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Friday, July 16, 2010

Raymond Federman, SHHH (starcherone books), part 4

[This is the final in a four-part series of blogs on Raymond Federman's last novel, Shhh, The Story of a Childhood.]

I attended SUNY-Buffalo during some of the years Raymond Federman taught there. I never got to know him well, but I did attend a number of readings and observed him in passing. He can only be described as a raconteur — to my mind, someone for whom the story, not the facts or memory, takes priority. Usually, the raconteur engages in storytelling just for fun. And, while Federman obviously had a lot of fun, he also turned the raconteur's position into an aesthetic.

At one point in the book he even takes on a belligerent tone about just this issue:

"To remember is to play a mental cinema that falsifies the original event. Souvenirs are fiction.

When I write, I don't give a damn about what I owe to memory. Otherwise it would mean that I write to repay what I owe to those who forced me to write. What do I owe them?"

These sentences are uttered by an interlocutor who interrupts Federman's string of vignettes to question what he is writing and how he is doing it. Much of the time, it feels as if it is a version of Federman's voice coming through, even when he seems to divide himself into two voices who go into dialogue. One voice refers to himself in the second person, the other in the first.

Federman's visceral reaction against 'responsible', 'dutiful' writing is, ironically, a call to honesty. He believes that straightforward, realist stories are "responsible" and indefensibly dishonest: "Those who exterminated my family believe themselves to be responsible for cleansing humanity of a verman." An 'honest' story, it would seem, is self-aware of itself as a story, as a construction. It doesn't pretend to represent in any simple and clear way.

I end by returning to my first post, the one where the interlocutor wonders how Federman can be "so serious. Your readers are going to find it boring...What! No more mad laughter, no more sexual effrontery..."

This is a book where Federman risks his raconteur aesthetic in order to tell the heartbreaking story of his early childhood. It is a book where he seems as much interested in history (he even says so at one time) as he is with the story. He seems to risk realism, which he clearly associates with fascism, in order to be true to his vignettes.

But there is a final twist. In his afterword publisher Ted Pelton says that Federman's daughter Simone commented about the closet incident, "if it ever happened." This is astounding: she is questioning the very basis of this entire book. The raconteur could have the last laugh, having created out of thin air the perfect Holocaust, rags to riches story, only to break it up into discontinuous vignettes and the voices of interlocutors.

What did or did not happen becomes indifferent. What we have is the writing. However, this should not be taken as a frivolous postmodernism that claims all human communication/thought/reality is writing. Hardly. Federman came to his aesthetic in part through his painful participation in the Holocaust, whatever his faulty memory might offer us of the particulars of that time.

There is no free play of the signifier when they come for your family. Yes, there might be a lie that keeps the police from searching the closet where Raymond was hiding, but that comes from desperation, not freedom. This book is called "Shhh," not "because of her I can write." Federman emphasizes the closing down of language.

I hope I am not stretching it by saying that this book, in part, shows that the free play of the signifier ends at the point of a bayonet or the barrel of a gun. As Federman worries as early as page 9, perhaps the raconteur cannot tell this story in the face of such devastation, no matter how fast and loose he plays with the facts. Death is absolute. Mass murder is moreso, since it echoes among those yet to be killed. And that echoing is not a sign. It's too deep, too sickening and revolting for such a word. Perhaps the best we can do is use words like "aura," "atmosphere" and so on.

What is Federman's solution in this book? To use ellipses:   ...

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