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.