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The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

The Fiction Collective


Reruns by Jonathan Baumbach; Museum by B. H. Friedman; Twiddledum, Twaddledum by
Peter Spielberg
Review by: Larry McCaffery
Contemporary Literature, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), pp. 99-115
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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THE FICTION COLLECTIVE*

The problems facing a writer of nontraditional fiction have always


been enormous and the results fairly predictable: Joyce's Dubliners
was rejected by forty publishers, Beckett's Watt by forty-seven
publishers; other books have equally impressive records. Because of
a variety of economic and critical pressures, the situation today for
serious, innovative writing is probably worse than ever. In Europe
artists have traditionally created their journals or "Schools"
whenever they feel this kind of deliberate, systematic exclusion, but
in America, possibly because of our heightened sense of
competition, we have had few examples of artists banding together
for mutual artistic and economic interests. Thus, if for no other
reason than its novelty, the forming of the Fiction Collective in 1974
was a significant literary event, and its successes and failures need to
be carefully examined.
The Fiction Collective is a cooperative conduit for
nontraditional or experimental fiction in which writers make all
business decisions and assist one another with all editorial and copy
work. Formed originally with the assistance of such writers as Ron
Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, Peter Spielberg, Steve Katz, and B.
H. Friedman, and using Brooklyn College as a working base of
operations, the Collective's intentions were to provide a more
readily accessible and more widely distributed alternative to the big
New York City publishers than the small presses or vanity presses
had previously provided. Once a writer has a book accepted by the
Collective (each member has a vote in determining which
manuscripts are to be accepted), he puts up the money for
publication himself (this has come to about $3,000 and grants have
often been available to help defray this cost); this money is
considered a loan and is repaid to the writer from proceeds. After a
book pays for itself-and thus far the books have been returning the
original investment within about a year-the writer and the
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XIX, 1

Collective split further proceeds 50/50. Perhaps the most important


aspect of the Collective's operation is the fact that the writer retains
complete control in all matters relating to his book, from stylistic and
typographical decisions right down to the choice of jacket design,
blurbs, and photograph. Although the members do send their
manuscripts to each other for editorial advice, it is the writer, and not
the editor, who has the final say over what will eventually appear.
This ensures that the writer doesn't have to worry about fighting with
publishers over each stylistic or typographic oddity and also means
that his book will not be misrepresented after publication; in short,
the artistic integrity of the work is guaranteed from the start.
In the three years that the Collective has been in operation it has
succeeded in publishing some fifteen works (six more are due out in
1977) and has achieved a relatively stable financial position-no
mean feats in themselves. Taken as a group, the Collective's books
imply some interesting happenings in contemporary innovative
fiction. They represent an impressively wide range of innovative
approaches, from the typographical delirium of Federman's Take It
or Leave It, to the poetic lyricism of Marianne Hauser's The Talking
Room, to the relatively conventional format of Thomas Glynn's
Temporary Sanity. Despite their differences, the Collective's works
share certain obvious tendencies. Realism, for example, seems to be
pass6 for the contemporary innovator, with the logic of myth or
dreams, along with the formal dictates of language itself, replacing
verisimilitude as the central method of structuring fictional
discourse. Most of these books should not be viewed as "social
commentaries" except in very indirect ways. Instead, the emphasis is
on the work of fiction as a purely verbal, sensuous object, with the
reader's interest in plot and character being produced not by the
book's "representational quality" but in its reality as language. The
disclaimer at the beginning of Major's Reflex and Bone Structure
reads, "This book is an extension of, not a duplication of reality. The
characters and events are happening for the first time."Perhaps the
most important similarity among the Collective books is that nearly
all of them focus on the imagination's response to reality, not on
reality itself. Indeed, many of the innovative techniques of these
works are designed to place the process of the imagination at the
center of the book and to blur or deny altogether the usual
distinctions we make between the mind and the outside world. We
can turn now to a more specific look at the Collective's books; for
convenience sake, I have divided up my discussion on the basis of the
"series groupings" used by the Collective.
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Series I: Reruns by Jonathan Baumbach, Museum by B. H.


Friedman, Twiddledum, Twaddledum by Peter Spielberg. * The first
series of the Collective proved to be representative in many respects.
The fact that the books had little commonality in approach, for
example, immediately established the fact that the Collective was
not presenting itself as a unified "school" or movement. The books
by Baumbach and Spielberg are daring, imaginative works whose
unusual stylistic features create the logic of their own justification;
Friedman's more traditional novel seems strikingly out of place,
considering the Collective's proposed aims to produce
nontraditional fiction.
The format of Baumbach's Reruns is strange but effective: we
are given 33 short chapters (or "Nights") that are apparently
"reruns" of events in the life of a central character. These reruns are
nightmarish, frantic, often violent episodes whose characters and
events are created out of a wide variety of cultural cliches, fairy tales,
stories, and movies. In this world of terror, loneliness, and absurdity,
actor Walter Brennan may appear with Dracula or Goldilocks, and
the narrator helplessly confronts peculiar combinations of senseless
violence, inexplicable loss, and utterly banal chatter. Like Manuel
Puig's remarkable novel, Heartbreak Tango, Baumbach's book
succeeds because it is created out of the language and archetypes
through which we respond to everyday life. Baumbach realizes, for
example, that movies provide psychic dramas, and even an
idiosyncratic language, which the public appropriates for its own
purposes. Thus, somewhat in the manner of Coover or Barthelme,
Baumbach builds his narrator's life out of the language and events of
pop culture, although the familiar patterns are often altered in
humorous and frightening ways. Although there is no real sense of
"development" in the book, movement is constant; even individual
paragraphs shift location and direction. The issues Baumbach raises
in Reruns turn out to be at the center of many of the Collective's
books: to what extent is our response to the world the product of our
imagination? What is the value of our fictional constructs, and to
what extent do our lives follow the patterns we have invented in our
movies, books, or dreams?
*Jonathan Baumbach, Reruns. New York: Fiction Collective, 1974. 196 pp.
$7.95.
B. H. Friedman, Museum. New York: Fiction Collective, 1974. 169 pp. $7.95.
Peter Spielberg, Twiddledum, Twaddledum. New York: Fiction Collective,
1974. 196 pp. $7.95.
Fiction Collective books are distributed by G. Braziller.
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101

Of the fifteen books published by the Collective so far, B. H.


Friedman's Museum is probably the most conventional. Its inclusion
in the Collective's works immediately brings up the question as to
whether the Collective should accept novels which are good, but not
innovative. Unfortunately, Museum is neither very innovative nor
very good as a conventional novel. Though it deals with significant
ideas, the book suffers from exactly the sort of mechanical, overlyfamiliar presentation that most Collective members are trying to
avoid, and is tied too closely to these ideas rather than to vital,
energetic language.
If Museum was a disappointment, Peter Spielberg's
Twiddledum, Twaddledum was the Collective's first unqualified
success. This grimly funny, often frightening, but beautifully written
novel is divided into two sections, which creates the illusion of action
being carried forward in a familiar bildungsroman formula: a young
Jewish boy named Pankraz begins his existence by starving his twin
brother at his nurse's breast, and as he reaches puberty, he is publicly
and privately forced to endure a series of humiliations which are
often sexual in nature. As section one concludes, Pankraz is being
whisked away by the Nazis in a crowded train; inexplicably,
however, the train reverses direction and becomes the "ThroughTrain Special / Le Havre-Amerika / Non-Stop Express." When
section two begins, the setting is New York, and Pankraz has been
mysteriously changed into "Paul." Although it seems at first as if
Paul's transformation is a rebirth, with Amerika offering the
possibilities of a new beginning, this does not turn out to be the case;
indeed, as in a nightmare, the second section is actually only a
mirror-like recapitulation of the first section, with Paul being forced
to experience subtle variations of many of the same humiliations
that he suffered while growing up. In both sections Pankraz/Paul
wanders through a repellent landscape whose nightmarish qualities
and ugliness are rendered in a spare, poetic style reminiscent of both
Kafka and Kosinski in its hallucinatory vividness and cool
understatement. Like Kafka's characters, Paul is a victim who
searches for love, beauty, and sexual fulfillment but accepts his
punishment and constant rejections without question. As the book
ends with Paul on another train, the reader realizes that the pattern is
about to begin again.
The very structure of Spielberg's novel, with its dizzying sets of
twins, verbal games, and self-conscious manipulations of Freudian
patterns, ensures that the reader always confronts the book as an
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artifact (Spielberg's debt to Nabokov in this respect seems


undeniable, especially in the playful listing of books and names
which can generally be deciphered as referring to Spielberg's own
literary interests). At the same time, however, Spielberg's precise,
carefully controlled prose enables him to engage the reader on a
visceral level.
Series II: Searching for Survivors by Russell Banks, The Secret
Table by Mark Mirsky, 98.6 by Ronald Sukenick.* The Collective's
second series is one of its major triumphs to date, for each of the
books is vital and imaginative in conception and full of wonderful
language. The success of Banks's collection of short fiction and
Mirsky's book, which contains two lengthy stories and several
shorter ones, also points to a fact that seems well substantiated by
experimental fiction of the past fifteen years: innovative fictional
approaches often succeed best at the short-story level, where the
reader can be more easily engaged on the level of style or formal
manipulation.
Banks's Searching for Survivors is one of many Collective books
that deal with the ability of the imagination to rearrange ordinary
existence into whatever patterns seem most useful or appealing.
Most of the fourteen stories present fairly unremarkable men
attempting to reconstruct themselves and their pasts. Consisting for
the most part of quietly lyrical prose, these stories freely intermingle
fact and fancy, with each receiving meticulously "realistic"
treatment. "With Che in New Hampshire" is a representative story
about a young man who returns home with a romantic, invented past
involving his travels "with Che." The visit itself seems actually to be
a fiction which is carefully imagined, complete with "retakes" of
scenes that the narrator is not pleased with. As we watch the narrator
create both his past and his present, we are given a striking example
of the saving process of the imagination.
Mirsky's book is also about the magical, private sources of the
imagination attempting to confront a drab, frightening, or
mysterious world. The novellas "Dorchester, Home and Garden"
and "Onan's Child" are related tales in which the Jewish experiences
of fear, loss, and paranoia are transformed into vibrant, sensuous
*Russell Banks, Searching for Survivors. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975.

153 pp. $8.95.


MarkMirsky, The SecretTable.New York: FictionCollective, 1975. 167pp.
$8.95.
Ronald Sukenick, 98.6. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975. 188 pp. $8.95.
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103

language. "Onan's Child" is similar to some of the fiction of Coover


and Barth in that it reinvents a mythic character and provides the
modern reader with a new perspective on familiar events. As jn
Calvino's Cosmicomics and t-zero, the individual sections of "Onan's
Child" are fleshed out with quotations from the Bible and scholarly
texts, which provide a springboard for Mirsky's own version.
"Dorchester" is created out of a series of loosely related anecdotes
about urban, lower-class Jewish life near the ghetto area of Boston.
Centering on a man named Maishe, the episodes vary considerably
in degree of realism. In one episode Maishe is shown futilely trying to
become friends with a young girl named Barbara, while in the next he
is consorting with Pythagoras, Origen, and other philosophers; later,
at the urging of some angels he has met, he is talked into giving flying
a chance.
Mirsky's talent lies not so much in telling stories-many of the
episodes in this collection are obscure and difficult to follow,
especially to non-Jewish readers-but in creating a highly
expressive--one is almost tempted to call it "erotic"-prose that
captures the power and poetry of Jewish speech as effectively as any
of the now-famous Jewish writers of the 50s and 60s. "Is this the
music of Dorchester?" an angel asks of Maishe at one point, and
another one pops up to say, "Who cares if it's true or false?" (p. 40).
This is precisely what the reader often feels when reading Mirsky's
prose; indeed, like the musical prose of William Gass and Stanley
Elkin, Mirsky's sentences are themselves sensuous objects which are
able to illuminate his scenes with a radiance of language.
Ronald Sukenick's ability to create and control a wide range ot
literary styles is given free reign in 98.6, an apocalyptic, poetic novel
which many people feel is the Collective's most significant book to
date. The plot of the book concerns a band of refugees who have
escaped from a destructive society and are desperately attempting to
put the pieces of their lives together again by creating a utopian home
in the wilderness of Northern California. The first section of the
book, entitled "Frankenstein," is a disjointed series of prose
fragments created out of Sukenick's most hallucinatory rhetoric;
taken as a whole this first section presents a mosaic of ugliness,
chaos, and sexual despair-elements which have produced the
"Frankenstein" that the United States has become. The solutions
which offer themselves, such as dope, joyless sex, murder, limitless
but pointless freedom, are clearly insufficient, and so in the second
section, "Children of Frankenstein," a commune is formed in which

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the members collectively attempt to reshape their fragmented lives


via the process of the imagination. As in Sukenick's earlier novels,
Up and Out, struggle with the threat of chaos is depicted on three
levels: the societal, the personal, and the fictional. Thus as we watch
the commune attempt to create a healthy unity, we focus our
attention on the book's main character, novelist Ron Sukenick, who
is also struggling with self-creation within the novel we are reading;
but we are also aware of the "real" Ronald Sukenick and his efforts
to put together a meaningful text. In effect, all of these processes
mirror each other and suggest different aspects of the problems
created by "The Mosaic Law": "the law of mosaics or how to deal
with parts in the absence of wholes" (p. 167).
The efforts of the commune predictably fail; greed, sexual
duplicity, and violent encounters with a rival commune are
demonstrated not to be the proper elements out of which a stable,
fully realized "fiction" can be formed. In the third section,
"Palestine," the character Ron remains to create an eschatological
fantasy land of pure harmony (Bobby Kennedy is alive, there is
peace between the Jews and Arabs). Although even this last effort of
the imagination eventually fails, Sukenick's point about the way in
which the imagination can create reality has been embodied not only
in the action within the novel but in our own confrontation with the
text itself. This book, like the commune, is spawned out of raw,
chaotic elements which constantly threaten to decompose
themselves. But the process of imaginative composition (our own
and Sukenick's) which results in the novel before us provides an
exemplary, magical act of the imagination, for it has created a new
reality; this process is exactly the sort of divine creation that the
commune members were striving for, but failed to achieve. As
Sukenick tells us in all his fiction, life is like a novel-you have to
make it up.
Series III: The Second Story Man by Mimi Albert, Things in
Place by Jerry Bumpus, Reflex and Bone Structure by Clarence
Major. * The Collective's third series was significant in part because
it included books by a woman (Albert), a black (Major), and a nonEasterner (Bumpus)-a signal that the Collective was broadening
*Mimi Albert, The Second Story Man. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975. 106

pp. $8.95.
Jerry Bumpus, Things in Place. New York: Fiction Collective, 1975. 141 pp.

$8.95.
Clarence Major, Reflex and Bone Structure.New York: Fiction Collective,
1975. 145 pp. $8.95.
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105

the range of its talents from its previous white/male/Jewish/East


Coast base. Unfortunately the Collective's first book by a woman,
Mimi Albert's The Second Story Man, is also one of its weakest
efforts. Set in the lower Manhattan of the 1950s and populated by
rebellious middle-class youths, the book episodically traces the story
of a triangular relationship between the 17-year-old narrator, Anna,
her roomate, Mary, and Mary's lover, Florian Rando (the "second
story man" of the title). Somewhat in the manner of Anais Nin's A
Spy in the House of Love, the "events" here are mixtures of real
reminiscences and Anna's purely invented recreations, and thus the
book traces Anna's efforts to come to grips imaginatively with a
situation which she finds compelling, distasteful, and mysterious.
The conceptual framework is quite interesting, but frequent lapses
into lifeless, uninspired language hurt the novel's effectiveness.
The stories in Jerry Bumpus' fine collection, Thingsin Place, are
generally not as formally unusual as most of the other works of the
Collective, although many deal with highly unusual, even Gothic
subject matters-Bumpus' most famous story, "The Heart of
Lovingkind," tells the sad story of a man who has a passionate love
affair with Gigi, a kangaroo, and then loses her to suicide. Bumpus
peoples his stories with lonely, inarticulate people who are haunted
by the past and unable to respond to the present. Bumpus often
structures his stories so as to allow the past and the purely invented
creations of his characters to invade their lives and become palpable,
as with the apparently imaginary wolves which lurk around every
corner for the old man in "Away in Night," and the almost forgotten
promise of young love which slowly takes over the lives of the two old
women in "The Idols of the Afternoon." Although most of Bumpus'
stories take place within a realistic framework, the natural order of
things in his world is always threatening to dissolve before our eyes,
with absurd, nightmarish events often inexplicably erupting into the
ordinary. The thin line that exists between order and disorder, sanity
and madness is considered by the narrator of Bumpus' wildest, most
original story, "Our Golf Balls":
Things usuallystay put and when there'sa slip he looks the otherway. But
nights in bed he closes his eyes and gives over-it all mustend and begin
again!Grinning,he skidsdownthe longcloudhillandattacksthe campusof
friend and foe alike, rippingand tearing. Instantlythe rampagewidens,
across the land people staggerforthin pajamas.The sky is burning,and all
the streetsandroomsandpeople, so laboriouslyputtogethercome undone.
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. . But wait! All is not lost. A bespectacledbaboonin starredwizardrobes


and pointy hat, is sifting through it. Tries to fit this to that-Hipbone
connected to the . . . telephone. Tosses the parts over its shoulderand,
peering over the rimsof its glasses, tittersself-consciously.Canthe baboon
get the job done by morning?(p. 19)

Bumpus' stories deal not only with the precariousness of order, but
with the violent, impersonal nature of human contact today. His
people rarely have significant encounters; more often they are shown
confronting animals (either literally, as in "In the Mood of Zebras,"
or figuratively, as in "A Lament for Wolves"), or people who are
metaphorically transformed by language into animals or insects (thus
the motorcycle gang in Bumpus' title story is described as "a storm of
hornets" and "giant insects").
Clarence Major's Reflex and Bone Structureis a strange blend of
Barthelme, Robbe-Grillet, and Mickey Spillane; perhaps the best
comparison, however, is with Robert Coover's metafictional story,
"The Magic Poker," which concerns a magician/writer who has
created an enchanted island and is desperately attempting to keep
things running without himself becoming lost within its operations.
Reflex shares with Coover's story the central narrative tension
between a writer and his creation, as well as its "montage method" of
presentation in which brief verbal sections appear before us without
transition or apparent connection-thus part one of Reflex is
appropriately entitled "A Bad Connection."These verbal episodes
depict events which range widely in tone from the highly erotic, to
the banal, to the sinister. Gradually a dual focus is established: on the
one hand, we have the elements of the "story-line," which centers
around a love triangle and two murders; on the other hand, we watch
the narrator putting the pieces of the story before us and selfconsciously analyzing his performance as he proceeds. The reader
knows at the outset of the book that the murders have occurred
("The scattered pieces of the bodies were found" flashes across page
one), and naturally expects the author to unravel the mystery behind
the murders; and, indeed, the narrator tells us that he is "a detective
trying to solve a murder" (p. 32). But like other recent writers who
have appropriated the detective novel for their own purposes
(Borges, Queneau, Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet), Major uses this
format merely to entrap the reader into a puzzle which has no real
solution. "I can't explain how anything relates to anything else" (pp.
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I 107

15-16), says the narrator early in the novel, and this sort of
epistemological uncertainty is at the heart of Major's book. One of
the points being made by a great number of contemporary writers is
that previous novelistic conventions concerning personality, causeand-effect, and "explanations" of any kind are no longer credibleto paraphrase Barthelme, fragments are the only forms which we can
trust. The writer's job is no longer to try and create the specious
illusion of order by linking these fragments into meaningful
relationships; instead the writer may decide to arrange these
elements in a capricious, or blatantly invented, pattern and allow the
reader to arrange or rearrange, coming up with any solution which he
finds intriguing. When Major's narrator begins to present a scene
which may shed some light on the murders, he suddenly interjects, "I
simply refuse to go into details. Fragments can be all we have. To
make the whole. An archeologist might, of course, look for different
clues" (p. 17).
As in 98.6, then, the real interest of Major's book is in the
narrator's struggle to find a fictional form that will allow him to work
off his own tension. Meanwhile he is unable-or refuses-to supply
the usual descriptions and explanations; thus his characters remain
largely abstractions, their motivations mysterious, their personalities vague. At one point the narrator says of his principal character,
"I cannot help him if he refuses to focus. How can I be blamed for his
lack of seriousness?" (p. 42). In addition, the narrator constantly
reminds us of his own involvement in the creation of the text, as when
he announces of his three main characters: "Get this: Cora isn't
based on anybody. Dale isn't anything. Canada is just something I'm
busy making up. I am only an act of my own imagination" (p. 85).
Despite the absence of the familiar novelistic devices of tension and
character development, Major's novel, with its spare prose so often
full of eroticism and understated desperation, usually manages to
keep the reader's interest.
Series IV: Take It or Leave It by Raymond Federman, The
Talking Room by Marianne Hauser, The Comatose Kids by Seymour
Simckes.* The fourth series was a "good news/bad news" group. It
*Raymond Federman, Take It or Leave It. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976.
Unpaged. $11.95.
Marianne Hauser, The Talking Room. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976. 158
pages. $8.95.
Seymour Simckes, The Comatose Kids. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976.
114 pp. $8.95.
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contains the Collective's most ambitious and energetic book,


Federman's Take It or Leave It, and its most lyrical, poetic novel,
Hauser's beautifully rendered The Talking Room; but it also
presented perhaps the Collective's most obviously unsuccessful
book, Simckes' The Comatose Kids, a novel whose failures
illuminate some of the pitfalls which innovative fiction needs to
avoid.
Federman's novel is, to date, the Collective's most audacious
work in terms of experimental techniques. In the course of this long
(over 400 unnumbered pages), metafictional journey to chaos,
Federman's autobiographical hero encounters a variety of strange,
amorous, and wonderfully funny adventures as he tries to begin a trip
across America in search of both himself and the meaning of
America. At first glance the story seems to be a self-conscious
replication of the classic American initiation story-and indeed it is,
in part. But this central narrative thread is only a pre-text which
allows the emergence of the more important parts of the novel.
These digressive sections include ruminations reminiscent of
Beckett; lengthy discussions about politics, sex, American values,
and current literary attitudes; Borgesian quotations and pseudoquotations, a questionnaire ("Courtesy of Snow White"), and
specific commentaries about the text itself. All this is presented in
frenzied, delirious prose on pages upon which the print is allowed to
compose itself in almost any possible manner. These typographical
games effectively serve to further break down the syntax and
narrative coherence of the novel, demonstrating the "struggle of
word design against word syntax," as we are told at one point.
Partly as a result of the frantic, delirious tone, partly because of
the many digressions, and partly because Federman creates a series
of ironic reversals and cancellations in the plot, the "discovery
novel" becomes no discovery at all; indeed, as the novel concludes,
the trip in search of America, like nearly all of our expectations of
what a novel should be, has been canceled. As the narrator
constantly spews forth words in the form of stories, anecdotes, and
digressions, we also realize that he is attempting to avoid a
confrontation with his own frightening past. Thus, by impeding the
action, altering the familiar novelistic formulas, introducing
typographical disruptions, and often pointing to its own fabricated
distortions, the book never allows the reader to "learn" anything or
believe in it-in effect, it destroys or cancels itself as it proceeds. As
one of the dizzying series of narrators-within-narrators proudly
exclaims, "the incredible astonishing magnificent result is that the
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109

entire work cancels itself out not only as it progresses, but also in
advance!"
The beauty and magic of Hauser's The Talking Room is difficult
to analyze. The key would seem to be in the book's extraordinary
prose patterns, which create in their complex, interrelated images a
sustained vision of loneliness, the desire for love and the necessity for
escape, and, always, a haunting, dreamlike lyricism. "Again I can
hear their voices coming nonstop from the talking room downstairs. I
hear them through the rumble of the trucks in the night rain as I lie on
my back between moist sheets, listening. And I know they are
talking about me" (p. 1). This passage opens the book and
introduces the principal characters: the narrator is a chubby,
pregnant, 13-year-old girl who may (or may not) be a test-tube baby;
she narrates the book while lying in her bed upstairs, listening to the
conversations of her mother, J, and her mother's possessive lesbian
lover, V. Meanwhile the girl's transistor radio provides a telling
counterpoint to the emotional violence that is constantly erupting
downstairs in a house that is full of mirrorsand echoes. Mixing dream
with desire, the book's narrative framework is at once both utterly
fantastic and believable; Hauser also succeeds in creating a novel
that is comically satirical and still full of compassion. The
relationship between J and V, for example, is a poignant portrait of
the destructive impulses which often lie at the heart of our desire for
love and communication. This book is certainly one of the
Collective's major successes and deserves much greater attention
than it has so far received.
Simckes' The Comatose Kids demonstrates that although a
writer need no longer provide realistic characters, credible plots, or
clear relationships, he must still provide a voice which the reader will
want to listen to. Both Take It or Leave It and The Talking Room
succeed, finally, because the reader is likely to find the delirious or
lyrical quality of the prose compelling. A similar phenomenon keeps
us reading the experimental works of, say, William Gass, John
Barth, Donald Barthelme, and John Hawkes. But in Simckes' book,
the absence of traditional narrative elements is not made up for by
either ingenious formal manipulations or by energetic, lively
language. As with so many other Collective novels, the plot here
revolves around a central character (Doktor Tschisch, a 93-year-old
psychiatrist, whose speeches occasionally have their moments of wit)
who is attempting to create an imaginative extension of himself. Dr.
Tschisch only has three days to live and, because he seems to sense

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this, has kidnapped two young mental patients. By "cracking all


mirrors of memory" and "forcing others to share his craziness" (p.
22), the Doktor hopes to reconstitute the young couple into loversa transformation which will presumably provide a continuation of
the Doktor's life. What we watch, then, is the struggle of the boy and
girl attempting to maintain their own psyches in the face of the
Doktor's efforts to change them. This tug-of-war involves a sort of
Beckettian dialectic, with the boy and girl refusing to assimilate the
doctor's stories and instead trying actively to create themselves
through their own invented stories. As the boy explains it, "By
sticking close to his own stories he might avoid becoming someone he
never was" (pp. 34-35). Unfortunately, these stories-within-thestory are not themselves very interesting, nor is the confusing, often
obscure dialogue animated enough to maintain the reader's
attention.
Series V: Althea by J. M. Alonso, Babble by Jonathan
Baumbach, Temporary Sanity by Thomas Glynn.* The Collective's
fifth series was perhaps its most consistently excellent since the
second, and offers an interesting range of innovative techniques,
from Glynn"s fairly realistic narrative to Baumbach's novel, which
mixes dream and cinematic/literary fantasies much as Reruns did, to
Alonso's peculiar, complex mixture of realism, dream, archetype,
and fable.
Althea might be likened to Lawrence's great novels, for it too
seeks to give literary expression to the deeply felt, hidden
motivations not accessible to most psychological techniques.
Alonso's subject is no less than the sources of "the Divorce of Adam
and Eve" (the subtitle of the novel), the radical shift in male/female
relationships which seems to have become more sharply defined in
the past twenty years. Alonso senses that certain aspects of
contemporary culture, especially deep, psychic phenomena such as
the schisms and affinities which have always existed between men
and women, cannot be dealt with through the easy solutions of social
or psychological realism. His book's peculiar yoking of myth, dream,
and realism occasionally creates objective correlatives for the kinds
*J. M. Alonso, Althea. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976. 363 pp. $11.95.
Jonathan Baumbach, Babble. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976. 117 pp.
$8.95.
Thomas Glynn, Temporary Sanity. New York: Fiction Collective, 1976. 166 pp.

$8.95.
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of forces he seeks to define. At other times, however, he seems to


mistrust his instincts; certainly his most realistic scenes, for example
the 4trial and the party scenes, are his least convincing. Fully
successful or not, Althea provides a perfect example of why the
Fiction Collective is such a potentially valuable organization, for one
imagines that Alonso would have a hard time indeed getting this
difficult, highly original book accepted by a conventional publishing
firm.
Baumbach's Babble, like his earlier Reruns, effectively
assembles a variety of our culture's stock fears, obsessions, and
desires, and recombines them into a sort of surreal bildungsroman.
The "hero" of this book is a three-year-old child whom we follow
through all the trials and tribulations of youth, love, college, and old
age-all experienced as a three-year-old. The baby's father, who
narrates the book, also treats us to a variety of stories told by the
baby. These stories seem derived, appropriately enough, from fairytales, television, and comic books and contain their own childish
concepts of causality and morality. The baby is constantly chased and
deceived in these tales, something which suggests that paranoia is not
the sole possession of adults. Baumbach implants within his novel
many familiar motifs and conventions drawn from serious initiation
novels, only here they are utterly trivialized. As he did in Reruns,
Baumbach demonstrates that he has a bit of Barthelme's gift for
impersonating the cliches of our society and implanting them in
improbable situations.
Glynn's Temporary Sanity is probably the Collective's most
realistic novel since Museum, but unlike Friedman's novel, it
ably demonstrates that even relatively conventional novels can be
"innovative" if the writer is willing to take sufficient risks with
language. Glynn's novel, of course, is "realistic" only in very relative
terms. Set among the backwoods of the Adirondacks, this darkly
funny book tells the story of two brothers who are trying to free a
third brother from a mental institution. The novel traces their comic
and eventually tragic attempt to escape from their pursuers and
somehow scrape a living out of the rocky land. Although each of
these escaped refugees seems highly unstable and even dangerously
insane, Glynn presents their yearnings for freedom from the
restrictive prescriptions of society with considerable sympathy. As in
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we come to feel that the strange
logic and obsessions of the insane are more natural and potentially
fulfilling than the civilized destructiveness of normal society. This is a
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familiar'idea by now, but Glynn's ability to create dynamic verbal


equivalents for his characters' derangements makes his book seem
alive and vital.
Series VI: Null Set and Other Stories by George Chambers,
Amateur People by Andree Connors, Moving Parts by Steve Katz. *
The three most recent Collective books help illustrate the wide
variety of experimental forms available to contemporary writers as
well as the Collective's desire to present material drawn from a wide
variety of areas. The focus of these books is the interaction between
the creative imaginations of characters and the often alienating
effects of the disruptive "real world" they live in.
The stories in George Chambers' Null Set might at first remind
readers of Barthelme's fictions in their fragmented method of
presentation which forces the reader to supply most of the
connections and conclusions. Chambers' stories often suggest the
related inability of contemporary authors and of the average man to
organize the materials of their lives into coherent patterns-an
inability which derives from our society's fundamental
characteristics: violence, epistemological uncertainty, lack of sexual
identities (or any sense of self at all), racism, and "dangerous
language problems" (p. 215). Many of the best stories here, such as
"Accident," "The Survivor," "The Trial," and the series of related
"Jirac Disslerov" stories, are created from a set of fragmented
passages whose disconnected and occasionally surreal qualities
mirror the confusion of their main characters. Occasionally
Chambers slips into obscurity and boredom, but at his best his
method is to juxtapose elements that present ironic, startling insights
into the nature of our divided mind and culture.
Andree Connors' Amateur People was the winner of the
Braziller/Fiction Collective's First Novel Contest. Chosen from over
500 entires (which itself says something about the status of
innovative fiction), Connors' novel is a surreal and complex book
whose verbal tricks and obscurities in turn delight and irritate the
reader. Of the Fiction Collective books to date, Amateur People

*George Chambers, Null Set and Other Stories. New York: Fiction Collective,
1977. 216 pp. $8.95.
Andree Connors, Amateur People. New York: Fiction Collective, 1977. 159
$8.95.
pp.
Steve Katz, Moving Parts. New York: Fiction Collective, 1977. Each story
paged separately. $8.95.
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probably most resembles Hauser's The Talking Room in its


elaborately developed poetic effects and its bizarre interweaving of
the real and the imaginary. Actually, there is no "reality" here at all
except the unfolding of words on the page, for all the characters are
constantly revealed to be illusions and fakes-hoaxes which
momentarily arise, help sustain the other characters' illusions, and
then melt away. Set in a landscape which at different moments
reminds one of Beckett, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Albee, the story
focuses on poet-actress Varia, who is in the midst of a process of
disintegration, a process which each of the book's three sections
develops through distorted, mirrorlike variations. In her various
roles as woman, actress, poet, and character within a novel, Varia
continually discovers that she is nothing but an extension of others,
that, as she puts it, "I stand in front of a camera and say someone
else's words" (p. 154). Amateur People suffers at times from the
sense that everything is being needlessly drawn out (though this is,
admittedly, a part of the way the book operates); still, Connors'
obvious talent at verbal play and lyrical depiction helps her
dramatize Varia's plight in shifting patterns that are often amusing
and, at times, remarkably touching.
Steve Katz's trademark in his previous work has always been his
ability to create bizarre situations which somehow produce
mysterious resonances that illuminate events in our own lives. Katz's
ability to convincingly create dreamlike situations is evident in the
four loosely related fictions in Moving Parts: in one story, for
example, a man receives a package containing 43 human wrists.
Somewhat like Kafka, Katz develops even the most improbable
scenes with careful precision. But the real center of interest in
Moving Parts is Katz's exploration of the various ways our
imaginative systems work their way into the world and affect our own
personal sense of identity. In "Female Skin," for example, Katz first
establishes the story's central premise (a man wearing a woman's
skin) and then records the reactions of various real people to his
story; with the assistance of journal entries, photographs, and
assorted imaginatively recreated experiences, we observe the way
that Katz's story began to have an effect on his own life and
relationships with others. In the last of the stories, "43," Katz
examines the use of the number "43" in his previous fiction and
muses on the strange way this number seems to have begun intruding
into his life. As he explains it, Katz is a "closet 43er" and the number
has become "more of a nagging responsibility than a guiding
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obsession" ("43," p. 18). This eruption of the arbitraryinto reality is


precisely the sort of event that demonstrates for Katz that "the
potential for mystery is everywhere, it's infinite, but no
predetermined order can circumscribe this world of events" ("43,"

pp. 22-23).
As I noted at the outset of this essay, it is still probably too early
to come to any final conclusions about how important an influence in
contemporary fiction the Fiction Collective can become. Certainly
not all of its books have been successes, and even its best books
aren't "ambitious" in the sense that critics want important books to
be. Judged by almost any standard except sales, however, it does
seem evident that the Fiction Collective has succeeded in publishing
several books which are among the most significant American works
of the past half-dozen years or so; and it has continued to publish
these works despite the general lack of attention or sympathetic
reaction from reviewers or critics. Given the worsening options for
contemporary writers, cooperatives of this kind may be absolutely
necessary if innovative fiction is going to maintain the momentum it
has generated in the past ten years. Therefore the Fiction
Collective's efforts are important not just because of what it succeeds
in accomplishing or fails to accomplish, but for what it can teach us
about possible alternatives for serious, nontraditional writers.
Larry McCaffery
San Diego State University

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