Online Edition: Summer 2001

The Twofold Vibration by Raymond Federman

The Twofold Vibration

Raymond Federman

Green Integer ($11.95)

by Lance Olsen

Raymond Federman--arguably one of the most important innovative writers working (primarily) in English of the last third of the 20th century--began what he would consider his best novel, The Twofold Vibration, in 1976 and completed it in 1981. The hybrid result is, among other things, part experimental science fiction, part haunting Holocaust narrative, part expansive Rabelaisian satire, and part tragicomic Beckettian investigation into the uncertainties of language, meaning, and the existential condition. But what is extraordinary rereading Federman's narrative from our contemporary vantage point (it is set on December 31, 1999, so that Federman's fictive future has become our fictive past) is how much it prefigures what might be considered the Post-Memoir Memoir: those no-longer-innocent autobiografictions (think, for example, of David Shields's print-based Remote or Shelley Jackson's Web-based My Body) which believe, along with the protagonist of The Twofold Vibration, that there exist “no facts to be accurately described, only hypotheses to be set up, no choices of words [which] will express the truth, for one has only a choice of rhetorical masks in a situation like this one.”

The Federmanian “situation like this one” is, unsurprisingly, complicated and ambiguous. An 82-year-old French-Jewish poet and novelist, whose alternative oeuvre echoes Federman's own, waits in a massive holding tank on earth for deportation with hundreds (perhaps thousands, perhaps millions) of others (social remainders, all: the sick, the abnormal, the “useless”) to the space colonies. While it is clear this New Year's Eve ritual has occurred annually since 1994, when the colonies were first established, it is unclear why. Although “informed sources” underscore repeatedly that the deportation is neither conditional upon race nor religion, and it seems evident that these people are not being punished for criminal or other socially untoward activities, the reason for this exile remains indecipherable, as does the nature of the colonies themselves. Are they neo-edens, prisons, something in-between? Is it even possible that they do not exist at all, that the deportees are simply rocketed into space and left there to die, thereby freeing up room on our overcrowded planet?

In any case, this state of affairs is further complicated by the telling. In a layout reminiscent of Beckett's How It Is, paragraph-long “sentences” are composed with few capital letters, no periods, no quotation marks, and a beautifully protracted, rhythmic string of comma splices. The voice of the protagonist, his friends Moinous and Namredef (themselves yet more alter-egos of Federman), the narrator (ditto), and perhaps the author himself circulate through these grammaticules, the linguistic and narratological membrane separating one character from another remarkably permeable, as they construct, collaborate, argue, dismember, and then reconstruct only to once again deconstruct the old man's history in an attempt to reach some understanding about why he has survived as long as he has and why he is being deported now.

Federman thereby appropriates and postmodernizes the SF genre. First, he uses it to create a philosophical parable about the infinite deferral of knowledge at the level of facts and at the level of how we organize and discuss those facts--through, that is, a continually slippery system of signifiers. Second, he uses SF both to metaphorize and interrogate his own memories as a Holocaust survivor. At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1942, as the Gestapo stormed up the stairs to the Federmans' third-floor apartment in Paris, Federman's mother shoved the 12-year-old boy into a closet on the landing, where he remained the rest of that day and most of the following night. When he finally ventured out again, his parents and two sisters had already embarked on the journey that would end in their extermination in Auschwitz. In other words, the questions that the old man and his other selves ask in The Twofold Vibration on his trip from one box (he, too, was shoved into a closet in Paris to avoid the Gestapo) to another (the huge deportation hall) are the same ones Federman has been asking himself for the past 59 years.

One might suppose the consequence of such Post-Memoir material would be somber, stoic, cerebral business indeed. Yet this is precisely where Federman distances himself from such Holocaust writers as Elie Wiesel. The Twofold Vibration, like all of Federman's books, is hugely funny, and Federman himself a one-man Laurel and Hardy of narratology and epistemology. If Wiesel's work is about the grim and necessary task of documenting the unspeakable, then Federman's is about the dynamic and equally necessary task of troubling that documentation and ultimately moving beyond the unspeakable to learn how to exist in its wake. “I am a survivor,” the old man tells June Fanon, the young Jane Fonda-like woman with whom he is having a robust affair, as he speeds his blue Alfa Romeo through the narrow, winding mountain roads on his way to gamble at Lake Como:

I'm not morbid, I'm happy, can't you see, yes happy to be here with you, but you see the fact of being a survivor, of living with one's death behind, in a way makes you free, free and irresponsible toward your own end, of course you feel a little guilty while you're surviving because there is this thing about your past, your dead past and all that, but you have to get on with things, sustain your excessiveness, so to speak . . .

And this has precisely been Federman's project for more than a third of a century: to create a Literature of Exuberance as the only response to the horrors of the contemporary, to pack the page with rich and textured discourse, to move beyond the metaphorical silence of death into a self-aware cacophony of life--part transcendence, part ebullient, iconoclastic escape. Like The Twofold Vibration's old man after a bout of tuberculosis, Federman attempts to laugh himself back to health.

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The Voice in the Closet

Raymond Federman

Starcherone Books ($9)

by Rebecca Weaver

The particular story of Raymond Federman's The Voice in the Closet cannot be told conventionally. Originally part of his third novel The Twofold Vibration, this book was excerpted by request of Indiana University Press, who called the section "unreadable." It's fortunate that Federman found another home for the section, because this short book does something hugely innovative: it conflates the known conventions of how we talk and write, since in this case, those conventions no longer serve what needs to be said.

What needs to be said in this book is that survival is possible. The book's journey toward survival is powerfully conveyed on two levels. The first is that of the physical event itself. In a looping, elliptical way, readers come to discover that a boy has been locked into a closet. His mother and father, knowing that the Nazis are coming, hide the boy and escape with their daughters. Sadly, the only one who survives is the boy; he eventually escapes to America and becomes a writer. This is where the second level intersects with the first. The boy becomes the writer Federman, but The Voice in the Closet is spoken in the voice of the boy, who is angry and confused at the way his story has been twisted and retold by the writer: "he failed to generate the real story in vain situates me in the wrong abode as I turn in a void in his obligation to assign a beginning . . ."

There is a struggle for primacy between the two voices, and as the struggle is played throughout the book, the nature of stories and how we tell them is interrogated by the constant probing of memory. After all, whose story is it? The boy's, with whom the experience originated, or the adult Federman's, who has worked to tell the story? It is in this place where fact and memory collide that another sort of oppression takes place, and the inability to make sense of it renders the boy Federman "voiceless." The only way to survive it is to escape a mother tongue that has become fraught with grief and terror, in the same way that the poet (and fellow Holocaust survivor) Paul Celan's mother tongue became for him problematic. The English language, however, is punched through with pitfalls of its own, giving the writer Federman his own linguistic conundrum: "expelled from mother tongue exiled from mother land tongueless he extracts words from other tongues to exact his speechlessness . . ." Thus, conventional language is not adequate for the job of relating the horrific event that begins the journey. The lack of punctuation throughout The Voice in the Closet further underscores the breathless and unrelenting travels between past and present, memory and story.

This book asserts that the only way we can negotiate our histories and our memories is through the acts of telling (and re-telling) those stories. Survival exists in this kind of vigilant effort. The boy begins to forgive the writer, realizing that he, too, can speak, and that the act of speaking--for both Federmans--negates absence and creates hope. Silence is too costly. In the act of speaking, of telling the story again and again, "spring wells up at last."

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Summer 2001 Table of Contents