Monday, August 20, 2018

Chris Scott, Bartleby (1971)

Who's Chris Scott? Just some guy, really. English-Canadian. He's written some books. Although he appears to have given up that bad habit. And...that's all. I only discovered this one because it was rereleased by Verbivoracious, my favorite small press that may or may not still exist.

The back cover describes Bartleby as "the finest continuation of Tristram Shandy ever written." This doesn't involve continuing that novel's narrative; it just means playing with the novel's structure in a way inspired by Sterne: missing chapters, aborted chapters, chapters in the wrong place, and general intense self-consciousness. The inspiration is obvious, but at the same time, the book really isn't doing the same thing. It's worth keeping in mind that, while Sterne does indeed look wildly forward-thinking to us in many ways, that doesn't mean that he was actually thinking about these things in the same way that a postmodernist would. He was also, naturally enough, very much of his time. Anyone trying to "continue" what he was doing--in the late twentieth century, certainly--would naturally come at the enterprise with very different sensibilities. Inevitably, one thinks of "Pierre Menard," but I don't mean to suggest that the current text actually could have been written by Sterne. It's a very different kind of thing, ultimately.

Right, I should talk about what Bartleby (which alludes to Meville in the beginning, but actually has nothing to do with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," and I get the impression that people suggesting otherwise haven't actually read one or the other) is about, to the extent that that's possible. Okay. So Bartleby himself is a five-year-old who is on a quest to find his aunt, who is his guardian with whom he is having an affair, and simultaneously she is looking for him and--

WAIT JUST ONE SECOND HERE. You can't just neatly glide over that, dammit. Because the fact of the matter is: there's enough other stuff here that you aren't necessarily going to fixate on it, but the fact is, Bartleby is about a horny five-year-old (and not just for his aunt either), which, I think it's fair to say, is (to use the term of art) hella gross. I realize that saying that may seem counterproductive in that it shuts down critical thought as to why what's happening is happening, but I'm really not convinced there is a good reason for it. Ugh. And Scott's sexual politics in general aren't great, which, for whatever reason, seems de rigueur in this sort of novel of this vintage: Ronald Sukenik, Steve Katz, Richard Farina, even--let's face it--John Barth? If you're going to read this stuff--if you think the good outweighs the bad to a sufficient extent to justify it--you just have to deal with it. But I do wish you didn't.

Anyway. So these two are looking for one another in a sort-of picaresque, with a barrage of other characters prancing around in a carnivalesque kind of way. The narrator--because, of course, there's also a lot about Scott himself writing the book--eventually enters the text himself to try to fix things, while an evil hermit attempts to wrest away control of the narrative. There are--of course--endless digressions. There's one chapter--thirteen pages--written entirely in a burlesque of Elizabethan English (think Spencer) that really is borderline unreadable. You think, wait, is he really going through with this? Yup! He suuuuuure is! Well, I suppose an author who would think about concepts like "restraint" wouldn't be writing this sort of novel in the first place.

I appreciate and/or admire a lot of things that Bartleby is trying to do, which--credit where due!--include a number of things I'd never seen before. That's worth a lot. But did I love it? Mmmm...let's not get carried away. Because I know that a lot of the point is to be self-indulgent, but man. Is it ever self-indulgent, often in a fairly tedious way. I actually preferred the first half of the novel, which is (slightly) more narratively normal. When things start spiraling out of control into sheer semiotic chaos, my eyes glazed over a li'l bit. I would recommend the book, but only to a very specific sort of reader; not the kind of person you meet every day. Or almost any day, really.


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