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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Rob Stephenson, PASSES THROUGH

 Let's make it official: I am jealous. Rob Stephenson in his novel Passes Through does something I have been wanting to do for years. He is able to work in language that coheres wonderfully through the use not of traditional narrative techniques, but through loose associational logic and rhythm. Only a quotation can give you a flavor:

"Steel pellets hit the window near the table I write this on. Someone is tapping on a computer keyboard in the next room. I'm using a pencil worn down to the wood. These sounds should be mixed better. All the time I've spent writing this book I have returned to this one specific incident. It's not in my journal. I sat on the toilet. There were cacti in pots on the window ledge. I looked outside at the flat roof of the garage two houses away. It caved in as I stared. It made a loud unfamiliar crash that split my thoughts into two parts. The part that knew it had happened and the part that couldn't yet believe it had."

This (almost) random selection illustrates much of what makes this an extraordinary book. In the first two sentences he slips between describing "steel pellets" of typing to long hand writing. We don't really learn why computer writing is violent (pellets), but we learn that it and long hand are sounds that don't mix. A sense of unease and perhaps foreboding is creating.

Next, we learn that this is an obsessive memory: he never journaled about it, but he can't stop thinking about it. We learn more uneasy details: the toilet, the cacti. Notice also the hard consonants, something that appears in this staccato, polyrhythmic prose throughout the book. Here it is so important as it draws the seeming extraneous tidbits of toilet and cacti into the larger rhythmic pattern. Look at the hard consonants, and you will see it happening.

The paragraph ends with the description of the cracking flat roof of the garage. The splitting of the thoughts is of paramount importance: this book is about spelunking that very space between perception and conception, between consideration and action, between repetition and obsession. And it forces us to experience it viscerally.

Viscerally. That's right. Let me rephrase: the book is not about anything. It enacts as a writerly object and as a readerly process the tensions involved in such spelunking. This is a book that perhaps could only really benefit from a kind of phenomenological reading where the entire text of the book is reproduced in one column while in the opposite column is a description of a process of reading it.

And I mean a description and a process. The book holds together marvelously, but it has a quality about it where people are bound to respond in wildly different ways. In fact, one blurb talked about how the book has something to do with compulsive hate. I don't see it at all, but I don't deny that this rich book could sustain such a reading.

I hope I am being clear: this is not a book where every reader can take his or her own meaning. That's a ridiculous cliche that is true of all books and no books at the same time. This book is one where readers who take their time, determined to find and learn what is here, come away convinced that the book coheres, but do so in wildly different ways. And the reason is that I think he has tapped a language source so close to phenomena as we experience and talk about them that we are drawn to its coherence and perhaps seduced into thinking our specific reading is more central to the book than it is.

On a more mundane note, the book is divided into three sections. In the first section the associations are most closely linked, and quasi-journal entries are fairly coherent in a conventional sense. Stephenson tells us how he came to write these entries: "Initially, I felt this story was encompassing too many ideas. I keep changing as I go. I had hoped to stay true in some sense to what I started. But then I began to wonder if a writer's instincts should be disregarded. Maybe I should let them go. These little documents of my personal moments."

The second section is one, 60-page paragraph and is much more loosely connected. The sentences are all conventionally coherent, but the connections between them are quite complex and sometimes hard to fathom. It reminds me of the early Ron Silliman, when he was developing his aesthetics of the "New Sentence" in works such as Ketjak.

The third section consists of short prose poems, and the level of conventional association seems to be right between where the other sections lay. What is also of interest is that the sentences, throughout the book, retain their staccato polyrhythms, while the wider forms the sentences are placed in changes from journal, to extremely long paragraph, to prose poem.  A close analysis of how these sentences perform differently in different contexts would, of course, be useful, but it is beyond the scope of this entry. Perhaps in the future.

Rob Stephenson is interviewed by Davis Schneiderman in Big Other.

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