In the Future Perfect by Walter Abish was published by New Directions in New York in 1977.
Born in Austria, I spent my childhood in China, seeing an incredibly corrupt society slowly disintegrate. It was as if all the life processes were accentuated and crowded into the period of time I lived in Shanghai.
I have always thought that all the life networks that enable us to proceed wherever we are going or prevent us from doing so, are predicated on a system called language. This awareness has undoubtedly influenced my approach to writing.
Thus Walter Abish in an author’s note from Statements (Fiction Collective). Some of those slow – and not so slow – disintegrations, and those accentuated and crowded life processes have found their way into his own fiction, but it is his emphasis on that system called language which offers the main clue to his work. To be sure, there is nothing very new in the sense that the enabling or preventive life networks in which we are involved are to a large extent linguistic. To be born is to be born into a circuit of permissions and prohibitions, which constitutes the discourse (in the widest sense) of that particular culture, and I can hardly think there is a writer today who is not aware of the Lacanian contention that we are, as it were, slaves at the mercy of language (serfs du langage). What is somewhat more interesting, and worthy of another inquiry, is the extent to which contemporary French and American writers have tended to stress the prohibiting power of language over its permitting potentialities – for if language enslaves us it also, arguably, frees us in certain crucial ways; serfs and servants of the word we undoubtedly are, but also, even if only intermittently, we may be masters of the word as well. One aspect of a good deal of contemporary American fiction is a discernible desire among some authors to demonstrate that they can ‘cut the Word line’ (Burroughs) in many different and unexpected places and reassemble the fragments of received conventional discourse in singular orderings which bespeak more a mastery of the word than a servitude to it. This ‘mastery’ may be so idiosyncratic and the cutting of the word line so wild and random, that not all the results are equally liberating – indeed, in some cases, one feels that there is a desperate attempt at ‘freedom’ which is but another form of slavery. When Ronald Sukenick says – a propos of contemporary writing – ‘if everything is impossible, then anything becomes possible. What we have now is a fiction of the impossible that thrives on its own impossibility’ – one of the things he seems to imply is that, in contemporary fiction, anything goes. Which does not mean that everything comes off. Still, that is where a lot of the work (play) in contemporary American fiction is being carried out – in that ‘system called language’ on which our ‘life networks’ are predicated. (One might reverse Abish’s statement to read ‘all language networks are predicated on a system called life’ – but that too would take us off in another direction). The feeling is, I think, that by opening up new possibilities (and disrupting old clusterings) in the language system, the writer by the same token is opening up new possibilities in our life networks. It is a brave hope – though sometimes, I think, a fond one.
But to Walter Abish: his first book was called Alphabetical Africa which John Updike somewhat egregiously (or ironically?) called a ‘masterpiece’ since it was ‘a book apt to be the only one of its kind.’ Rather more helpfully, John Ashbery related it to works by other writers (e.g. Roussel, Queneau) who ‘used constrictive forms to penetrate the space on the other side of poetry’. I am not too sure about that space on the other side of poetry, but Abish’s book certainly uses a constrictive form to open up some of the space on the other side of our ordinary modes of narration. Thus the book is divided into a number of sections, each starting with a new letter of the alphabet, in rigorous sequence: thus the chapters run from A to Z and then from Z back to A again. The game, or the constriction, is that in chapter A, only words beginning with the letter A can be used (‘Africa again: Albert arrives, alive and arguing about African art, about African angst and also, alas, attacking Ashanti architecture, as author again attempts an agonizing alphabetical appraisal . . . asked about affection, Albert answers, Ashanti affection also aesthetically abhorrent, antagonizing all’); then in chapter B words beginning with B and A can be used; in chapter C, words beginning with C, B, A and so on, cumulatively, so that up towards Z the author is pretty free to use any old words at all. This certainly achieves some distinctly novel effects, as the text moves from constriction and gradually expands until it seems to have achieved a new kind of freedom (i.e. the freedom of choice among all available words which we tend to take for granted). We can feel the language network getting wider and wider, as the alphabet gradually loosens its grip, as it were, on the writer. There is a ‘plot’ of sorts which I am not about to try to summarize: there are also all kinds of direct and indirect references to various kinds of imperialism, racism, contemporary history and politics, and so on. But the main relationship is between – happy alliteration – author, alphabet, Africa. ‘I haven’t been here before . . . Bit by bit I have assembled Africa. ‘ Allegorical, anthropological, bibliographical, geographical and fantastical. All five groups are demonstrably dubious, because all history in Africa is hearsay, and consequently, although Africa indubitably exists, history cannot correct certain highly erroneous assumptions. But history can conceal assumptions. It can confound historians, authors, booksellers and also doom armies. Africa is there, but we don’t know what it is. We only know, or encounter, the variety of fictions called ‘Africa’, which are inventions, projections, productions of different discourses, different delusions, different depravations, different dreams – the different alphabets of different imperialisms. In this sense – Africa – is exemplary – a paradigm.
I am inventing another country and another ‘now’ for my book. It is largely an African country, dark, lush, hot, green and inhabited by a multitude of giant ants. But even invented countries follow a common need, as each country heads for a common memory, a common destiny, a common materiality. But I am an unreliable reporter. I can’t be depended on for exact description and details. Even Alva, to her chagrin, discovered that. I have distorted so much, concealed so much, forgotten much, but I have discovered that people are patient. They say about me: He has a longing. He is still uncovering Africa. He has a certain talent for that sort of task . . . They are understanding. They comprehend love, the shrinkage of an immense continent, and Utopias, because they are familiar.
‘After Z – Zanzibar is still within shouting distance of the mainland, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to whom one can shout across. The people on the other side seem to speak a different language, and as everyone knows, languages form attitudes.’ – there is another Z (and perhaps it is appropriate that there is at this point an account of a lesbian relationship, i.e. a relationship based on identity rather than complementarity – Z to Z, as it were). Then we are taken backwards through the alphabet, returning to A once more, which is a page of items all preceded by ‘another’ – it is an almost entirely pointless alliterative agglomeration, tending more towards noise than, say, towards Beckett. Yet, pressed back and down to the initial, initiating letter, the writer is visibly, lisible-y, alive, pushing around in this very contracted semantic field as variously and vigorously as he can – ‘another attempt another attire another attraction another author another autography, another automat another autopsy another autumn another available average another avalanche another avenue another aversion another aviary another avoidance another avocation another avid avowal another awareness another awakening another awesome age another axis another Alva another Alex another Allen another Alfred another Africa another alphabet.’ Another book.
Alphabetical Africa was strictly a one-off book. It was based on an interesting experimental idea and produced certain unusual effects – not least the sense it conveyed of a kind of vertical dictionary ordering of words gradually opening out into the horizontal flow and openness of a narrative text, and then reversing the process. But it would be dull indeed to make this idea the generating structure for another book. Walter Abish certainly has the wit to know this, and what he does is to move on to other kinds of language games. For instance, in his latest collection of stories (In the Future Perfect) there is a piece entitled, meaningfully enough, ‘In So Many Words’. This story, hardly a story, a fragmentary depiction of a woman, her New York apartment, her environment, her routine, and her emotionless sex life, is rendered in a series of paragraphs, recounted with a deadpan neutrality of tone which Abish often employs in his stories. But before each paragraph, we find an alphabetic recordering of most (not all) of the words to come in the following, grammatically conventional, paragraph. An example:
a absolutely and at America American building certain convulsed croissant delicious eighth elongated floor four from height her intend iron is it Lee munching no of one perfection perspective quite Sara she splendour standing taking the true windows with
Standing at one of the elongated windows, munching a Sara Lee croissant (quite delicious) she is taking in the American perfection the American splendour – absolutely no iron intended. It is true. From a certain height and perspective, the eighth floor of her building, America is convulsed with perfection.
The alphabetization of narrative of descriptive sequence achieves effects not unlike Burrough’s Cut-Ups – both being extensions of the sort of games with words played by the Surrealists and Dadaists. The new juxtapositions of words can yield unsuspected pseudo-semantic effects which can be funny, surprising, suggestive – or pointless. It is hit or miss, hit and miss – aleatory. The numbers in the quotation, incidentally, refer precisely to the number of words in the paragraph which follows – there are just so many words.
The other stories in the book do not indulge in so much lexical play, though there is a spareness and economy in the assembling of the stories – nearly all in short paragraphs with eloquent spaces in between – which seems to convey an almost constant vigilant irony over words, so that even the most innocent looking phrase seems to be placed with a certain pointed carefulness, making us aware that, in fact, there are no innocent phrases. ‘The English Garden’ is a fairly straightforward account of an American writer’s visit to a new-town in Germany which has been built on the site of an old concentration camp. The effects to be derived from this bit of dark archaeological irony could be all too obvious, but Abish is so in control of the tone that the easy irony is bypassed for the more oblique, more disturbing one. The writer arrives with a ‘colouring book’, full of the outlines of things and people, but without the individuating colours of life. In the plastic-perfect German new-town there are outlines and things, but no life. It is, as it were, a city built on death, and despite the immaculate concealment of all traces of that gruesome, unspeakable (and therefore ever to be gainsaid or disavowed) foundation, there are death and negation in all the glittering appliances and things and people-things of the new-town.
The city is named after a German philosopher, who, like so many of his predecessors, inquired into the nature of a thing. He started his philosophical inquiry by simply asking: What is a thing? For most of the inhabitants of Brumholdstein the question does not pose a great problem. They are the first to acknowledge that the hot and cold water taps in the bathroom are things, just as much as the windows in the new shopping centre are things. Things pervade every encounter, every action.
It is indeed an almost totally reified self-reifying community. Even the apparently radical German writer the American author meets is basically a part of that thing-continuum. It is he who, at the end of the story, tears up a photograph of some survivors of the concentration camp which the narrator has found. ‘I did not lift a hand to stop him from effacing the past. ‘ The only ‘event’ in the story is the disappearance of a girl whose father had been a commander of the concentration camp. She is just found ‘missing’ one day. ‘I look up the German word for missing. It is abwesend or fehlend or nicht zu finden. I also look up the word disappear. It is versch winden.‘ The words are still in the dictionary but meanwhile people disappear. Indeed perhaps humanity has disappeared from the thing-perfect town, so that everyone, humanly speaking, has gone missing. At the end the narrator throws away his colouring book and crayons.
Abish extends his apparently neutral, actually highly subversive, account of the contemporary environment to a failing/fading relationship in a unreal/ perfect New York apartment (‘Parting Shot’), and the career of a girl who runs away to find success, satisfaction, and finally death in Southern California.This story, entitled ‘ARDOR/AWE/ATROCITY’, is also alphabetized in a different way. Every section is headed by an alliterative triad of words – so we move on to –’BOUYANT/BOB/BODY’ through ‘PLEASURE/ PUNISH/POSITION’ and ‘UNBUTTONED/UNDERWEAR/UNDERTAKES’, finally to ‘ZOO/ZODIAC/ZERO’. (Words are also numbered as to when they appear – e.g. ‘sign57‘ which doesn’t do much for me, one way or the other). One overall effect of these lexical devices is that by making language and ordering devices unusually prominent (what used to be called ‘foregrounding’) the contents of the story become in some way less prominent; or in current terms, as the signifier is made more visibly dominant, the signified tends to recede, to diminish in ‘significance’: hence the somewhat unreal feeling to many of the stories, often entirely appropriate to their subject matter. Thus in ‘Access’ the story, in conventional terms is trivial enough, a non-narrative really, grazing through restaurants, apartments, shops, and a few people in shifting relationships: it is much more a meditation on the word ‘barrier’ so that the piece is organized in sections entitled ‘The Emotional Barrier’, ‘The Physical Barrier’, ‘The Acquisition Barrier’, and so on.
My fondness for the word barrier has nothing to do with it. Barriers are part of our everyday life. We are cheerful when we avoid the barriers placed in our path. I don’t know the Japanese or Vietnamese word for barrier. I must admit that in the past my stubborn attachment to certain words, words that were no longer found to be appropriate, had cost me numerous well-paying commissions. Yes, one pays a price for clinging to words that have lost their significance. Still, it s a small price. I’ve been cutting down on meals for the sake of words.
Or, to rephrase it, I’ve been cutting down on conventional narrative for the sake of language. Thus the last section is entitled ‘The Language Barrier’:
Language is not a barrier. Language enables people in all circumstances to cope with a changing world; it also permits them to engage in all sorts of activities without unduly antagonizing everyone in their immediate vicinity . . . I’m not really concerned with language. As a writer I’m principally concerned with meaning. What, for instance, does being a writer mean in the context of this society. For one thing, in this society, it is almost taken for granted that a writer, irrespective of sex, irrespective of age, irrespective of political conviction, irrespective of wealth or geographic location, will use the language spoken by the majority of the people in this country. He will be using the words that fill their days and nights with unbearable tension and dread. In that respect, writers perform a vital task, they resuscitate words that are about to be obliterated by a kind of wilful negligence and general boredom. Writers frequently are able to inject a fresh meaning into a word and thereby revitalize the brain cells of the reader by feeding the brain information it does not really require. For instance I have recently revitalized a couple of million brain cells by referring to barriers. Barriers appear in my writings more frequently than they deserve. It is now on its way to becoming a new word again. I feel there is a barrier between us, a man can once again tell a woman and be understood. The statement clearly is intended to have a slightly menacing effect. It is also intended to convey a threat. Shape up you bitch, or I’ll sock you in the mouth.
This somewhat solemn, indeed ponderous, statement should not be taken as the writer’s creed, awkwardly thrust or slipped into a so-called fiction. As the last few words indicate it is intended to be taken half ironically, indeed it is made ironic by the text in which it appears. Nevertheless, if you go to Abish’s work for a meal you will come away with a word. But then in his work the word is the meal.
One could make comparisons here with, say, William Gass on one side – high priest and bon viveur in ‘the sweet country of the word’ – and Donald Barthelme on the other. But it should be made clear that Abish has his own way of deconstructing conventional narrative modes and, at the same time, getting something distinctly said about life, consciousness, and word, in contemporary America. And, through all his alphabetizing games, we can see that he is a very recognizable American writer. The last story in the book for instance – ‘Crossing the Great Void’ – concerns a young boy who sets out to seek his lost (dead?) father in the North African Desert. He has abandoned everyone and everything, and even his deaf aid is failing him, promising or threatening to put him beyond all communication. He is a very familiar American figure underneath the circumstances of his particular quest and venture. The last paragraph:
Now he is bound for the centre of the desert, and every step he is taking is bringing him closer to the centre, and every step he has taken in the past has led to his being here. Even before he was aware of the centre’s existence, he was travelling towards it. Everything he has encountered so far appears familiar, as if at some time in the past his mother must have described it to him as she spoke of his father . . . Consequently he feels convinced that what lies ahead will also prove to be familiar. After all, the emptiness he expects to encounter at the centre will be no different from the emptiness he might experience in the interior of his room after it had been denuded of all his possessions, stripped of all the things he had clung to with such persistence, such tenacity, such effort, as if his entire life depended on it.
From the thing replete German new-town, through New York apartments and stores, and Californian ‘paracinematic’ (Pynchon’s word) scenes and signs57, on to the deaf child seeking his lost father in the African desert – everywhere there is emptiness, the emptiness of the meal, as it were, which Abish can only counter with a renewed repletion of the word. As if our entire life depended on it.
Illustration by Bridget Stevens