Looking for a book missing from an expensive bookstore’s shelves, I stumbled upon another title which immediately finds itself in my hands. The front cover, a violet expanse with a lower corner inhabited by an army of minuscule letter E’s in different pink shades, caught my attention. I turned to the blurbs in the back cover and read The New Yorker praise it as “A true tour de force: a full-length novel containing not a single ‘E.’ An entertaining post-modern detective story.”
Now how about that? Straight away, I returned Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Edward Said’s Orientalism, among others, back on the shelf – I not having the financial capability to acquire all of them – and bought Georges Perec’s A Void at the counter.
Thus having relegated Said for Christmas (or perhaps my next birthday), I began leafing through A Void and learned that the book was originally in French and that the author, perhaps to compensate for the lack of E’s in A Void, also wrote a shorter text using only E as a vowel. Meanwhile, the award-winning translator and novelist Gilbert Adair also made sure that the English translation made use of not a single E!
Now how about that? Ruminating on such an oddity, the first thing that entered my mind is an old vulgar joke which came to me first from – of all people – one of my old professors in the university. A rakish American cowboy, the joke goes, came across an Indian village. To test the Indian chief’s virility, the arrogant cowboy asked the chief how many wives he had.
“I’ve tried all the women in the village including the little girls,” said the chief coolly.
“Oh boy,” the visitor exclaimed after this revelation.
“That includes the boys,” answered the chief.
“Holy cow!” The cowboy couldn’t resist from crying.
“Yes, I also did the cows.”
Again shocked, the white man yelled, “Oh dear!”
Yes, the Indian chief calmly added, even the deers but only when I can catch them. And the deer, of course, swift as it is, is never caught (it is always out there!). Such is the case in this novel of Perec’s, which has as its formal premise quite a ludicrous constraint.
In the novel’s postscript, Perec claims to have drawn inspiration from “a (modish) linguistic dogma claiming primacy for what Saussurian structuralists call a significant…” which he claims was “not a handicap, not a constriction, but, all in all, a spur to my imagination.” He likewise professes to have had a lot of fun writing it principally “by locating and disclosing that contradiction in which all syntactic, structural or symbolic signification is bound up.”
Suffice to say, certain lovers of “meaningful Literature,” bred on the privileging of a literary text’s organic unity, clarity, and polish, would readily dismiss the rawness and systematic chaos of A Void as superficial and pretentious.
On the other hand, Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson (before his structuralist turn), and the rest of the Russian School of Formalism should find in Perec’s novel a posterboy for their tenets of “defamiliarization,” that curious literary doxa that assigns the “literariness” of a text to its deviation from the ordinary use of language or what Jakobson calls an “organized violence committed on ordinary speech.”
A Void begins with the unveiling of an affliction that’s been gnawing Anton Vowl’s mind, an affliction that took shape (or the lack thereof) from the lost of the letter E from the world around him:
His mind runs riot. Lost in thought, scrutinizing his rug, Vowl starts imagining 5, 6, 26 distinct visual combinations, absorbing but also insubstantial, as though an artist’s rough drafts but of what? – that, possibly, which a psychiatrist would call Jungian slips, an infinity of dark, mythic, anonymous portraits flitting through his brain, as it burrows for a solitary, global signal that might satisfy his natural human lust for signification both instant and lasting, a signal that might commandingly stand out from this chain of discontinuous links, this miasma of shadowy tracings, all of which, or so you would think, ought to knit up to form a kind of paradigmatic configuration, of which such partial motifs can furnish only anagrams and insipid approximations… (5)
Fast-forward a few pages and Vowl suddenly disappears. His friends look for any hint as to his whereabouts by digging through his diary, notes, and manuscripts – texts which Vowl’s companions have described in the following revealing way:
“I said just an instant ago that only Champollion would know how to crack such a conundrum,” says Augustus sadly. “But now I doubt if Champollion could pull it off. A Chomsky might in a pinch, though.”
“Or possibly a Roman Jakobson, who could submit a structuralist’s opinion of Ozymandias!” (110)
A Void is marked by self-reflexive parts, which some of my classmates would readily assign the label postmodern, that remind us readers that what we are reading is a fiction, a constructed world that is a step away from our own:
“From which point it’s but a hop, skip and a jump to grasping why so much was built on so rigorous a constraint, so tyrannical a curb. It was born out of a mad and morbid whim: that of wholly satisfying a fascination with linguistic gratuity, with proscription and subtraction, that of avoiding any word striking its author as too obvious, too arrogant or too common, of according its significant just a gap, a slit, a loop, so narrow, so slim and so sharp, that you instantly grasp its justification.” (177)
Racing through a tight succession of roundabout subplots, literary pastiches (E-less versions of Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s To Be Or Not To Be soliloquoy, among others), a random mention of Donald Duck, segues on the craft of literary production, namedroppings of Foucault and Lacan, absurd anecdotes, and other playful devices we finally end up with a “Maldiction,” “a Zahir,” the void that ties it all together.
And this specter that casts a long shadow over the novel, as in all texts of this mischievous type (the supposed historical artifact that creates a ruckus in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, to cite another example, turns out to be a laundry list – not to mention the bulk of Borges’ ficciones) turns out to be something very incredulous. The text itself comments near the end:
“Voila,” says Squaw, in a sort of monosyllabic singsong, “all kaput. All kaput. Who would think of it? And, you know, I find this conclusion just a tiny but anticlimactic, a tiny but Much Ado About Nothing, a bit irritating, a bit discouraging, don’t you think?” (276)
But then sometimes, as the cliché goes, it’s not the end in sight that truly matters but the process that leads to that end. In the novel’s beginning, we are faced
“…with a haunting strand of plot working its way through a mosaic of motifs so confusing that you and I can’t possibly summon up a vision of its totality from A to Z, its organic unity, so confusing that our wish to find a significant sign in it is simply an illusion.
“But gradually, with our starting to grasp that a law is structuring its composition, this initial confusion of ours will turn to admiration – admiration at how, with such a niggardly grammatical, syntactical and punctuational construction, with a vocabulary cut down to a minimum by so many constraints of scission, omission and approximation, such an inscription can still contain so much information.” (177)
Ultimately, Perec, if we are to believe the following passage as his aim in writing A Void (and if we are to accord such authorial declarations significance), appears to have succeeded:
My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, an artifact that would or just possibly might, act as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today. (281)
But as José Ortega Y Gasset writes in his treatise on love: “Falling in love automatically tends towards madness. Left to itself, it goes to utter extremes.” ■