Clickthrough Culture and Difficult Literature
In the world of web technology, UX designers, content editors, advertising managers, technical writers, marketing specialists—people like me—pour over reports and peruse usability studies and conduct A/B tests and solicit user feedback and review eye movement data to find out one thing: how do you read?
Because knowing how you read is the key to knowing what you’ll read and what links and ads you’ll click. In the world of web technology, this stuff matters. After all, if no one reads below the fold (the point at which you have to start scrolling), it’s not a great marketing strategy to place paid advertising at the bottom of a long web page.
Reading, it turns out, is highly quantifiable. Internet marketing is about metrics—site visits and clickthrough rates and organic search rankings. Suddenly there’s big money in literacy, or in understanding the new literacy of what we might call clickthrough culture.
So what do the studies show? Well, we don’t read like we used to. Jakob Nielsen, an oft-cited usability expert, explains, “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”i Nielsen suggests that web writing should employ “highlighted keywords,” “meaningful subheadings,” “bulleted lists,” “one idea per paragraph,” “the inverted pyramid style,” and “half the word count (or less) than [sic] conventional writing.”ii
Now take a step back from that and think about Virginia Woolf. Think about To the Lighthouse written in web style. Or think about Samuel Beckett. Think about the “meaningful subheadings” you could apply to Endgame. Okay, so that’s not fair. I’m conflating genres and media. But the train of thought begs a question: what happens to literature (and by that I mean ambitious, challenging, modern and contemporary writing that aspires to make a significant cultural contribution) when we redefine literacy? What value does it have? What purpose does it serve?
Perhaps none. It’s possible that shifting technologies of reading have made modern literature unviable, or have obviated the need for it. In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2010), Nicholas Carr suggests that “books and book reading, at least as we’ve defined those things in the past, are in their cultural twilight. As a society, we devote ever less time to reading printed words, and even when we do read them, we do so in the busy shadow of the Internet.”iii What gets lost, according to Carr, is “deep reading,” which is “a form of deep thinking.”iv
If this is so, then one would expect literature, as a traditional subspecies of book reading, to be in its “cultural twilight” too. If it is, very well. Nostalgic and vaguely moral laments about the fate of one’s brand of cultural literacy are a dime a dozen and unpleasant to boot. This essay is not going down that road. But I don’t think literature has exhausted its usefulness. In fact, I’d like to make the modest argument that, in the era of clickthrough culture, literature serves an important new function: It offers a model of reading that is more luxurious, more intellectually engaging, and more challenging than the emergent Internet norm. I would argue that this is the case even if you read literature on the web or on a mobile device or an e-reader. Though there are interesting literary experiments that use web technology to advantage, most works of literature are still the products of a different, deeper (to borrow Carr’s metaphor) kind of literacy, even when consumed on an e-reader or tablet.
Literature’s new role as a corrective to clickthrough reading is particularly apparent when we look at limit cases—at works that require a reading style that is absolutely anathema to clickthrough consumption. Judged by the standards of web technology, some of the most interesting experimental works of postmodern and contemporary American literature are just about unreadable. These, I would argue, are the best of the good stuff, and they’re worth reconsidering in light of the new cultural freight they have to truck.
Everybody knows Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is difficult. It’s one of those works that, when people like it, they go out of their way to tell you it’s not really that difficult—which means it is.
The 1973 New York Times review of Gravity’s Rainbow is interesting because it tells us something about Gravity’s Rainbow before it became Gravity’s Rainbow. The reviewer, Richard Locke, found the book to be simply too long. Not too long in some relative or conditional sense (e.g. too long because it wasn’t well edited, or too long because it lacked focus). It was just too much print on paper. “Reading it is often profoundly exasperating,” Locke writes. “[T]he book is too long and dense; despite the cornucopia of brilliant details and grand themes, one’s dominant feelings in the last one to two hundred pages are a mounting restlessness, fatigue and frustration.”v
This is before Gravity’s Rainbow became a monument of postmodern literary culture, at a point when a reader might evaluate the book, and not the other way around. Joshua Gaylord, in an essay cleverly titled “Enduring Literature,” writes that his first reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses felt like “staring down the business end of Literature.”vi The same could probably be said of many readers’ first approach to Gravity’s Rainbow. Gaylord suggests as much by alluding to a canon of literary works that must be endured before they can be appreciated:
Wracked, enlightened, tortured, exhausted, bettered, you come out the other side of a book like Ulysses feeling as though you’ve had an experience, as though you have actually, actively read. And there are, for those of us who enjoy such literature of endurance, many authors who write books like bricks you could use to build a sound shelter for the three little pigs: William Gaddis, John Barth, Doris Lessing, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, David Foster Wallace (to mention just a few of the most recent examples.vii
Probably, Locke and Gaylord are both right. Gravity’s Rainbow is too dense and meandering, yet the length and difficulty of such a book makes it all the more engaging for the reader who is willing to undertake a thoroughly immersive textual experience. It’s also a book that requires the reader to make narrative connections that are often barely hinted at. In The Shallows, Carr points out that the technology of the book produces “new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies.”viii Gravity’s Rainbow is a prime example of this effect. The novel is full of opportunities for readerly insight and association. It not only asks the reader to make connections; it constantly foregrounds the fact that there are connections to be made. This reflexivity or meta-commentary—whatever we want to call it—is, in Gravity’s Rainbow, called paranoia.
Paranoia seems to be both the precondition and the result of making connections in the fictional world of Gravity’s Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop, the character who is closest to the center of this de-centered novel, often dramatizes the connection-making process that the reader is also going through. We see Slothrop puzzling over details and teasing out plot connections right along with us. At the beginning of the long third section of the novel, “In the Zone,” the narrator explains, “Signs will find him here in the Zone, and ancestors will reassert themselves.”ix This vaguely ominous warning seems to refer simultaneously to the reader and to Slothrop. Is Slothrop going to encounter signs of his ancestry and destiny? Or are the signs that “will find him” part of a larger revelation for the reader?
Yes, as it turns out, to both. Slothrop does encounter signs, particularly in the form of clues about the mysterious Rocket Number 00000 that is at the center of the novel’s labyrinthine plot. But the reader is also confronted with revelation—or perhaps taunted and teased with it, would be more accurate. The narrator often reminds us that we’re in the middle of a paranoid world where connections suggest themselves but without producing certainty or finality. The “Zone” of Gravity’s Rainbow is not unlike Baudelaire’s forests of symbols. Signs have designs on us.
Some of the paranoid connections suggested by the novel are geopolitical and involve recognition of a global conspiracy designed to protect the interests of manufacturers and technocrats. Oberst Enzian, leader of a group of Afro-German rocket soldiers called the Schwarzkommando, is riding a motorcycle through the Zone when he abruptly recognizes the secret (metaphorically) vampiric power behind the war: “. . .[T]his War was never political at all, the politics was all theatre, just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly, it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology . . . by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy burst of war, crying, ‘Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,’ but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more . . . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies, Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite . . .”x Such geopolitical paranoia about cartels is prevalent in the novel.
On a more metatextual level, paranoia is linked to the unreliability of narrative itself. This is a novel of “alternate histories”xi in which “[t]hose like Slothrop, with the greatest interest in discovering the truth, [are] thrown back on dreams, psychic flashes, omens, cryptographies, drug-epistemologies, all dancing on a ground of terror, contradiction, absurdity.”xii Uncertain or indeterminate moments in the narrative—moments at which we wonder if the plot adds up—make us doubly suspicious. Perhaps the plot hints at certain connections not because it’s enacting paranoia, but because it’s not well developed. (Getting paranoid about the paranoia . . .) Ultimately, Slothrop learns “that the Zone can sustain many other plots besides those polarized upon himself” and that “this network of all plots may yet carry him to freedom.”xiii Here Slothrop’s moment of recognition is concomitantly a moment of recognition for the reader: Gravity’s Rainbow is itself a network of plots through which the reader moves, making connections or not, becoming embroiled in paranoid theories or leaving them well enough alone.
I am inclined to see in the paranoid connections of Gravity’s Rainbow a foreshadowing of the hypertext connections of clickthrough culture—a kind of commentary avant la lettre on a new mode of reading. Obviously, the novel is not about the Internet. But it does point to certain tendencies in a society that would, forty years later, have been revolutionized by web technology. If paranoid reading is a practice of suspecting connections everywhere in the text, it has something in common with hypertext, which literally does embed connections in the text.
But the difference between these two modes of connectivity is significant. Hypertext connections require no thought and leave no uncertainty. Either there’s a link, or there isn’t. There’s no such thing as an ambiguous URL. If a web design is good, you should be able to spot links effortlessly, thoughtlessly. Some nifty mouse-over event may even make the link pop off the screen a bit. In short, with a good web design, you should never feel compelled to say, as the narrator does at a chaotic moment in Gravity’s Rainbow, “It is difficult to perceive just what the fuck is happening here.”xiv
Are we, the reading public, better off for such clarity? Maybe. But I like making my own connections.
Not Entertaining Enough
The acclaim was staggering. “A work of genius.” “A virtuoso display.” “Spectacularly good.” “Ambitious and frequently brilliant.” “A comic masterpiece.” One could be forgiven for thinking that the late David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) marked a novelistic eschaton of sorts. No need to trouble yourselves further, folks. It’s been done. The novel has.
Infinite Jest is a stylistic tour-de-force. "The book is 1,079 pages and there is not one lazy sentence," writes Dave Eggers. It’s dazzling even when it’s awkward—no, especially when it’s awkward. One of the most memorable characters of Infinite Jest, recovering addict Don Gately, works in a men's homeless shelter where the walls and floor are befouled by various excretions. Gately encounters “barrackses's cots” that “reek of urine and have insect-activity observable.”xv Any competent stylist would know better than to use a locution as awkward as “barrackses’s cots.” And what MFA workshop wouldn't collectively demand a recasting of that “have”? More muscular verbs assert themselves.
Put another way, how good do you have to be not to be more elegant? Not to be less awkward?
Pretty damn good. Listen to the awkward in context.
The whole place smells like death no matter what the fuck you do. Gately gets to the shelter at 0459.9h. and just shuts his head off as if his head has a kind of control switch. He screens input with a fucking vengeance the whole time. The barrackses’s cots reek of urine and have insect-activity observable. The state employees who supervise the shelter at night are dead-eyed and watch soft-core tapes behind the desk . . .xvi
Now listen again, sentence by sentence, to the voices (in brackets):
The whole place smells like death no matter what the fuck you do [Don Gately thinks]. Gately gets to the shelter at 0459.9h. and just shuts his head off as if his head has a kind of control switch [the narrator says]. He screens input with a fucking vengeance the whole time [the narrator says like Don Gately would say]. The barrackses's cots reek of urine and have insect-activity observable [the narrator says like the state employees of the next sentence would write in their bureaucratic pseudo-jargon that displaces agency]. The state employees who supervise the shelter at night are dead-eyed and watch soft-core tapes behind the desk. . . .
We hear them before we meet them, the state employees, in that tone-deaf passive locution “have insect-activity observable.” We don't need to be told that one of them has made the rounds, clipboard in hand, and observed the insects, noting their observability.
The thing is, we could do this kind of close reading for every paragraph of the book—parse it, tease it out, untwine the voices—and often as not it would pay off. So yes. Pretty damn good.
But how to go about reading a book like this, this interminable tome? Seriously, how? Preparing to write this article, I read most of it on the bus. I’d get up at five and take a shower and empty the cat litter and pour coffee into a paper cup and drive to the park-and-ride and wait for the bus with the book in an old bike messenger bag slung over my shoulder. Then I’d spend the 35-minute commute absorbed in the novel until I got near my office downtown and had to find a stopping point in the middle of one of those four-page paragraphs supersaturated with ugly acronyms from the novel’s administrative dystopia and I’d realize that on the ride I’d read maybe ten or fifteen pages out of 1079. Sometimes it was demoralizing.
I had intended to read Infinite Jest for some time. A few months before I bought a copy, a friend loaned me hers. “You have to read it,” she said. “Here. It’s amazing.” “Wow,” I said, “How long did it take you to finish this?” “Oh, I haven’t finished it.”
I told another friend I was finally reading Infinite Jest. He’s a writer who did grad work at Yale, one of Harold Bloom’s students. He reads voraciously, and well. “I made it to around page 400,” he said.
A coworker who loaned me Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men—a man who has read much of Wallace’s work carefully—told me he made it half way through. “I hate the French part,” he said, meaning the Québécois separatist subplot. “So do I,” I said, intending primarily to agree with him and then realizing that I really do hate the Québécois-separatist-wheelchair-assassin subplot.
Half way through the novel I realized that the reading itself had become performance art, with this article as the record of the performance. I started wondering how much of a book you have to read to say that you’ve “read” it. During a year of grad school at University of Minnesota, I took a seminar on colonial American history. The reading load was unbelievable. How could anyone read that much week after week, I wondered. One day a colleague took me aside. “We don’t read like that,” she said, meaning, We don’t read from the beginning of the book to the end, and all the pages in between.
But Infinite Jest is a magnum opus of contemporary literature, and it demands just such a reading—front-to-back, fully attentive. There seems to be a tension, then, between the novel’s purported literary merit and its tendency to put off sympathetic readers. In a beautifully subtle move, the novel explores this tension via the filmmaking career of one of its characters, Jim Incandenza, an experimental filmmaker and the novel’s absent father figure.
Late in the novel, Jim Incandenza’s son Hal, a first-person narrator in some sections of Infinite Jest, watches part of his father’s film Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space with Mind-Boggling Efficiency. In the film, a thumbless, balding actor named Paul Anthony Heaven delivers a lecture to a room full of painfully bored students. He reads in a “deadening academic monotone”xvii material that satirizes overly metaphorical philosophical discourse, while his students fidget:
A number of shots of undergraduates with their heads on their desks, reading their mail, making origami animals, picking at their faces with blank intensity, established that the climactic lecture wasn’t coming off as all that climactic to the audience within the film. ‘We thus become, in the absence of death as teleologic end, ourselves desiccated, deprived of some essential fluid, aridly cerebral, abstract, conceptual, little more than hallucinations of God,’ the academic read in a deadly drone, his eyes never leaving his lectern’s text.
Of course, the reader of Infinite Jest also endures this academic underperformance. In reading the scene, we become part of an implied meta-audience (meta-meta audience?), and with all of the metatextual, self-referential, ironic self-awareness indicated by this scene, it’s tempting to read the reported critical assessment of Jim Incandenza—“technically gifted but narratively dull and plotless and static and not entertaining enough”xviii—as a rather brilliant preemptive comment by the author. Bored as we may be, we would rather not identify with the obtuse undergraduates making origami.
Like Incandenza’s art film and the lecture that it depicts, Wallace’s novel requires an act of sustained attention. It is not designed to be scanned or skimmed. Wallace’s famous footnotes are not there to be particularly helpful. The information in the novel is not effortlessly accessible. If it were possible to do usability testing on the novel, the novel would fail.
More power to it.
Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetry exists at the outer limit of unreadability, and of another negation as well: uncreativity. That’s Goldsmith’s term for the compositional process he used to create (copy? construct? remediate?) Day (The Figures, 2003), an 836-page cover-to-cover retyping of the September 1st, 2000, edition of the New York Times. That’s it. No semantic value added, unless you count labor (typing) or form (book) as semantic vehicles.
Parts of Day are interesting in the same way that any old newspaper story is interesting. Local vignettes can maintain their human interest long past the point of being breaking news. But in our information-saturated culture, it’s fair to ask why, more than a decade after the event, one would want to read about an explosion of asbestos outside NYU:
Blast Spews Asbestos Near N.Y.U. Library
By NICHOLE M. CHRISTIAN
A steam pipe near the entrance to New York University’s main library burst yesterday morning, spewing debris and traces of asbestos onto dozens of people and several cars and buildings in the area.
The explosion, at 7:12 a.m., created a 15-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide crater in front of the entrance to the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, which occupies most of one block on Washington Square South. It also caused parts of the street to buckle, forcing the authorities to reroute pedestrian and vehicle traffic in that part of Greenwich Village for hours.xix
In an episode of J. J. Abrams’ science fiction TV show Fringe, the blast would undoubtedly portend a dire threat from an alternate reality. In this case, it’s just a mundane happening. But while the content is not especially piquant, the presentation bears further consideration. Here we see newspaper text with all of the formatting stripped away. Goldsmith has copied the characters but not the markup used to display them. (One wonders how this project would have been different if he had remediated a web edition. Would he have typed out HTML tags?)
The author’s name also gives one pause: Nichole M. Christian. It’s one thing to steal content from a business like the New York Times. It’s another to take another writer’s work, especially a journalist. As a profession, journalism has not flourished in the era of crowd-sourced content. As a group, poets are used to working at an economically marginalized craft. I’m not saying that I’m looking for empathy or solidarity here, or that Goldsmith’s re-typing of Christian’s article demonstrates a lack of either, but—as someone who makes a living as a technical writer—I feel a little bit defensive on behalf of the journalists whose work Goldsmith appropriates. He is, after all, furthering his poetic career by transcribing their work, even if—legally—it belongs to the Times.
But whatever reservations I may have about Goldsmith’s appropriations, Day is—by its very existence—starting a discussion, inviting scrutiny, begging the question. Even at its most unreadable, Day is interesting if for no other reason than that it asks us to reconsider what reading entails. What would it mean to say one had “read” this book, given that it contains nearly 200 pages of this:
26.50 10.06 AAR .34 3.0 94372 11.26 10.38 11.26+0.94 2800 1925 ABM .62 2.3 16 170 27.69 26.94 27.00-0.81 260 1 138 ABN Arnro .83 a 3.3 806 25.06 24.56 25.00-0.06 26.25 20.25 ACE Cap n 2.22 8.8 37 25.44 25.06 25.13-0.31xx
This is not text to be read like a work of literature, with close attention to detail and nuance. This is not text to be “read” at all, if reading is what we do with a novel or a magazine article. This is data to be skimmed, to be mined for relevant information. Yet here it is, asking us to rethink our expectations about literature, about reading, and perhaps even about beauty. For the pages of stock reports in Day, with their many zeroes and decimal points laid out in forbidding blocks, are weirdly beautiful, and perhaps it’s the case that their unreadability is a precondition for their existence as visual art.
In an interview with The Believer, Goldsmith discusses the unreadability factor inherent in his works:
My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable . . . But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product.xxi
He finds this same unreadable quality in other works as well:
My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them.
But there’s something qualitatively different about Goldsmith’s work. It’s not unreadable in the same way that the writing of James Joyce or Walter Benjamin or Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace is unreadable. Their works are long, yes. But behind their difficulty lies the promise of literary depth. Imagine accusing Joyce of “uncreativity,” for example. No, the difficulty of a work by a Pynchon or a Joyce is of the backed-by-deep-literary-meaning variety. There’s something else going on with Goldsmith. His work is less about allusion, myth, or trope than it is about transcription. In Fidget (Coach House Books, 1999) he transcribes 13 hours of his own movements. In Soliloquy (Granary Books, 2001) he transcribes a week’s worth of his own speech. In The Weather (Make Now Press, 2005) he transcribes a year’s worth of weather reports. He is not so much an author as a transcriber, which is interesting in its own right, but more interesting still is the effect of the transcriptions, which take unreadability to a whole new level. Here, for example, is the beginning of “Act 2” of Soliloquy:
Go to sleep. Just do you want to sleep? Huh? No? It’s early. I have to work at 9. Testing. How you doin? Alright. Alright. Yeah. Nope. Nope. Naw. Definitely not. I don’t remember. It was OK. It was forgettable, I think. I’ve already forgotten. Well, we’ll find out where we are or were. Yeah where are you . . . ? Oh. If we can get it done, sure. Let me just look and see what we’ve got here. OK now this you was OK, right. This we want to be yellow. You want it in yellow. I don’t know why we’re not getting this image. It think it’s been lost. I’m gonna hafta. It’s not reading right, oh god.xxii
On the one hand, this is banal to the point that a 487-page book full of such material sounds intolerable. On the other hand, there’s something fascinating going on here. Because the speech is taken entirely out of context, the deictic expressions have come unhinged. Here where? This what? It which? For this reader, there’s a tendency to want to read these areferential indexicals as self-referential. That is, here, this, and it, become the text itself. “It’s not reading right, oh god.” I’m inclined to take this as meta-critique.
Fidget feels less readable still, yet there’s a poetry to it that’s not evident in Soliloquy. Here is the beginning of section “11:00”:
Thumb and forefinger grasp. Pull toward floor. Right hand moves palm up. Back of hand holds as thumb and forefinger grab. Forefinger moves away. Thumb and middle finger grasp. Palm of hand receives. Thumb and middle finger grasp. Palm of hand opens. Holds bottom side of thumb. Left hand releases and moves to top. Hand retreats. Right hand lifts. Left hand grabs. Turns over. Left tips of fingers dig into scalp. Left hand, grasping with left thumb and two fingers, thrusts into palm. Fingers grasp as body swings left. Head turns. Left thumb, middle and forefingers grab. Left finger lifts and releases. Body moves, arching forward. Knees straighten. Body erect. Step right foot. Step left foot. Step right foot. Step left foot. Hips swing to right. Right hand grasps, moving away from body.xxiii
Repetition and permutation, the minutiae of obsession, the absurdities of physicality—this is the territory of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett, to say nothing of Joyce, whose work is obliquely referenced by the choice of Bloomsday for the transcription. It seems that this most unreadable of poets—a poet who calls his own works “insanely dull and unreadable”—is wresting from unreadability an unexpectedly mellifluous text, a prose poem of pulling and palming, grabbing and grasping, all active verbs and displaced agency. Yes, it’s literally and metaphorically masturbatory. But it’s a reminder of the potential for pleasure concealed in “unreadable” literature.
There’s a long and honorable tradition of unreadable modernist and posmodernist long poems. They’re usually referred to as “difficult” rather than unreadable, but what one encounters in navigating them is a disruptive reading experience, or potentially so. You have the option of plowing full steam ahead through, say, Ezra Pound’s Cantos without worrying about lost allusions and arcane untranslated fragments. But at some point, if you want to have more than a passing familiarity with the Cantos (or with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or with William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, to name just a few) you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that these works can’t be read in the same way that you’d read a newspaper article or a more traditional poem (think Wordsworth). Modernist long poems are always pointing at something outside the poem—a citation or translation or excised passage. They feel like hypertext with all the links broken.
Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet (University of Alabama Press, 2008) comes out of this modern tradition of difficult long poems, but in that context it feels remarkably consumable. Compared to Pound’s Cantos or Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (both obvious antecedents), The Alphabet is a page-turner. Silliman’s rhythmic chronicling of urban detritus and quotidian events is, on the whole, pretty accessible, and it shows a warmth and humor that I don’t normally associate with modernist difficulty. (Try to imagine Eliot including this bit of quotidian social analysis in The Waste Land: “Any number of men will distribute themselves at the urinals so as to permit each a maximum of space.”)xxiv
At its most readable, The Alphabet works like a catalog of postindustrial objects. “Jones,” written in 1987, is a good example—particularly the prose poetry sections. Of “Jones,” Silliman writes, “Every day for a year I looked at the ground. Jones is a street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin that was then favored by transvestite prostitutes.”xxv The poem begins thus:
Socks on the floor by the door. After the rain the sidewalk dries unevenly. Pyramid of cans in a corner of the yard, waiting to be crushed by a hammer, then piled into a plastic bag (bags of cans stacked high against the fence). Yellow thorny weed that rises between the cracks in the cement. Small grey dead bird, crushed, feathers matted, nearly unidentifiable in the rain beside the sturdy motorcycle chained to the phone pole, glistening. Little yogurt cup wedged into the catch basin at the corner—shreds of old newspaper dissolve into pulp.xxvi
Here everything is in a state of tension. Largely inanimate objects are, nevertheless, active (note the verbs: “dries,” “rises,” “dissolve”). Nothing is exactly in motion, yet things are not quite at rest either, save for the bird—a lyric poet’s surrogate—and it’s dead. There’s an uncanny agency here that, coupled with the poet’s attentiveness, makes this passage wherein nothing happens surprisingly engaging.
The difficulty of The Alphabet lies in the massive accretion of detail (the book is 1062 pages) and in the density of the prose poetry. A lot of the poetry unfolds not in lines and stanzas but in sentences and paragraphs, employing what Silliman has elsewhere called “new sentence” form, wherein a kind of semantic rupture occurs between sentences. For example, “I let these adjectives worry me, their half-fluorescent distortions. From the perspective of survival the most successful evolutionary design belongs to the cockroach, which has no brain. Don’t think of bop ear as limit. The term for this is cornhusking.”xxvii None of these sentences is difficult in itself, but in the aggregate, laid out in a paragraph—a prose structure that we expect to be thematically unified—the sentences disrupt our expectations.
The poem is constantly reflecting on its own disruptive qualities, its own attempts to thwart readability. Where Goldsmith discusses the readability issue paratextually, Silliman works it into the subject matter. He doesn’t take for granted the reading process. In fact, reading becomes one of the recurring themes of The Alphabet, as does writing. These two acts of attention become a collaborative process, as Silliman describes it. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, one for each letter of the alphabet. In “Albany,” on the very first page, Silliman writes, “If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it.”xxviii Silliman then spends the next 1000-plus pages demonstrating form and inviting readers to engage with it.
Silliman’s investigation into collaborative meaning-making is particularly apparent in the “P” section, “Paradise.” Here he constantly foregrounds both the acts of writing and reading. For example:
The words merely crawl across the page, leaving a trail of syntax.xxix
These short words hammer small meaning.xxx
Typewriter hums, awaiting new paragraph.xxxi
I’m impatient that each word takes so long to write.xxxii
Little words inching into syntax, itching into context.xxxiii
The ink is an oily film on a metal ball that turns as the pen rolls over the paper.xxxiv
The page went by very quickly.xxxv
This was and now you are constituted in the process of being words, your thought actualizing through the imposition of this syntax.xxxvi
This was a reader-potential sentence.xxxvii
And here’s a favorite, in context:
A hill of white houses in a white fog. The unreadable. Traffic bunched and backed up on the freeway.xxxviii
What’s “unreadable”? Well, to a certain extent, lacking a more obvious antecedent, the statement points back to the text itself. These reflexive, metatextual depictions of the labor of reading and writing are abundant. Compare this reflexive mode of production to Nielsen’s best practices for web writing and you get a sense of just how disruptive—and therefore valuable—a work like The Alphabet is. Instead of scanning and clicking with the goal of finding a piece of information, we’re reading and reflecting with the goal of understanding how the text came into being. If, in my work as a technical writer, I give the reader the impression that the writing process was difficult, I have fallen down at my job. The reader is not even supposed to think about the labor that went into the writing, or the technology behind the production of it. With The Alphabet, it’s another story entirely. This is a work that asks us to think about where writing comes from, and where meaning comes from, and how provisional and contingent the whole reading process can be. After all, we’re just following the trail of syntax that Silliman leaves for us. But thinking about such things (production of writing, production of meaning) is out of step with clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let’s be honest here) you can buy something.
Perhaps, to various degrees, all literature (or the best of it, anyway) takes up the same questions that The Alphabet implicitly poses and, in doing so, issues a challenge to the instrumentality of clickthrough culture, and to the instrumental reading that clickthrough culture cultivates. Literature doesn’t just deliver information, and it doesn’t necessarily do so efficiently, either. In some ways, as we’ve seen, some of the most interesting contemporary literature flirts with unreadability. Perhaps that’s part of its value, and part of its appeal.
iJakob Nielsen, “How Users Read on the Web,” Alertbox, October 1, 1997. http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html
iiiNicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, (New York: Norton, 2011), 110. ivIbid., 123.
vRichard Locke, “One of the Longest, Most Difficult, Most Ambitious Novels in Years,” New York Times, March 11, 1973. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/18/reviews/pynchon-rainbow.html
viJoshua Gaylord, “Enduring Literature,” in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, ed. Max Magee and Jeff Martin (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2011), 69.
ixThomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (New York: Penguin, 1973), 286.
xvDavid Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Back Bay Books, 1996), 435.
xixKenneth Goldsmith, Day (Berkeley: The Figures, 2003), 164.
xxiGoldsmith, Interview with Dave Mandl, The Believer, October 2011. http://www.believermag.com/issues/201110/?read=interview_goldsmith.
xxiiGoldsmith, Soliloquy, (New York, Granary Books, 2001), 108.
xxiiiGoldsmith, Fidget, (Toronto, Coach House Books, 1999). http://archives.chbooks.com/online_books/fidget/11-00.html
xxivRon Silliman, The Alphabet, (Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2008), 54.