Jan Ramjerdi - a book whose innovative treatment of story, typography, and author/character relationship are used in the service of the unspeakable - in this case, the unspeakability of rape

Jan Ramjerdi, RE.LA.VIR, Fiction Collective 2, 2000.
read it at Google Books

RE.LA.VIR renders rape through the narrative filter of an online hypertext program. Juxtaposing savvy technical language and graphic scenes of sexual violence, the novel creates an alternative techno fictive space for representing lived experience.
The pages of RE.LA.VIR are the scrolling text of a computer screen, as transitory and erasable as the body of the raped woman. RE.LA.VIR reenvisions her, offering the female speaker a wider range of voices and positions to act from than is allowed in traditional rape narrative.

A no-prisoners, technofictive onslaught against literary convention and human sensibility. With all the delicacy of a snuff film, Ramjerdi's excessively experimental debut uses hypertextual interactivity and the device of a scrolling computer screen to produce an oppressive story of a generic rape victim. I do not know the woman I am until I am raped. This mantra, repeated endlessly either in fragments or whole, sums up what story there is here. Ostensibly a virtual-reality program specializing in custom-fitted rape narratives, Ramjerdis hypernovel incorporates commands, queries, and deconstructed words and meanings, along with multiple violent, threatening voices, delivered chat-room style, which serve as a kind of postmodern Greek chorus. But the main event, the images corresponding to the rape variations, have a uniform, sickeningly graphic quality: an ER doctor examines a victim, describing her thorough sexual mutilation for the record while a cameraman records the visual evidence; a woman is sodomized to death on the beach with a log, then brutalized postmortem and dismembered; others see action courtesy of a flute, an exhaust pipe, a gun barrel, etc. From time to time meditative, lyrical moments intervene, usually deathlike in their imagery (a city street in falling snow, a red leaf falling, etc.). And in the end is a woman's Paradisecomplete with bondage. Certainly such experiments in storytelling have to be undertaken, but when the level of sensation weighs in in excess of the level of sense, it's just as certain that they all dont need to be published. - Kirkus Reviews           

"Jan Ramjerdi works in a nexus that connects, among other things, Gertrude Stein, hyper text, and the rhetoric of contemporary feminisms-all informed by her extraordinary passion for fiction experimentation and the expression of women's experiences. An absolutely incandescent and revelatory performance that goes beyond the transgressive and into a world where startling forms and intense feelings are in perfect union. -- Eugene Garber

"Jan Ramjerdi's RE.LA. VIR is a book whose innovative treatment of story, typography, and author/character relationship are used in the service of the unspeakable-in this case, the unspeakability of rape." -- Larry McCaffery

"RE.LA.VIR is a fierce, gorgeous, even astonishing work that uses the languages of new technology and post-narrative fiction to create a novel so in league with the poetics of sexual preoccupation, and so physically luscious and advanced, it makes even the best of Acker, Guyotat, and Burroughs seem like Balzac." -- Dennis Cooper

Within the hallowed halls of the experimental fiction juggernaut, there are very few writers who can pull off truly postmodern blendings of genre and form, of process and product, and do it gracefully. Indeed, the almost obsessive need to appear innovative and compelling often takes precedence over actually doing something innovative and compelling. It’s Courtney Love Syndrome, literary style, and while it often garners a certain amount of press and notoriety, it rarely succeeds artistically. Jan Ramjerdi is clearly a welcome exception to this rule, and RE>LA>VIR is as stunning as it is disturbing, a bold nightmare that meticulously dots every I and crosses every T.
RE>LA>VIR is about rape. It’s about violent violations of the female body. But it’s filtered through the computer screen, filled with enough techno-jargon to please even the most hard-core of computer geeks while never letting go of the book’s repeated and harrowing claim: “I do not know the woman I am until I am raped.” Pages move swiftly from first-person narratives, both of the raped woman and the rapist, into computerized instructions, hypertext programming, and, significantly, the frequent reminder, “TO STOP: Press ESC Key.” RE>LA>VIR moves far beyond Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan’s 1996 attempt to blend computer communication patterns with traditional narrative structures in Nearly Roadkill, for example, partially because much of RE>LA>VIR is closer to poetry than it is prose narrative. Ramjerdi’s words are deliberate, calculated, and richly pulled from the most horrific of crimes, and her gift at stringing them together in inventive and deeply troubling patterns is considerable.
This is, really, only as it should be; a text about rape should be disturbing, and it makes perfect sense that the form should mirror the content. Ramjerdi has created chaotic pages (both visually and ideologically) that reinforce the narrative of sexual violence, and that insist on a constant and almost debilitating anxiety. Perhaps it is because I am only one slippery and threatening step away from total computer-illiteracy, but my one complaint of this book is that I periodically found myself distracted from the narrative, trying to reason through what my own strategy would be if I ever saw these complicated and foreign computer symbols dotting the screen of my own computer the way they dot the pages of this book. But if the reader can temporarily hold off her own anxiety about the messenger, the message itself is frighteningly intense and unfortunately tangible. I had chills for hours.
Ramjerdi makes one other move in RE>LA>VIR that begs comment: she makes some of her rapists women. Within a discourse that constantly assumes that the rape victim is a woman and the perpetrator is a man (many states actually define rape in their criminal codes as some kind of forced sex by a man against a woman, thereby precluding the possibility of a male victim or a female attacker), this is a bold and refreshing move that speaks volumes to Ramjerdi’s literary and intellectual stamina. By including passages such as “Basically I rape her up the ass with the barrel of my gun, handle shoved up my cunt so I can come too. Again and again and again and again,” Ramjerdi allows the reader to visualize all the horrific potential of her subject, and opens up a discourse that is sometimes necessarily, but all too summarily, closed to more infrequent possibility.
Filled with gorgeously terrifying accounts of rapes and sexual mutilations, predatory sexual violence, and multi-gendered torture, RE>LA>VIR is not for the faint of heart. What it is is a stunning contribution to the ever-shallow pool of experimental fiction that not only has something to say but goes about saying it with breathtaking and refreshing creativity. And Jan Ramjerdi, who makes her fiction debut with RE>LA>VIR, possesses a talent and insight that the Courtney Loves of the world can only imagine. While the computerized form of the book may be a bit intimidating to technophobes like me, it’s certainly worth a slow, careful read. And it is certainly among the very best in contemporary experimental fiction. - Susan Glen

RE.LA.VIR, as you might suspect from its title, mimics computer technology and new media: Its pages, which comprise a rape narrative, look like data and hypertext unscrolling on a computer screen.
I've been working at appreciating Re.La.Vir since it was published last year by FC2, a press devoted to innovative fiction, with terrific work on its list (Cris Mazza's Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?) alongside other works that have the self-indulgent residue of college workshops all over them (Mark Amerika's Sexual Blood). But while Re.La.Vir's form may be exciting for some folks in the twisted, defiant little world some of us call experimental writing, and while it raises some good issues amid its pages of feverishly scrolling computer lexicon, the value of its experiment mostly escapes me. Written by a Cal State-Northridge English professor, the book (whose title comes from its patterns of wordplay) is reminiscent, for me, of looking at the artist Sue Coe's work, but its pitch is even more uncomfortable. The rape/torture incident and its aftermath, from the woman's point of view, contains some of the strongest, most difficult lines I've read, and the narrative's presentation in fragmented, fractured pieces makes its intensity even greater. With the horrific, unflinching tones of someone writing from the absolute bottom of hell, Ramjerdi builds the book's first segment upon insomnia-producing phrases from the speaker's memory of a rape, such as "Die, you little red cunt," and "No one can hear you, make all the noise you want, bitch," and also a sentence that's repeated and reworked into a plethora of nightmarish anagrams and spelling fragments: "I don't know the woman I am until I am raped." That said, these pages are difficult to wend through because of their computer-mimicking form; and the reader would get the gist in half the book's length. Since the rape material sounds traumatized and genuine, it must be read with discomfort and horror and cannot be dismissed. So, like many books about illness or catastrophe, the subject matter here automatically ensures the reader's sympathy, and this makes a negative critique look mean-spirited. Like a slick tarp, Re.La.Vir and its savage subject matter work to repel criticism like sour rainwater. One has to ask, however, when faced with Re.La.Vir's experimental typography, "Why this form? How does it work to abet the subject matter?" You might read the author's choice as a suggestion that human experience is at odds with technology's purported aloof, nonhuman qualities, or that a woman's rape is like the new technology's sudden domination of the globe--but that would be a gross over-reading. It's more likely that Ramjerdi feels that the language of terminals is ably suited to express human woe, or that rapid-fire computer talk is similar to thoughts in a traumatized psyche. She may also be suggesting, as has theorist Donna Haraway, that women now are in an especially interesting, ripe position to merge with technology. Still, none of these ideas is made clear enough in Re.La.Vir to justify the book as a readable or feasible narrative. Instead, like works by Kenneth Goldsmith, who's written books in which each sentence in a chapter might have a preordained number of syllables, Re.La.Vir works as a book to think about: a disturbing art object, even if its ideas fall short. Ramjerdi's fragmenting language, meant to mimic the explosion of trauma, is not that innovative; some readers might like the expulsion of words rendering the narrator's experience, though to me they ring with cliché: "The woman was NARRaped," "ALT.REAL::REAL.E.PISTOL::." At moments, it's true, the pretend computer-screen form renders this text eerily airless, and the book's speaker is as ghostly a nonentity as real-life rape victims are made, resulting in some worthwhile textual moments. And yes, technology has changed our minds and purportedly our bodies, blah blah. But Ramjerdi's language play (e.g., "No. No. [Novel not to die," etc.) at last suggests that she sees language as essential and definitive rather than a tool we've invented--the final sour realization in an ambitious but not very engaging experiment. - Stacey Levine

Excerpt 1:
The woman is arriving by train. She is here to replace you. Ten women are arriving by train. They are here to replace you. They arrive one by one at the wrought iron gate. They are deposited at the station by some intermittent engine that like the snowplow experiences engine difficulty. It starts. It stops. It starts. It stops. It is an erratic progression through an unfamiliar landscape which appears sometimes lunar in its desolation, sometimes cracked pavement abandoned long enough ago that weeds have had time to grow foot high between the cracks, sometimes wind-born dust or snow blows up in funnel-shaped clouds obscuring the traveler's view of her passage so that it is hard to say if it is one long passage or one long steady climate in a jar. The storms are of indeterminate length, even the progress of the sun is obscured so that night is indistinguishable from day, and the traveler who has been etching her face on the window for some sign of human habitation, a station, a house, a fence post, a cat, sees in the window only her own lines in a piece of glass, visible writing suggesting nothing, thinks it is during these times that what she is here to replace exists at some station, but she missed it.

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