Friday, November 12, 2010

Pulled off my Shelves #8: "All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy"

In All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy, Phil Buehler attempts to document, assemble and continue Jack Torrance’s manuscript from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining.

Conceptually, recreating Torrance’s manuscript from the few frames of film shown playfully concretizes the fictional output of a fictional character. Only a few pages of the manuscript are revealed in The Shining, but every page consists wholly and entirely of the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeated ad infinitum over a presumably several-hundred-page manuscript. Shelley Duvall’s character, in the filmic reveal of Torrance’s creative masterpiece, emotionally collapses as she finally realizes the extent of her husband’s crumbling sanity. Under the mental anguish of Sisyphean task of nonlinearity Torrance’s grip on reality is weakened, much as readers reject the strain of such a non-traditional manuscript.

Buehler suggests that novels formed entirely from the materiality of “work” without the “play” of narrative are inherently “dull” both to the reader and the author, refuting Cagean ideas of repetition and reiteration. Kenneth Goldsmith argues the resultant text—if chosen and constructed well—will eschew the “dull” and the “boring” alike. Unshackled from the plot of the film, the page-based representation of Torrance’s cinematic failed “novel” is a metatextual commentary on the interplay between text and page, between confessionalism and conceptualism and between procedurality and intentionality. While The Shining suggests that Torrance’s insanity was the result of alcoholism and the influence of the Overlook Hotel itself, All Work presents an obsessive text which documents how the interplay between linearity and nonlinearity sent the author into a mental tailspin.

All Work problematizes the interplay between text and author. The manuscript is no longer the fictional output of a fictional character; it has become as “real” as any other novel. Metaphorically, Torrance achieves presence only through the publication of his novel, just as writers only occupy the role of writer when they publish. Writers are only writers when they write; when they cease to write, they cease to exist.

The labour of writing defines a writer’s existence despite Torrance’s dictum that “all work and no play” will denigrate the writer into a “dull boy.” Paradoxically, All Work consists entirely of the repetition of a single sentence without any explicit discussion of the traditional tropes of fiction: characterization, narrative, dialogue and conflict. All Work is a documentation of process; the evidence of an obsessive writing practice which reduces writing to the act of writing. The lack of narrative, character and dialogue makes All Work about material—the accumulation of text on a page. A novel, here, is anything that takes the form of a novel regardless of the content.

Buehler chooses to construct only the first few manuscript pages from The Shining with obsessive detail, retaining every typographic error and idiosyncratic variation but, sadly, he only maintains that neurotic level of detail for the first few pages. After the introduction of such an obsessive practice, Buehler erratically maintains the page form from The Shining without the content (the errant capitalization, mistyped letters and erroneous indentation), thus turning his manuscript into less a documentation than a translation. This version of All Work is thus a series of permutations of the original sentence which suggest the source text without quoting it directly.

Buehler’s All Work and No Play makes Jack a Dull Boy succeeds despite this erratic execution as a manual of potential compositional structures—a ’pataphysical encyclopedia of textual manipulation in concrete poetry. All Work and No Play makes Jack a Dull Boy not only rebuilds Torrance’s fictional text, it also channels Charles Bernstein’s Veil, bill bissett’s and John Riddell’s early typewriter-based visual poetry and Aram Saroyan’s minimalist work.

The novel is presented as typed manuscript but strangely breaks this conceit for a 10-page section which—while cleanly aping Saroyan’s minimalist poetry by including only a single word on each page—shifts the typeface thus breaking the illusion of a reconstructed manuscript. Buehler’s reasoning for this shift is not explained, and sadly, the inconsistency builds upon some already questionable decisions.

Outside of this project, Buehler’s oeuvre concentrates on the documentation and exploration of urban ruins, the last vestiges of crumbling hotels, industrial sites and developments. All Work and No Play makes Jack a Dull Boy is an exploration of an urban ruin whereby the author maps the possibilities of potential text.

In terms of contemporary poetics, All Work and No Play makes Jack a Dull Boy is ultimately a lesson for conceptual poets. A text should be written, as Craig Dworkin postulates, not in terms of “whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.” An enviable project, Buehler has squandered this idea, producing a manuscript with regrettably inconsistent results.


Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here. You can read "Nothing Odd Can Last," from How To Write, here


Phil Buehler said...

I created it over a weekend as a lark rather than as part of my art and have been amused ever since by people's reactions. I found your critique extremely interesting and enjoyable (not so much the the squandering an idea part of course : )

And thanks for the idea of typewriter-based visual poetry - I wish I'd know about it as I'd felt I was actually going a bit insane trying to come up with a different layout for all 80 pages without resorting to page layout tricks that couldn't be duplicated with a typewriter.

Berfrois said...

[...] All work and no play make Jack something something [...]

Ross Brighton said...

This is really interesting - And Phil's response adds something really important to the conversation. I think the issue here is generic, more than anything else - Derek has read "All Work..." as belonging to the genre of Conceptual Writing, with all the generic conventions of rigorous adherence to procedure, etc.
As Phil has stated, he wasn't opperating (conciously) within that paradigm. What I ask, is how is this different than reading Charles Bernstein as a unsuccesful confessionalist?

Greg Waterman said...

Yeah, Derek Beaulieu does the exact same thing with Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Tree of Codes" (reviewed on his blog), wheeling in the same Dworkin (a genuine critic) quote again as gospel truth. Conceptual writing as THE ONE TRUE WAY. Now, I love conceptual writing, but any informed criticism of the movement is not going to emerge from within the group itself: they're all friends and colleagues. Mr Beaulieu had to have a least one post that gave a less than favourable review of a work, and since he can't say anything about his peers he simply selects a text by an artist outside that circle, establishes premises (Dworkin's, not his own), holds the artist with no relation to the premise accountable to said premise, and then assails them for violating the precepts of the premise.

If the EXACT SAME text bore the name of a well-known writer (say, "Kenneth Goldsmith"), Beaulieu's appraisal would undoubtedly be very different.

Jonathan Ball said...

These criticisms miss the point. Neither Dworkin nor Beaulieu nor Buehler have set the standards to which the pages of the book should adhere. The book sets its own standards. Within the project of the book itself, apart from the author's intentions or the critical approach of the conceptualists, the inconsistency within the book is an obvious flaw by the paradigm already established by the book itself.

Ross Brighton said...

@Jonathan - where does the book call itself to consistency? Or to rigor? Are these universally positive qualities, or perhaps qualities that can be interrogated?
Moreover - how can something be inconsistent with itself? And if such is possible, isn't that an interesting phenomenon?

Lemon Hound said...

It's simply not true that conceptual writers are not critical of each other's work. Failure is an essential aspect of the equation--some work falls short.

By the way, on this very blog you will find a less than favourable review of derek beaulieu's Flatland. That didn't stop derek from posting here.