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B+ : clever if diffuse literary take
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Textermination is set almost entirely in modern-day San Francisco, with a cast of thousands assembled for the annual 'Convention Prayer for Being'. The participants are (literally) fictional characters: the well-known (and less well-known) figures familiar and forgotten that legions of readers have encountered in the books in which they feature. Unfortunately, in an age where literature no longer enjoys the cachet and popularity it once had, the figures have good reason to increasingly worry about fading into oblivion. For now:
Some of us have more existence than others, at various times according to fashion. But even this is becoming extremely shadowy and precarious, for we are not read, and when read, we are read badly, we are not lived as we used to be, we are not identified with and fantsised, we are rapidly forgotten. Those of us who have the good fortune to be read by teachers, scholars and students are not read as we used to be read, but analysed as schemata, structures, functions within structures, logical and mathematical formulae, aporia, psychic movements, social significances and so forth.How the figures feel this at a personal level is suggested, for example, by Emma Woodhouse's (of Jane Austen's Emma) confusion:
For roughly two centuries she had been totally sure of her personality, flaws and all. The Reader (she nods) has been constructing her, moulding her, enjoying her, holding her in the mind and her only. But now everything has become confused, she lacks reality, as if the Reader her Creator has somehow absconded, like God, behind a Cloud of Unknowing.The convention does have an academic-conference feel, with any number of presentations and papers on subjects in the literary field filling the days, but these are mostly background noise to the action involving the characters-from-fiction (who are in any case mostly baffled by these analyses of them and the works they exist in). Among the other activities at the convention -- and playing a more significant role for the fictional participants -- are the large-scale 'Rituals for Being', pray-ins or prayer-sessions in support of ... themselves -- four sessions a day over the course of the seven-day convention, so that they can get everyone in, divided up by era, religious background, and the like. Here is where they hope to reäffirm their own worth and to convince themselves that they still have a place in this world -- and understanding readers.
Things already go awry at the first one, however, for those within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the gathering is interrupted by twelve terrorists bursting in. These look like: "twelve caliphs or whatever out of The Arabian Nights" but are decidedly real -- though, as it turns out, easily dealt with -- at least for the moment -- by a figure straight out of Italo Calvino.
Nevertheless, this intrusion of reality into the conference is just an opening wedge: in the wake of the assault, the police arrive -- led by Peter-Falk-as-Inspector-Columbo. Then it's TV-soap opera figures of the day -- JR and the Ewings from Dallas, the figures from Santa Barbara and Falcons Crest -- who come on the scene with plans of their own:
And they're all shouting just that, we are eternal, we're real ! We'll show'm ! We're the ones people want and know and love ! Down with all these dead people out of books nobody reads ! We'll invade their seminars ! In force ! Plenty more where we came from ! Everyone's been advised, they're all coming. We start tomorrow.Other real-life figures also have roles, such as the conference organizers, as well as the academic 'Interpreters' -- notably Comp Lit student and Interpreter Usher Kelly McFadgeon. Kelly is a bit overwhelmed by the literary crowd, embarrassed by how many of the fictional characters she can't place -- she's read a lot, but here is confronted with the realization of all her: "Gaps, so many gaps in her reading, she'll never catch up". In this meta-literary Matryoshka of a novel, Kelly also eventually finds herself fictional, listed in a literary index compilation (of 'names Forbidden by the Canon', the characters that exist on some page but have been lost or brushed from collective and most individual-reader memory), as: "McFadgeon, Kelly. From Textermination, by Mira Enketei" -- Mira Enketei being another fictional character that comes to play a significant role in this novel, and with whom Kelly interacts at length, herself appropriated from another Christine Brooke-Rose novel, Amalgamemnon, in which she is the narrator. (Readers can be forgiven for not recognizing the name: Brooke-Rose is well aware of Mira Enketei's fate as barely registering among readers, and places her on that same index of forgotten names -- leading to a moment of Beckettian existential crisis on the part of her fictional stand-in: "Yes, she too figures in it. Enketei, Mira. She can't go on. She doesn't exist".)
A subset of the fictional characters is made up of first-person narrators, to varying degrees -- the extent of which is also a matter for debate -- stand-ins for their authors. Here, too, there are subsets: nameless I-narrators -- few of whom show up to a meeting dedicated to them -- and named ones, as well as numerous authors, presented in various stages of otherness (Goethe (in Thomas Mann's interpretation), two Virgils (including Broch's), and Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman among them). Brooke-Rose cleverly addresses variations on telling -- down to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd's James Sheppard admitting:
I'm the most flawed consciousness of all, you know. I tell of a murder and don't tell you that I'm the murderer. Not till the end I mean, and I'm present throughout.Among the loose threads running through the book is the ongoing cat and mouse game between the terrorist group -- who, after losing their heads, rather quickly manage to regroup -- and Gibreel Farishta, familiar from Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Published in 1991, just three years after Rushdie's novel appeared, and with the heated (over)reactions to it as well as the fatwa against his person still very much in the news, Textermination's reliance on this example of the twisting of fictional characters and their significance and the place of the novel in the contemporary world still holds up reasonably well but does place a lot of weight on the one work in a novel that is otherwise notably (or even excessively) diffuse. Still, Brooke-Rose handles this quite well in treating it almost like background noise: the confrontations pop up and are resolved in little bursts, incidental to what is going on around them (though, of course, for those brief moments taking central stage and all attention).
Textermination is crowded with (fictional) characters -- familiar and less so, often presented in lists of considerable length -- and Brooke-Rose faces a difficult balancing act in how she presents them. There's a point to the sheer flood of names that are repeatedly on offer, a list which the reader goes through with bursts of recognition as well as blank stares (a reading experience presumably different from that when the novel was originally published, in that the temptation and ability to 'Google' names now allows for readers to piece together considerably more), a sort of low-level buzz that confronts the reader with memory of the previously read and a reminder of what has been forgotten (or never encountered) in the mass that is all that has been written (i.e. leaves the reader lamenting like Kelly: "Gaps, so many gaps"). All of which is, of course, part of one of the larger points Brooke-Rose is making, about the reading experience per se.
The danger, of course, is that it the exercise looks too much like a simple showing off of plugging in characters taken from other works of literature to score easy points -- as, indeed, Brooke-Rose is not much concerned with character-building in Textermination but rather uses them as shorthand for her various examples and points. (The argument is of course that there's little need for character-building since that's part of the point: the characters come pre-built, as it were, their existence meticulously constructed elsewhere, allowing for her plug-and-play approach -- and that it's what the reader brings to/with them to this reading-experience that is of interest.) Brooke-Rose does introduce new characters, too, and (re-)shapes some of the familiar ones to her purposes, but character is only of limited interest to her; so also her use of the most familiar figures limits itself to tweaks more than hands-on twists, with little space devoted to any individual one, as she is constantly rotating through the huge cast of characters in her very busy story.
Brooke-Rose doses action throughout the novel, from the academic-administrative -- those in charge figuring out how to keep the convention going as various hurdles and issues crop up -- to action-thriller elements (the terrorists hunting down the Gibreel Farishta-figure) to, finally, grand-scale California apocalypse (which, amusingly, she finds no need to go into at greater length: "it was on all the media, and is thus historically attested fact. At least the results of it, since the media present at the time were all crushed to death, and were all fictional anyway"). But action, on this large scale and the smaller ones, is largely incidental; the point is to consider, in myriad ways, the state and nature of fiction and fictionality, and of readers (and academics) in the present day and what they make of literature and the long legacy of literary works that survive (in printed, if often no longer read, form). And most of this is both agreeably thought-provoking as well as good fun, from the purely literary play in exchanges such as:
You and I are situated at different narrative levels.To Middlemarch's Casaubon -- one of the most successfully (re-)used characters in this novel -- observing:
If Your Majesty will permit me, says Casaubon, there is a considerable difference in status between having died textually but remaining alive in people's memory, and dying in that memory.Textermination is a caustically funny novel, too; in may respects it can feel all doom and gloom, but Brooke-Rose is having too much fun with it for it to actually feel depressing -- and her enjoyment in what she's doing suggests a future for literature, too.
The question remains, presumably, to what extent Textermination can be appreciated without first-hand knowledge of the characters that populate it. Some significant ones do work on both levels -- solely as figures in Brooke-Rose's novel as well as characters with a well-developed pre-history -- but certainly, for example, familiarity with Canetti's Auto-da-Fé makes Peter Kien's presence and actions much more resonant than if he is seen as otherwise just a new character here. Some characters are well-enough known that even non-readers can probably appreciate what Brooke-Rose does with them -- the Emmas of Austen and Madame Bovary, for example -- but with other, not as well-know ones some or much of the effect is probably lost (Thomas Pynchon's Oedipa Maas, for example, or Kadare's Bessian Vorpsi).
Occasionally frustrating, especially in its plot-twists (and lack of plot) in Brooke-Rose's hit and miss approach, Textermination is a rich, deep, and clever text providing a great deal of food for thought. This will obviously be an enduring text -- if perhaps mostly as assigned-for-course-reading at university (what a perfect text for practically any literature course !) -- at least as long as there are literary departments at universities, but it is also good and thought-provoking fun for any engaged and enthusiastic reader.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 September 2019
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British author Christine Brooke-Rose lived 1923 to 2012.
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