Thursday, May 11, 2006

Long May Federman Rot

Long May Federman Rot: A Review of Raymond Federman’s More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks (Replenishment)

This review cannot but be extremely subjective. Before reading this book I was unfamiliar with Raymond Federman as anything other than a name, often associated with Samuel Beckett – the two were apparently good friends, and Federman has published Beckett criticism and so forth. But I had previously read nothing of Federman’s work. Therefore I am not in the position to review this volume in relation to his wider oeuvre and am in a sense reading it in a void, taking it strictly on its own terms without the context of his other work. I should also point out that Replenishment is an imprint of Six Gallery Press, which has published two small volumes of my own. Disclaimers thus set on the table, we turn to the book itself.

More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks is a collection of odds and ends: short prose pieces, poems, manifestoes, which apparently did not fit in to any of Federman’s other publications. It is a chaotic mix, but this fact is not especially off-putting. What does add to the chaos, unnecessarily perhaps, is the lack of pagination and a table of contents, and the deliberate use of a hodge-podge of different font styles and sizes. I am told that the author intended the book to look as if it had just rolled out of his computer printer, unedited, and in this he has succeeded. Federman puts himself across as something of an avatar of postmodernism, and he wants the reader to be overtly aware of the medium as such – these are printed words, formatted on the computer screen, and don’t forget it! So in the poem “The Central Place,” the author, hyper-conscious of language even down to punctuation, writes,

this is a curious place free new and safe
a place that Federman both occupies and creates
and destroys at the same moment.

[skip the . makes me nervous when I see a final

As a postmodernist, Federman is obsessed with the meaning of postmodernism and constantly looks over his own shoulder, the self-reflexivity of the writing being a primary feature of the genre. If indeed it ought to be termed a “genre,” which I realize is sort of a reductive way to look at it. But occasionally it seems to me that this is in fact a genre which Federman has consciously chosen – though he would presumably counter that postmodernism is simply the post-World War II zeitgeist, the only form possible after the horror of the Holocaust. Being a Holocaust survivor (a topic dealt with in “Debris & Design of the Holocaust” and “The Key to the Universe,” among others), it is natural that he would tend to see the world through this lens. However, as far back as the nineteenth century there were already writers grappling with the indeterminacy of truth in a modern way, and, to go back much further than that, there was Heraclitus a couple of millennia or so before. I guess I’ve never totally understood all the hoopla about 20th c. postmodernism – something like it has been there all along.

Postmodernism, though, is Federman’s signature style, the style through which he is best able to put forth his point of view (post-structuralist “death of the author” notwithstanding – the author is quite present here!), and to discuss his favorite subjects, which include his writing and himself. He reminds me very much of Bukowski in this respect. He’s surprisingly autobiographical, and although Federman and Bukowski are generally on opposite ends of the spectrum as regards literary technique, both are somehow able to foster a cult of personality. Consider, for example, this passage from “Gaston – The Rejected Editor”:
Still, the lady Chief Editor could have informed me herself that she couldn’t see me, instead of leaving me in Monsieur Gaston’s hands. Besides, she was rather attractive, and who knows, maybe the sexy passages in my novel got her excited. Things like that happen.

This is quite Bukowskian in tone. I happen to like Bukowski, so by no means do I intend this as a negative criticism.

One other thing I do intend as a (minor) negative criticism, though, is the constant name-dropping of Beckett, or as Federman often refers to him, “Sam.” As these references began to pile up I wanted to respond, “Okay, we get the point; we know you were friends with the great man!” But he continues to do this every chance he gets. I wondered why he felt he needed to ride Beckett’s coattails, when he himself has been internationally celebrated and is clearly established as an important figure in his own right, particularly in Europe. And his talents are certainly on display here. His experiments in bilingualism, as in “Automatic Translation of Les Boudoirs de l’Internet” and “The Bilinguist,” are especially interesting and convey the subjective nature of language in a manner that straightforward discourse cannot. In short stories like “New Clothes” he further demonstrates his ability as a prose stylist with a comedic bent: “Yesterday my wife dragged me to the mall to retool me sartorially. Or, I should say, to re-dress my body.”

But the highlight of More Loose Shoes is the manifesto “Twenty Reasons for the Death of Postmodernism,” which fittingly appears in both French and English, and is the finale of the whole book. It shows that Federman, for all his conscious identification with postmodernism, is actually more farsighted. He knows that any such literary category is eventually going to become outdated when something else begins to resonate, or arises out of the circumstances of a new era. He recognizes that postmodernism is finally just a temporary label for one particular manifestation of a current of thought that will always run in opposition to mainstream literature and art, under whatever guise. He also admits that postmodernism per se was ultimately a hollow and nihilistic enterprise, and so could not be sustained forever. What will eventually take its place is uncertain, but: “...after a fixed period of bubbling at the surface, it sinks and recombines with other like elements to form again a part of the generative stew of art and culture, and that moment of rot is called the death of a movement.” Long may Federman continue to rot.


Moinous said...

thanks mike

Lilly said...

Interesting :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike, plz email me.

Got an idea for you.


liammac said...

I enjoyed the review of the Federman collection , Mike. I have only read him in sublethal doses ( hopefully it will leave me immuned like Mithridates if I read the new collection ).I think Federman contributed a piece in a collection of anti-stories edited by Philip Stevick published decades ago.Good work , Mike.

Mike Begnal said...

To Liam-- thanks for the compliment and the information. To Moinus-- I appreciate it. Lilly-- OK... O'Grady-- still waiting to hear your idea....