In the spring of 2002, the British newspaper The Guardian assigned their Saturday magazine editor Katharine Viner and her team the task of reading eighty forthcoming works from début novelists, for an article on the year’s most promising first-time writers. Viner found it wasn’t long before certain “infuriating recurring themes” became clear: “Why did so many writers describe absolutely everything in the same amount of detail, as if every sensation, every object (the insides of mouths, eyelashes, the sound of a cup) were equally important? And why, still, so many lists of what’s in people’s cupboards?”
The five selected novelists received praise for avoiding this “over-detailing” – and yet Viner opened the feature noting those who’d contributed to the readings, the venue (“an isolated country cottage”), the transport used (“an estate car”) and the form of the reading materials: “un-book like...great stacks of paper held together with elastic bands.”
Viner, and others, believe modern fiction obsesses with the inanimate, with the clutter of our cupboards cluttering contemporary literature. Viner uses the key word herself – the “object”. Of course, objects are important to us in ways aside from any practical function. They also have emotional uses, as Sherry Turkel points out: “We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companies to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought.”
The field of the object is one in which fiction has long had an interest, although criticism’s interest in the object is a relatively recent phenomenon: “Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity. Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the attention they deserve.” (Turkel) In fiction now, as Bill Brown put it, “...along with the subject matter of any novel, there is its ‘object matter’ – an understanding of the object world through which human subjects circulate.”
It is this ‘object matter’ I intend to look at using two novels of the postmodern era: George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978), which according to Peter Schwenger is “arguably the most extreme example we have of a novel based in objects,” and The Age of Wire and String (1995) by Ben Marcus, described by philosopher Levi R Bryant as “the literary equivalent of Object-Oriented Ontology.” Rather than attempt to cover both novels in their entirety, I shall instead focus on two characters from Life: A User’s Manual (from now on abbreviated to L:AUM), the artist Serge Valene and the wealthy traveler Percival Bartlebooth. As for The Age of Wire and String (AWS), I will look at the opening two segments (‘Argument’ and ‘Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife’) along with the chapter named ‘The House’, together with selections of the ‘Terms’ which follow each chapter of the novel. References will also be made to literary theorist Roland Barthes and his 1968 essay ‘The Reality Effect’, and philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his book The System of Objects (1968). I believe a connection can then be drawn between L:AUM and AWS, as progressing the common themes of Barthes’ and Baudrillard’s lines of thought.
Firstly, we should consider the differences between the terms ‘object’ and ‘thing’. Bill Brown, leading proponent of what he has named ‘Thing Theory’, believes objects are what we meet, they are ‘foregrounded’ and are what we recognise, we “...look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature and culture – above all what they disclose about us)...” since “a thing, by contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of things when they stop working for us, when the drill breaks, the car stalls...”
An object is of use, a thing is the withdrawing of use from an object. We believe we can know an object; a thing, we can never know, it is inherent, hidden, in even the most familiar object. A thing precedes an object; before an object's creation, its fulfillment as an object, it is a collection of things, its usefulness dormant. A thing is thereby before, after and during the object. With this in mind, how can we approach the object in literature?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/GNU Free Documentation LicenseIn ‘The Reality Effect’, Roland Barthes notes a seemingly irrelevant barometer in ‘A Simple Heart’, an 1877 short story by Gustave Flaubert. For Barthes, this innocuous artefact, outside “the index of character or atmosphere,” posed a question: “What is...the significance of this insignificance?”
Barthes believed this barometer referents its attendant signifier, but without the signified, a written word without the idea behind it, whose sole claim to significance is it indicates nothing but indicating reality: “...in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism.” This Barthes named the ‘reality effect’ and he described its evolution as stemming from formal rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion, intended for legal or political arguments and dating back “very early in antiquity.” During the “Alexandrian neo-rhetoric of the second century,” a third form of rhetoric developed, for more aesthetic purposes, “whose object was to describe places, times, people or works of art.” The emphasis here came not in realism, but conviction: “...its truth is unimportant...plausibility is not referential here but openly discursive...”)
By the time of the novel, description “is subject to the tyrannical constraints of...aesthetical verisimilitude,” the impression of reality, rather than the “functionalized detail” of “classical texts”; the meaning of what had happened, as opposed to the truth of what had happened. In prose, the occasional use, lingering from the times of rhetoric, of the ‘concrete’ (such as the barometer), both underpins and helps constrain verisimilitude, the illusion of being true to life, and so “realistic description avoided being reduced to fantasmatic activity.” It is this illusion we see as taking over in Perec and Marcus – the ‘irrelevant barometer’ comes to predominate as, in the real world, the technological methods to produce such objects accelerated.
For Barthes, verisimilitude's emergence from “the great mythic opposition of the true-to-life (the lifelike) and the intelligible,” is the triumph of the semblance of truth over truth itself. Postmodern novels such as L:AUM and AWS further “the disintegration of the sign” by emptying the sign of meaning to write the ‘fictional facts’ of their narratives in a more convincing way.
As we approach these two novels, both attempt to convince us of their status as objects – both challenge the ‘truth’ of a novel. The title of AWS suggests some historical aspect, but is ambiguous as to which era – is this ‘Age’ in the past, present or the future? The first line begins “This book is a catalogue...” with Marcus offering the reader both a challenge and an affirmation: yes, this is a book, but catalogues are usually commercial and taxonomic in nature, not fictional, so perhaps AWS is not the object we first met – indeed, the idea of ‘novel’ is receding. This opening segment is ‘Argument,’ and as Peter Schwenger says: “...arguments on the nature of definition are an apt introduction to Ben Marcus’s unclassifiable work on classification.”
Perec also issues a challenge within his title – a ‘Manual’, with its suggestion of guidance for Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Charles Hammsome practical project or product. Yet the opening ‘preamble’ is a discourse on the nature of the jigsaw (an object, composed of small objects), a topic “...wholly dealt with by introduction to the Gestalt: the perceived object.”; this suggests we should concern ourselves with looking at the bigger picture beyond the book-object. This is an unusual puzzle, pointing at once to its solution. Yet Perec deceives us even as he reveals the nature of his deception, as the preamble repeats the opening section to chapter 44. “The preamble...is a piece of the whole that seems to fit perfectly here at the novel’s frame, a kind of edge piece.” (Schwenger) But in its repetition, Perec “reminds us twice that ‘in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing...the parts do not determine the pattern, the pattern determines the parts...” The preamble is important to understanding the dilemma Bartlebooth enmeshing within, as Paul Schwartz explains: “The passage refutes the commonly held belief that the picture determines the difficulty of a puzzle. While this may be true for the mass-produced cardboard puzzles...it’s certainly not true of the artistic puzzle, whose act is a carefully studied calculation.”
The calculation is that of the puzzle maker, Gaspard Winckler, whose interpretation of Bartlebooth’s works will baffle the Englishman. Already, we see two aspects to the object developed – the distinction between mass-produced and the uniqueness of the subjective object; also, the problem an object, such as a book, presents to us in its nature as both familiar and unfamiliar, part object and part thing.
Marcus also addresses the difficulty of seeing the bigger picture whilst being part of the picture in his opening ‘Argument’: “There is no larger task than that of cataloguing a culture, particularly when that culture has remained wilfully hidden to the routine in-gazing practiced by our professional disclosers.”
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives and Records AdministrationHere, Marcus seems to aim a slight at the literary critics who attempt to know subjectively what cannot be fully known. We cannot see ‘inward’ of an object; we cannot look back down on our bigger picture, culture. However, anything capable of supporting ontological investigation such as a culture should, “like a product...be ravaged of bias by scholars prepared to act as objective witnesses.” Marcus then elaborates on the project's impossibility: “...for accurate vision to occur, the thing must be trained to see itself, otherwise perish in blindness.” Can a thing – unknown to a subject – be trained to see itself, thereby ending its status as a thing? Perhaps the “thing” in this instance is society, which must somehow come to know itself or die through lack of self-knowledge. In either case, the implication is of a sense of the interior, rather than the looking-in-from-outside stance originally postulated.
In this study of viewing an object, Marcus posits an established anthropological concern: “the outer gaze destroys the inner thing, that by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire.” This desire is the possessing of the object by what we call knowledge, but may actually be projecting of our selves. We cannot see the whole of an object, even a piece of the whole, it always extends inwards, as we attempt to look outwards to a bigger picture, the total to which the object belongs.
In L:AUM, the artist Valene falls victim to this paradox, in his wish to paint a history of the building which he has called home for fifty-five years, 11 Rue Simon-Corbellier. Valene, wishing to depict the completeness of experience, intends to include himself in the picture: “He would be in his painting himself, in his bedroom...he would be standing beside his almost finished painting...painting the almost infinitesimal figure of a painter painting...to persue infinite depths...as if his eyes and hands had unlimited magnifying power.”
Valene seems doomed to infinite regress, but has at least the comfort of following his calling, unlike his former pupil. “Bartlebooth, independent, exiled, alone, conceives an immensely complicated project for which he has no particular disposition.” (Schwartz) Worse still, Bartlebooth, unlike Valene, passes an essential part of his project, producing jigsaws, to Winckler, only to underestimate the creative capacity of a fellow subject. Winckler’s products leave Bartlebooth “chained to his desk” and “no longer always able to find the appropriate answer.” (p126) Winckler has no intention of sharing Bartlebooth’s process of self-eliminating objectification.