We read: “Neurosis has the cunning of stupidity, and stupidity is a dimension anyone can fall into, however intelligent, indeed, part of the intellect can rise suspended and watch, helpless and in pain, the misuse of its own projected trajectory struggling alone, as if cut off from itself, in a delirious discourse …” (592). The “cuts” in and through the text, the abrupt cutting off of narrative idylls, the often frantically hectic pace of the narrative as it rushes from fragment to fragment, writing to rewriting, marks this textual body as symptomatic.5

In Thru this risky, hysterical “corpus crysis” heats up the temperature of the supposedly cool and distant, neutral theories that circulate through the text. While destabilizing and dissolving the realist idea of “character,” Brooke-Rose novelizes the supposedly distanced and logical position of “theory” and shows it to be a function of desire, like traditional romance plots of earlier texts. As theoretical positions are lifted from contemporary critical discourses, they take the place of more conventional “characters” in representing emotional investments. “Theory” reveals itself as a charactered discourse of fear and desire, pleasure and loss. In the midst of a dialogue between Larissa and her student lover, who is trying to convince her to live with him and accept their relationship, an academic voice in the narrative offers the following view of the purely “linguistic” character of relations—even love:

Any agent can enter into a relation with any predicate. The notions of subject and object do not correspond to a difference in nature but to a place in the proposition uniting for instance two lovers.


In Postmodern World Fiction Christopher Nash uses this particular passage to illustrate that postmodernist fiction treats “narrative [as] nothing more than a string of linguistic signs” (157). Now, Nash is right to suggest the break with character here—the semes indeed travel as positions become pro-positions played first one way and then another. What is somewhat misleading, however, is the suggestion that this break reduces the text to a kind of neutral, linguistic play. This reading accepts the flat tone of the passage itself, along with its suggestion that the flexibility of grammatical placement in the discourse of desire is a matter of no great consequence. The lovers are only a “for instance” in a general proposition about subjects and objects. And yet, this decathected, neutral “theoretical” position is embedded in a text wrought with highly charged (even lyrical) movements of desire and fear. As bits of theory are made to co-exist in the text, they turn into a strange kind of poetry. Jacques's Master tells him to read Kristeva and offers a revision of Wallace Stevens's “The Man with the Blue Guitar”: “she plays upon the blue guitar she does not play things as they are” (594). Poetry, fiction, theory are all surmise, invested with desire, personalitied, none completely capturing the way things “really are.” By proliferating the ghostly pairs of eyes that speculate, by proliferating the mirror into a “thousand and one mirrors,” Brooke-Rose makes it impossible for any “theory” to remain imperially, objectively in charge of the point of view. The narrative constantly plays with the “lettering” of emotion as it anagrammatically rearranges the subjects and objects of the discourse. “I me if it be possible despite non-equivalence to rewrite I as O and O as I” (585), we read at one point—this is a wish expressed in the narrative to rewrite the “I” of the narrative ego in the form of the “O” of the other, and this difference of a vowel matters: It matters who does what to whom, who seizes the “I,” who gazes at the Other. Indeed, the narrative plays with rearrangements of AEIOU to create varied postures of emotional debt and investment.

In “Woman as Semiotic Object,” Brooke-Rose prefaces her critique of the phallocentricism of most semiotic paradigms with the following story of her own emotion, so casually dropped as to be easily ignored: “There have been a few delightful moments, during my desultory and decidedly non-expert readings in semiotics, when the subject made me laugh out loud instead of terrorizing, or, same thing perhaps, boring me stupid” (237). This “laugh” is a laugh to free the mind from its bondage; the parodic, tongue-in-check tone of the critique of phallocentric semiotics begins by banishing both terror and boredom, emotions that might induce a kind of frozen passivity, even stupidity. The anecdote reveals something important about the survival of the female subject positions in Brooke-Rose's novel. For, finally, “Thru” in the title refers to getting through, to coming through, to surviving extermination with Scheherezade: “You'll lacerate yourself,” Armel says to Larissa, and she answers, “Oh I'll come through. I always do you know” (712).


  1. See Sarah Birch's discussion of Greimas's paradigm in Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction, 91-94.

  2. Derrida mentions Democritus in his fascinating discussion of blindness and self-portraiture in Memoirs of the Blind.

  3. Martin Jay notes that in Sartre's work, as in Bataille's, “the eye is identified … with liquid images of the fetus or womb, which links it to the mother in repellent ways” (281).

  4. These “nails” recur throughout the text and begin to reveal the way modernist as well as structuralist theories of fiction are revealed as deeply invested in the dialectics of desire: the fingernails of the Joycean artist, so coolly pared above or beyond his handiwork, are linked subtly, through accretion, with the “cruel nails” of the Egyptians as well as the “nailings” and impalings of the woman as object in narrative.

  5. In “Woman as Semiotic Object,” Brooke-Rose alludes to Cixous and Cléments' discussion of hysteria in The Newly Born Woman and observes that the very word “hysteria, from ustera, uterus, womb, is misogynous” (241).

Works Cited

Bernheimer, Charles and Claire Kahane, eds. In Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Birch, Sarah. Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction. Oxford UP: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. Thru. In The Christine Brooke-Rose Omnibus: Four Novels. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 1986. 577-742.

———. “Woman as Semiotic Object.” In Stories, Theories, and Things. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 237-49.

Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément. The Newly Born Woman. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Nash, Christopher. World Postmodern Fiction: A Guide. London: Longman, 1987.

Lorna Sage (review date 21 August 1998)

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SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “Laif-Lahk.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4977 (21 August 1998): 21.

[In the following review, Sage examines the themes of isolation and alienation in Next, calling the novel a “moving book, despite its dryness and deliberation.”]

Christine Brooke-Rose's new novel [Next] is set in London, and wanders the streets with the unemployed and the homeless, who pass on the burden of telling the story to one another like a baton in some shambling relay race. It is a very realist setting for a notoriously anti-realist writer—Beckett meets Bleak House—but, on reflection, there is an impeccable logic in Brooke-Rose's identification with her derelicts. These rough sleepers and monologuists, like the New Novelists of the 1950s and 60s, have lost the plot and the conviction of having characters. And they are no longer the representative outsiders, but part of a contemporary social map that is so big and bitty that it has no real outside.

Experimental writing, to spell out a rueful analogy, is no longer the Other, any more than the poor. Isn't everyone a bit tricky these days, a bit insecure, a bit playful, a bit between? “No lumpen proles only lumpen bourgeoisie.” All of which means that a writer like Christine Brooke-Rose is marginalized in a new way—there is something literal and intransigent and unfashionable about her insistence that the poor are indeed without. This book denies itself the use of the verb “to have” to make the point, and mimics graphically on the page the solitary wanderings of its characters, with sentences that string themselves out like old concrete poems (as unloved and out of date as tower blocks) and have no “I” in them, since an “I” depends on a “you” to talk to, and only materializes when people run into each other in hostels and job centres and doorways: “You're there and I talk.”

But their contacts are fleeting. One of the novel's funnier and sadder observations is that isolation is so addictive it is often irreversible; it makes you at once hungry for company and unable to cope with it. Given half a chance, some of these people—the ex-teacher who has spent most of his life in Africa, for instance—will bore any interlocutor silly. “He talks he talks, he talks like a book, them questions was just to get the ole self on”, says a young black truant and apprentice rapper who is implausibly patient with the opinionated old buffer, in order to enable him to spell out another of the book's themes: “the way we talk is only the dialect we were born and brought up in. … Did you ever read Scott … ?” The nearest thing to a shared language they have is what the didactic buffer calls Estuarian, the post-Cockney demotic of the South-East. Brooke-Rose transcribes it on the page in mockery of the old certainties of place and class—“Jes lahk laif inni?” And the alienation effect is real, a continuous grating on the reader's imaginary ear, the noise of Streetland, where people might as well all be plugged into Walkmans.

When Dickens asked himself and his readers, in Bleak House, what connection there could possibly be between illiterate, orphaned, lost Jo the crossing-sweeper and (say) Lady Dedlock, it was an archly rhetorical question. Jo proves his kinship by contagion; do-gooding Esther Summerson catches his smallpox, is revealed as Lady Dedlock's illegitimate daughter; which in turn provides a motive for the murder of lawyer Tulkinghorn, which eventually enables Inspector Bucket and the author to tie everything up. Here, the needy and marginal compete with and prey on each other; the murder that is the main event is unsolved, and there is a diaspora of destinies. At the end, we levitate into a curious, elegiac poetry, a hypothermic dream:

(Is there a life before death?)
                                                                                under the lullaby of trucks
                                   as the snow, thickening fast, the now
                                                                                                                             slanting snow,
                                                                  greypinkly eiderdowns him
                                                                                                                                  over. …
                              to be debriefed by eternity
                                                                                                              but with no next.
We'll take a break now. Stay with them.

Next is a moving book, despite its dryness and deliberation. Christine Brooke-Rose is a foreigner herself in London. She has lived and worked in France for thirty years now, and she looks at the city with an unaccommodated eye, charting its long decay as the capital of an empire of signs—which is (paradoxically enough) something that she takes absolutely personally.

Brian McHale (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: McHale, Brian. Review of Next, by Christine Brooke-Rose. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 2 (summer 1999): 127-28.

[In the following review, McHale asserts that the greatest strength of Next lies in the accuracy and range of the London dialects employed in the monologues that make up the narrative.]

Having apparently said farewell to literature in Textermination (1991) and written her memoirs in Remake (1996), Brooke-Rose surprises us with a new novel as strong as anything she has ever written. Here [in Next] she largely leaves behind the mediascape of her “Intercom Quartet” of the eighties and early nineties and ventures out into the streets to imagine the inner lives and outer wanderings of London's homeless. It's hard to picture Brooke-Rose sleeping rough at seventy-five years old or even interviewing those who do, but however she conducted her research, the result is as plausible and freshly observed as if firsthand.

This being a Brooke-Rose novel, there are structural secrets, some of which are revealed by the jacket copy; for instance, there are twenty-six characters, each bearing a name beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, the ten homeless characters spelling out among them the ten letters of the top row of the keyboard (QWERTYUIOP). This time around, however, the Oulipian cryptograms and procedures seem less crucial than a couple of features that the text displays on its surface. One element is the book's mapping of street-level, fin-de-millennium London, as we track the homeless on their rounds from doorway doss to homeless shelter to job center and around again, placing Next firmly in the lineage of the great twentieth-century city novels—a London “Wandering Rocks” for the nineties. More extraordinary still is Brooke-Rose's registration of the varieties of London speech (or “Estuarian,” as she calls it), ranging from educated bureaucratese through mildly “flavored” standard to immigrant variants to the pure, uncut thing itself: “Shi', Olley, wey can't tauwk in this craowd. We'uw loowse each ather anywie. Auw yer neeyd is ter skidadduw.” This language is a great discovery, or invention, or whatever it is, and puzzling it out is not only one of the superior pleasures of this text but something like an exercise in sympathy and identification; in struggling to voice this notation, you find yourself imaginatively occupying the space of those whose speech it simulates.

It turns out that you can teach an old lady (as she calls herself in Remake) new tricks; or, more to the point, she can teach them to you.

Paul Quinn (review date 8 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Quinn, Paul. “A Tale of the Tribe.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5036 (8 October 1999): 24.

[In the following review, Quinn describes Brooke-Rose's Subscript as “her strangest and … most strangely human work so far.”]

Christine Brooke-Rose's career has been much concerned with codes. As her memoir Remake (1996) reveals, she was a trilingual child negotiating languages and their translation, a state she acknowledged in the title of her early novel, Between (1968), which concerns a translator. Brooke-Rose was a wartime code-breaker at Bletchley Park; she spent twenty years as a professor at the University of Paris, immersed in structuralist poetics, producing unflinchingly rigorous critical works which codified texts from Ezra Pound to Kurt Vonnegut. Most visibly (if that is the right word for a writer who remains a cherished secret among British writers), she has striven in her fictions painstakingly and wittily to analyse and unpick some of the dominant discourses of our day—from astronomy in Such (1966) to computurese in Xorandor (1986) to the jargons of professionalized literary study in Textermination (1991) and passim. In her new fiction, Subscript, she moves from codes to “the code”, our own genetic history.

In an age when most metanarratives (or “meganarratives”, as someone calls them in her previous novel, Next, 1998), the stories that explain and define us, are collapsing all around, the Darwinian story has remained practically impervious, the most fit for survival. Brooke-Rose embarks on the formidable task of reinvigorating (by making strange) the narrative of human evolution, from multicellular organisms to our more recognizable forebears, as they struggle with cave painting and the first shoots of applied agriculture. The principal literary device she employs here is what one might term a stream of pre-consciousness. It begins in the thick of a Joycean proto-language, exulting in its own materiality and linguistic coinages, as something like life emerges from a pre-biotic chemical reaction some 4,500 million years ago:

Zing! Zinging out through the glowsalties the
pungent ammonia earthfarts in slithery clay
and all the rest to make simple sweeties and
sharpies and other stuffs. Dust out of vast
crashes and currents now calmer as the crust
thickens and all cools a bit.
Over many many forevers.
Waiting. Absorbing. Growing. Churning. Splitting.
Over and Over.

The ensuing biological processes, we are told, form “the basis of many founding stories carried by the code for many cool and warm-turns hence”. The idea of founding stories in this context is particularly appropriate, for Brooke-Rose is a Poundian, and here we have a tale of the tribe, evolution as epic. The technical challenges this presents are considerable—in rendering a story of constant change and upheaval, how can one retain the necessary continuities and patterns, the repetitions and identifications that all narrative, even epic, requires? It is a problem met with some humour; it is hard not to warm to a book whose second chapter is headed “Four thousand million years later”. Compared to this, Homeric or Virgilian foundation-epics treat of mere temporal blips.

In her earlier chapters, Brooke-Rose endeavours to evoke a dawning world by means of a limited but supple vocabulary, a poetic and metaphoric series of substitutions dictated by circumstance, where the ever-new must be siphoned through the already experienced. A night sky and its constellations are an “upper sea”, which “sometimes has lots and lots of tiny fish eyes, each like a fishscale but brighter, endless immobile shoals of fish eyes gleaming down upon a trembling visitor to this now darkened second sea.” Brooke-Rose has fun with such stylistic methods, particularly with the names of prehistory's crowding creatures, where the reader must decipher what “buzzers” and “the huge ones” and many unnamed others actually are. This device is refined later in the book, when the speed with which we deduce that the leather thong with pebbles left by a rival clan could be a slingshot places us many conceptual miles ahead of our pondering, ponderous ancestors, but also hints at the interpretative lag between all contemplation and understanding, between signifier and signified, that has long exercized Brooke-Rose's theoretical interests in the reading process.

Brooke-Rose also achieves narrative continuities over multiple millennia by carefully deployed traces and flickers of the code of species memory—for example, when characters dimly recall below-sea burrowing or an ancient monster with a double-mouth whose image surfaces then vanishes from view. From the beginning of her book, key genetic memories of luxuriating under water on a stalk are played against the need to move, to avoid danger, thus establishing one of the organizing oppositions of the story: the desire to burrow, to be rooted, versus the need to keep moving, to be nomadic. This opposition is figured most often in the sexual divide, whereby men wander restlessly towards an ever-retreating horizon, while women, more adept at emerging languages, become the conveyors of clan memories, hushing their offspring with stories by the cave fire (once fire has been discovered about half way through the book) and rooting the clan in story. The code here becomes a synonym for socialization—given their function as storytellers, one narrator opines, a tyrant need only prevent women from telling stories to “destroy speech forever”. Male communication is more like disguised combat, “never letting one male finish but barging in with a louder voice so that both are making noises at the same time and no one can hear either of them till one of them stops, always the one with the softer voice”. This gender agenda of discourse has long been an interest of the author's—most pressingly in Amalgamemnon (1984)—but here it is persuasively and amusingly (pre)historicized.

As the story progresses, the narration moves from the “we” of the pack, and the clan, to more carefully individuated human voices, invariably female. An important subtext of Subscript is the evolution of communication, from the ability to make noises to each other in order to “increase the closeness of the pack” or register danger in a general tremor of anxiety, to the coming of speech with its differentiations of gender and hierarchy. In a superb passage, the development of grammar, or “link noises”, and its pre-set orderings, is compared to the way weapons can be removed from stone-carvings, “in such a way that one sharp blow produces all the shapes needed”. This close relation between technologies of destruction and communication, both forms of innovation, is brought home in another section, where the breakthrough moments of the development of the bow and arrow and of perspectival ingenuity in cave painting are witnessed before, respectively, a baying crowd and in the hush of a sacred cavern.

This ambivalence towards progress has been an abiding theme in Brooke-Rose's work, in which the complex and subtle arts, the genuinely progressive instincts, are threatened and blunted by a vulgarized version of progress based on technological dominance. It is manifested most obsessively in the fear that reading and writing (especially at the level of sophistication demanded by writers like Brooke-Rose) are themselves facing extinction. In Textermination, various characters from literature, fearing the encroaching inanities of a homogeneous popular culture, gather together at the Annual Convention of Prayer for Being, to exhort the reader to remember them. There is an echo and a reversal of this (a code flicker in Subscript's terms) towards the end of the new work, when clans from far and wide gather for a great Congress, where the male clan leaders display a triumphalism which only those who have won evolution's great race can muster, crowing over the extinction of Neanderthal rivals. Only the clan Wordwoman, Aka, expresses regret that a people so similar have left the earth; she is rebuked for “sloppy nonsense” and reminded that “the strongest have to win”. It is the implied, quixotic, critique of the all-conquering “code-story” that gives Brooke-Rose's work its final power, amid all the linguistic games and inventive word-play. Although Subscript is markedly different from the lacerating Next, which deals with the contemporary urban homeless, it still bears that book's marks: the shifting but linked (here through ancestry rather than geography) narrators; the enforced nomadism, vying with the dream of burrowing deep dredged from the gene pool; and, above all, an underlying commitment to the idea that the unadapted, those outside the range of the clan fire, also have stories worth decoding.

It is possible to trace intertwined ancestries of Subscript. On its long journey, it touches on territory previously marked by The Inheritors by William Golding, the 1981 film Quest for Fire, for which Anthony Burgess invented the prehistoric language, and the thrown bone at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In her acknowledgements, Brooke-Rose has also usefully supplied a list of the scientific works that underwrite her vision. But Subscript is closer in spirit to a work of science fiction rather than science fact: Joseph McElroy's masterly Plus (a work which Brooke-Rose examines in careful detail in her critical study, A Rhetoric of the Unreal), in which a human brain in a capsule on orbit comes slowly to consciousness in a language which is similarly groping and questioning, replete with Beckettian cadences, but spinning through space rather than time. Brooke-Rose has hitherto given us backward narrations, sentient stones that speak and literary characters who will not accept the closure of the book. Subscript is her strangest and, because it tells the one story we all have in common, her most strangely human work so far.

Elizabeth Powers (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. Review of Subscript, by Christine Brooke-Rose. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 592.

[In the following review, Powers evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Subscript, noting that the work functions as “an impressive addition to Brooke-Rose's challenging oeuvre.”]

It is always wise to have a look at the jacket blurb before climbing into a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (b. 1926). Though this newest work by the prolific creator of experimental fiction has a linear narration, so to speak, a reader may wonder where it is heading. In Brooke-Rose's The Dear Deceit (1960), the narration went backward, from protagonist's funeral to early life. Subscript works forward, from incipient human life about 4,500 million years ago, as a cell fought its way to formation and unity out of a chemical reaction, to the likewise incipient attempts at agriculture fifty thousand short years ago. Got that?

Actually, this may be Brooke-Rose's most engaging work, despite its un-Aristotelian time scale. Every stage of development is accompanied by what can only be called an esthetic or a spiritual gain. Even in the initial membrane, efficiency reigns, but also ethics: despite “grumble grumble” about replication, despite protests (“Why change?”), the unit works together, to mutual advantage. The new cell doesn't sink into self-absorbed contentment with its achievement, for more and more cells force neighborliness on it and incite the march to complexity, with its constant creation and destruction.

It takes four billion years for the evolved organism to break from its “rootish attachment” at the bottom of the sea floor and, with new appendages, emerge from the water: “And the surface is astonishing. At first eyeful just above water, the body held up by the new swimflaps.” And so it goes, in time-lapse evolution, as seas recede, landmasses rearrange themselves, ice ages come and go (in nineteen short chapters!). After another 115 million years, flatter faces with forward-facing eyes bring the world into sharper relief. In the next “warmturn” (forty-five million years later), the pronoun we is heard for the first time: “we can look into each other's eyes, and exchange meanings and deep appreciation of each other's beauty and being.” Claws become nails, and, besides the pleasure of nitpicking, closeness keeps the tribe together in tenderness and “many frisky huglinks.” And many, many “double double fingerfuls of coldandwarmturns” later, the Sturgeon Clan is debating whether the Other (Neanderthal) is human.

The process is orchestrated by “the code,” seemingly a teleological principle. The organism “remembers” its origins (as in Plato's myth of the soul?) and is aware of its restlessness and developing difference from other creatures. The narrative voice is constantly worrying the question of origins, whether in the baby language with which the novel opens or in the fully formed speech of hunter-gatherers that stops short of self-conscious expression. (There is no first-person singular pronoun in this novel.) Yet, as the distance from origins increases, intelligence (“great head effort”) replaces instinct. In Brooke-Rose's telling, as soon as humans become recognizably human, they start messing up the ecological balance. The final 40,000 years of the story also owe much to the insights of contemporary sexual politics. Subscript is nonetheless an impressive addition to Brooke-Rose's challenging oeuvre.

Paul Quinn (review date 26 July 2002)

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SOURCE: Quinn, Paul. “To Be, Or To Be Revenged?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5182 (26 July 2002): 6-7.

[In the following review, Quinn lauds the selection of essays presented in Invisible Author and notes that the collection serves as a valuable resource for long-time champions of Brooke-Rose's novels.]

Christine Brooke-Rose claims there is something of a taboo against writers publishing accounts of their own work, on contemplating their own novels, as it were. When the work is especially ingenious or structurally complex, however, some have felt an understandable compulsion to parse their prose. Raymond Roussel, for example, couldn't resist a final word on the elaborate, punning procedures that generated his texts; and final word it was: How I Wrote Certain of My Books was only published posthumously. Umberto Eco produced some magisterial Reflections on “The Name of the Rose” under the clamouring pressure of an international readership, citing self-scrutinizing precedents like Poe's “Philosophy of Composition”, in which, crucially, the poet tells us how he wrote “The Raven”, not how we should read it. Brooke-Rose's Invisible Author is a highly distinctive contribution to this reflective tendency. Like Roussel's pamphlet, this volume delivers a final word, in this case a formal valediction; too frail to write another novel, the septuagenarian writer has decided to conclude her literary career by gathering lectures and articles examining her own practice. Like Eco, Brooke-Rose is a theorist-novelist, but unlike him she is writing from a position of perceived neglect rather than achieved celebrity. Many senses of “invisible”, narratological and autobiographical, reverberate throughout this book. “Have you ever tried to do something very difficult as well as you can, over a long period, and find that nobody notices? That's what I've been doing for over thirty years.” Reading passages like this, Hawthorne's parable of the lonely experimenter, “The Artist of the Beautiful”, comes to mind; though in this case the long-suffering artist, not content with the mechanical butterfly's realization and flight, wants us to observe the manner and motion of the cogs.

Brooke-Rose is a discontented formalist and her principal task here is to reveal what many of her readers, otherwise attentive and appreciative, have been missing: the lipograms she has deployed in her novels, beginning with her first overtly experimental work, Out (1964), and culminating in Subscript (1999). In the strict sense employed by the (mostly French) writers of OuLiPo, a lipogram is a work that imposes a creative constraint by omitting a letter (by rendering a convention invisible for unconventional effect). Brooke-Rose has extended-this strategy to grammar, so that many of her novels refuse the narrative past tense and restrict themselves to a simultaneous present; they also often omit the first person and even (for example, in Between, 1968) the verb “to be” in all its moods. In a tone somewhere between amused resignation and residual disgruntlement, Brooke-Rose mentions in passing that Between came out just before Georges Perec's legendary lipogram La Disparition; Perec pointed out the absence of the letter “e” from his text and got attention, Brooke-Rose let the absence of “to be” remain properly invisible—if subliminally felt—and “no one noticed”. Anecdotally, she recounts persevering with her not “to-be” method when contributing anonymous reviews to the TLS months after her novel's publication. Again no editor or reader noticed.

Though it does not excuse the fact, it is not altogether surprising that the technical achievements which have given Brooke-Rose most pride have gone comparatively unnoticed, given some of the other more attention-grabbing effects on show in her novels: the typographical exuberance and spiralling acrostics of Thru (1975), the ping-pong narration of Xorandor (1986), the allusive games of Textermination (1991), and the stream of pre-consciousness of her final tour de force, Subscript, which recounts 4 billion years of evolution. But Brooke-Rose is a Poundian, and if breaking the pentameter was “the first heave” for innovative poetry, the last bastion for prose was the past tense narrative sentence. She is also a grammarian; her first critical study was A Grammar of Metaphor (1958), and she argues here that “grammar is a far more complex system than the alphabet”. and concomitantly the richest, most challenging source of experiment. For Brooke-Rose, the real shock of the new in the famous first sentence of Camus's L'Étranger—“Aujourd'hui, maman est morte”—was not the shock registered by Nathalie Sarraute at an I-narrator so empty, so “absent from himself”, it was Camus's seismic shift to the present perfect of the Speech Mode, following early tremors already felt in Proust and Céline.

The radical culmination of this development in French literary history came with the nouveau roman and specifically Alain Robbe-Grillet, who, though he declared the past tense to be the mark of the traditional novel, never fully formulated the precise innovations he himself brought to the use of the present tense. At the centre of Invisible Author, Brooke-Rose does just this, as well as elucidating her own adaptation and extension of Robbe-Grillet's practice. (A shorter version of this section was published in the TLS, December 31, 1999.) Robbe-Grillet's narrative sentence had such impact because it was trebly paradoxical: an impersonal present tense (the present tense being usually part of the highly personal Speech Mode), yet speakerless, yet single-visioned. The protagonist in a work like La Jalousie is constructed not from what he says but what he sees.

Liberated by this, Brooke-Rose in her fiction similarly explores a narratorless present tense in the same paradoxical way, “as a neutral detached narrative ‘representing’ or miming a consciousness, both reflective and unreflective”. She extends Robbe-Grillet's method by using it also for interjections, dialogue, fantasies, by not limiting herself to one obsessive consciousness, by rejecting her predecessor's aversion to metaphor, and, perhaps most powerfully, by using it for multiple viewpoints, for example in Next (1998), where we move without warning between the transient perspectives of the homeless. Brooke-Rose invokes her early inspiration, Pound, to justify this technique; it is to make the reader “stop and think”—though she is ruefully alive to the fact that it can also make readers simply stop. She is also aware that an innovation is invariably worn down by overuse, misuse and parody. Thus, to her dismay, the present tense narrative is now itself in danger of becoming a mere convention, a commonplace, more often than not lazily employed with none of the complexity or flexibility she has spent the best part of a career striving to develop.

Crucial to the polemical thrust of Invisible Author is her desire to contest and protest against the over-emphasis on the content of works of fiction in professional literary criticism and literary journalism alike. In the academy, the domination of identity-based politics and poetics means many writers are read merely for novelty of content, for what they say rather than how. “Of course”, she admits,

any attachment to form that excludes all else is totally withering. But if form alone is withering, the moment a critic deals primarily with content, taking form for granted as a mere window on the “reality” of the novel, there will emerge very little difference between the writers discussed (two black novels for instance), whereas if you approach them through the textual structures you will automatically get to the content and a good deal more besides.

She does not pine for a golden age of Structuralism, however, arguing that this approach merely encased content within structures, often without close reference to a text, or if applied to a text “killing it as exactly as a potted history of colonialism kills a Frost poem”. The world of literary reviewing gets even shorter shrift; Brooke-Rose characteristically discerns in it a grammar, or rhetoric, of self-limitation: “sum up the plot approvingly or ironically, in more or less detail according to the space allotted and add a short sentence on style”. That “short” is especially cruel. “Content is much easier to summarize, form much easier to ignore.” The most effective parts of Invisible Author come when Brooke-Rose illuminates how devices often ignored or misread in her novels interact inseparably with their content (indeed collapse the false wall between them). Thus, the aforementioned absence of “to be” in Between helps convey the slippery identity of a translator, as she travels the world, bombarded by languages, messages, signs, speaking for someone else in someone else's tongue, no longer able confidently to say “I am …”. Thus, in Amalgamemnon (1994), the exclusive use of the future tense and of non-constative sentences helps evoke “the pseudofuture” we all now live in, a world of speculation in markets and politics, focus groups, in news broadcasts heavy with conditionals. Amalgamemnon is a classic “making strange” of the reality around us, otherwise absorbed into quotidian, mediatized banality. To cite this Russian formalist concept is also to be reminded of their once provocative claim that the ostensibly anomalous Tristram Shandy, with its obsessions and digressions, is actually the most typical novel ever written; as Brooke-Rose guides us through a page-by-page analysis of her most metafictional work, Thru, with its amplifications and distortions of the properties all texts have (or realize in reading), her novel emerges as a belated candidate for that accolade.

As befits its hybrid, taboo-testing genre, Invisible Author is a strange work, sometimes repetitious—a result, perhaps, of its provenance in lectures and articles. Along with the criticism and theory, there is some autobiographical material, partly an account of the making of Remake (1996), her “auto-biographical novel”. (Its eschewal of personal pronouns—rare in autobiography to say the least—was missed by many readers.) There is a curiously guarded but wounded section where ostranenie blurs into marital estrangement, as she distantly recounts the end of a marriage to the Polish writer Jerzy Peterkiewicz. In an interlude on exile, she charts their passing trajectories; he from Poland to London, she from Britain to France, where she returned to her mother tongue, more at home in French intellectual life than British, though exasperated by French bureaucracy and ultimately invisible. The book concludes with an interview conducted by one of her most fervent champions, the late Lorna Sage. This interview is centred on Subscript, and parallels are drawn between the innovations of evolution and fiction, including one of the best-humoured tilts at posterity in the book: “I'm a duck-billed platypus, and hope my beak will somehow develop in new birds.”

Overall, Invisible Author is a valuable volume for those who have long bemoaned Brooke-Rose's invisibility—an obscurity exacerbated by categorizations like “writer's writer” and “acquired taste”. Despite the taboo she mentions at the beginning, that it is “not done” for the writer, like the magician, to reveal how the illusions are accomplished, she demonstrates that such exercises can be a useful starting point (even now that we know that authors—like narrators—are not omniscient and that their intentions are often misguided). Her book should contribute to a proper critical appreciation of an important oeuvre which is apparently complete. The tone of the book is mainly that of a serene Prospero drawing back the curtains to reveal the smoke and mirrors, but, stung by neglect and misrepresentation, there is a modicum of Malvolio too (“I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you”). Christine Brooke-Rose has not vanished quietly or with false modesty, and we should be grateful for that.

Richard J. Murphy (review date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: Murphy, Richard J. Review of Invisible Author: Last Essays, by Christine Brooke-Rose. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 163-64.

[In the following review, Murphy asserts that Brooke-Rose's Invisible Author demonstrates “the shrewdly acute intelligence and sensitive assiduity of a longtime innovator.”]

Brooke-Rose takes her title [Invisible Author] from her experience as a writer; while she has a small group of faithful readers, she reflects on the unhappy idea that nobody seems to have noticed the self-imposed constraints within which she has attempted to work, e.g., the elimination of the verb to be in Between. This book consists of six previously published sections and three added chapters, a structured self-analysis. In it we meet the shrewdly acute intelligence and sensitive assiduity of a longtime innovator. She gives a brief history of narrative criticism, unveils the composing mind of an ingenious writer, and moves the critic's attention away from the “story” to the devices, especially linguistic, that keep narrative alive. We might associate her with Roussel or Oulipo writers (Perec) as she analyzes the challenges and sense of verbal play that generate her fiction. Immersed in structuralism and theory, she applies the same incisiveness to critical problems as she has to those of narrative. The core of the work details her response to Alain Robbe-Grillet and his use of the “paradoxical” present tense, a challenge she has mastered. Having developed a strong interest in if not an obsession with the grammatical aspects of narrative structure, she writes close analyses of several of her works, e.g., Thru, and those of other critics and novelists, the most interesting of which examines Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Her reading ranges broadly and cuts deeply; her insistence on her invisibility, the problems of an “experimenter” increased by gender bias, strikes one as doubly unfortunate. Greater exposure to the fiction and criticism of Christine Brooke-Rose would benefit us all.


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