Instead of June reading 2021: the fragmentary vs the one-paragraph text – Riviere, Hazzard, Offill, Lockwood, Ellmann, Markson, Énard etc etc

This isn’t really going to function as a ‘What I read this month’ post, in part because I haven’t read many books right through. (Lots of scattered reading as preparation for next academic year. Lots of fragmentary DeLillo for an academic chapter I filed today, yay!)

Instead I’m going to focus on a couple of the books I read this month, and others like them: Weather by Jenny Offill, and Dead Souls, by Sam Riviere. I wrote about the fragmentary nature of Offill’s writing last month, when I reread her Dept. of Speculation after reading Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This (the month before), all three books written or at least presented in isolated paragraphs, with often no great through-flow of narrative or logic to carry you from paragraph to paragraph. 

Riviere’s novel, by contrast, is written in a single 300-page paragraph, albeit in carefully constructed and easy-to-parse sentences. And, as it happens, I’ve just picked up another new novel written in a single paragraph – this one in fact in a single sentence: Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard. I haven’t finished it, but it helped focus some thoughts that I’ll try to get down now. These will be rough, and provisional.

Questions (not yet all answered):

  • What does it mean to present a text as isolated paragraphs, or as one unbroken paragraph?
  • Is it coincidence that these various books turned up at the same time?
  • Does it tell us something about ambitions or intentions of writers just now?
  • Are fragmentary and single-par forms in fact opposite, and pulling in different directions?
  • If they are, does that signify a move away from the centre ground? If not, what joins them?

Let’s pull together the examples that spring to mind, or from my shelves:

Recent fragmentary narratives:

  • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021)
  • Weather (2020) and Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill
  • Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021) ­– in part, it jumps around, I haven’t read much of it yet.

And further back;

  • This is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson (2016) A brilliant memoir written in block paragraphs, but allowing for a certain ‘through-flow’ of idea and argument.
  • This is Memorial Device by David Keenan (2017) – normal-length (mostly longish) paragraphs, but separated by line breaks, rather than indented.
  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (2015) – a series of long-ish numbered paragraphs, separated by line breaks.
  • Unmastered by Katherine Angel (2012) – fragmentary aphoristic non-fiction, not strictly speaking narrative.
  • Various late novels by David Markson, from Wittgenstein’s Mistress onwards
  • Tristano by Nanni Balestrini (1966 and 2014) – a novel of fragmentary identically-sized paragraphs, randomly ordered, two to a page. The paragraphs are separated by line breaks, but my guess is that the randomness drives the presentation on the page.

Recent all-in-one-paragraph narratives:

  • Lorem Ipsum by Oli Hazzard (2021)
  • Dead Souls by Sam Riviere (2021)
  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (2019)

And further back:

  • Zone (2008) and Compass (2015) by Mathias Énard
  • Various novels by László Krasznahorkai, of which I’ve only read Satantango (1985) – a series of single-paragraph chapters.
  • Various novels by Thomas Bernhard, of which I’ve only read Correction (1975) and Concrete (1982)
  • The first chapter of Beckett’s Molloy (1950) is a single paragraph, as is the last nine tenths of The Unnameable(1952)
  • The final section of Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)

So, my thoughts:

First, that the very recent instances of fragmentary novels seem to be inspired, or conditioned, to some extent, by online reading, where block paragraphs separated by line breaks have almost universally replaced the print book standard of indented no-line-break paragraphs. But interesting to note that this doesn’t apply to ebooks. A book text originating in print culture will retain its formatting when transferred to screen, whereas journalistic writing, for instance, reformats itself entirely for different reading environments. This is presumably to do with how we read, the vertical scrolling, the journey of the eye through the text, the various widths of columns of text.  

But, whereas the use of block pars with line breaks is intended to facilitate smooth reading online, it is used in print books to fracture and fragment. The paragraphs of Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This seem on the face of it like an analogue of individual tweets on Twitter. There is often no link between them, no through-flow of narrative or argument. It makes, as I said in my original post, for an unnerving reading experience. This jarring reading process is apt. After all, it is a book about being online versus being offline. 

But note that, in the second part of the novel, when the protagonist tries to reengage with the offline world, the narrative is presented in the same way. Are we supposed to think that she is so marked by her ‘very-online-ness’ that she can’t think her way back to traditional paragraph formatting? (As if that is a guarantee of mental balance!) Certainly the protagonist of Jenny Offill’s similarly formatted novels are worried about their mental states, their inability to concentrate (from memory, I haven’t got time just now to reread these books) – and they aren’t particularly ‘online’; those books are about the fragmentation of contemporary life, the overload of information, with or without the internet.

Interestingly, I’d misremembered Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (an all-time favourite book of mine) as written in isolated fragments. The later novels (Vanishing Point and This is Not a Novel are the two I’ve read) are, but WM isn’t. Its fragments run together in whole pages of ‘normal’ indented paragraphs, no line breaks.

Which reinforces the point: how you present your paragraphs on the page is, or can be, a pragmatic issue of publishing as much as a fundamental writing one – whereas to write without paragraph breaks at all is existential, plain and simple. 

A story I wrote ‘in’ block paragaphs, i.e. unindented with line breaks, in order to try to capture some of the fragmentary narrative style of, perhaps, Offill, was published ‘normally’, as per the house style of the journal where it appeared, and nothing, I think was lost.

I recently bought a back issue of Scottish indie journal Thi Wurd and that was formatted all the way through with indented pars and line breaks between them – presumably with no sense that the texts presented were intended to be fragmentary. 

And then I picked up Fitzcarraldo’s editions of Ernaux and the French originals I have, and see that French publishing, where it indents, keeps the indent for the first paragraph of a page, or chapter, or section, where British publishing removes it. (Fitzcarraldo follows the French style.) The Years presents itself in blocks of paragraphs separated by line breaks, but with many of the sections have ‘normally’ indented paragraphs, whereas A Happening presents itself mostly but not entirely in single, isolated paragraphs, though a few run together.

I’m confusing myself. What I’m trying to say is that there isn’t a simple binary between 1) Indented pars, with no extra line breaks between them and 2) unindented pars, separated by line breaks/white space.

A line break between pars can be a writerly decision, or an editorial one.

It can, but doesn’t necessarily signify ‘fragmentary’ or ‘fractured’.

Back to basics again, then: ‘normal’ reading, as it has evolved, uses paragraphs to break up dense blocks of prose, and facilitate easy reading, by which I mean smooth, fast, allowing the reader to easily process and assimilate meaning. 

Paragraphs, I tell my students, are a form of signposting. Think about how you skim-read a text: you jump to the start of each paragraph to see where you are; if you can easily ‘back-fill’ the previous par, i.e if you can work out from the first words of this par what was in that one, then you don’t need to read it; otherwise, you backtrack. Now apply that process to all writing: don’t bury something narratively important (a new character entering a room mid-scene, for instance) in the middle of a paragraph, as the reader might either miss it, or be confused by it (is it important? Is it not?). This isn’t a rule. This is a convention, based on how people usually read.

Obviously, writing in single undifferentiated paragraphs is a way of pushing against usual reading habits, forcing the reader to slow down. Paragraphing is also about pacing. As is sentence length. But the opening section of Molloy is written in short blunt sentences (strung together in one long unbroken par) and is no easier to read for it. The writing lacks the connective tissue, the conjunctions and explanatory interstices that help sentences make sense as part of a wider matrix of meaning. There are very few subordinate clauses, very few commas. Each sentence stands almost alone, just as much as the individual pars of No One is Talking About This, and you have to fill in the gaps. Gradually, though, the syntax of Molloy expands and relaxes and becomes more ‘readable’; then the process inverts in The Unnameable, which after 12pp, in my edition, launches into a 100pp unbroken paragraph, that starts with proper sentences, but gradually slides into longer run-on sentences, joined by commas, until it has dissolved into one very long run-on sentence. (I’m not going to pick through the book to find the penultimate full stop, before the final “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” but it must be quite a few pages back.)

The end of The Unnameable is not dense, but it is abstract, self-referential, interiorised, as far removed from what Barthes called ‘the reality effect’ as it’s possible to be. Events and ‘characters’ seem to be being recalled, but the reader is not ‘shown’ them, is given no purchase on them. They slide past, ungrasped and ungraspable. Compare to the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, which evokes a ‘real’ character and the real facts of her life far more favourably, despite being ‘harder’ to read in syntactic terms, dispensing as it does with punctuation. The question of how we think and how that should be recorded in words on a page is obviously outwith the scope of this blog. But certainly I hope my thoughts look, or function, or smell, closer to Molly Bloom’s than to Beckett’s narrator.

Thoughts – the interior of the mind – devolve, at some level, to chaos; as the exterior world expands to chaos.

Consciousness is the place where these two chaoses meet, it is the place where the one tries to accommodate the other. That’s what prose, too, tries to do.

Writing is a process of organisation, and that organisation must take account of linearity. A piece of prose is not a flow chart, or a spreadsheet, or a map. There are some interesting lines in Lorem Ipsum, which I haven’t got to yet, about this:

when I say ‘skim-read’ I really mean something more like ‘hover-read’, or something, since what I seem to do when reading this kind tricky text is pitch my visual focus at some point just before the text becomes fully sharpened and legible and wait for what seem like key words to rise out of the block into a kind relief, then from these co-ordinates I’ll start to develop a vague, imperfect conception of the writing’s hovering ‘concerns’ or themes, essentially as if I’m looking at a map of a terrain or a painting of a landscape, which we don’t process in a linear way…

Normally, though (– ‘normally’, though – ) a prose text is closer to a piece of sheet music, or the performance of a piece of music, in that what has been read disappears and won’t appear again, so the text must be structured in such a way that it helps the reader retain important elements of what has come before in order to make sense of what is happening now, and what is to come. 

The clearest expression of how this might work is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, with its sections and subsections numbered to give a clear hierarchy (though these, too, make the text work in a non-linear way; the hierarchy makes it function rather like a 3D model). Its very presentation gives you clear instructions on how to process and assimilate its statements and follow the argument it builds. (I wish I could!)

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

There’s a lovely little diagram in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction that shows how what Charles Baxter later called ‘rhyming action’, the return of narrative elements through direct repetition or indirect echo. Gardner admits his example is crude, but it suggests that, at some level, it would be possible to ‘diagrammatise’ a narrative to show how it achieves its effects, through patterning, with the obvious proviso that writers generally do this (when they do it well) organically and intuitively, rather than programmatically.

Patterning applies not just to thematic elements, however, but also to structural ones. Ducks, Newburyport famously using the phrase “The fact that…” as a form of punctuation, almost as a form of line break in the unbroken run-on sentence that makes up most of the novel. By giving you something familiar to latch on to, it helps you navigate the flood of thoughts, memories and impressions, rather as the pilcrow (¶) weas once inserted in the middle of undivided prose. 

This ‘verbal punctuation’ is necessary because of the (brilliant) chaos of the narrative. Thomas Bernhard’s paragraph-less prose works differently. Here the argument of the narrative is much more coherent, more clearly laid out and more focused, to the point of monomania. Where Ducks seems like an extended improvisation (I think of it like bebop), Bernhard is closer to Reich-like serialism, recursively readdressing and reintegrating ideas until they almost seem to solidify, become steel. (In a way, Bernhard is a post-Tractatus prose style, more so than Markson, but one where the logical inferences and elaborations keep slipping, like bike gears slip.) Ellmann obviously reintergrates elements too, but in much less mannered and myopic way. The current of her narrative is buried deeper, and is hidden by a million ripples, wavelets and eddies. Bernard, I suppose, is all surface. 

Which brings me to Sam Riviere’s book, Dead Souls, which is an obvious tribute to, and riff on Bernhard. The stylistic tics are there: the deliberately clunky repetition of words, names and phrases that would usually be glossed over, condensed or elegantly varied; the use of italicised words and phrases; the use of reported speech to put a distance between reader and story.

Riviere’s novel takes place over one evening and night on London’s South Bank, during some kind of cultural festival. The narrator is a poetry editor, but roughly two-thirds of the book is the narrator reporting an hours-long soliloquy/rant/confession by another poet, Solomon Wiese, that reminded me also of the juge-penitent in Camus’ The Fall. The book is very funny, in its ire, and one hopes that some of Britain’s poets will be appalled and insulted by it, even if on behalf of other people, but to a certain extent the closeness of the book to Bernhard’s model does dilute its potency. The Bernhard style, so recognisable, is linked – inextricably, it seems to me – to misanthropic vitriol, to unequivocal deprecation directed equally outwards and inwards. You couldn’t write a love story using its formula. It’s a style that demands a target, that dictates a tone. Did Riviere want to write a book against poetry, and decide on the Bernhardian model, or did he want to write something in the Bernhard mode, and look around for a target? 

The other thing to say is that what makes Riviere’s book so readable is that those sentences are written with a sense of rhythm that can only come from a poet. The localised repetition should be clumsy, could be deadening, but it’s not. It’s muscular, and nimble, even as it runs through the same little syntactic loops and parps. (Oli Hazzard’s book, which I’ll get onto in a moment, is very different. If you lose track of where you are, in Riviere’s book, it’s very easy to pick it back up, partly because the sentences are grammatically correct, and partly because the argument proceeds only slowly; with Hazzard’s you need to concentrate, to keep yourself almost physically immersed. If you lose your way it takes an effort to get yourself back in.)

(Declaration of interest: I spent a few years studying alongside Sam at UEA, and he’s thanked in the acknowledgements to my first novel for his hospitality when I was working there for a time! So I offer these thoughts fully in the spirit in which we’ve had many long boozy conversations about books, though that was safely in the past when he was ‘just’ a poet and not stomping all over MY territory!)

This brings me on to Oli Hazzard’s book, Lorem Ipsum. Hazzard, like Riviere, is a poet, though I don’t know him (though the book was sent me by the publisher). That publisher is Prototype, which evolved out of Test Centre, and is establishing itself as a really interesting, even essential house of non-mainstream and experimental writing in the UK. 

Hazzard’s prose sits somewhere in between Ellmann and Bernhard. Like Ellmann it is written ‘in a single sentence’, though really that just shows up what a fiction the idea of a ‘sentence’ is. He just chucks in commas when, half the time, you’d expect full stops. Certainly, it would be easier to ‘properly’ punctuate Hazzard’s book than Ellmann’s. The underlying syntax is closer to written prose rather than thought words. Indeed, it presents itself as a written document, addressed to an unnamed ‘A’, and its sentences are full of the connective tissue that is absent from, for example, those Beckett screeds. 

(Aside: is the difference between stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue that the latter is more self-conscious, it hears what it speaks, as it speaks it, it speaks it to itself, whereas the former is a kind of cognitive field recording?)

(Another aside: has anyone used “puddles of consciousness” to describe the fragmentary style of Lockwood, Offill et al, with reference of “stream of consciousness”? I don’t think so. Can we make it happen?)

Hazzard uses neither the ‘phrasal punctuation’ of Ellmann, nor the narrow, clipped, recursive logic of Bernhard. It reads at times like someone typing under duress, like someone using one of those online writing sites that start deleting what you’ve written if you stop. But this isn’t the case, because there is real thought and thoughtfulness in what he comes up with. It is insightful and aphoristic in a way that Bernhard isn’t (Bernhard’s aphorisms roar like Nietzsche, pound like Beethoven at his heaviest), and also Ellmann isn’t (her insights are much more caught up in the swirling eddies of superficial thoughts, memories and impressions).

I’m only a quarter of the way in to Lorem Ipsum, so I don’t know what it will build to, but so far it’s building into a fascinating disquisition on modern living, parenthood and parents, technology, writing and teaching. The one stylistic or rather structural quirk is the use of extended parenthesised sections, and nested parenthesised sections.

In the parts I’ve read I’ve counted (I think) six ‘layers’ of parentheses (parentheses within parentheses), with the first or ‘top’ parenthesised section going on for 17 pages, with five other layers nested inside it. The close-bracket then drops you straight back into the phrase that had been interrupted, with no attempt at recuperation or reintegration – no “anyway, as I was saying” etc. Hazzard makes it clear, also, that although the text reads like one long stream-of-typing, in fact he went back and added many of these parentheses, making them rather like the points at which Wittgenstein ‘changes gear’ (though that’s a poor metaphor) or steps down to the next level of his hierarchy of propositions. (There must be a better way of describing this!) But he’s doing it without the numbering, without the simple means of orienting yourself within the wider structure.

This also makes me think about the difference between brackets and footnotes, and the way that Geoff Dyer uses footnotes to offer a running commentary on his main argument or narrative in Zona, his book about Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. In that book he doesn’t use footnotes to drop in little apercus or factoids; he uses them to set up secondary trains of thought or argument that run, many of them, for more than a page, sometimes a number of pages. The importance of them is attested to by the fact that they are set in the same point size as the body text, which means that at times you basically have two narratives running in parallel. In fact sometimes the footnotes completely usurp the body text, taking over the whole of a page, with no body text above it. The difference between Dyer’s approach and Hazzard’s is that Dyer limits himself to one footnote at a time, i.e. doesn’t nest footnotes inside footnotes.

Obviously, Hazzard’s approach is deliberately obtuse. Because of the way the parentheses are dropped into the sentences, it’s often impossible to remember what the first part of the sentence was about when you are returned to it at the end of the parenthesis, and there is no Wittgensteinian signposting to help you work your way back to find it.

It occurs to me that this technique points towards a way of writing in digital forms that could be really interesting: parenthesised sections that open out as you read them, and then close up when you have finished, like inflatable bladders, or blossoming flowers. There is a hint of fractal structure to it as well, in that what you get inside the parenthesis is often very similar to what you get outside of it.

By exploring this structure in print form, Hazzard (and Prototype) could be said to be pushing the limits of what is possible, or advisable, in the printed book, and advertising a different way of reading that they can’t or choose not to deliver – rather in the way that Visual Editions showed the practicality of print publishing through their digital edition of Marc Saporta’s ‘book in box’ Composition No. 1, which you could only read on your tablet by holding your finger on the screen; the moment you lifted your finger, the app started rouletting at random through the other pages of the book, until you stopped it by reapplying your finger to screen. But your reading eye was at the mercy of your physical body: you had to keep your finger pressed to keep reading.

General final thoughts, for now:

I take it that the long paragraph, the run-on sentence, the stream-of-consciousness in all its manifold versions are all broadly modernist techniques or strategies: that the richness of thought, phenomenology and consciousness is something that we should strive to represent. (c.f. Kant’s “starry heavens above me and the moral law within”)

Whereas the disassociative fragment is postmodernist: that thought is broken and ruptured, there is no coherence, however you frame it, and that prose and narrative should face up to that.

But obviously these things can meet in the middle. There is an affinity of tone and approach (of sensibility perhaps) between Jenny Offill’s books and Lucy Ellmann’s book, as if both presume a similar relationship between the world, consciousness and prose fiction, but each uses a different phenomenological filter to refract consciousness onto the page, one of them catching more of the ‘noise’, the other blocking it out.

I’m going to leave it here for the moment. I do want to come back.

***

I’ve just been reminded (by this thread on Creative Non-Fiction) of Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me, which I also haven’t read, though I have a copy, and that is written in separate paragraphs – but also in distinct sections. Most numbered sections contain one long-ish paragraph, but not all. Those that contain two or more paragraphs also separate them by line breaks. Clearly in some writers’ hands a paragraph is a section, in others it is not.

All paragraphs are sections. All chapters are sections. All sentences are sections. It’s all about how you divide up your units of meaning, and how you guide your reader to join together different units of meaning in the wider matrix. More time, more reading needed.

***

I’ve now finished Lorem Ipsum, and I’m hugely impressed by it, and I enjoyed it a lot. It holds its various aspects in balance. On the one hand it draws the reader in with confession and insight, bringing unnoticed or unacknowledged moments of life to the surface, whether that is the futility of scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch, or having to carefully swallow back down some sputum coughed up into the mouth while teaching*, or the use, in a relationship of bland terms of endearment, like ‘darling’ or ‘love’, as “a kind of touch”. On the other hands it holds the reader at a distance with various blocking mechanisms, of which the extended parentheses is only the most effective, after the choice of writing in a single sentence.

* I skimmed through the book, or the part of the book where I thought it was, two or three times, looking for this passage, and couldn’t find it. As I’ve written about previously, being able to relocate lines or phrases in a book by remembering roughly where it was on the page is a skill I have, and want to maintain, and that you don’t get with digital reading. Obviously, most digital reading has a search function, which supersedes the physical search mechanism, but I don’t want to rely on that, as I don’t want to rely on my phone map, but want to be able to read a physical map too, and even orient myself without one.

Reading the book today I came up with a clarifying statement: the fact that the lengthy parenthesised sections are true digressions, as opposed to simple ‘supplements’, is proved by the fact that the ongoing thought they interrupt is most often not held in the reader’s mind until the point at which they close, and that thought is resumed. You’re dropped back into the middle of a syntactic phrase that makes no sense, and can’t easily be recuperated.

Other complicating/distancing techniques (which Hazzard discusses under the rubric of “the aesthetics of difficulty”, and also, quoting ‘C’, who turns out to be Ron Silliman, “anti-absorptive art”) include: the replacement of all proper names with random initials, in alphabetical order, A then B then C etc; this applies not just to members of the poet’s family and – most intriguingly – the person (‘A’) he is addressing the book to, but also writers he quotes, including the likes of Sei Shōnagon, Paul de Man and Clarice Lispector, plus plenty of other people I can’t immediately identify. He does this even when he quotes the names of their books, or describes aspects of their lives such that we can work out who they are. (Lispector is used as an epigraph, where her name is given, for example.) Also, apart from members of his closest family, he reassigns letters, so that Shōnagon is X at one point, and C at another. It’s hard to work out what the purpose of this is, other than random obscurantism. It brings to mind the strategies of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, but where that makes a point of foregrounding ideas over writers, Hazzard in this book wants to engage with those writers and their ideas, but stops the reader doing so.

Another anti-absorptive strategy: the dumping in (in parentheses) of long etymologies of words picked seemingly at random. Hazzard is so open about his strategies elsewhere in the book that I was waiting to read that he’d done this purely to reach his self-imposed goal of 50,000 words, but he never does. Nevertheless, that’s what they look like. Not that that’s a problem. If anything they refocus the mind on quite how the book operates, as writing. The etymologies are skippable precisely because they are of a certain length, and are filled with italicised words, dates and initial caps; in other words the text on the page has a different texture; you can see where they end and jump forward, in contrast to most of the rest of the text, where you have to keep your eye on the line, to keep your place, like you had to keep you finger on the screen of Visual Editions’ Composition No. 1. By making reading so hard, it reminds you how easy most (absorptive) reading is, and that this is not a binary, but a continuum.

Thanks to Prototype for sending me a copy of Lorem Ipsum, and to Weidenfeld & Nicholson for the copy of Dead Souls.

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