Sunday, April 5, 2009

Experimental Nippon Fetishists Alert: Read Line and Pause by Forrest Roth

What type of reader might enjoy Forrest Roth’s experimental and innovative novella, Line and Pause?

Roland Barthes, in The Pleasures of the Text, imagines a “typology of the pleasures of reading…linking the reading neurosis to the hallucinated form of the text.”[1] He describes my default mode of pleasurable reading, the “paranoiac,” as the consumer-producer of intricate writings. This style of reading works with Line and Pause, but alone will not do for a fully pleasurable experience. For that to occur, the reader must also be something of a “fetishist,” who prefers the pleasures of the word, grammatical formulae, deconstruction [though Barthes didn’t call it that], all of which require a background knowledge, in this case, of Japanese culture, calligraphy and history.

It also seems to me the “fetishist” reader may enjoy Roth’s work more than any other Barthes’ types, as the fetishist, perhaps, seems the most likely to enjoy the spectacle seaming this minimalist yet highly complex text together.

In his essay “The Novel As Spectacle,” Italo Calvino writes: “If we know the rules of the ‘romanesque game,’ we can construct ‘artificial’ novels, born in the laboratory, and we can play at novels like playing at chess, with complete fairness, re-establishing communications between the writer, who is fully aware of the mechanisms he is using, and the reader, who goes along with the game because he, too, knows the rules and knows he can no longer have the wool pulled over his eyes.”[2]

But how well does the reader know the rules of any given text or unfolding spectacle? It seems this fundamental mystery is also an absurd necessity. The first rule seems to be admitting to yourself and others you have no idea what the actual rules are. In my case, I found myself struggling to imagine the rules at play in Line and Pause, and so found entry points into the novella’s meaning as difficult and challenging as I might finding a particular restaurant down a Kyoto sidestreet. By default I landed on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a means of attempting some hold, no matter how slippery. I knew I was altering the text by reading it, warping its process by re-conceiving it in my own terms. If I am unsatisfied with my unsettled feelings upon finishing a first reading of Roth’s highly intelligent work, it is due to my numerous shortcomings as a reader, not Line and Pause’s failure to deliver “the goods” I was initially looking for. And don’t get me wrong, I totally dig this. My feelings here seem akin to those of a scientist who enjoys having his hypotheses and theories shot to hell because it means he’s learned something. No one is ever completely right. When someone, like myself [sic], who’s right the vast majority of the time [lordy, lordy] finds out they’re wrong, it’s very healthy and stimulating. These are the goods Roth delivers in Line and Pause, and I wasn’t ready for them. Surprise, surprise.

One rule I did detect or imagine occurred to me on pages 37 and 38, where it seems there might be an analogy between reading clouds and reading fiction in general or the text in particular. Roth seems to be employing an indirect self-reflexivity, or deploying a critifictional technique to give the reader some insight to the rules possibly governing the narrational prosody. Consider:

“There must always be a conscious separation between the viewer and the cloud, between the observer and the observed; otherwise, the message of the cloud-vision disintegrates and the observer acts—[crossed out] irrationally…”

And: “Clouds meeting standard meteorological criteria have image-potential. Either this image-potential is utilized by a cloudwatcher, or it is negated by simply not recognizing its existence. The primary skill of the cloudwatcher to interpret image-potential into cloud-vision is dependent on previous knowledge of the augury and the ability to recognize entry points…”

This appears like critifiction to me because it seems “a kind of narrative that contains its own theory and even its own criticism.”[3]

Each page of Line and Pause seems a chapter…seems an independent piece of flash fiction or prose poetry…You have a narrative line of dependent-independent flash fictions/prose poems in diverse fonts and sizes, so one must pause at each to digest their peculiar implications [something which seems both particle and wavelength]…Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle consistently subverts the text’s phenomenology via abstraction, and the phenomenology of abstraction via materialization… one exhaling as the other inhales, the other then exhaling as one inhales…forming internal and external clouds to read-write…So to write Forrest Roth’s Line and Pause is to “read a cloud”…or imagine constellations in the night sky critifictioning themselves into existence, or not.

Furthermore, the recursive link or recurrent feedback loop between narrator and author seems calligraphy/writing…what calligraphy and writing have in common is paper/membrane/medium …calligraphy concerns itself with actual aesthetic presentation on the page, which is like a painter’s canvas; writing concerns itself with projecting the clouds abstracted/read from the blank canvass itself. The text becomes, via line and pause, a phenomenology unto itself. One must not focus on what may or may not exist beyond the borders of the page.

Roth's narrator also seems to suggest [or at least I read p. 153 on fainting and shopping as suggesting] one reason why the modern self seems empty when contrasted with perceptions of the experiences of prior generations, differences that point toward a historically situated psychology where the pursuit of being, in this case the narrator’s, brings us back to how we imagine ourselves living:

“In the early Showa Era, the floors of the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihombashi were all lined with tatami; it may have been one of the very last department stores in Japan to do so. If one can find photos of it, they will see well-dressed ladies in formal kimono taking their sandals off at the entrance. This was likely construed as formal shopping, whereas today no one really notices the difference; shopping is now merely the means to an end, no matter where one goes. Not to mention the average contemporary woman will spend a good chunk of her lifespan walking the aisles of a store, whether she actually wants to shop or not.”

On page 206 the narrator blatantly states what might be my biggest challenge reading this novella:

“…the artist must be in control at all times, even while at rest. Before beginning, then, examine the black felt lining the worktable. Do not look beyond the edges of this felt because nothing is there.”

This artist, this narrator, seems hyper-disciplined [having a fetish for discipline and control?], writing what s/he knows rather than exploring what s/he doesn’t know via wildness, exploring the uncanny. There’s nothing loosey goosey here. It reminds me of Masuji Ono’s approach to his art in Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. I imagine the narrator of Line and Pause, a modern Japanese woman living a very conservative life [whether she herself really/actually is or not], could have also been on the receiving end of this criticism of Ono, the artist referred to in the title of Ishiguro’s novel:

“There’s a certain kind of artist these days…whose greatest talent lies in hiding away from the world…your knowledge of the world is like a child’s. I doubt, for instance, you could even tell me who Karl Marx was.” Ono answered: Leader of the Russian Revolution.[4] Roth has constructed a brilliant novel with a highly intelligent, seemingly aware yet uninformed narrator, a complex construction if there ever was one that seems conversant with Ishiguro’s concern about the results of too much discipline in life and art, in my opinion.

Now back to an earlier point, my default mode of reading seems paranoiac. To derive more pleasure from Line and Pause I need to find a way of becoming a fetishist, which seems as though it would require knowledge of today’s Japan, Japanese history, calligraphy, and haibun.

Short of that, my natural tastes lean toward what Barthes called “Writing aloud…[which] searches for (in a perspective of bliss)…the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language.”[5]

Like Kathy Acker and others I’ve read about, I tend to get horny when I read something extremely pleasurable. That can happen across a variety of genres…

I am currently unable to adequately fetishize Line and Pause, though I’m working on it. I think this may come down to a matter of literary sexuality…a mere “gender” difference with regards to reading-writing that probably has more to do with nurture than nature [which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a choice]. Gender, after all, is culturally defined. When the sexuality-gender type of a text matches up with the sexuality-gender type of the reader-writer, bliss occurs, or what Barthes refers to as jouissance.

What works for me, however, is how impersonal and abstract the first person narrator’s voice is, speaking in the past tense of the strictness of Japanese calligraphy, the challenges of cloud reading, the perceived boundaries of her arranged marriage, the ensuing shape of misery in the form of emptiness and absence, the abortion, the attempted suicide, and now apparently feeling a pervasive emptiness…an acute numbness saturates every line, forcing me to pause. It is both moving and chilling…an unbearable weight of lightness.

I imagine I would agree with Elizabeth Switaj’s conclusion in her Mad Hatter’s [r]eview of Line and Pause, if I knew what she was talking about:

“…a meaningful journey and an intriguing experiment in the synthesis of the western novella and Japanese haibun. The form that results from this fusion fits perfectly the content, a synthesis of metaphysical ideas and keen observation of Japanese life...”[6]

Perhaps Roth’s narrator, Kei, says it best: “Being a calligrapher appears as easy as putting ink to paper…except only the paper itself speaks in the end.”[7]

I highly recommend Line and Pause to anyone who’s turned on by Japanese culture, the ways and means of the human psyche, and innovative fiction. I’m very much looking forward to Roth’s next book, whatever form it takes…Not knowing is part of the pleasure.

1. Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller, Hill and Wang, NY, 1973, p. 63.
2. Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, pp. 194-5.
3. Federman, Raymond. Critifiction: Postmodern Essays, SUNY Press, 1993.
4. Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Aritst of the Floating World, First Vintage International Edition, 1989, pp. 171-2.
5. Ibid #1, pp. 66-7.
7. Roth, p. 126


Upon a glance, two other novels that appear to have a similar architecture:

My Life at First Try
A Novel


In this semi-autobiographical debut novel, Mark Budman chronicles the life of Alex, a boy born in Siberia in 1950. Short chapters—sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering—chronicle Alex’s life year by year as he matures, starts a family, gets a chance to leave the Soviet Union, and then goes on to discover the rhythms, disappointments, and small pleasures of suburban life in upstate New York.
“This blazingly fast and funny ‘semi-autobiographical’ novel follows a Russian man’s comically earnest pursuit of the American dream." —Publishers Weekly
COUNTERPOINT | 978-1-58243-400-1 | Cloth | $24.00

In his most famous work, Le parti pris des choses (Often translated The Voice of Things), he meticulously described common things such as oranges, potatoes and cigarettes in a poetic voice, but with a personal style and paragraph form (prose poem) much like an essay. These poems owe much to the work of the French Renaissance poet Remy Belleau. Ponge avoided appeals to emotion and symbolism, and instead sought to minutely recreate the world of experience of everyday objects. His work is often associated with the philosophy of Phenomenology.

He described his own works as "a description-definition-literary artwork" which avoided both the drabness of a dictionary and the inadequacy of poetry.


More on Forrest Roth: Proust’s Moustache

After Birthing, Curio

Real Eisenhowers

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