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Sunday, April 3, 2011

DOUBLE OR NOTHING by Raymond Federman (published in 1971)

Go here to get a sense of what this book looks like. Since it needs to be seen to be believed, don't skip this step.

The novel is a typescript in which each page is conceived of as an object and typed differently. Federman may even on occasion have used freehand ink lettering or stencils. (See page 9.) It is a classic contemporary novel, one of the landmarks of meta-fiction, where the author reflects on the making of the fiction as the book is made.

The 18th-century's Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne is an early, if not the earliest metafiction, in that it spins its wheels obsessively focusing on details before the putative beginning of the story so as to almost not get there. Federman's book is similar. It follows an author getting ready to lock himself in a cheap motel room for 365 days with a typewriter, noodles, cigarettes, sugar, coffee, and a few other things in order to write the story of a character he initially calls "Boris" who comes to the U.S. from France after WW II.

The book, however, only speculates about what the author will write or might write about "Boris." He never actually commits to a story, though he does spin a lot of potential story lines that are quite interesting to follow. And it spends an equal amount of time speculating about the daily needs of the author in his motel room. He even worries about how weird it will look when he carries in the dozens of toilet paper rolls he has computed that he needs.

Complicating all of these (playful) complications is the fact that, if you know anything about Federman, you will realize that Boris' "biography" is remarkably similar to Federman's. Both are Jewish and from families who were massacred in the Holocaust. Both are French. Both come to America after the war.

Federman, of course, also shares biographical details with the author. Most importantly, both of them write books. Both of them are also gamblers ("double or nothing"), although the reader would have no way of knowing this.

This book has been written about extensively, and I will probably not contribute anything to this discussion. This post is more about my coming to terms with the book, and I welcome you to come along if you like.

There are five levels of self-conscious play in this book:

1. The typescript - Each page is an object unto itself. It is not simply a transparent window pointing us to the action. At times, we don't even know where we are to read next. This forces the readers to not only help to create the very page, but to encounter the pages not as media but as made. This entails that Federman's book does not stand between the reader and the story, conveying the story to the reader, but is story. Every page is a chapter unto itself, and we encounter it in its singularity, and come away having been at least challenged, maybe rattled, maybe laughing.

2. The character of Boris - Federman refuses to make him a "character." Rather, he is the making of the making of a character. My guess is that Federman believes that fictional "characters" in novels do not resemble human beings. Rather, they are functions of the larger structures and issues at play. He chooses to make this self-consciously and explicitly clear by going no further than suggesting ways to develop Boris. In this way Boris is always at play, always at limbo, always not closed off. The way traditional novels make characters feel "real" is, paradoxically, to round them off, i.e. to close them off, rather than to leave them open, which is the human orientation toward the future. With the future closed off, literary characters are just not people at all. Boris, in all his unfinishedness, is closer to a person, even though Federman keeps reminding us that he, Federman, can make him do whatever he wants.

3. The third level of self-conscious play is between Federman's biography and Boris's. Federman gives us enough teasers to make it clear that the novel is semi-autobiographical, yet at the same time he doesn't spell out the differences, except in a few hilarious places, generally when he claims he wasn't as shy as Boris. We become voyeuristically curious about Federman. What is true? What is not? He is such an interesting raconteur that I find myself much more curious about the gap between fact and nonfact in his writing than in, say, Jack Kerouac's.

4. The author - The author is perhaps the most interesting character in the book. Why doesn't he sit down and just get writing? Why does he spend pages and pages itemizing how many rolls of toilet paper, boxes of noodles, tubes of toothpaste, etc. that he will need to write his book? And why does he keep rewriting the book, or going back to the beginning? Is the author supposed to be someone operating with traditional assumptions about writing but too honest to go through with them? Does he sense on a visceral level the falsity of those traditions? Is there something else that can account for his obsessiveness, both about the things of his daily needs and Boris?

5. The fifth level is the most obscure. It is the play between the author and the writer, Raymond Federman. While he doesn't leave the same teasers about the similarities between him and the author as he does between himself and Boris, we nonetheless can't help but speculate. Things are not as voyeuristic because Federman does not give us enough details: This is a more abstract connection, or disconnection as the case may be. Here, the play seems most uneasy and even haunted, the obsessions are so overwhelming, the concerns so seemingly unimportant. I am not sure Federman gives us enough information to explain this obsession, other than the one I offered earlier, it is an anxiety borne of a visceral recoiling from traditional narrative. And given that traditional Western narrative led, in part, to WWII and the Holocaust, can you blame him?

This book is a made object, asking us to do with it what we will, but refusing a closure that will allow any simple reading. All literature can, of course, withstand multiple readings. But not all literature intentionally creates the playful circumstances for multiple readings. What I've looked at today is one way of going at it. It offers a structure. There are undoubtedly others.


  1. Double or Nothing 1971 by Raymond Federman is an innovative novel that shows the true spirit of creativity in typographic design, and has set the trend for the American novel of the 21st Century. A genre that involves the strategy of writing a novel as a form of metafiction: geometrical squares that form the visual space of the page, which has become a work of art.

    David Detrich
    Innovative Fiction

  2. Thanks, David. I will definitely check out your cool sounding blog. Remember to update to Thanks for your interest.