“I am one of the clowns of modern fiction,” says novelist Raymond Federman. He shrugs his shoulders in exaggerated despair. “That’s what many people think! They refer to me as an experimental writer. That means I don’t know what I’m doing, eh?”
Federman, a native-born Frenchman now living in America, is professor of literature and creative writing at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He is also an editor, critic, translator, and bilingual writer in the genre he himself has termed “surfiction.”
In his introduction to SURFICTION, Fiction Now And Tomorrow, a book of collected essays by others writing in a similar vein, Federman discusses what he feels is the misconception that birthed the term “experimental.”
Personally, I do not believe that a fiction writer with the least amount of self-respect and belief in what he is doing ever says to himself, “I am now going to experiment with fiction; I am now writing an experimental piece of fiction.” Others say that about his fiction. The middle-man of literature is the one who gives the label EXPERIMENTAL to what is difficult, strange, provocative, and even original….Beckett’s novels are not experimental—no! It is the only way Beckett can write; Borges’ stories are not experimental, Joyce’s fiction is not experimental….All these are successful finished works. And so, for me, the only kind of fiction that still means something today is that kind of fiction that tries to explore the possibilities of fiction; the kind of fiction that challenges the tradition that governs it; the kind of fiction that constantly renews our faith in man’s imagination and not in man’s distorted vision of reality—that reveals man’s irrationality rather than man’s rationality. This is call SURFICTION.
Federman’s novels adhere to his theories. They are imaginative and innovative in form and content. For the unprepared reader they are, at first, something of a trauma. They even look different from traditional novels. One finds none of the familiar landmarks of the fictional journey, instantly recognizable sentences or grammatical structures. Words do strange things on the page. They seem to move, leap out, retreat, run into each other, invite and evade the reader. In short, they seem like live things. They ask one to consider them anew, to see the multiple possibilities of meaning.
Even the white spaces between the words deviate from their traditional arrangement: they come not as margins, paragraph breaks, chapter endings, but as imparters of meaning. They exist in their own right, not as supports for the print, and may occur in the middle of a line, or as an entire page. Readers cannot relax with such a novel; they are consistently called upon to question, to discover, to formulate their own personal designs for the work.
Many readers, Federman acknowledges, never get to this point. Perplexed, they close the book and dismiss him as “experimental.” But to those willing to take the uncharted course he is glad to elaborate on his theory of surfiction.
“Overwriting makes a passive reader. The traditional novel with plot, chapters, carefully delineated characters and a final denouement asks the reader to do nothing more than absorb the writer’s viewpoint. This is underestimating the reader. Every writer should assume he has the perfect reader sitting on his shoulder—an intelligent reader who will know things without having to be told every detail. He must allow that reader’s imagination to participate in the work. Too many words deny the reader his own imagination. In the nineteenth century readers may have needed long descriptions of places, people, events they’d never experienced, but modern readers have seen much more. Think of the movies! They show glimpses. They exclude all kind of detail. If the camera focuses on an empty chair the audience assumes someone has been sitting in it. If the camera showed first the person sitting, then that person leaving the room, then the chair empty, movies would never end. Surfiction is like the movies in this way. It eliminates superfluities—superfluous adjectives and descriptions. It moves constantly, is constantly active. If there is too much description the tendency is to become lyrical and then the impact is lost.
“Often a writer will use the wrong words in a desire to describe accurately, because accurate description is impossible. Proust already recognized this. The other side of sparsity is wordiness, not to be accurate, but to make things fuzzy. When describing, Proust says, ‘It was like this—and like that—and then, again, like this.’ The result is impression, metaphor, symbol, because all things are multi-faceted. Traditional fiction is overwritten whereas surfiction is underwritten. It gives glimpses and keeps moving.
“The white space is as vital as the printed word. It is real space—a stage—and the director is language. The director knows it’s important how the stage is used. Everything you put on it matters. Not only does every word on the page count, but every mark. They are signals to the reader. If you misuse them you lose something.
“I have to read the space. If I omit quotation marks where the reader would normally expect them and leave spaces instead I am signalling something, and the reader must find out what. He is required to participate in every aspect of the fiction; to question, to be aware of the way I am using words, syntax, the spaces on the page. It’s a process of discovery for the reader when the writer is using syntax in a way that works for his fiction. It goes back to the problem of finding the right voice for the writer, and along with it his own language, his own rules of syntax. What’s right on the style sheet may be wrong for the writer’s voice.”
On discovery of the voice, Federman says, “For years while teaching university courses I prepared very carefully. One day I wasn’t prepared. I was nervous because I had to do it all out of my head. Then I heard myself speak and I was amazed. I said, ‘That’s you speaking!’ It was my own voice I had discovered. It’s the same in fiction. Fiction is the process of echoing other voices, those we have read. We write to impress and try to assume an impressive voice. One day the writer hears his own voice, and it’s so much better than the assumed one.
“Some people, though, never recognize their own voice. Either they’re afraid—don’t trust themselves—or they simply don’t listen. To my students I say, ‘Speak you fiction. Stand in front of the bathroom mirror and speak it. Hear the words you have written and know if you would speak that way. No one is ever stuck with the same voice because each of us has many voices.’”
Federman’s five completed novels were all part of this process of discovering his own unique voice, his own use of language and syntax. “In my first book Double Or Nothing the question I put to myself was, ‘What does it mean to write a novel?’ Under this head came the next question, ‘How can I use language?’ Double Or Nothing is like a set of building blocks. I was learning and I had to deconstruct the language in order to see what I could do with it.
“In Take It Or Leave It I had learned my language, I had my words, but I had to construct a syntax for them. In The Voice In The Closet I had both my language and my syntax. I dropped the props and concentrated on the essentials of language. It is a text that deals only with essentials. It was originally 200 pages long, but when edited and published it was 20 pages. I stripped it to essentials.
“I have written five novels in 15 years and I regard them as a project. They were concerned with the same questions—myself, my French-Jewish origins, the holocaust, America—how to express these concerns, in what voice, with what syntax. Now this project is complete and I’m on the verge of a new one.
“My most recent novel, The TwoFold Vibration, is entirely my sentences, my way of articulating, which I worked out in previous novels. In The TwoFold Vibration the only punctuation I allow is the comma. The text is divided into blocks with no period or punctuation at the end of each block—the words empty themselves into the void of the page. This is the right form for this novel, I think.
“In The Voice In The Closet the voice that is in all of us and which we suppress is trying to get out and speak of deeply personal, painful things. Because of the difficult subject matter I imposed a very rigid form upon myself. The form had to be as restricting as the theme—the imprisoned voice—and so I decided that every page and every line of words on the page would be of exactly equal length. I could not have a hyphenated word at the end of a line, running over into the next. If a word was a syllable too long for the symmetry I had to find another. Only at the end, when I saw how it looked, I understood why this form was right. It gave the impression of closet-sequestration.
“Each page of text is accompanied by a page of graphics, squares within squares. The text indicates that the pages should be read this way, as though they fall into each other, each succeeding page penetrating deeper into the theme. The novel is also bilingual. The French text and the English text form a series of echoes of each other. It’s a very complex book and the one I’m most satisfied with. It is my book.”
Asked how he knows when a novel is finished Federman says, “When you have a large body of work in front of you you must stop and look at it. You begin to sense when things are in place. Often the end is already there. I think of the end as happening when all the loose threads are tied together. Always I am reading backwards at the same time as I am proceeding and usually I stumble upon the right ending. In Double Or Nothing the right ending happened through a typographical error. Throughout my novel the character is basing major calculations and decisions on his assumption that a rented room he’s going to take will cost $8 a week. At one point I typed $7 instead of $8 and there it was: what if he’d made a mistake in the calculation and the room was $7? Then he’d have to start all over, so I’d come full circle in the novel, and to come full circle is to end, because ends are also beginnings.
“Take It Or Leave It found its own ending. In my latest work, The TwoFold Vibration, I thought I’d finished it and gave a copy to a writer friend. He wrote, ‘Fantastic, but I think it needs to vibrate more,’ and the whole book went through the typewriter again. Now it is finished, I believe—but maybe not—you can never have the perfect book because perfection means you can’t improve next time. I like to think I can go on getting better at my work.”
Commenting on the changing role of the reader where such works are concerned, Federman says, “It’s like this. It’s a question of viewpoint. Think of the Gothic cathedral, the high vaulted architecture, the ceilings, the saints high up in their niches. The onlooker is forced to look up. He feels humble and small, looking up. He is frozen into a position of passivity and acceptance. He can’t get close to the statues, he can’t examine them. That is the point of view the reader of the traditional novel is stuck with.
“Then, with Baroque architecture a very curious thing happened. Sculptures and paintings began to move into public places, they became free-standing, they depicted man instead of only the saints, and man could walk around these works of art, he could examine them from all sides, question, but also he could never see the whole thing at once, so he had freedom to examine, but he also had to construct his own perspective. This is the point of view in surfiction. Surfiction, like Baroque architecture, makes your imagination go to work.
“In the great novels of the past the opening lines were always the same—‘In the year such and such, in the town of so and so…’ They all produced the where and when and then introduced the characters. They all wanted you to believe from the beginning that the book is ‘certified.’ Even Melville, when he says, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ What he’s saying is, ‘Trust me. Here are truths.’ Moby Dick is a great work, but it leaves me on the outside. I must trust, be led, not participate.
“In post-modern fiction the reader must be suspicious—the writer invites him into the book, tells him, ‘Question me, doubt, find out for yourself.’ If the reader is allowed in the work of art it places him on the same level as the writer. It’s a democratic system in which the fiction is constantly denouncing itself as fiction. In the traditional novel the reader is asked consider the work not as a process of discovery and creativity, but as a portrait of life. One reason people are skeptical of surfiction is that they can’t get rid of the idea that the novel must tell a story about real people and real events, thinly disguised, and it all really happened. The reader is accustomed to the role of listener, voyeur, pupil.”
To illustrate his point Federman tells the following story: “When Double Or Nothing came out I was interviewed on television by a woman who had not read the book. When she opened it and saw the composition she said, ‘Oh, wow! Bring the camera over here, quick! They must see this,’ and she held the book up. Then she said, ‘Is this autobiographical?’
“I looked at the pages and said, ‘Madam, I hope not. My life would be a mess if it looked like that.’”
Roberta Gupta is a former GMU graduate student.