Rob Stephenson - In this narrative of pure negativity, to “pass through” is to encounter the compulsive hater that may lurk in all of us

Rob Stephenson, Passes Through (Fiction Collective 2, University of Alabama Press, 2010)

"In language that is frank and uncompromising, Rob Stephenson’s debut novel Passes Through moves forward in a rare and daring manner.
Part-journal, part-meditation on aesthetics, part-dreamscape, Passes Through investigates experience, identity, beauty, and sexuality, while complicating such distinctions as writing versus revision and imagination versus observation. It is a narrative of and about language, a narrative of and about narrative.
Stephenson throws to the wayside all of the traditional elements of fiction and in doing so composes a musical composition of obsessive consciousness and selfhood’s slippage. This haunting novel baffles and confounds on its way toward a stunning yet inevitable finale."

"Welcome to the barbwire collection (the limbo between prose and poetry). Stephenson's Passes Through is the most exciting book I've read in some time. It has something to do with his pitch-perfect mastery of the underlying logic of association and his observational eye that sweeps through sex, art, death, and obsession—an obsession that may be love or that may be the desire to kill, or both. Here's a book that succeeds through pure writing to do what only the best fiction does." —Samuel R. Delany

“In this narrative of pure negativity, to “pass through” is to encounter the compulsive hater that may lurk in all of us. He is compellingly stalked via an accumulation of tiny precise phrases or gestures bespeaking the odd use of heartlessness, the protagonist’s and the culture’s, brilliantly juxtaposed in a stylistically and narratively intriguing work.” —Gail Scott

"In his striking new novel Passes Through, Rob Stephenson addresses the problem of depicting stasis in a narrative (i.e., a moving) form. The key to doing this successfully, as Stephenson does, is to make it not only convincing but engaging. [An excerpt from Passes Through appeared in the March Rail.]
The use of static narratives is widespread in recent American fiction. Lethem’s Chronic City, for example, begins with the hero making a new friend, Perkus Tooth, who introduces him to conspiracy theories, a girlfriend and a vivid life. Tooth dies, the hero loses his girlfriend, and everything else he had that was edgy and glamorous, returning him to square (or page) one. This is one way to build a static situation while allowing for a seemingly eventful plot; turn the narrative arc into a circle.
Stephenson’s method is different but equally absorbing. He describes the love relation between his protagonist and another man. However, this is not your usual gay love story with a beginning (the couple meets in some unexpected and charming way), middle (they learn each other’s secrets and deepen their intimacy), and end (a wild and tempestuous breakup, sparked by an infidelity). Instead, one gets a whole novel in medias res. This is to say, everything in the book seems drawn from the middle of the affair: little tiffs, slighting observations, occasional graphic descriptions of sex acts (often ones that involve S-and-M), and accounts of attending cultural activities together. This is framed by the narrator’s own (often fractured) reflections on writing and his own, hesitant self-construction.
So, in place of seeing the development of a relationship, the reader finds a hyper-immediacy, an excruciatingly delicate presentation of moments in the relationship, none of which lead anywhere since they are not linked to any sort of interpersonal trajectory. Stephenson presents these descriptions–this is what makes the novel so good–in a rumpled, fastidious, catty, scrupulously observant language, which is always compelling. The speaker can be cutting in describing his beloved: “I liked him better when he was drunk. He came to life. I never knew whose.” He is wryly observant about the current world situation: “The state just runs around putting swords into the hands of madmen, while the peasants are self-helping themselves to death.” He can also be poignantly self-aware: “The rain keeps me indoors. My thoughts run sideways when I’m alone. In and out of the same loops. Expanding the pool from which codes are constructed.” What he does with the greatest clarity, though, is capture fleeting glimpses of a relationship in a few, cuffed lines: “He maintains a certain remove, but stays in the realm of the personal. An emphasis on burial. The city does that to you. After a long time there is evidence of unspoken things. He says goodbye in silence.”
This last element of Stephenson’s writing, his ability to isolate microstructures of feelings within relationships, is the most significant hallmark of his craft. These microstructures are the ones that most writers braid together into the bigger emotions of rage, love and so on, but here they are delicately separated into their components so the roots of feeling are laid bare. It demands a patient and exquisite sensibility to do this.
In the April Rail fiction section, Anna Mockler has a piece about the dissolution of a relationship presented by an omniscient, intrusive narrator who keeps insisting this type of breakup has happened thousands of times before, always the same way. By stressing this, the narrator takes much of the forward momentum out of the story by retelling what has happened repeatedly. The effect is to satirize the hapless participants in the dissolution, who mistakenly think what they are feeling and doing has some claim to originality.
Stephenson, with a similar aim of reducing narrative momentum, creates almost the opposite effect in how readers will view his lovers. At times grungy, at times elegant, the couple has its circumscribed, bobbing everyday moments rendered with such heightened precision, and an eye for both detail and language, so that they seem, for just that instant, totally and irretrievably new." - Jim Feast

"Rob Stephenson's new book Passes Through (FC2) is truly a book like no other. It's poetic and plainspoken. It's wildly transgressive and it is also, at times, kind of homey, especially once his voice is in your head.
Can you describe the composition process of Passes Through? How did that process dictate its structure?
- The text was made by passing four times through a journal I kept for over ten years. The journal started out as description of daily events and morphed over the years into detailed thoughts on all sorts of subjects. Eventually, I tired of keeping the journal. I never intended it to be published. A few years later I considered the time I’d spent writing it and decided it should be transformed into a fiction. Prior experience with writing memoir and autobiographical essays left me dissatisfied and questioning the value of expressing truth about the past by using traditional storytelling. I decided to move in another direction. Using innumerable constraints, I deleted most of the journal and combined the remaining pieces with all sorts of material external to the journal. The form (and formlessness) of the text grew into its shape as I moved along. Without going into all of the specifics, the architecture of Passes Through comes from an improvisatory linear accumulation over time within a semi-rigid overall scheme designed to create non-linear movement.
The book makes me think of David Markson's description of his work: "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage." Those terms apply to Passes Through, but in addition, there is a genuine narrative and a strong sense of the narrating character. What were some of the benefits to this lyrical, collage-like approach? Were there specific challenges that emerged that would not have been a factor if you had taken a more conventional approach?
- I’ve been making art of various sorts with found material for over 30 years. At 19, inspired by punk rock concert posters (whose creators were sometimes inspired by Dada poets, Burroughs, or the Situationists), I cut up the pink entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle and taped words to paper. I only remember one phrase: “Your hero moves to a boring age.” Soon I was cutting up abandoned grammar school science textbooks and remaking them into my own stories. I still have some of these. I felt comfortable with non-linear approaches very early on. For years I made short or small pieces using various systems of organizing material: films, texts, music, drawings, photo collages, videos. I have always based a certain amount of my work on bringing disparate elements together to see how they suggest something that is not there when they remain separate. I’ve made many shorter precursors to this book. Paris Over Paris possesses some of the qualities that became more elaborated in Passes Through. I am now more interested in making extended pieces that take on other qualities altogether. One challenge for me in making Passes Through was to invent good methods and then trust and finesse them enough to carry them out for longer than I usually do.
And WOW. This is the third time in recent weeks that David Markson has come up in conversation about Passes Through. I finally read a book of his, The Last Novel, about a year after finishing my book. I loved it. Really loved it. It moved me in ways that I did not expect to be moved. It’s such a beautiful book. I was completely unprepared for the way the last fifteen pages left me dewy-eyed. The only other long list that has affected me in an emotional way is on Maya Lin’s powerful Viet Nam war memorial. While it’s true that Markson and I both use short bits of text that accumulate over time into something unexpected, I think our intentions and modes of composition are quite different. And from what I surmise, I often built things up from much shorter elements in Passes Through, than he did in The Last Novel.
Stylistically, there are many incomplete sentences in this book. Which I love. I always tell students that incomplete sentences are OK as long as meaning is not sacrificed. You somehow make more significant meaning with your incomplete sentences. Can you say how this style developed for the book?
- I often work with much less than sentence lengths of text. Passes Through especially points up one-, two-, three-, and four-word combinations. If you have ever kept a rambling journal, you know that a lot of mistakes creep in and a home-grown shorthand emerges. Sloppiness gets the upper hand late at night. I kept, even embellished, aspects of that in Passes Through. My rhythmic flow became a finely tuned word-by-word, sound-by-sound jaggedness. I was interested in creating a version of English that mirrors the way thoughts bounce around in a mind over time with all sort of collisions and interruptions between inner modes of being and external distractions. I pushed hard against the way most people tell stories by progressing linearly through argumentation or by using uninterrupted chains that build towards specific inevitable goals. All sorts of voices coalesce and compete to infiltrate the narrator as he speaks. He becomes all of the voices that are speaking. My hope is that the reader, by the end of the text, has adjusted to this Hydra of selves and feels in spite of it all that they do perceive a narrator. You, in fact, did feel “a strong sense of the narrative character.”
You are a composer as well. How does writing music inform your prose writing? And vice-versa?
- Music influences everything I make in a number of ways. I think of my writing as music. Passes Through is as much a musical composition as it is a novel or a long poem. The text is tuned to my speaking voice and inflections. I consider the sound and rhythm of words as much as the meaning of words.
Compositional methods from medieval to contemporary times directly influenced Passes Through. Specifically, the constantly shifting and momentum-driven multi-layered music of J. S. Bach permeates the work as much as the Moment Forming and Integration theories of Karlheinz Stockhausen, the asymmetrical pattern distribution techniques of Morton Feldman, and John Cage’s thoughtful forty years of chance operation deployment. Composers create wonderful abstract languages, how can contemporary writers not look to them for inspiration?
You read from Passes Through at AWP recently and you're touring to promote the book. Can you describe this life on the road? And can you describe audience response to your readings?
- Though this is my first published novel, I have been reading for years in public and I enjoy it very much. I get strong responses from audiences, mostly positive ones, but sometimes my subject matter causes some negative reaction. That’s fine with me. I feel it is important for writers to know how to read and perform their work. (This is the composer in me speaking.) I have been to many readings by authors who mumble their way through a passage as if it’s a bother or who have no idea how to relate to a microphone or a sound system and have never considered how the sound of their voice changes in every public situation according to the acoustics of the environment in which they find themselves. Reading out loud is as much about communicating something as is writing the book. By reading your text, you are asking an audience to absorb and contemplate something (usually a small piece of something longer) that they could probably more easily understand by taking it off the page at the rate they are comfortable with and that allows them to reread at will. I think readings in general would be more compelling if authors thought more about what is special about these events and how best to make their words have a life off of the page. I’ll save the part about using video projections, pre-recorded animal sounds, and having someone peel and chop onions during the performance for another time.
Can you name some of your literary cousins (contemporaries or precursors)? That is, what writers inspire you to the point that you feel a kinship?
- Among my favorite fiction writers are Michael Snow, Brian Ferneyhough, Charles Darwin, Robert Altman, Alice Aycock, Daniel Liebeskind, and Robert Ashley. I can’t come up with a short list without feeling that I’m leaving out so many I ought to mention. I’ve loved so many writers long and hard that you will find tiny bits of them sprinkled liberally throughout Passes Through. Even Marguerite Duras’ cookbook makes an appearance." - Interview with Cousins Reading Series

An excerpt:


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