Saturday, October 24, 2015

Steve Katz, The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968)


The NOVEL, okay?  If you're looking for the movie or the album or the experimental dance piece, look ELSEWHERE.  This is a good example of the principle where you see what you're expecting to see: it wasn't until after I'd finished reading this that I noticed that “exaggerations” was spelt with three g's.

So what IS this book? Well, I picked it up because I was worried I wasn't insufferable enough: it's an obscure piece of experimental metafiction; I'm not sure of its precise publication history, but it's definitely been extremely out-of-print for a long time. I'm a bit surprised that it hasn't been reprinted by some outfit like the indispensable Dalkey Archive, but for now it seems destined to languish in obscurity. According to the jacket copy, it “is simply meant to extend the reader's definitions of fiction and life.” Oh, is THAT all? Well, then.

The novel doesn't really have a plot. What it has are a series of vignettes about the title character in different places—New York, Italy, Egypt—always with a different woman. They aren't really meant to be seen as chronological, but rather, different stages and conceptions of the writing process. These are interspersed with bits concerning characters named Philip Farrell and Linda Lawrence, who are conceived as sort of employees of the author, doing whatever tasks are necessary to make the plot run. Katz himself also frequently addresses the reader directly.

There are typographical tricks a-plenty, like one section where there are two and then three columns featuring different narratives to be read concurrently; a part where the right-hand side of the page has an X through the text (which is still perfectly readable), with commentary on the left; a story with a bunch of Z's and other letters on the left side threatening to incur on the text, to simulate fan noises; and...whatever you want to call this, which is surely the most extreme example of such things that I've ever seen:

I don't know whether my definition of fiction, let alone life, has been extended (though in fairness, there's been a lot of avant-garde writing since 1968, and I may be more jaded than I would've been then), but the metafictional elements are extremely clever and delightful—for instance, there's one part where the president of a company is addressing Philip Farrell: What's your relationship to Peter Prince? he asks. We're both characters in an unfinished novel, Farrell replies. What we really want you to do, the president tells him, is talk to him and see if you can get him to mention one of our products in the novel's climax. That would really help us out. Lot of cool stuff like that. At one point Katz apologizes for not continuing the narrative faster, with the excuse that he has to hang around here because Sukenick said he was going to put him in a novel and he wants to be there.*

*Incidentally, let me say that I think I was a bit too hard on uP. Yes, the sexual politics are still bad, but these days, I'm more tolerant and appreciative of experimentation for its own sake.  Here,
incidentally, is a video of him interviewing Katz. He (Sukenick) looked eerily like Terry Pratchett, it transpires. The number of famous writers and other artists they casually name-drop is boggling.

So I really like all this—the downside, however, is the character of Peter Prince himself, who, let's face it, is kind of an unbearable little shit: relentlessly petulant, self-pitying, and narcissistic. I'm not necessarily saying he's irredeemable (most of this really comes down to extreme immaturity), but Katz makes no move to redeem him, and in fact, I have the sneaking suspicion, isn't wholly aware of how unlikable he is. Not that characters have to be likable, but I don't see why unlikeability is necessary here, or desirable. The novel itself also—totally predictably—has some of the usual sixties-type sexism. I've certainly read worse, though, and by better-known authors than Katz.

The book is still worth reading for the good parts, and if you're writing a dissertation on the development of American metafiction, you should definitely include it—just don't go looking for a character piece. Though not super well-known, obviously, Katz is still around—he's a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Boulder—and still writing. I'm not moved by any kind of wild desire to seek out more of his work RIGHT NOW, but I won't rule out reading more of his stuff in the future.  Sukenick's, too, maybe.

Finally, I'd just like to note how amazing it seems, in retrospect, that this—a weird square-shaped book by a very little-known author with all kinds of typographical legerdemain that must've been a huge pain to set out—was somehow nonetheless put out by a big publisher (Holt Rinehart & Winston). Different world, man.


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