-Reviewed by Ian Chung–
Post-Experimentalism is the new project from the Bartleby Snopes team, and bills itself as the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental fiction’. This naturally raises the question of what constitutes post-experimentalism, and both the Post-Experimentalism issue and website offer up several definitions. Reading through these, two related threads emerge. One has to do with the belief that post-experimentalism blends – or even transcends – storytelling genres. The other is the notion that, as Bartleby Snopes Associate Editor Rick Taliaferro puts it, ‘Post-experimentation, what the writer owes to the reader is literary satisfaction’. So the pendulum of post-experimentalism swings away from formal and structural experimentation for its own sake and back towards story, to settle somewhere in their middle. Nathaniel Tower, Bartleby Snopes Managing Editor, describes this as:
“Something different going on with the form that pushes it past traditional writing, but it’s underneath the story. Form becomes background, but it still is functioning in a major way that affects the story. The form is manipulated somehow, but not at the expense of story. And the story takes nothing away from the form. It’s a harmony of story and form.”
Definitions aside, the stories in the issue do not disappoint. There are too many to go into each in detail here, so the stories mentioned here are the ones that particularly stood out for me. The stories have been grouped thematically, and the issue opens strongly with Christopher James’s ‘Sweet Enough’, under the heading of ‘Friendships’. James’s story is written in tweet-sized paragraphs, intended as a reflection of what he calls ‘something lacking in the attention span of a lot of people nowadays’. Of course, there is a wonderful irony in that the act of reading for pleasure should demand that we slow down and pay attention, even as James’s sentences act to compress decades in the lives of a group of friends into a couple of pages, hurtling them towards their fates and us towards the story’s downbeat resolution.
Other stories in the issue seek to deconstruct the techniques of how we build narratives. Jacqueline Doyle’s ‘The Last Metaphor’ makes us privy to the thought processes of a writer ‘[d]runk with the power of words’, who copies down a quote from Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness: ‘Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way of trying to detoxify it.’ The quote is intended to be sent to a writer friend, who then dies of cancer, with the beautiful description of her as ‘curled like a comma around her silence’ at the end. Doyle’s flash fiction ultimately ends with an empty numbered list, which is supposed to be a catalogue of things for death to be compared to, which seems like a wry statement on either the incommensurability of death or the failure of metaphor.
On the other hand, Leland Neville’s ‘American Outlaws’ offers a topical commentary on the absurdity of how the contemporary phenomenon of reality television constructs stories to pander to its voracious audience:
“After emerging victorious Emma will be inundated by questions during the obligatory media junket. “What is your definition of love?” “How should the criminal justice system be changed?” “Do you believe in gay marriage?” “Is the government doing enough to stop terrorism?”
Emma will charmingly ignore the verbal ambush. Her public won’t be disappointed in her evasiveness because it already knows all about Emma.
For one hour a week she is you.”
The most striking story in Post-Experimentalism, however, is Andrew Battershill’s ‘Laundry under cover of darkness’, placed under the theme ‘Innovations’. The story is divided into two columns, proceeding down the page in parallel, which allows for simultaneity of perspective as it tracks how the lives of three people intersect in a laundromat. Battershill’s story reads like a film script breakdown, complete with descriptions of character close-ups and interior/exterior shots. This is also one of the longest stories in the issue, which gives it time to build to an emotionally gratifying ending, as the couple Nicole and Sergei experience ‘the desire to take Arthur’s hands on either side like dads and moms’, right when Arthur feels ‘the desire to have his hands held, as if by parents’. The final page of the story only has a single column, as the arc of all three characters merges into ‘the physical processes of holding hands; three smiles; the physical processes of looking; a set of triangular metal racks, their points facing towards each other like dinosaurs a second away from kissing’, in a graceful moment that bears out Taliaferro’s comment on the importance of ‘literary satisfaction’.