Friday, November 19, 2010

Pulled off my shelves #9: “Have you studied the soft toes of geckoes?”

With each of these columns, I’ve attempted to interrogate an aspect of writing by exploring a series of books I’ve pulled from my bookshelves. The question has repeatedly been: what is a book? This week “What?” itself is a book.

Over the last few years I’ve accumulated three different books (and am always happily looking for more, know of any?) each of which are entirely in the interrogative. In all three every sentence is a question.

The first item in this miniature collection is Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools (København / Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2001). Sorrentino’s book takes the form of a western pulp novel:

Were Nort Shannon, Dick Shannon, and Bud Merkel exceptionally morose as they sat before the small bunkhouse and about the flames of the blazing campfire? Was their recent failed adventure in ranching all over, and did Bud, in particular, think it time to pack it in? Was Bud a colorful speaker, in the great tradition of the heartbreakingly beautiful, yet very dry, American West? Was their late debacle tough luck, or just what was it? Had loco weed played an important role in their failure? If so, how? Pack what in? Just what is loco weed? (9)
Gold Fools is a series of toggle switches for the reader’s composition for another book—for if Nort, Dick and Bud were not exceptionally morose, what were they? If their recent adventure in ranching was not over, when would it continue? If it wasn’t time to pack it in, what time was it?—each interrogative an opening to another narrative…

2009 saw the publication of two question-only novels; the lesser-known of which is William Walsh’s questionstruck (Nashville: Keyhole Press, 2009). Walsh constructed his novel solely of questions posed by Calvin Trillin in his New Yorker columns and his food and travel narratives. Even when isolated, the questions reflect the original author’s texts and signal an absence of narrative (unlike Sorrentino’s novel):

The former sheriff? How are you? What can I do to help? What’s so odd about it? If the local law enforcement people launched an undercover operation of such effectiveness and probity, he asks, why was one of the state policemen transferred far from his home and the other one encouraged to retire? What’s the story about the hog? What’s the appropriate hog story? (17)
questionstruck doesn’t have the grace of Gold Fools as the questions posed are merely harvested without an appreciation of how their juxtaposition may influence reading. questionstruck is merely a gathering.

Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood (New York: Ecco, 2009), on the other hand, is a fascinating book. Lacking a traditional narrative, Powell’s book poses questions at ‘you’, the readers—a litany of questions which slow the reader down. Each personality-defining, seemingly unconnected, quip presents the reader with a new means of defining her own personality.

Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you like down and take a rest on the sidewalk? (1)
Each of these texts use the reader’s tendency to sub-consciously answer questions posed in a text, especially those posed to “you” because every “you” is you, isn’t it?

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

1 comment:

derek beaulieu said...

as a postscript, Ron Silliman's "Sunset Debris" (which is included in _The Age of Huts (compleat)_) is a poetic interrogative text ... and i can thinkof a few conceptual poetry texts which use questions exclusively but i wanted to focus on fiction.