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Literary Style and the dialectic

The notion of literary style is a fraught matter for critics. This is not just since the cultural and textualist ‘turn’ of the sixties and seventies, when post-structuralist methodologies became commonplace in university departments. Rather, the origin of style brings us to the origin of the individual and it is for this reason that Frederic Jameson believes ‘style’ to be a bourgeois concept. In an account which accords with Hans Georg-Gadamer’s, which locates the word’s origin in the context of jurisprudence, Jameson argues that style owes its existence to the classical notion of rhetoric, as interpreted in nineteenth-century pedagogy, the means by which an orator might speak in a form which is appropriately ‘high’. In both of these accounts, style’s interconnectedness with the rise of bourgeoisie or liberal state-capitalist formations of the age of Enlightenment is emphasised.

Here, we see a socio-historical account of style, one which might have taken Barthes’ theory as its foundation; that it is impossible to have a theory of pure style, as it is fundamentally an historical phenomenon. Jameson is similarly sceptical, but writes also that any literary criticism worthy of the name is obligated to consider ‘sentences themselves’. How these two methods could be productively fused is as something of a fissure in literary studies, between those who would treat literary texts in formal terms, the stylistic reductionists, and others, who would read it according to a sociological or Marxist schema. We might refer to this latter category as culturalists for the sake of ease. Of course, dialectical methods of reading are so ingrained into how we are trained to think about texts as scholars, whether we happen to be constructing a dialogue between a text and its context, or interrogating our own biases, it can be difficult to conceive of what a purely formalist literary criticism might look like. Despite conventional wisdom holding there were plenty around Cambridge in the thirties who were invested solely in words on the page, one cannot help but find indications of their broader and more wide-ranging interests in their actual writings. Likewise, culturalist critics might well concede that stylistic components, such as particular words, lengths of sentences, play a role in forming the style of a literary text, but there is a difficulty in deciding at which point a sufficient number of these discrete linguistic signals aggregate to achieve a structural significance or scale. It is for its treatment of style as an abstract system which cannot be rationalised down to its concrete manifestations that Jameson charges Anglo-American literary criticism as being undialectical.

In parsing this particular issue, we might turn to Adorno’s writings in Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which he theorises the distance between the individual stylistic marker and the entire work, in the context of a socio-economic and cultural totality. Adorno’s analysis is mostly concerned with the cultural changes which have been wrought by the existence of the cultural industry within late-stage capitalism, the ‘iron system’ in which

the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals coincide only by chance.

By Adorno’s account, the technologies of commercialised society have so irreparably transformed all social and cultural institutions to the extent that art now serves a solely industrial function. There can be no such thing as amusement under late-stage capitalism; we have leisure only so that we can be more productive. These changes have come about, of course, due to the higher-order industries on which the culture industry depends, as well as the actions of individual managers within these industries, ‘the people at the top’ whose behaviours reproduce these higher-order systemic changes. The subject no longer has thoughts but rather is thought herself by the system, she registers signals in the form of physical, psychic automatisms, but continues to assume as though her own autonomy exists; that this is beyond the reach of the external network of circumstances, economic, historical, social, which in fact radically proscribe the remit of her behaviours.

This loss of freedom in society finds its corollary in the degree to which the culture of industrial society has been homogenised: ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical…Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight’. This determinism is one of the defining features of Adorno’s thought; even that which violates the tenets of cultural industry will merely replicate this same homogeneity overall. If for example, Orson Welles was to violate the terms of the industry,

he is forgiven because his departures from the norm are regarded as a calculated mutation which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system.

These innovators are co-opted once again by the same system, and Adorno witheringly compares them to state-capitalist land-reformers. So repetitive are most films produced by the Hollywood studio system of Adorno’s time, he claims the attentive film-goer will know the ending of the film within the first few minutes, but, as before, if the attentive film-goer is wrong-footed by a surprise twist, this just confirms the banality of the enterprise.

Many have argued that Adorno’s undialectical anglophone readers have, in their eagerness to claim popular culture as an object worthy of scholarly attention, over-emphasised and caricatured his curmudgeonly tendencies. A charitable reading might present Adorno as being concerned predominantly with the superstructure, but there is, I think, a little too much of the grumpy old man to his claim that a perfection of formal technique be it in the context of Hollywood film or jazz, may be claimed as just another symptom of the cultural industry’s failure to create truly great art, because these perfections of technique are buttressed by deliberate ‘blunders’. I think Adorno is sufficiently correct for his work to be analytically useful, but it rather ironically lacks the ability to tolerate contradiction, and such a view runs the risk of lapsing into non-dialectical territory. Adorno is, after all, presumably referring to actual films he’s seen, actual jazz renditions of classical compositions, and treating these within his analyses as socially/historically embedded would do greater justice to his schema. Examples of how apparently individual agents incline towards producing the interests of capital without abandoning Adorno’s analytical pessimism are plentiful, but I’ll single out Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream, or this podcast here.

Treating the history of literature in dialectical terms would be less invested in the individual stylistic innovations perpetuated by writers, and heed ‘the sheer quantity of words with which a given historical period is saturated’ to a greater extent. In a commercial society, for instance, in which the subject is bombarded constantly with advertisements, newspapers, articles, tweets, the author of literature is obliged to administer to the reader a sequence of shocks in order to gain their attention, and it is this which serves to colour our literary culture and why modern poetry maintains an interest with density in language rather than transparency. This might go some distance to accounting for the disappearance of organised novelistic form, but such claims would benefit from an awareness of popular trends of consumption, those which undermine theories constructed by scholars operating in a relative vacuum, in order to avoid falling into Adorno’s conservatism, and in maintaining one’s pursuit of the dialectic (however defined).

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Quantifying Modernism and the avant-garde

Introduction and Methodology

(Skip to results if you want to miss the boring parts, or look here for a more granular, in depth account, including the code itself. If you code, yeah, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it more elegant soon)

This post will document a statistical analysis which was carried out on a corpus of 500 novels. 250 of these texts are generally categorised as ‘realist’ and will be used as a benchmark against which we might define modernist literary style, a mode of writing which arose in the early twentieth century, (though it should be noted that this chronology is increasingly subject to revision due to the work of new modernist scholars).

The first novel in the naturalistic corpus, chronologically speaking, is Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, and was written in the year 1794. The final one is Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1895. This corpus contains the complete prose works, a phrase here encompassing novels, novellas and short story collections, of fifteen writers, Jane Austen, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Stephen Crane, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, William Makepeace Thackeray, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola.

The corpus of 250 modernist novels begins in the year 1869, with Henry James’ first bloc of short stories, and continues all the way to Samuel Beckett’s 1988 novella ‘Stirrings Still’, so there is some overlap between these two corpora’s starting and end points. This modernist corpus otherwise consists of the complete works of nineteen writers such as Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Elizabeth Bowen, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott FitzGerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kakfa, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Flann O’Brien, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.

This disproportion between the two corpora, with fifteen realists versus ninteen modernists, may seem disconcerting at first, but what is required in order for the statistical analyses to function is for the number of observations to be equal, rather than the number of novelists. Unfortunately, realist authors wrote more novels than modernist authors, and this compromised our ability to retain the same number of authors on each end of the generic spectrum.

One other aspect to consider is the international dimension. The realist corpus includes ten novelists who wrote in English, but there are also two Russian and three French realists, two of whom, Zola and the aforementioned Balzac, were far more prolific than any other writer in either corpus. Zola and Balzac composed 86 and 34 novels, short story collections or novellas respectively. This has the consequence that well over half of the realist corpus is in translation from another language in comparison to just under 10% of the modernist corpus. I intend to address this when I am at a later stage in my research. There has been some work published on the issues surrounding the quantification of literature in translation and across language, but I do not yet possess a sufficient breadth of knowledge in this field to comment intelligently on the matter. I do think it is important to have French and Russian writers included in the realist corpus on the basis that many of them, be they Tolstoy, Flaubert or Balzac, exerted a significant influence on their modernist successors.

Whether or not these are ‘the best’ or most accurate translations is sort of beside the point, from the reading I have done around the issue of literary translation, their being subject to change over time is in the nature of how text is received and re-constituted in different eras for different communities of readers (this discussion between Will Self and Kafka’s translators is particularly illuminating in this context, please do not be put off by Self, he gives the translators so much space to discuss the process, you really should watch it). The germane point here is that the translations being analysed in this instance could not be considered to be the most contemporary. There might be an argument for retaining these older translations on the basis that they are more likely to be the versions of the text which would have been circulating in the early twentieth century and therefore the translations modernist authors would have been more likely to have read, but making this claim would require a greater burden of proof, such as what languages each author read novels in and what their reading habits were more generally.

So, to turn to the analysis. My research is directed towards the quantitative analysis of grammar, the rationale being that we could, by examining varying quantities of particular categories of words, such as verbs, adjectives or prepositions, develop an understanding of how literary fiction changes from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth, and, more specifically, how literary modernism departs from, or, perhaps remains contiguous with, this previous generation of novel writing. This was carried out using a POS tagger from the Natural Language Toolkit in Python.

Results

From realism to modernism:

  • average sentence length decreases by 4 words, from an average 22 words to 18 words per sentence.
  • Personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them) increase by 1% from 5% to 6%. Interrogative pronouns (who and where) also decrease by 0.01% from 0.03% to 0.02%
  • Verbs in the past tense increase by 1% from 6% to 7%.
  • Adverbs increase by 0.5% from 4.5% to 5%.
  • Prepositions, (after, in, to, on, and with) decrease by 0.4% from 10.9% to 10.5%
  • Wh Determiners (words beginning with wh, such as ‘where’ or ‘who’ acting to modify the noun phrase) decrease by 0.2% from 0.6% to 0.4%.
  • Particles (parts of speech with grammatical function with no meaning such as ‘up’ in the phrase ‘I tidied up the room’) increase by 0.1% from 0.4% to 0.5%.
  • Non third-person singular present verbs (verbs in first or second person) decrease by 0.1% from 1.6% to 1.5%.
  • Existentials (words such as ‘there’ which indicates that something exists) increase by 0.04%, from 0.17% to 0.21%.
  • Superlative adjectives (adjectives such as ‘best’, ‘biggest’, ‘worst’) decrease by 0.01% from 0.14% to 0.13%.

It will not have escaped your attention that a lot of these percentages are quite small. The extent to which any given text is made up of this hyper-specific categories is pretty minimal in the first place, so this is why many of these quantities seem so laughably tiny. Rest assured that they are statistically significant, this does not mean that they are important, this requires a greater burden of proof, more analyses, more exploration, but that they are noteworthy considering the quantities involved.

One boxplot which might be of interest, is the one below, which shows the ‘spread’ of the data for average sentence length between realism and modernism.

What we see on the left is the variation of the sentence length data (the term ‘variation’ here meaning the general ‘dispersedness’ of the data) for realism, which goes from 10 to roughly 35 words per sentence with an outlier or two on either end, whereas if we consider modernism, we have everything from zero (Samuel Beckett’ novel How It Is which has no full stops in it) up to forty-five, with far more outliers on the higher end. Higher outliers, are data points with values greater than 1.5 times the interquartile range above the third quartile, lower outliers, of which there are three, are more than 1.5 times below the first quartile. For one’s own general knowledge, the modernist outliers for sentence length are

  • William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (46.4), and Intruer in the Dust (42.3)
  • Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (42.9), In a Budding Grove (40.2) In a Budding Grove (40.2), Time Re-gained (38), The Prisoner (37.2) and The Captive (35.7) The Guermantes Way (34.1) and Sodom and Gomorrah (30.9).
  • Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and The Unnamable have 40.5 and 32.9 words per sentence respectively
  • Gertrude Stein’s novels The Making of Americans and Everybody’s Autobiography have 33.9 and 33.5 respectively.
  • Henry James’ The Ivory Tower and The Young Lovell score 31.8 and 29 respectively.
  • The three lower outlier values for sentence length are all written by Beckett, such as the aforementioned How It Is and also Worstward Ho (4.9) and Ill Seen Ill Said (7).

It can be tempting I think, when we see these sorts of names surface so prominently, in conjunction with a visual confirmation of the existence of an avant-garde to think that modernism in its most pure form was a kind of relentless maximalism, an uncompromising movement towards longer sentences, more pronouns, and that all other manifestations of it are inadequate or insufficient in some way. This is a kind of a boring and masculinist overview of the genre, which takes, I think, too many of the claims made by its most dogmatic adherents at face value, and it’s not a modernism I’m particularly interesting in defending or instantiating. There can also, of course, be a regressive or rearguard aspect to modernism, which is perceptible in the following boxplot, which displays the distribution of past tense verbs.

As was pointed out above, modernism displays an increase in past tense verbs overall, but here we see a large number of outlier values moving against the overall trend. These novels are:

  • James Joyce’s Ulysses (4.3%) and Finnegans Wake (2.7%)
  • William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (4.2%) and Requiem for a Nun (3.6%)
  • Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (3.9%), Fizzles (2.5%), Company (2%), Texts for Nothing (1.8%), The Unnamable (1.7%), Worstward Ho (1.6%), Ill Seen Ill Said (1.4%) and a corpus of his miscellaneous and unpublished short fiction (2.2%).
  • Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s collaborative novel The Nature of a Crime (2.6%)
  • Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (2.4%)
  • Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1.7%)

The higher modernism outlier is Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel The Years (10%) and the lower realism outlier is Balzac’s 1841 novel Letters of Two Brides (2.7%)

In this way we can see that modernism is not just a unidirectional commitment to a narrow sequence of stylistic changes. Instead, it’s a contradictory movement in which a number of different stylistic markers jostle against and subvert one another. In this particular instance, for example, we can perceive the authors most generally understood to be among the most uncompromising; Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Woolf and Faulkner, resisting the overall trend.

From the two boxplots I’ve generated so far, you might have noticed that in, modernism tends to generate a greater number of outliers, and I can confirm that this trend of a greater degree grammatical heterogeneity manifesting itself in modernist novel-writing than naturalistic novel-writing persists across the other categories of grammar, which you can validate by looking at the complete analysis here.

This struck me as important development, so I quantified the extent of each data point’s outlier-ness, and then grouped them according to author. These values were then divided by the number of outlier data points, because some of these novelists only have a small number of novels in the corpus versus others. Austen’s complete works would be totally outnumbered by Balzac’s for instance. The results appear below:

Please do note the values on the y-axis; Jane Austen is barely above zero because the only outlier text she wrote is Mansfield Park, which marks itself out for its disproportional use of adjectives. I thought it better to not exclude her from the plot though, because, I didn’t want it to turn into even more of a boy’s club than it might otherwise be. It would be useful, and exciting I think, to conceive of this plot as an indication of early breaches with conventional form, perhaps some nineteenth century anticipations of modernism. Reading Dostoevsky, Zola and Balzac in this manner would all be coterminous with changes taking place in the study of modernism now, but reading Thackeray and Eliot in these terms might be a more surprising development, and I’d be interested to read these texts in light of what we’re seeing here.

The modernism plot for deviation appears below:

The unlabelled entry between Faulkner and James is Hemingway

From this plot we can see that the most avant-gardist prose writers, considered from the perspective of their grammar, appear to be Beckett, Stein, Woolf, Conrad and Joyce. Of course, this is nowhere near a definitive answer as to what modernist style is, or who its most innovative practitioners were; these measurements are atomistic and are quantifying individual words. But style is not just words in isolation, style is agglomerations of words, spaces between words, the clandestine networks and relations the phrases these words add up to compose in the mind of the reader, and, if these digital methodologies are to have any chance of illustrating this shift (an inadequate term in the first instance, since it is more an accumulation of changes distributed over a broad corpus than a sudden or transformational one that we are here concerned with) it is in these cumulative terms that style must be quantified, in order to avoid drifting into the reductive and schematic scientism that numerical analyses of this kind are frequently accused of perpetuating.

Joanna Walsh’s ‘Seed’

The first thing one notices about Joanna Walsh’s online novella Seed is the quality of the design. Seed’s aesthetic is very consistent, and was obviously designed with an eye to the material at hand. For all this we have its illustrator Charlotte Hicks to thank, as well as the digital publishing company responsible for designing the platform on which the text is hosted. Seed is optimised for iOS, and, as the site tells us, is probably better viewed there, but it can also be read on a laptop or a PC.

The reader begins by being presented with seventeen different plants which open up onto different lexia, with suggestive and minimalistic titles such as ‘Baby’, ‘Touch’ or ‘Red’. Each one gives a brief insight into the life of an eighteen year old woman living in a middle-class housing estate in suburban England, coming to terms with herself, her environment, the people around her and the reality of her incipient young adulthood. By presenting the reader with seventeen different starting points (ignoring the opening explanatory remarks for a moment), and the means of proceeding in any way they might choose, the text emulates the same provisional and tentative steps that the narrator concurrently takes in the development of her own identity. In an interview, Walsh explains that the rhizoidal orientation of the text provided her with the opportunity to disorientate the reader, and perhaps engender in them the same uncertainty that the protagonist of the novella may be feeling at any given time, so that the reader has:

no sense of reading left to right, of the weight of the book, of how far they were through, or, sometimes, of the direction within the narrative.

Seed is therefore doing very deliberate and self-conscious things with the particularities of its format, typical of texts which, overtly or otherwise, draw attention to their digitality. Insofar as a firm distinction can be drawn between these two facets of the work, Seed therefore introduces a coherence/tension between its form and its content.

In a design quirk which enables this sense of openness that Seed conveys, the reader has the option of changing the text’s visual interface in order to display differently-coloured vines intertwined between each of the plants. The colours refer to each lexia’s subject matter, and inverts the standardised and industrial nature of colour-coding, a tendency, or obssession, that the narrator exhibits throughout the text:

Fruits in the supermarket. They’re a different species. Those strawberries all white in the middle all the year round, like crunchy peaches. Everything so shiny. Not a speck of earth anywhere. Why would there be? It goes straight from the formica shed to our formica kitchen. Once cut my mother wraps it in cling film and puts it in the fridge.

The narrator’s sustained attention to post-industrial artefacts, the symptoms of contemporary, or then-contemporary suburban living, is the strongest aspect of Seed. The narrator’s oscillation between a tone of matter-of-fact inventory and syntax-rupturing anxiety, enacts the very process of interpretation and the fact that so much narrative time is deployed in coming to terms with such quotidian objects, made to seem strange by their presence in a narrative medium known for attention to other, less strange things, intensifies the effect:

The doves in our garden say something else no they say somewhere else from their tall perspective looking down on lawns mowed with stripes, somewhere nature isn’t the same kind we have round here.

The site’s drawing together of Seed’s structure and content, finds a corollary in the text’s actual word usage. Walsh uses leitmotifs, particularly the names of plants or descriptions of colours in order to string each unit of text together with one another in more subtle ways, without making use of an overt visual interface.

It should be noted that the text is not as radically discontinuous as it might at first seem, or certainly was not regarded as such by Walsh, who said the following in an interview:

I’ve been thinking about the authority I’m still claiming as an ‘author’ in Seed; despite the degree of reader-control offered by the project, it’s still a fairly traditional ‘authorial’ work.

I had to write Seed as a linear text to ensure it will read ok for anyone who wants to follow the temporal narrative. That said, I never write in a ‘linear’ fashion, but in one that resembles the Seed reading experience: I write phrases, notes, paragraphs, then brings them together on shuffle, until they work.

Walsh’s comments may be surprising for those familiar with her writing methodology, which involves the use of cut-ups, or other aleatoric methods which introduce an element of chance into the composition process. It is surprising also, for those who are familiar with the somewhat niche history of digital or hypertextual literature. For many of hypertext’s trailblazing practitioners, such as Shelley Jackson or Michael Joyce, the crux of hypertextual literature was the game-playing that new digital formats allowed the author to engage in as an absent centre of meaning, which expedited the then-extremely trendy dalliances with post-structuralist philosophy and critical theory in a digital context. Within Seed’s units of text after all, there is no opportunity for interaction, except insofar as the text requires you to turn the page. In an interview with Review31, Walsh described how Seed barely resembles a hypertext in the original sense of the term at all, and that it is much better understood as a traditional work focalised around the author’s vision.

This is true, firstly for the structural reasons already outlined, but also because Seed’s formal architecture is best understood as functioning in the same way as literary works in print do, in that they imply, or gesture, far more readily than they state directly. This is axiomatic for all novels worthy of the name, but it presents an interesting means of thinking about how narrative works in the context of Seed in particular. While it might seem to present some amount of freedom or capacity for interaction, Seed is in fact circumscribing you even as it offers the chance of liberation. This has a nice visual metaphor in Seed’s visual interface which deliberately places a number of other flowers beyond the reader’s reach in darkness, suggesting both the thwarted ambition to move beyond the text that we’re presented with, and, as I’ve said already, the myopia of the narrator in her own environment:

it’s a fairly tight work, and I’ve said what I wanted to say in it. I love the idea of locked passages: part of my intent was to create a feeling of implied space beyond what is described (isn’t that the intent of most novels, to create, in however abstract a sense, a ‘world’, even if ‘world’ means a set of conceptual parameters?). I’d like to do a print edition to see if and how the circle of nonlinearity could be squared.

Though we have the ability to read Seed in any order we might like, each section is up to five pages long, and therefore requires us to read chronologically for a far greater length of time than hypertexts of the nineties do. Whether this can be attributed to the now mainstream nature of micro-textual formats, which requires literature to aspire to something else is probably a question for others to answer. Personally speaking, if writers working digitally can produce works as good as Seed, I won’t be unduly detained by the sociological reasonings why.

The formal constraints of William Gaddis’ ‘JR’

The opening sentence of the Dalkey Archive blurb for William Gaddis novel JR reads as follows:

First published nearly forty years ago, JR is about the many ways in which American capitalism runs wild and becomes dangerous.

I detect in this sentence, which stands in an ignoble tradition of jacket quotes on Gaddis novels, a certain amount of equivocation, particularly as it suggests that Gaddis’ critique in JR is limited to the dangerous aspects of American capitalism under specific conditions. I found JR’s social critique to be in no way measured or subtle but instead a relentless skewering of every facet of American life. It made for an interesting text to read in conjunction with Matthew Kenner’s recently published Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World, for the reason that JR frequently describes the destructive impact of centralised state-capitalist formations on the global south, a process facilitated by the ignorant in the west’s urban centres (in this case, Manhattan), who lack even the most basic language to conceptualise these processes within long-term historical perspectives.

Much like his earlier novel The Recognitions, JR is a novel far more invested in its ideas than its characters. Each is a one or two-dimensional archetype, be it artist, businessman, cuckold, nagging wife, etc, but none are fully-fledged subjects in any real sense. The novel is told primarily in a sequence of roughly three to twelve page ‘scenes’ in which a restricted number of characters speak to one another. The narrator has withdrawn almost completely, to the point that each of these scenes are exclusively composed of dialogue. They are linked, or segue into one another, by panoramic accounts of the changing environment, because the narrator is not there, and as a result debarred from moving us through time or space, which unfurl in paragraph-long sentences written in disjointed syntax:

He wiped a hand down his face and sank lower, knee thrust more sharply into the seat ahead and eyes on the serge elbow draped over ti close enough to bite, it shook, ruffling a newspaper, and the buildings on both sides began to swarm with fire escapes, rising from sight as they dropped in a culvert, dropping back as they rose, until the tunnel enclosed them like a blow. Lights came on, and ahead the door clattered open on the young conductor and closed behind him, down the aisle claming the mustache wisp with a finer tip, brushing the protruding shoe, eliciting a muttered — heil!

Gaddis’ chosen methodology, therefore requires the reader to abandon their normative reading practices and perhaps even introduce their own punctuation in order to make sense of the material. As a letter, which appears as an aside in The Recognitions reads:

The hand had defeated its own purpose: for those lines written in frantic haste took time to interpret; while it was quick work to go through those written with careful painful pauses, written slowly, to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, a habit she might have made in conversation.

However, this repudiation of convention brings with a different kind of constraint. In order to give the reader some means of differentiating the characters, Gaddis provides each of them with distinctive verbal tics. One of the novel’s characters, JR, says ‘holy’ and ‘damn’ a lot. The composer Edward Bast and the physics teacher Jack Gibbs, both speak haltingly and get interrupted a lot. Another, Rhoda, says things like ‘cat’ and ‘goddamn’. Unfortunately, Gaddis is not sparing in his use of these tics, and they will often appear three to four times in a single sentence, which lends the dialogue a particular cadence that is totally singular in terms of any prose writing I’ve ever encountered, but also grates after prolonged exposure. It may seem ridiculous to criticise a writer such as Gaddis, one with a reputation for difficulty, for signposting his writing gratuitously but this is precisely the issue. Gaddis spends a huge amount of the novel generating his own system of scaffolding with a view to compensate for an abscence of novelistic device. Rather than devising his way back out of the system he’s created, I’d prefer if he left us to it.

This effect was unfortunately compounded, for me at least, by the missing narrator. Because the text is rendered through dialogue, the narrator can’t say, ‘Bast barged into JR and spilled both of their coffees’. Instead characters have to verbally observe what’s happening, often in laughably unrealistic ways:

— What you spilled both of ours?

To take another example, we’ll be told during one of the prolongedly undulating descriptive passages that Emily Joubert is eating a sandwich. For the remainder of the scene, every line of dialogue tagged with ‘said through sandwich’ or ‘said through bread’ is Amy Joubert. This all seems to me like a very long way around Gaddis’ initial problem, which is his attempt to transcend the formulaic habits engendered by ‘x said, y said’. JR re-trains us in reading, but does so by bringing us through huge amounts of textual redundancy.

If we were to try to redeem Gaddis on this account we could do worse than relate it to his critique of the American education system; these are the points in the novel that I think he is at his strongest. Gaddis was extremely prescient in identifying the increasing proximity of the education system to private capital as an utterly toxic development and correct in regarding it as a ponzi scheme for the funneling of public money into private enterprise in the form of subsidies. Principal Whiteback spouts nonsensical managerial techno-speak about upskilling, betraying his misplaced faith in ambitious investments:

— Right Dan, the norm in each case supporting, or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of testing the norm comes out as the norm or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in thse terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself, in budgetary terms that is to say.

Gaddis does not overlook the complicity of the artist in all this. Bast is a talented composer living in poverty, but is recruited by the school’s investment programme with a view to imbuing it with his artistic nous. Gaddis clearly regards the television, screen-dependent technologies and the growth of visual based media as utterly detrimental to education, and even if his grasp on these issues is not particularly nuanced, his identification of automated teaching as playing into the interests of private capital was bang on. For instance, Principal Whiteback observes that in an education sector under austerity budgeting, books are the first thing to go. Perhaps these characters’ comments on straightforward textual actions could be the symptom of a cultural movement from codex to image, one where there is no ambiguity, no room for thought, just the endless proliferation of image.

But the notion of a woke Gaddis can only take us so far based on how his vision of a society obssessed with appearance relates to his representation of women, who are described only in physical terms. Be it breasts, nipples, asses, décolletage, throats or thighs, the amount of body parts circulating when a woman is involved is deeply wearying, particularly when none of the women are afforded the space to be the sensitive soul artist types like Bast and Gibbs, but are all instead shallow, appearance-obsessessed or lascivious. His treatment of one particular gay character is also jaw-droppingly insensitive and clichéd. If we were to take Jonathan Franzen at his word (never wise) and regard Gaddis as the primary architect behind a particular kind of bleakly comic, imperial postwar Amerian novel-writing, we can see in Gaddis the roots of much of the misogyny which characterises the writings of David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover etc. No matter how radical the epistemological critiques of these authors, or the sophistication of their understanding of systems, their writing indulges time and time again the male gaze.

The Chronicle of Mr. Cogito

Señor C had made an informed judgement on every part of his body. He had in his possession a number of journals, encyclopaedias and compendia on the subject of anatomy and from these sources and others, he considered himself to be informed. He had judged his thighs, he had judged his kneecaps. He had judged his thighs and the kneecaps at their ends and found them not deficient, deficient as others, others whose judgements were not invested with the same accuracy of his own, not to speak of the textbooks from which they were derived, may perceive them as being. They were different, certainly. Striking? Of course. Unusual? Oh, there could be no doubt. But deformed?

One of the books Señor C had read was entitled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Well, not the whole thing, in truth, but a good heft of’t. His failure in completing the text was pathological, and not attributable to a lapse in his academic diligence. Señor C would be overcome by fits of giggling when he reached a section, just some yards wide of the half-way point. A noble vista, if only it could be reached! The unyielding paragraph described how a combination of selective breeding on the part of the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa and just a bit of individual ingenuity on behalf of each beast, could cause the neck of a giraffe to become elongated. Señor C would laugh, and his entire body would begin to curl up into itself. His backside leaned dangerously over the edge of, and then off the edge of, his chair, leaving Señor C to keel over and curl yet further, onto the floor. His resemblance to tape turning about a spool was most uncanny. There, he would endure what remained of his laughing fit, until the memory of the Serengeti, the giraffes and tribes all had passed from his mind. After havong regained his composure, Señor C would ask himself, was that truly that funny? Was it really? Señor C was a curious sort, and no less curious on the subject of himself.

All the same, by this stage in the text, Señor C had gained some familiarity with Darwin’s thesis and thusly it was possible for regard his kneecaps as an adaptation, of potential benefit to future generations. Not that Señor C was likely to ever viviparate. Though sometimes he cultivated daydreams of producing a stolon. Stretching, in order to quell an incipience in one of his arms, there would be another Señor C, moustachioed and sodden in afterbirth, just as mystified as he, the initial incarnation of Señor C, was, at the terminus of an adnexa that had them conjoined.

Señor C’s kneecaps were reversed. His knees looked to what was behind him. Señor C intermittently regretted that there was no one else in his home to witness his adaptation. He often longed for someone to collaborate with in the combing over the finer details. In order to resolve the dilemma of his solitude, Señor C apprenticed himself, with the diligence of the isolated obsessive, in the art of naively witnessing his own life. He placed himself in rooms before he arrived in them, and watched himself enter. It was, like all skills in the making, a real slippery bastard. The key was to prevent himself from forcing his efforts, lest he jump the mark and his imagination fill the gap. This is what had happened when Señor C experienced a deceptive breakthrough which had seemed at first, reliable, as far as perceptions go. There he was, maladroitly astride the doorframe, surely himself, all angular imprecision, testing the strength of his tendons by leaning in incorrect and frankly performative ways. But then, reproducing the image subsequently, he supplanted what he truly did look like with what he thought he looked like. Perhaps it had since worked, perhaps on other occasions it had not. It is difficult to say, and more difficult still to describe what it is like to see with the eyes of an empty room.

Señor C thought often about his attic. Such a strange room. A strange room in that it was valued for its capacity to take objects, from rooms where they were not wanted. Could

the attic be regarded as existing in the same category as other rooms? If the attic was a non-room, did it feel left out? If it did feel left out, did this cause jealousy, resentment? Correlatively, is it possible the other rooms felt bloated, stuffed to their fetters with objects, desperate to unload their contents somewhere, resentful in turn of the myriadminded creature that moved in them? Could the attic conspire with the other rooms, to offload their wastage? Or would the attic conspire to distribute its space within other rooms? If such a transaction of room between rooms, would they be mindful of his position at the time of transfer? Would it be possible that a corner of a room would materialise within his body as he passed through his home? Señor C began to formulate a more deliberate gait, as if ready to fend off a part of his attic that might produce itself in the middle of his chest cavity.

Señor C found himself less capable of plying the familiar in-roads of his thoughts of pursuing his regular hobbies, becoming uncertain as to whether ‘phthisic’ should indeed follow on from ‘phthirophagus’ in the dictionary. Verifying that words in his edition of the Oxford English Dictionary did indeed appear in alphabetical order was one such pastime.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I

It was a mannered song. It was in the old style. The notes were embraced and theatrically uncoupled, by a vocalist who performed beneath the rasp of a big band. These symptoms of its disingenuity and more irked him, but he acclimatised. Once, it roused him from sleep to half-doze and he would lie there on his back, being confused, but it now relaxed him. He drifted off while grinding his teeth in rhythm with the drummer’s bemsha- plodding. He was content to allow matters stand as they were, until the song started to leave a sugary crust on the walls, which he picked at like a neurotic.

He climbed the stairs to the attic and there found a stack of clockwork phonographs, inert, corner into corner into corner, perfectly. Not one side of any phonograph was infringed upon by contact with any other side; they were all pristine hexagons in terrible sequences. Señor C saw himself in his dreams, running at them and being impaled in eighteen places, each point of incision exactly twelve inches from any other.

It was inconceivable to disturb even one of the phonographs, for fear of bringing an end to the geometry, the beauty of which would have brought tears to Señor C’s eyes if the affecting ballad had not in his mind, run the diapason entire from affecting to saccharine, to bothersome, to sickly to nauseating.

So he let it be for now, and allowed the crust to swell yet further.

Though, sometimes he did not let it be, and would return, full of the failure’s vigour for the resumed task, and found that on some quantum plane, the phonographs had begun to disembroil themselves from one another. In doing so, they excreted from themselves the colour brown, which was not brown, in truth, but a boiled brown.

This ooze was making its way across the attic floorboards. Though Señor C could not be certain that this melting, 0 wherefore melting, was not a discolouration of a more pedestrian sort, a mere stain in the attic’s floor, one that he had never before noticed. So he marked in the eye of his mind how far the stain halted before a particular grike in the floorboards and resolved to leave the room for a cluster of days, so that where the stain had progressed to could be contrasted with the stain as it is now.

In his dreams, he watched himself, inchoate with a rage he had been ignorant of in his real life, smash the phonographs to bits with a brass ear trumpet.

When the day finally came to trace the stain’s progression, Señor C pretended to have forgotten. He completed his morning ritual with a broadcast nonchalance, before allowing himself to remember to check the stain.

It had indeed advanced by a small, but indisputable margin. The gramophones from which the ooze emanated were increasingly reduced. Señor C knelt and asked the stain a question.

— What in the name of Christ is this?

They were not interested in his platitudes.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered am I…

Today, Señor C was overly attendant to the process of preparing his breakfast, in order to distract himself from the man floating in his kitchen.

It was a man of ordinary height and appearance, some seven feet from the floor, and some two feet three inches from the ceiling. Apart from the general ‘wrongness’ of his manifestation (levitation, etc.), his orientation was skewed or incorrect. His front was too oriented; he looked neither upwards nor downwards, but in some 65 degree direction.

Señor C did not wish to touch the man or to address him. Or, to look at him, really. Señor C’s coping mechanism in this instance was, altogether different from the one he adopted when confronted with the loosening gramophones. Rather than generously apportioning himself periods of time during which he would pretend not to care, Señor C restrained himself from looking at the man altogether and only when in the midst of a cough, did he allow his eyes to look upwards at some glancing light off of the man’s shoe, for instance.

In spite of this austerity of glimpses, Señor C came to see that the man was slowly, slowly turning through the air, as considered and balletic as any circus acrobat. His display was far more impressive however, as he did so without the supports usually granted to the performer. One could appreciate this if one were capable of considering such things without being made to feel deeply uncomfortable, and Señor C could not.

Señor C began to wonder if there was an empirical means of verifying the man’s rotation. He supposed that the best option was to plot the angle in which his shoes were pointing at the current moment, and where they were pointing five, six days hence. He could use a measuring tape to chart this point from the shoe itself to one of the walls and mark it in pencil.

But he didn’t bother, and used the man as a clothes horse, despite the unsettling vision the man gave, swaddled in white sheets, hovering about his kitchen table like a profane and somnolent Virgin Mary, ascending body and soul to heaven, albeit at an unbearably torpid rate.

Mirrors stopped reflecting Señor C and Señor C began to reflect mirrors.

Climbing the stairs one evening, he put his foot through one of the steps.

Things that Señor C put down would disappear. Not in the quaint way that this befalls all of us, when something else confronts us as task and, oh, where did that thing I had get to, Señor C watched them, watched them, dissolve.

Señor C had placed great dependence on the constancy of the rules which governed the basic tenets of his life and did not know why they were being razed so frequently of late. He did not know why he had not left his home in many, many years. He did not know why he hadn’t seen another person in an even longer span of time. He longed to take an iron to things, to straighten out the world’s bunching wrinkles.

Vegetarian Spice Bag Recipe

Serves 2, roughly

Ingredients

250g halloumi, cut into roughly thumb sized rectangles

250g Maris Piper potatoes, skin on, cut into thin chips

100g green beans

100g mangetout

1 onion, diced

100 ml apple cider vinegar

100 ml dark soy sauce

100 ml honey

4 star anise

2 tsp cinnamon power

1 piece of fresh ginger, thumb-sized

5 garlic cloves

juice of 1 lemon

5 beaten eggs

100g of flour

100g of oats

Cumin seeds

Paprika

Cayenne Chili Powder

Fennel Seeds

Caster sugar

Sunflower oil

salt (some regular, some of that coarse unground stuff too)

pepper

1/2 tsp dried chilli powder

4 red chillies, finely sliced

2 red peppers and 2 green peppers, cut vertically into thin strips

1 banana shallot, cut vertically into thin strips (if your local doesn’t have one of these, i’m informed you can approximate the flavour profile with a small onion and a few cloves of garlic)

1 tsp Chinese five-spice powder (if your local doesn’t have this, you can do one up by grinding and mixing together one teaspoon of cinnamon, one teaspoon of cloves, one star anize, one teaspoon of (toasted) szechuan peppercorns and one teaspoon of (toasted) fennel seeds

Method:

Start by making the batter for the halloumi. Mix together the oats and flour, add a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of paprika and two teaspoons of caster sugar.

Put a pan onto high heat and toast a spoonfull of fennel seeds and a spoonful of cumin seeds for about a minute or two, until they start releasing their aromas and before they get too brown. Grind these up and put them with the flour and oats, adding a dash or two more of paprika or cayenne or both, depending on how spicy you want the batter to be.

Whisk the 5 eggs together. We use this to dip the halloumi strips into before covering them in the batter to be sure it adheres. It’s best to dip it in egg, cover it in oats then dip and batter again to get as much batter as possible on each strip. If you run out of batter, just make more. Once this is all done, set them aside and refrigerate for a few hours if possible.

Fry the chips in a deep-fat fryer or just in a pan with enough oil that a good few can be totally submerged at once. Probably safer to do it in batches, mind not to burn yourself. Once they’re finished drain them on plates covered in kitchen paper.

Next deep fry the halloumi. Add the lemon juice and 2 ground star anise to a pan on high heat, then add as much oil as you need to get all of the halloumi at least half-submerged. Turn them over after three minutes or once the batter is nicely browned on the outside. Once they’re finished drain them on plates covered in kitchen paper.

Combine the peppers, banana shallot, two tablespoons of coarse sea salt, one teaspoon of pepper, the chinese five-spice powder, chilli powder and red chillies. Put these in a pan with the apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, honey, 2 ground star anise and cinnamon on medium to high heat. Grate in the ginger and garlic cloves, then add the green beans, mangetout and onions and cook for 10–12 minutes or until the veg is tender. Stir well while cooking.

Throw in the chips and halloumi and mix until everything’s hot then serve.

How big are the words modernists use?

It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*

*The previous graph had twice as many authors and was far too noisy, with not enough distinction between the colours to make it anything other than a headwreck to read.

In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.

As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.

Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.

By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.