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December 29, 2003

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Kevin Fitzgerald
VeRT is down so I'd thought I'd post the review here: “…But I Could Not Speak…”, Jono Schneider. O Books, 2002. 110 pp. $12.00 The title of Jono Schneider’s book of experimental prose “…But I Could Not Speak…” is paradoxical. Isn’t the voice that announces “but I could not speak” in fact speaking? On closer inspection this title seems to enunciate frustration with modes of articulation. It seems to say that if a voice speaks in a way that satisfies linear expectations for prose, it will fail to capture the pulse of contemporary existence, the contours of life as it is lived today. Unable to speak in standard patterns without uttering what is yesterday and now false, Schneider announces early in the book, “So I would permanently break into sections.” This declaration in effect brings into focus the fragmentary aesthetic of his work. Although at first glance the work’s long sentences seem to borrow their aesthetic from Proust, on closer inspection many of its sentences shift midstream in a manner that applies a tourniquet to straightforward meaning. The interval or gap between sentences only adds another layer of dislocation. Taken as a whole, these shifts and odd combinations of phrases give Schneider’s work a cut-up and disjointed feel that often reminds one of a theoretical Ashbery. For example, Schneider writes, “I suddenly recalled that his philosophy hearkened back to the days when the crisis of death set in, formed by smallish bombs floating heavily above him until their weight broke him open with their fire.” In sentences such as this, the relationship between particulars—for example “his philosophy,” “the crisis of death,” and “smallish bombs”—is skewed and unwieldy; it skirts meaning without suggesting definitiveness and gives an inflated and thereby somewhat ironic view of everyday events. It is through sentences of this sort that Schneider strikes some of his most resonant notes. Many of Schneider’s sentences also follow turns of consciousness in a mode reminiscent of Blanchot’s work, á la The One Who Was Standing Apart From Me. In this mode the majority of “action” is mental, interior, or theoretical. An ambiguous “I” meditates on its voice or actions, or on the characteristics or actions of a third person, usually reduced to a “he” or “she” (though an “Olga” appears toward the end of Schneider’s book). These features help distinguish Schneider’s aesthetic from Silliman’s New Sentence and its focus on perceiving particulars; they also push Schneider’s work in a narrative direction, though this direction is not necessarily directed. In his famous essay, “The Storyteller,” Benjamin claimed that sanitized information (i.e. the news hour) has supplanted the traditional narrative of the storyteller. It is into this absence—the story’s absence—that Schneider commits his voice. Instead of telling a seamless narrative or relating an epic trajectory, Schneider speaks from a multitude of perspectives through use of a fluid and expansive “I” that cannot be associated with the author, a stable narrator, or a character. In this mode each of his fragments—whether sentence or paragraph—operate as a discrete narrative unit. Speech here reminds us of the archipelago, where each sentence is an island that introduces us to the immensity of an unbounded ocean. The fragments don’t necessarily add up to a whole, they don’t pretend to sum up our context in the world today, and yet they speak to our condition. Or do they? As Schneider asks: But could inventing sentences neither connected to nor comforted by the others surrounding them be the answer to the problem of context if context, while perceiving the difference between ideas for the sake of democratic idealism, spread us out across the fields of interest as a quick decision to either accept or decline each other? Schneider’s theoretical questions about writing might remind one of Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, which likewise engages in self-reflective examinations of narrative identity and convention. Schneider’s explorations, however, are more skewed, and have their locus more firmly rooted in the post-modern territory of Beckett, though there is a similar permeability of narrator in both Schneider’s and Lu’s works. In its expansiveness, Schneider’s “I” reminds us to a certain extent of Blanchot’s Bavard. “The Bavard…is a mute who gives expression to his muteness” writes Blanchot, “…his ‘I’ is so porous that it cannot be kept to itself; it makes silence on all sides.…” Schneider’s voice also seems unable to stop speaking, and yet at times, as its montage of divergent stories overwhelms the reader, it cannot be heard. But this is the only possible mode for the storyteller in the story’s absence. Only a sort of plural or neutral speech that says both yes and no, that begins again and again, always issuing from the same level compositional field—a field that lacks a coherent plot or set of characters—seems capable of engaging contemporary readers in a familiar narrative containing recognizable characters. Thus, Schneider says about his mode of articulation: That it was no longer a novel—a voice whose speech did not name the character who spoke it, instead letting it issue forth a flow of words attached to the conditions that created the story’s absence, a space which could not be filled by naming the speaker or supplying the author’s intention to the reader—could only be confirmed by a careful reading that did not deliberate over questions of legitimacy. “…But I Could Not Speak…” remains the type of book that can be opened on any given page and read without any loss of meaning. Similar to Hejinian’s Border Comedy, it “has no horror of dispersal.” Each fragment unfolds a new story that ends where the next fragment begins. Each sentence, like the work of Gertrude Stein, issues from a continuous present that jettisons the standard narrative time of conventional prose, with its beginning, middle and dénouement. It is as if Blanchot spoke of Schneider’s sentences when he wrote: [W]hile they are interrupted by a blank, isolated and dissociated to the point that one cannot pass from one to the next—or only by a leap and in becoming conscious of a difficult interval—they nonetheless convey in their plurality the sense of an arrangement they entrust to the future of speech. Some readers might find it ironic that a voice incapable of speaking would produce such a fragmented thicket of words. Unmoored from the limitations of standard prose forms, Scheneider’s voice seems almost lost in an indistinct babel of aesthetical observations and isolated narrative actions involving anonymous and indistinct characters. Nonetheless the complexity and difficulty of his voice should be seen as intrinsic to his narrative project, which aims to surpass the limitations of plot, overflow all attempts at closure, and project a story—the story of fragmentation—into the story’s absence. Although the complexity of the prose prevents easy understanding, it offers new arrangements of words that suggest new possibilities and meaning. These new possibilities will frustrate some readers; for others they offer a glimpse at the future of language and narrative, in all its fragmented plurality. --Kevin Fitzgerald
Jono Schneider
Crag, Thanks for the review -- you are right on the nose as far as what I am trying to do in this book. It is interesting what you say about "I'm but a quarter of the way through (I've been strolling for days); in fact, I don't know if I'll ever finish it, such is the delight in opening to a random page and savoring a sentence."...Everything in the book is a series of sentences that can hardly be spoken, can be read but with difficulty, but which can mostly only be written. But what I was also trying to do was make everything be connected to the main character who is also a narrative position, a "person" who is also only a "viewpoint". Thanks again for your insights, Jono Schneider
kari
thank you for the review... should I say it was helpful... peace k

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