Online Edition: Fall 2000

Pamela: A Novel by Pamela Lu

Pamela: A Novel

Pamela Lu

Atelos ($12.95)

by Aaron Benjamin Kunin

According to its mission statement, Atelos publishes "under the sign of poetry" works that are "involved in some way with crossing traditional genre boundaries." But there's nothing in Pamela: A Novel that signals any kind of generic instability or discomfort; if we sense any, it's only because the publisher urges us to look for it. This may be the intended function of the publisher's name: either to alert you to the subterranean presence of "signs of poetry" that you wouldn't otherwise see, or else to create signs of poetry that aren't really there. This is a novel that looks and feels like a novel, and it even calls itself a novel. Its title, in fact, is something that it shares with Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which is often called the first novel in English.

But that may be the only thing it shares with Richardson's Pamela. If we have reached a point in literary history at which both Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded and Pamela: A Novel are unproblematically recognizable as novels, is it still possible to distinguish between something that is a novel and something that isn't? The short answer to this question is "no": the novel as a genre includes such various examples that we can't say that it has any identifying characteristics--which is why both Jane Austen and Gertrude Stein say that the novel is simply "everything."

So I'm tempted to argue that the only possible connection between the two Pamelas must be a subterranean one. On the surface, the two books appear to have nothing in common. Richardson's is a domestic drama enacted mainly in scenes with only two or three characters; Lu's is a portrait of a much larger community and is presented almost exclusively in a summary mode, even when it's dealing with specific actions and events. Richardson wants to bring you as close as possible to the scenes in his novel, even to collapse diegetic action together with acts of writing and reading into a single moment; Lu works very hard to distance herself from any moments of intimacy by refracting them through memory, retelling, contemplation, and various technologies of representation. (Lu's novel takes place almost entirely in conversations, but none of the conversations is represented directly; what you get are reported conversations.) You could even say that the title asserts a connection between the two novels only as a way of confirming that there is no connection, or as a way of saying that we have reached a point in literary history where the original Pamela no longer means anything to us.

Nonetheless, the two novels do share modes of processing information, notably in the way they deal with proper names. "Pamela" is one of the few full names given in Richardson's novel; many of the others (like that of her employer/husband, "Mr. B.") are reduced to their incipit letters, apparently in an effort to protect the identity of the characters who bear them. "Pamela" is pretty much the only full name given in Lu's novel (although there's also a cat called "Kit-Ten"), and it's introduced in a way that calls into question the possibility of its usefulness to any person. Otherwise, the names of the characters are reduced to letters, either to protect their identities (or to suggest that there are identities that need protection) or to suggest their resemblance to variables in mathematical expressions.

This technique has two profound effects. One is to remind you that all novelistic effects, including characters, are alphabetical--that is, they result from various combinations of letters. The second is to make it difficult, at times, to remember whether passages in the novel are written in the first-person or the third. The pronoun "I" is effectively reactivated as an unfamiliar figure with richness and depth. And this is wonderful, as it hardly ever happens. (Many writers, following Rimbaud, have rejected "I" as a medium for personal expression, but this gesture usually doesn't feel at all disruptive. The only other time I can recall having this feeling about the pronoun "I" is in reading certain works by Walter Abish: Alphabetical Africa, in which the first-person can articulate itself only in the space between the chapter where the letter "I" is introduced and the chapter where it vanishes; and "What Else," Abish's collage-autobiography, an arrangement of passages taken from 50 different memoirs and diaries, all of them in the first-person.)

Lu then pushes this effect ever further by commenting on it: "We sometimes wondered who this 'I' really was. . . . 'I' (which expanded during times of war or crisis to 'we') was the most ubiquitous, and therefore elusive, self we could imagine: there was no way to find 'I' without by definition losing it, and therefore losing ourselves." Rejecting "I" because it represents another voice speaking through you, rejecting "we" because of its tendency to absorb whatever it's addressing, finally rejecting the possibility of speaking personally or communally in an inherited language, this passage seems to assume that language is a kind of property, and that it belongs to some speakers more than to others. But at the same time, it serves as a reminder that the basic materials of language don't belong to anyone. "I," a personal pronoun, the word we use to designate ourselves, the word we identify with at the most profound level, accommodates more than one person.

So if one implication of this novel is that "I" and "we," like the name "Pamela," are always fictions (or even specifically novelistic effects), another implication is that a word like "I" can never be a fiction. Reading the word "I" in this novel becomes a mystical experience--an invitation to connect to the "I" in all of us. There even seems to be some attempt here, in all the effort to create distance, to arrive at a point so distant that there's no particularity at all, so that the designations in the novel could apply equally well to anyone. For the most part, Lu writes a prose without accent, inflection, idiom, personal style, local color, or historical specificity (although at times it's faintly archaic)--in short, a prose that isn't based in speech. As we have seen, it defaults on any attempt to represent speech directly, and at one point registers surprise at the possibility that speech could be represented in writing: ". . . a web page containing many of R's quotations from college, a find that amused me and astonished R, since R had never, to her knowledge, recorded her spoken statements, much less posted them on the Internet for all to see." This language that no one speaks is something more than the non-style of the late twentieth century, the style that doesn't see itself as a style; Lu is writing in the unjustly disparaged dialect of English called "translationese," the language of literary translation. This novel reads like a translation; you often get the feeling that there is another text behind the novel you're reading, that Lu is trying to accommodate the effects of one language using the materials of another (and sometimes that's exactly what she says she's doing).

This style has had other practitioners in recent fiction, most significantly Lydia Davis, whose work amply demonstrates that you don't have to have a feeling for spoken language in order to have a feeling for language. (Davis's work is also remarkable for its deployment of the first-person plural; she is also the main translator of Blanchot's novels, in which the names of the characters tend to be reduced to their incipit letters, into English.) Like Davis, Lu doesn't like to furnish unnecessary details or to name names; she eschews the techniques of verisimilitude, the minute operations that novelists have traditionally deemed necessary to create a world that the reader can imagine inhabiting. Unlike Davis, however, Lu allows for certain forms of specificity to enter her vocabulary. She can use place-names (countries, cities, institutions, even specific buildings); she can write about popular culture (which isn't exactly a form of specificity, but never mind); and she can use the word "Internet" (maybe Davis can too, but so far she hasn't). There's also a note of archaism in Lu's sentences, at least on the level of syntax. Partly this is a result of reading Lu alongside her 18th-century predecessor, but her sentences, which are controlled, stately, and vigorous, are closer to Henry Fielding's than to Richardson's, which are breathless and exclamatory. You could almost say that Lu is rewriting both Richardson's novel and Fielding's parodic versions Shamela and Joseph Andrews: here, the false and true Pamelas converge; Shamela is Pamela.

I would finally want to retain Davis as a model for understanding Lu's writing (whether Lu is aware of this model or not), not so much for the formal characteristics they may share, but rather for the example of Davis's experimentalism. It seems to me that the experiments in this work are not formal at all; what you get instead is a spirit of experimentation, a kind of Baconian attitude that takes everything it encounters, including its own rules and machinery of operation, as material for thinking, and pushes each thought as far as it can go. The filmmaker Raul Ruiz would call Pamela a "theoretical fiction"--i.e., a theory that is a fiction, a theory that is internally consistent but fundamentally incoherent when viewed from outside, and that can be maintained, therefore, only in the space of a novel. This is a work of "precision," as Robert Musil would say, "in matters of the soul." It extends the novel's capacity to think.

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Fall 2000 Table of Contents