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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

99: The New Meaning

Walter Abish

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To purchase 99: The New Meaning

Title: 99: The New Meaning
Author: Walter Abish
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1990
Length: 110 pages
Availability: 99: The New Meaning - US
99: The New Meaning - UK
99: The New Meaning - Canada
99: Der neue Sinn - Deutschland
  • With photographs by Cecile Abish
  • These texts first appeared in Conjunctions, Personal Injury, and Renegade

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Our Assessment:

C : interesting but ultimately unsatisfying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Literary Review . Fall/1991 William Doreski
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/1990 Irving Malin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he strategies of design, the empowerment of context over content, dominates the book. (...) But in juxtaposing one passage to another, utterly foreign one, he externally undermines the emotional and aesthetic significance of that content." - William Doreski, Literary Review

  • "There is, thus, a tension between the arbitrary text and the conscious placement of the text in the overarching structure. (...) I admire Abish's collection." - Irving Malin, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       99: The New Meaning is an oddly original unoriginal work. It collects five works that were, as Abish explains "not actually "written" but orchestrated". Abish takes short fragments (between 2 and close to 200 words in length) from the works of a large number of authors and reassembles them into a new text. Each excerpt is printed separately, one after the other, with a word-count at the beginning of each segment (a particularly strange touch). It makes for an oddly numbered sequence of constantly shifting passages.
       In the titlepiece Abish offers 99 segments from 99 works by 99 authors -- each appropriated piece being taken from "a page bearing that same, to me, mystically significant number 99".
       What Else appropriates materials from "self-portraits, journals, diaries, and collected letters", making for an unusual examination of self and other.
       Two of the pieces -- Skin Deep and Reading Kafka in German -- focus on specific authors (without restricting themselves to using only excerpts by those authors): Flaubert and Kafka, respectively.
       It is a peculiar, if not entirely uninteresting exercise. Abish's creations make some sort of sense taken purely literally (though there isn't much narrative drive here). But much more comes into the reading of these pieces: unavoidably it also becomes a guessing game, as one tries to place the unattributed borrowings. And the echoes of the originals -- the novels, memoirs, letters, etc. from which these selections have been taken -- also come to bear on Abish's texts. Consciously and unconsciously, readers fill in the huge blanks left by the tiny excised texts.
       Reactions presumably differ, varying greatly (and probably closely) with exactly how much is readily (or even just vaguely) identifiable. The Flaubert and Kafka texts seem the most successful -- perhaps because they are the most comfortingly familiar. Here the reader pretty much knows what might be going on. 99, insisting on The New Meaning, is considerably more unsettling -- which is presumably something Abish is also striving for.
       There is also some pleasure in the excerpts themselves, some of which are very fine examples of writing. Certain pieces are particularly fitting:

Do these lines perplex you ? [...] Doubts may be a good spur to the imagination, but you may have abused it and me.
       One brief excerpt suggests: "He probes the details, over and over." It is, however, a close analysis and reading (and reading-which-becomes-writing) that is perhaps more entertaining to the author than to the reader. Indeed, as a literary game, Abish's orchestration has something going for it. It's probably a good thing to keep those MFA-"creative writing" students busy with -- though once each one has embraced their "mystically significant" page number and gone to out-Abish Abish the literary world might find itself in even greater trouble. So we suggest it should be a private pleasure, treasured all the more for not being shared with others (at least outside the classroom).

       Abish "writes":
I live, not with my own story, but just with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use.
       It's a neat idea. Fully (or perhaps only partially) realized, it still doesn't make for the most exciting work.
       It is a fun concept, but the five texts collected in 99: The New Meaning are, ultimately, only of limited enjoyment. It is like some bizarre misshapen jigsaw puzzle, pieces from a vast number of other jigsaw puzzle forced together in one (or, in this case, five) unwieldy ones. It is more thought-piece (or concept-piece) than literature. There's some value to that -- but readers should be aware of what they're in for.

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99: The New Meaning: Reviews: Other books by Walter Abish under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Abish was born in 1931. He has written several works of fiction, and taught at Columbia, Yale, Brown, and Cooper Union, among others. He has received many prestigious fellowships, including an NEA fellowship, a Guggenheim, a MacArthur, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fellowship.

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