Exaptation

Last week I explored online the possibility of writing a variant of Prop O’Gandhi that’s ten percent leaner than the already-existing version. In a comment to that post I observed that the randomly selected page of text, excerpted from the present version of O’Gandhi and subjected to the editorial slimming experiment, was nearly identical to the original draft version of that page written fourteen years ago.

But while the words themselves have persisted with few changes, the context in which those words appear have altered significantly and repeatedly. Originally the page in question was part of “Episode Three” in what was envisioned as a 15-episode novella. Once it was finished I interleaved the episodes of O’Gandhi with the episodes of the Time Out! comic I’d written a couple of years before, compiling what had been two separate works into a single aggregate piece. Several years later I pulled O’Gandhi apart from the comic, expanding it into a text that’s three times as long as the original. I also reorganized some of the original material: what had been Episode Three became the ninth chapter of the novel-length rewrite. More years passed; more long fictions ensued. No longer a stand-alone novel, O’Gandhi was repositioned as the second “movement” in an eight-part “suite” of interrelated fictions.

Has the experimented-upon page, originally drafted so many years ago, found its final resting place as a particular page in a chapter in a movement in a suite? Not necessarily. The suite might expand from eight movements to fourteen. O’Gandhi might get shuffled in the sequence depending on what new movements are composed. It might get disaggregated, asked again to stand alone as a novel. The page in question has even been extracted from its original narrative context and inserted into a different context, serving as the subject of a blog post here. In that post the individual sentences in the page, the individual words in those sentences, came under scrutiny, being experimentally altered and interpreted before being restored to their original configuration. Some day I might delete that post, or I might incorporate it into a longer piece as illustrating one tactic among many for constructing an imaginary slimmed-down O’Gandhi döppelganger.

On this website I’ve also disaggregated other writers’ fictional texts, reassembling excerpts to describe locations or movements in an intertextual fictional City. I’ve linked some of these excerpts from multiple short fictions together into an alternative narrative. I’ve also split some of the excerpts into their actual and counteractual components.

Maybe these fictional phrases are like selfish genes, preserving themselves across various phenotypic configurations in pursuit of adaptive survival. Certainly the individual words persist, incorporated into a potentially unlimited variety of phrases. On the other hand, the ten percent reduction experiment hints at the possibility that an alternative O’Gandhi could be built that retains its phenotypic integrity using ten percent fewer genes, fewer words. Could O’Gandhi persist if every one of its phrases were swapped out for a different set? In a sense that’s what would happen if it were translated into a different language. But under other circumstances couldn’t I have written the same book while deploying an entirely different array of English phrases? I’d have been an inverted döppelganger of Borges’s Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century fictional fictionalist whose admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel Cervantes.

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