Random Irruptions of Surreal Absurdities

On Friday I tentatively concluded that the introduction of radical anomaly into ordinary reality, with grim comic effect, is a literary deployment of hammerspace — a reminder that even a seemingly realistic narrative is, after all, imaginary. More aptly, a fictional narrative never corresponds fully to the real world; it’s a mongrel entity, combining aspects of both the actual and the imaginary. Roadrunner drawing a door on the face of solid rock and running through it, Bullwinkle pulling a roaring lion out of a top hat: even little kids who’ve grown accustomed to cartoon animals talking and scheming like humans respond with surprised delight when sheer impossibilities show up in cartoon world.

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

Thus spake the Cardinal in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu, or the Conspiracy (of course I’ve never seen or read it: that’s what Wikipedia is for). Writers of fiction can, like sorcerers, use words to conjure things in readers’ imaginations, can deploy imaginary objects metonymically or metaphorically or symbolically, can build up whole realities out of thin air. But actual little kids literally pick up pens and joust with them like medieval knights. The kids know that pens aren’t real swords, that they themselves aren’t real knights, that the loser lying slain and bloodied in the castle keep is going to hop back up for another round. It’s fun to pretend.

Is pretend play instrumentally useful, a kind of practice session for later in life when kids grow to adults, wielding real weapons in real battles or staging real theatrical enactments of imaginary battles? Kids often gloat when they win and sulk when they lose, just like adults do; kids try to get better so they can win another day, just like adults are encouraged to do. The justification of playground as training ground has been extended to “serious” fiction, the reading of which purportedly enhances language skills, or the ability to navigate conflicts, or empathy. Even kids though know that sometimes winning is beyond your control. You need a miracle, but you know you don’t deserve one. Or luck, but you’ve found that it tends to work in the other guy’s favor. You need hammerspace to open up a portal for you, like it does when Bugs Bunny needs to escape the clutches of Elmer Fudd. It’s kind of like cheating, but you’re not morally culpable. Hammerspace is the instrumental irruption of a surreal absurdity, letting you beat the odds and your opponent.

But kids don’t always play to win; sometimes they just play. No goal to be pursued, no tactics to accompish the desired goal, no instrumental agency for deploying tactics, no well-defined outcome, no exultation in victory or desolation in defeat, no lessons to be learned on how to play better and win next time. Aimless play — it seems to escape the boundaries of  the training ground, where children acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to achieve success, not just individually but also for those who benefit from their achievements: parents, societies, investors. Jokes without punchlines, stories that diverge from well-defined linear plots and character development, activity without production. Maybe aimless play is a training ground for insurgents, exposing them to a different sort of game, a game where the rules aren’t constraints on play but are part of the game, to be altered at will or even discarded; where process is the outcome; where the play’s the thing, play for play’s sake, art for art’s sake; play staying play without getting co-opted into work; where the aggregate of all games isn’t a zero-sum killing field of winners and losers but a playground where everybody wins or, even better, where nobody wins or loses.

It turns out though that the insurgency playground, just like the competitive playground, is owned and controlled by the players of a larger game. They don’t have to win because they’ve already won, don’t have to resist because nothing stands in their way. You can play whatever games you want — in fact you’re encouraged to do so — but you always have to buy the equipment and rent the playing field, to defer to the refs and in the last resort to the Commissioner. Whatever game you play and however well you play it, you’re bound to lose. Even hammerspace is controlled by The Man, letting him rig the game to suit his own purposes.

The situation is ripe for random irruptions of surreal absurdities.

 

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The Jolly Surreal of Hammerspace

In yesterday’s post I explored three interrelated aspects of Elizabeth Bruenig’s WaPo piece on millennial humor: grim jolliness, absurdity, and nihilism. These three aspects can be regarded as moods: not just subjective emotions, but ecological responses to being-there, to being immersed in a world that generates these moods.

Comedy sketches, TV ads, short stories: they’re all forms of narrative fiction. Comic routines and commercials deploy grim-jolly absurd nihilism tactically, as a means of distracting their audiences from the darker manifestations of being-there. What about short stories: do they offer distraction or immersion, lamentation or cure?

Of the 21 short stories in the latest Gone Lawn issue, the most prevalent mood is serious nihilism. The characters in those stories are immersed in a meaningless world, instilling in them a sense of loss, anomie, isolation, drift, inertia, confusion, sorrow, rage, and other variants on grimness. Arguably this mood has pervaded serious fiction for a hundred years or more. When in these narratives the realism veers into absurdity, it often takes on a symbolic cast, with the world and its denizens literally falling part, fragmented into shards, becoming collections of inanimate objects that stand in isolation from one another rather than cohering into a whole. It’s the kind of artistic move away from realism that characterized cubism and, later, abstract expressionism.

In a few of the stories the absurdity twists toward dadaism and surrealism. Things aren’t just falling apart; they’re morphing, multiplying, hybridizing, reassembling themselves into bizarre configurations, filling up of the formless void, the nihil. Creative destruction: when the old rules no longer hold and everything collapses, then the constraints are relaxed, allowing strange mutant forms to explode across a grim and barren world. The explosion might be disconcerting — it might even signal the end of humanity — but it does offer some interest, and maybe even something like anticipation, that this incongruous congeries of mutation might assemble itself into an alternate reality that’s more fecund, more alive than the desolate and dying world in which we’re immersed. Maybe this new reality assembled from the detritus of the old might even restore some sense of meaning — or else meaning itself will fall by the wayside as no longer relevant, a dead aspect of the dying world it had once inhabited before being cast off.

The surrealistic explosion of mutant plenitude might instill curiosity, awe, abstract speculation, poetics, but what about jolliness? I don’t see it, don’t feel it in these stories. They’re abstract, literary, serious. Sorrow, regret, rage — the old negative affects might fall away with the collapse of the old reality, but so too do the old positive affects. Jolliness seems like a particularly archaic mood, the manifestation of a childish innocence and delight that’s been crushed under the weight of time. Jolliness feels a lot like nostalgia, a return of the old dying world to an earlier, more vibrant and surprising era.

Maybe that’s where the absurd jolliness shows up in the neo-dadaist and the neo-surreal — not in mass destruction, exodus, and burgeoning alternate realities, but in small unexpected interruptions of the preposterous. Grandma dies on the living room sofa, a grandson tosses an ugly quilt over the body, and life goes on pretty much as it did before. Eventually the family wonders what happened to Grandma. They shrug and carry on, looking forward to Christmas. Childish innocence? It sounds hard and cold, either autistic or psychopathic. But isn’t that how children deal with the disturbing, the annoying, the uncomfortable: throw a comforter over it and act like it’s disappeared? Hammerspace in reverse: throw something in and it’s gone. Of course Freud and a panoply of B horror movies have warned us about the return of the repressed, but as the severed hand in Evil Dead II demonstrates, even the return can be a laugh riot.

Not a succession of realities, the replacement of one with another, but the irruption of an alternate reality into the already existing one, a two-way hammerspace, a bidirectional portal tenuously linking ordinary everyday reality with an alternative reality. The juxtaposition proves dadaesque, surreal, absurd; it might be grim, but it might just as plausibly be jolly.

Does an irruption of absurdity, however limited and brief its appearance, reveal a gap in the matrix of the everyday, a gap that with attention and imagination can be widened until the whole artifice crashes? Or does the irruption offer an exit strategy, a way of stepping through the portal out of this reality into a different one? Or is it a reminder that any narrative, no matter how serious and how realistic, is an invention, an illusion, a fiction, no more real than hammerspace?

Surrealist Facets in Contemporary Short Fiction

Does Breunig’s interpretation of contemporary absurd surrealism apply not only to humor but to fiction? To find out, I’m revisiting the 21 short fictions in the current issue of Gone Lawn that I posted on earlier.

“How Would You Call Me if You Forgot My Name,” By Mileva Anastasiadou

My mind is stuck on this song, as if all meaning of life is hidden in it. I repeat it over and over. So there’s the meaninglessness, but it’s wrapped up inside the head of a character with dementia, for whom meaning, like memory and language and eventually life itself, gradually drifts away. It’s a subjective loss of meaning, but the narrator believes that the meaningfulness of life had begun to slip long before the disease set in. So I suppose there’s a kind of metaphoric nihilism at work here. What about the “grim, jolly absurdism”? It’s grim to be sure, but whatever jolliness there was is long gone, from the world and from the minds of those who occupy it. What about absurdity? Well there is an awareness that everything has become pointless, but there’s nothing incongruous or preposterous going on. Surrealism? Well, the narrator refers to herself and her partner as formerly being clouds, now transformed into trees, but it’s metaphorical — a transition from drift into rootedness.

“White Tigers,” by Emi Benn

Grim, jolly absurdity: check. Surrealism: check. Nihilism: not really; the perspectives are too subjective for evaluating the state of the world. But then the story ends with a “purplish tinge—regret mixed with sorrow, betrayal and hope”: a mood of nostalgic sorrow that retrospectively embeds the whole story in a more traditional inwardness or depth psychology.

“Three Anomalies,” by Mike Carrao

Decidedly nihilistic and absurd, there’s plenty of crazy incompatible stuff going on in this story. It’s self-reflexively cubist, which suggests multifaceted views of a recognizably meaningful subject, but the center cannot hold for long and the text veers onto full-on chaotic neo-surrealism. Grim? Serious to be sure, the story is too abstract and external to be grim. Jolly? To quote myself from my earlier post: “Not a funny one, this story; not just disorienting and disconcerting either. It’s fully aware that things are falling apart, that attempts to build alternate realities from fragments and components is doomed, that entropy will prevail. Not a lamentation, more an abstract expedition into the weird.”

“The Imp and the Bones,” by Joanna Galbraith

This is a folk tale, which provides a traditional premise for deviating from ordinary reality. There is a kind of grim humor interspersed at times, though for the most part it’s a serious and linear narrative. The story is meaningful; it even has a moral to the story. It is posthuman though — evidently the humans didn’t get the moral, didn’t heed the warning — which gives it a nihilistic edge.

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I realize in going through these stories a second time that I pretty well covered the neo-surreal aspects of each in my first post. I also see no point in building the Surrealty Algorithm and running each story through it. The idea of the stories’ “mood” seems more important, more pervasive than breaking it down into discrete variables and scores. Does the story itself generate affordances of grimly jolly absurdity? The other overriding consideration is the relationship between the world of the story and the actually existing world we all live in. Does the story, whatever fantastic and impossible contortions it describes and whatever imaginary reality it occupies, purport to offer commentary on or interpretation of the actual world?

On quick review I’d say that each of the 21 stories makes at least some commentary on the actual world. For two of them, the links to ordinary reality are particularly tangential. Still, the writers who create/discover/describe these fantastic worlds find themselves unable to escape their own humanity.

Carrao’s “Three Anomalies”: the title describes the relationship of the fantastic fiction to the actual world: anomalous. The text is self-aware; it notes its own trajectory of increasing deviation from normalcy. There are also explicit references to the text’s relationship to other artistic media, notably painting and film, drawing parallels to their previously executed exit from realism into fantasy, distortion, abstraction. While Carrao’s neo-surrealistic worlds might be born of nihilism, they’re anything but a formless void, overflowing with impossible hybrid entities exercising varying degrees of agency.  In the end: Someone is no longer someone or anyone, they become object-oriented: this could refer to a kind of computer engineering, but more likely it’s a reference to the online ontologies of the so-called “speculative realists,” who purport to describe objects as they are, independent of human ways of perceiving and knowing. These subjects turned objects will become meaningful in the way that Someone is not. Does this text enter a realm of meaning outside of human perspective? The text ends with this promise, or threat; it doesn’t elaborate on this new kind of meaningfulness. But isn’t meaning an all-too-human affordance; isn’t the insistence on becoming meaningful a concession, an acknowledgment that he can’t object-oriented enough?

Ives’s “In a Country East of South Chicago”: like Carrao, Ives invokes the plastic arts and the cinema as he veers sharply away from realism. Also like Carrao, Ives’s strange worlds aren’t empty but overflowing with content. Again like Carrao, Ives acknowledges his own inescapable humanity in these neo-surreal depictions, bringing him up short in his escape from the actual. Is there something else, some way of seeing or creating that isn’t human anymore? sometimes I get a glimpse of it, around the corner, going the other direction, but it’s not as hungry as I am, and it doesn’t need me. It’s got something better to do, and I want to know what it is. Wanting to know what it is keeps him from going over the edge, from exiting the human, from exiting himself — not unlike Carrao’s becoming-meaningful.

What about the grim jollity? There’s plenty of grimness in these 21 short fictions, along with other sombre variants: sorrow, regret, loss, anomie. There is some playfulness and wonder expressed, especially in the folk tales. There are some funny moments scattered here and there. Still, for most of these stories the overriding mood is a serious one. This is a literary magazine after all, meant for the showcasing of serious fictions. In only one of the stories does funniness figure as dominant mood: Pfister’s “A Family Reunion.” And it is a grim sort of funny, a nihilistic and absurd kind of funny. But it’s not a surreal sort of weird: the story remains resolutely embedded in ordinary reality, even when it’s past time for the denizens of that reality to acknowledge that something out of the ordinary has been happening. Kafkaesque absurdity, where someone ordinary crosses without fanfare the threshold into the realm of the inhuman.

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Why is this analysis meaningful? I forget; please discuss amongst yourselves.

 

Contemporary Fictional Surrealism

I’m not sure how many of the 21 stories in the current issue of Gone Lawn  — stories I explored briefly in my last post — can be categorized as surrealist, or dadaist, or absurdist. My sense was that most of them manifest one or more facets of what I think of as surrealism. What are those facets; how many facets does each story manifest? I could build an algorithm and run it on each of these stories separately; I could compute an aggregate Surrealty Score to the stories collectively. I was going to say “I could, but I won’t,” but I won’t. I might go ahead and generate the algorithm, run each story through it, compute a score for each and for all. The exercise would keep me focused, grounded in actually existing fictions rather than abstracting to fiction generally or contracting into my own fictions — the ones I’ve written or might write in the future.

What variables could be incorporated into the Surrealty calculator? Plenty of surrealist manifestos were written nearly a hundred years ago, but their authors were attempting to dictate what should happen, not to document what had already happened. Besides, I’m not sure whether contemporary fiction writers consciously regard themselves as surrealists, either through exercise of an idiosyncratic aesthetic or through participation in a more widespread movement.

In August 2017 the Washington Post published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig called “Why is millennial humor so weird?” I don’t have access to WaPo online, so I’m reading the article on my wife’s mobile device. I won’t put up a link, but I will excerpt freely. Bruenig regards contemporary surrealism as a kind of affect-laden subjective orientation to the world, an orientation that seems widespread:

I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

“Grim, jolly absurdism.” Is that three variables, or one? Arguably all humor has a dark side: funny and cruel, funny and sad, funny and humiliating. There is a butt to the joke, even if it’s the jokester. But “grim” seems less interpersonal — a mood that’s more austere, serious, veering toward depressive. And “jolly” is a good-natured kind of funny; not laughing at or even laughing with, jolliness is more of like a personality trait, an open happy orientation to the world and its occupants.

It might be a mistake to characterize both “grim” and “jolly” as subjective states. The world can be grim — or, perhaps more accurately, the world can “afford” grimness, can create situations that provoke a grim mood in those who participate or witness such situations. The world can also afford jolliness, can generate situations that prompt amusement, even ebullience. Grimness and jolliness aren’t just emotions, nor are they objective features of the world; they’re ecological, generated in the interactions between people and the world they occupy. Heidegger regarded being in a mood as being attuned to the world, as being-there.

A situation doesn’t necessarily generate the same mood in everyone. In part that’s because individuals often respond differently to the same stimulus; in part it’s because situations aren’t univocal in their affordances. A situation can prompt both grimness and jolliness in the same person. How do you reconcile seemingly opposite and incompatible moods? You can eliminate the dissonance by turning up the volume on one while muting the other. Or you can try to find a middle ground: neutral indifference, for example. Or you can try to remain attuned to both poles at once, immersing yourself in opposite moods at the same time.

Maybe that’s what defines the absurd: simultaneously being attuned to opposite affordances from the world and being immersed in opposite moods. A second-order way of being-there.

That Bruenig explicitly disavows her own nihilism suggests strongly that the absurd mood she identifies in herself and her fellow millennials is associated closely with a sense of meaninglessness. Again, where does meaning reside: in the world, or in the head? Neither and both. Meaning too is an affordance, a subjective attunement to objective features of the world. Meaning could be a way to reconcile contradictory affordances like grimness and jolliness, but that would necessitate that the meaning be univocal, unambiguous. What if the same event, the same situation, can be embedded in multiple systems of meaning simultaneously? Now the failure to achieve a unified attunement to the world results not from the absence of meaning but from its surfeit — an overload of mutually contradictory meanings.

Some of those meanings are themselves meaningless — affordances generated not by the world itself but by those who would manipulate the world for their own gain. Bruenig again:

Yet the world is full of noise. Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.

How does this “mood of grim, jolly absurdism” manifest itself in fictional form?

To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

Dream world? Well, we are talking about fictions after all, even if they do stem from a mood induced by real-world contradictions between grim and jolly, between empty and oversaturated. The implication though is that these sorts of absurd fictions aren’t realistic but dreamlike, suggesting that millennial comedy, and perhaps other millennial fiction induced by the contradictory meaninglessness of the contemporary world, constitutes not an artistic depiction of that world but an escape or exit from it: not a being-there but a being-elsewhere.

Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century.

Surrealism in its original manifestation was an attempt, through the juxtaposition of radically disparate elements, to bring together the actual and imaginary worlds, the waking and dreaming states, the conscious and unconscious minds, into a single super-reality. The presumption was that these two aspects of sur-reality had been artificially divided, and so it was the task of the artist to bring them back together. Can the same rationale be inferred from today’s neo-surrealists, who jam together in preposterous admixtures the grim and the jolly, emptiness and excess, information and noise, meaninglessness and supersaturated meaning?  Do the incommensurable fragments cohere into a super-reality, twisted, incoherent, and weird though it might be? Or is the opposite impulse at work, demonstrating that even the most ordinary aspects of life become incongruous when pried loose from ordinary reality, left to dangle in metaphysical isolation or else grafted into an alternative reality? Instead of unifying the fragments into a single super-reality, the new surrealists might be bent on fragmenting the seeming unity of the everyday world, revealing that there is either a plethora of realities, or else no reality at all.

And then there’s the absurd humor it all:

this giant emptiness of meaning… this giant race to the bottom of irony… [Absurdity with humor] lol nothing matters, but things might turn out all right anyway… After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing… …millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.

Does Bruenig’s thesis fit the short fictions in the latest issue of Gone Lawn? Tomorrow or the next day I’ll go back through each story and see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Deceptively Simple Word Problem by Samuel Rafael Barber

Random short fiction 20.11.5, from Green Mountains Reviewhere’s the link.

Fiction as thought experiment: it’s nice to see someone else going in for this sort of thing. I appreciate the tell-don’t-show expository narrative, the abstraction of fictional components into variables and algorithms, the exploration of hypotheticals and conditionals and alternative futures and other counteractuals.

The person called “You” waits at the bench for the simultaneous arrivals of Trains A and B. They won’t just pass each other without stopping; both trains are expected to stop long enough to let passengers board — it’s a scheduled stop. You must live near this stop, the temporal midpoint between both termini, between station N’s banal urbanity and the outermost edge of civilization at station M. Maybe there are other intermediate stops. Does You live in suburbia, exurbia, smalltownia, ruralia? Are these intermediate positions rejected as mere compromises, places without qualities, each characterized only by its relative positioning on the linear continuum between pure city and pure wilderness? Being neither hot nor cold do You and the fiancé spew these mediocrities out of their mouths?

Maybe A and B aren’t the only two trains to stop here, running their perpetual relay between the same two endpoints. Maybe another train stops here as well, heading in some direction along another vector, its termini representing extreme values of some other variable besides city/wilderness. I’ve navigated these mid-course transfers often enough on European railroads to have lost at least some of the anxiety that I’ll find myself lugging my luggage along the platform in futile pursuit of my connection as it eases away on down the tracks. Maybe You is sitting at a bench in some Grand Central Station, with scores of trains arriving and departing every hour, heading to anywhere from everywhere.

Choice. You’s fiancé rides aboard Train A, originating at Station M. Did he change his mind about living at the outermost edge of civilization? Couldn’t he disembark, meet You on the platform, both returning on Train B to station M? Couldn’t both give urban banality a try? If someday they decide they don’t like it then they can buy a couple of tickets for Train B and head back together to the wilderness or to one of the intermediate stops, or else veer off on a different track entirely.

Fate. Both the A train and the B train stop at You’s location in precisely two hours. Presumably they run on the same schedule every day. You could wait until next week to decide which one to board, or next month. However, You’s fiancé rides Train A only on this particular day; this is the day when, in two hours, two lines of Fate are destined to merge into a temporary node, a singularity, a portal. And hasn’t You already decided by agreeing to marry; isn’t that why the fiancé is riding to meet You here in two hours, locked onto a particular course determined by You’s decision? Is this the problem with any decision, that once it’s made You’d like to take it back, as if it had never been made, as if all routes remain open to You as pure potential, sitting on the bench reading a story?

What if, unbeknownst to You, the fiancé changed his mind and Train A pulled out of Station M without him? Now You changes her mind about meeting the fiancé and gets aboard Train B, pulling in at Station M in 1 hour and 43 minutes. Stopping at the café near station M before heading out into the wilderness, You spots the fiancé in a booth having a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie.

 

 

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.

Leaning Into a Fictional Döppelganger

I’ve been challenged with the idea that trimming one’s fictions by 10 percent makes them better, not just for readers but for the writer. To experiment with this proposition I selected a random page from the Google Docs version of my long fiction Prop O’Gandhi: the excerpt comes from the seventh chapter called “The Travel Agency.” [You can download the e-book for free here.]

First, the page as written:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

What happened was that Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be the guy strapped into the machine, either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the general principles by which it would operate. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this writing also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

A psychologically minded observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he had experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 feet by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have spaghetti for lunch. He realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


That’s 610 words — which means I’d need to trim 61 words to cut the length by ten percent. Here I go:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport: he could have built a whole garageful of time machines, hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

But Prop O’Gandhi realized that he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. Or the guy strapped into the machine either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do and its general operating principles. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the guy to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he’d experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – looks like spaghetti for lunch. Prop realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out at her picnic table and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


Okay, that gets the passage down to 511 words. I chopped it by 99 — 37 more than I needed, a reduction of 16 percent! It didn’t take long, and it was fairly painless. No critical information is deleted, no essential meaning is lost; even I can barely notice the differences. Is the leaner alternative version of the fictional text better than the actually existing version? Is it worse? I’ll take it one sentence at a time: deleted words are lined out; added words are italicized.


“First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

In this chapter Prop O’Gandhi is thinking about setting up a portalic travel agency. By this point he’s doubting that idea. The alternate realities need to be discovered and charted and made hospitable before the tourist trade can open up. The and in this sentence emphasizes the divide, both temporal and categorical, between the first three professions and the one that Prop is presently considering. The and stays.

The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way.

The repetition of he could have emphasizes the qualitative distinction between two separate hypothetical moves that the Time Traveler could have made: first, the design and construction of amazing devices like the prototype he’d already made and pilot-tested; second, the mundane managerial task of staffing an ongoing business. The second he could have stays.

What happened was that But Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be Or the guy strapped into the machine, either.

Throughout the book the narrator intercedes with observations, and occasionally critiques, of the titular character. The what happened was accentuates the intrusion of the narrator at this point in Prop O’Gandhi’s ambivalence. It stays. The repetition of he didn’t want to be accentuates Prop’s Bartlebyesque reluctance to act, his sense that none of the options arrayed before him is viable. It stays.

Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the and its general operating principles by which it would operate.

As well as emphasizes the distinction between the “what” and the “how” of the machine. The more economically worded operating principles combines pragmatics and theory into a single phrase; in contrast, principles by which it would operate emphasizes theory as foundational to practice. Prop is a theoretical sort of fellow who would insist on that distinction. The original wording stays.

It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom.

Prop O’Gandhi is reasoning from abstractions, not from personal preferences: he’s not just the wrong individual; he’s the wrong kind of individual. Who would be there emphasizes both the futurity and the inevitability that someone is going to cash in eventually. The original wording stays.

As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Here’s a case where the shortened version eliminates not just words but an idea. Avoiding capitalist co-optation is a central tenet of Prop O’Gandhi’s project, or perhaps a key cognitive dissonance reducer he invokes to rationalize his loserhood. It stays.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

The probably and in fact again signify the narrator’s interpretation. The original stays.

A psychologically minded An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success.

The narrator is an observer; here he’s dismissively claiming not to be psychologically minded in his presumably more profound interpretation of O’Gandhi’s inertia. The original stays.

The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

More is a quantifier; here again emphasizes a repetitive pattern. The repetition is the important consideration here, how each episode in the narrative illustrates a consistent pattern in O’Gandhi’s life.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next?

Here again the proposed deletions affect not just nuance but content. Prop is searching for portals to alternate Realities, whereas he’s already straddling two Realities every time he steps into his “Lab.” This chapter begins with a quote from Prop’s Portality Notebook — “A Strand is a link between a Self and a Reality” — so invoking the Strands here embeds this paragraph into the chapter’s framing context. Stick with the original wording.

If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen.

Prop doesn’t just happen to see the neighbor lady in her kitchen with a casual glimpse. He has to peer through his window, around obstacles blocking his view, into her window — voyeurism. Though he’s purportedly hard at work in his Lab, he finds himself distracted by what, and who, is outside. The original wording accentuates Prop’s unconscious urge.

Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have looks like spaghetti for lunch.

The watching and the guessing — indicators of Prop’s intensifying distraction — are at least as important as the neighbor lady’s meal prep. Stick with the original.

He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the her picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.

Dropping the wine from the bottle of red seems almost too casually cool for Prop’s nerdy asocial persona. In her yard establishes a lush feminine sensuality for the bare feet in the green grass. Keep the original wording.


In each pairwise comparison I’ve opted to keep the original wordier wording. A psychologically minded observer might diagnose me as suffering from effort justification, preferring the weightier (fatter?) creation to its leaner döppelganger. Of course this isn’t the only way to strip ten percent of the skin off a cat. I could get rid of this whole Travel Agency chapter. I could scrap the intrusive observations of the narrator, letting the reader do the work. Why do I get the feeling that I won’t be the sort of guy to make those streamlining improvements either?