Melpomene - perhaps the first novel that was purportedly written by a computer.

Melpomene, Bagabone, Hem ‘I Die NowVantage Press, 1980.

Bagabone, Hem ‘I Die Now (1980) is perhaps the first novel that was purportedly written by a computer.
The back flap of the dust jacket states this about the book’s origins: “Can a computer write a novel? To find out, some experts in literature, linguistics, and computers at the Institute of Science and Technology, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, programed a computer, Melpomene, with English verb patterns and semantic (i.e., meaning) units drawn from twentieth-century women writers, as well as D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and some ‘angry young men’ of the 1960s. Then they added some patterns and units from Pidgin English and French, and the astounding result is Bagabone, Hem ‘I Die Now. Melpomene, which is the name of the Greek muse of tragedy, picked the title; translated from Pidgin English, it means, ‘Bagabone (a character in the novel) is dying.'”
Following its publication, Computer World published an article (“Publisher Claims Computer Composed Novel”, 25 Aug. 1980, p. 23) effectively defeating the publisher’s claim about the work’s computational origins. In the article, AI experts deem the novel to be human-written, and another source reports that there is no ‘Institute of Science and Technology’ at Jagiellonian University. Moreover, due to its mode of operation, the publisher (Vantage Press) would apparently have been paid to print the book. The copyright holder for Bagabone was a human—an Englishman named G.E. Hughes—who could not be reached by Computer World. (Intriguingly, this copy of the book is inscribed by one ‘Eric Hughes’, though this could be coincidental.)”
Publisher Vantage Press, New York, 1980
via James Ryan (xfoml)
PDF (40 MB)
Internet Archive

Jean Paulhan - His language is painstakingly precise, with the narrators often retracing their linguistic steps in order to clarify the exact nuances of their descriptions. The result is that the things and images being described are rendered nearly inane. Paulhanwas decades ahead of his time: a fully formed postmodernist writing during the overtures of modernism

Image result for Jean Paulhan, Progress in Love on the Slow Side,
Jean Paulhan, Progress in Love on the Slow Side,  Trans. by Christine Moneera Laennec and Michael Syrotinski, University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
read it at Google Books

Jean Paulhan (1884–1968) is renowned in France both for his unrivaled skill as an editor and for his own subtle yet incisive writings. Paulhan directed the Nouvelle Revue Française for thirty years, helping to make it into the foremost literary journal of his generation. Many of the most celebrated French writers of the period—Artaud, Bataille, Blanchot, Caillois, Camus, Giono, and Ponge, to name only a few—owe their rise to literary prominence in large part to Paulhan's rare vision, insightful criticism, and unfailing support.Although best known for his theoretical writings of the 1940s and 1950s, Paulhan established his reputation as a writer with his short fictional tales, or récits, composed during or just after World War I. Many of them have the war as their backdrop and are autobiographical in origin, evoking Paulhan's time in Madagascar, his brush with death while suffering from pneumonia, and his awkward love life. More than the subject matter, it is the precise, restrained lyricism of the prose, and Paulhan's attentiveness to the quirks and subtle twists of language, that make these stories so remarkable for their time. This book contains a selection of five of the best-known récits: Progress in Love on the Slow Side, The Severe Recovery, The Crossed Bridge, Aytre Gets Out of the Habit, and Lalie. Maurice Blanchot's tribute to Paulhan, "The Ease of Dying," is also included.
In 1945 Paulhan received the Grand Prix de Litterature and in 1951 the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris; he was elected to the Academie Française in 1965.

This slight but remarkable volume contains five short stories written by Paulhan (1884-1968), a celebrated French critic and essayist, between 1910 and 1917; a lucid introduction by Syrotinski; and a concluding essay by the proto-deconstructionist critic Blanchot that's so heavy-handed that Syrotinski feels compelled to prick at it: ``The reader might wonder, in following Blanchot's labyrinthine path through Paulhan's thought, whether he doesn't end up burdening the recits with a kind of philosophical gravity.'' That would be a shame, for these mostly autobiographical tales are so dreamy and fragile that any extraneous weight could cause them to crumble. The title story involves a young soldier away from home and the arduous process by which he courts three French women-the title being no exaggeration. ``The Severe Recovery'' is a disorienting firsthand account of the delirium of a young man who, like his wife and mistress, shares his name with a character in the first story-leading to the confused aura projected by the tale. ``The Crossed Bridge,'' the vaguest story in this highly elliptical collection, is about a man's dreams on three consecutive nights. Without exception, Paulhan's narrative stance is reserved and observant, even to the point of distortion. His language, brilliantly translated, is painstakingly precise, with the narrators often retracing their linguistic steps in order to clarify the exact nuances of their descriptions. The result is that the things and images being described are rendered nearly inane. Paulhan, judging from these astonishing tales, was decades ahead of his time: a fully formed postmodernist writing during the overtures of modernism.  - Publishers Weekly

Image result for U Catullus (U R__X Book 1)  Kindle Edition
Jean Paulhan, U Catullus, Badlands Unlimited, 2011.

U are Catullus, a young poet who loves Lesbia and hates Cicero. Being who U are, U also enjoy drinking, going to parties, and cursing at the gods. This is the simple premise behind "U Catullus," Jean Paaulhan’s ingenious e-book. Based on the work of the scandalous Roman poet Catullus (87 B.C. - 57 B.C.), the reader is called upon to make decisions within the epic poem that lead to different storylines and outcomes. In lyrical poetic form, "U Catullus" unfolds like an ancient Roman version of TMZ, or a libertine novella for our interconnected age.

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Jean Paulhan, The Flowers of Tarbes: or, Terror in Literature, Trans. by Michael Syrotinski, University of Illinois Press, 2006.
read it at Google Books

Les Fleurs de Tarbes, ou la terreur dans les lettres, first published as a single volume in 1941, was considered by Jean Paulhan to be the furthest-reaching expression of his thinking about literature and language. It is now recognized as a landmark text in the history of twentieth century literary criticism and in the emergence of contemporary literary theory. This is the first time it has been translated into English.
The playful tone and quirky, casual style of Paulhan's writing mask a theoretical intent and seriousness of purpose that are extraordinarily prescient. In The Flowers of Tarbes Paulhan probes the relationship between language, meaning, context, intention and action with unremitting tenacity, and in so doing produces a major treatise on the nature of the literary act, and a meditation on what we might now call the responsibility or ethical imperative of literature itself.

Uncanny how the stacks of books pile up, and I am swept around the point by tides and fail to beach at my intentions. Why is it that a note in Camus’s American Journals seems suddenly pertinent: “Naturally a man should fight. ‘But if he loves only that, what’s the use of fighting.’” (Accompany’d by vague sense—in tangled weekend revery—of fighting, gang-swift, echoing boots against cobblestones.) (How related to the noisy and wild hammer-swinging required to re-hang the gutter?) (And why the sudden inkling—just now—astride the bicycle, shooting through the empty intersection, that one ought to dump the daily half-ass’d squibs, and write only when compelled?) (“The compulsion is, precisely, the graphomania of the “daily half-ass’d squibs.”)
Trying to re-construct the reading of late (the littlest reading, sleep-interrupt’d, precanned, un-expanding). I keep pulling (as at a tap) at Robert Baldick’s Pages from the Goncourt Journal: how I love (for my sense of its terrible accuracy, for how it ought be apply’d to some of “our” notables, (“our” notaries, “our” notorious) criticules who make marvelous exceptions for any chair et os cohort, whilst remaining utterly blindfold’d by pre-disposed scurrility to some lumpen imaginary other, label’d for easy dismissal): “Sainte-Beuve is the Sainte-Beuve he has always been, a man forever influenced in his criticism by tiny trivialities, minor considerations, personal matters, and the pressure of opinion around him: a critic who has never delivered an independent, personal judgement on a single book.” Recall: it is Proust who writes Contre Sainte-Beuve, a man whose name sounds like the noise a cow makes. (Addendum: Paulhan, too, notes that “Sainte-Beuve attempted to classify writers’ minds; their works seemed inconsequential to him.”)
And, dabbling too, I approach Jean Paulhan’s 1941 The Flowers of Tarbes or, Terror in Literature (University of Illinois Press, 2006), translated by Michael Syrotinski. Isn’t it enough that he begins with an apparently made-up epigraph?
As I was about the repeat the words that this kind native woman taught, me, she shouted out: “Stop! Each one can only be used once . . .”
—Botzarro’s Travel Journal, XV
(The Père Botzarro, along with “Alerte”—“for whom poetry seems so serious that he has taken the decision to stop writing it”—and “Innocent Fèvre” and “Juvignet” and some others, likely due to Paulhan’s “propensity for playful invention.”) The book is full of lines like “Aragon calls literature a machine that turns people into morons, and calls men of letters crabs.” Or: “Gourmont adds that a personal work quickly becomes obscure if it is a failure, banal if it is a success, and discouraging in any event.” (So gutting the flopping fish one’s land’d. “The banality of success surrounds us”—what Creeley might’ve admitted, had he the wherewithal.) Or: “Just as there is no revelation that literature is not expected to provide, so there is no contempt it does not also seem to deserve. And every young writer is astonished that anyone can stand to be a writer. Almost the only way we can manage to talk about novels, style, literature, or art is by using ruses, or new words, which do not yet seem offensive. . . . If it is true that criticism is the counterpart to the literary arts, and in a sense their conscience, we have to admit that literature these days does not have a clear conscience.”
What Paulhan is concern’d with is the continual rut of language’s codification (he calls it Rhetoric). Opposed to that is “Terror,” a demand for continual novelty. Syrotinski:
Terror . . . stands for a decisive turning point in French history, and more specifically in French literary history. This is described by Paulhan as a shift from the rule-bound imperatives of rhetoric and genre to the gradual abandonment of these rules in Romanticism and its successors, with the consequent search for greater originality of expression. This opposing imperative is what Paulhan terms Terror. Terrorist writers are those who demand continual invention and renewal, and denounce rhetoric’s codification of language, it tendency to stultify the spirit and impoverish human experience.
(Suddenly the figure of “Alerte” seems less a stand-in for Rimbaud, more akin to Laura (Riding) Jackson, particularly the (Riding) Jackson of Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words. “If one used words as possessed of their meanings so thoroughly that they had no existence except as meaning what they meant, one would have to—in the use of them—mean what they meant, have in mind to express what they expressed. Otherwise, one would be, while seemingly at one with the sense of one’s words, perpetrating a pretence with them, or, at best, putting oneself through an exercise in self-frustration.” So saith Schuyler B. Jackson in the (1967) “Epigraph” to that book.) What the refreshingly suspicious Paulhan notes (“I’m simply suspicious of a revolt, or a dispossession, which comes along so opportunely to get us out of trouble”) is precisely how illusory the seeming difference between Terror and Rhetoric is, how both the drive toward endless originality and the longings for a stable language end up, as Syrotinski notes, “enslaved to language,” Terror “trying to bypass it” and Rhetoric stuck with the canned expressiveness of cliché. Paulhan:
For Terror is above all dependent upon language in a general sense, in that it condemns a writer to say only what a certain state of language leaves him free to express: He is restricted to those areas of feeling and thought where language has not yet been overused. That is not all: No writer is more preoccupied with words than the one who at every point sets out to get rid of them, to get away from them, or to reinvent them.
Terror-writing is blind to its own rhetorical status, blind to its limits as (one is tempt’d by one’s inner graduate student to say) always already codify’d language. (See FlarfCo®’s extremely limit’d “palette.” Examine briefly—it won’t require lengthy study—exactly what it condemns a writer to “express.”)
(Again the need, reading Paulhan, to quote that thing out of Barthes’s Roland Barthes: “a Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited, intolerable; to free myself of it, I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek further for a new paradox . . .”) The only thing to do: keep the Janus-faced god that is literature turning (at high enough speed, the two faces merge into one). (That’s a kind of barmy mystical soft-shoe off the quibbling-stage, and resolves exactly nothing.)  -  isola-di-rifiuti.blogspot.com/2009/07/jean-paulhans-flowers-of-tarbes-or.html
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Jean Paulhan, Of Chaff and Wheat: Writers, War, and Treason, Trans. by Richard Rand, University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Reacting to widespread Nazi collaboration-both voluntary and otherwise-French patriotism surged in the wake of World War II. Resistance fighters were honored as heroes, collaborators were arrested, and the nation was bent on blurring its immediate past by expunging whatever was seen to have been pro-German. In this fevered context, a National Committee of Writers began to blacklist those who had saved their careers throughout the Nazi occupation. Jean Paulhan, who had supervised the literary arm of the French Resistance during the war and helped to found the National Committee of Writers, saw the dangers of its blacklist from the very outset: he denounced it in public, quit the Committee in protest, and then put his reputation on the line by printing the essays, anecdotes, and letters collected in this courageous book. Though perfectly able to conduct a polemic at white heat, Paulhan is chiefly concerned with putting a stop to the prosecution of writers, to restoring their critical freedom to write, publish, make mistakes, and to heal by moving forward honestly. He attacks friends, colleagues, and old associates who support the blacklist in the name of a patriotic democracy.

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Michael Syrotinski, Defying Gravity: Jean Paulhan's Interventions in Twentieth-Century French Intellectual History read it at Google Books

“This book constitutes the first English-language book devoted to the work and influence of Jean Paulhan, and is written by someone who is remarkably familiar with his work. But, more importantly, it is the first one, no matter what language, to do full justice to the historical and intellectual implications of Paulhan’s work and to do it in light of contemporary Anglo-Saxon academic debates. One has been waiting for a major reassessment of the work of Paulhan. In this informative and intellectually challenging work, Syrotinski manages to promote this elusive, multifaceted, but central French literary figure as a key reference for deconstructionist and postcolonial debates.” ― Denis Hollier, Yale University

“This book is important as a study of one figure, Paulhan, whose texts have never been so brilliantly explored, and who was a central figure in French letters during an extremely interesting period of French history. It is also significant as a polemical contribution to current debates about the nature of literary studies: their relation to the study of history, to the encounter with non-Western cultures, to political and ethical issues, to gender questions.” ― Ann Smock, University of California, Berkeley


Martin Riker - When Samuel Johnson dies, he finds himself in the body of the man who killed him, unable to depart this world but determined, at least, to return to the son he left behind. Moving from body to body as each one expires, Samuel’s soul journeys on a comic quest through an American half-century, inhabiting lives as stymied, in their ways, as his own

Martin Riker, Samuel Johnson's Eternal ReturnCoffee House Press, 2018.                 


When Samuel Johnson dies, he finds himself in the body of the man who killed him, unable to depart this world but determined, at least, to return to the son he left behind. Moving from body to body as each one expires, Samuel’s soul journeys on a comic quest through an American half-century, inhabiting lives as stymied, in their ways, as his own. A ghost story of the most unexpected sort, Martin Riker’s extraordinary debut is about the ways experience is mediated, the unstoppable drive for human connection, and the struggle to be more fully alive in the world.

Riker’s charming and thoughtful debut opens with the titular Samuel entering young adulthood in a secluded community in Pennsylvania during the 1950s and early ’60s. Against his parents’ wishes, he secretly watches television with a neighbor, whom he falls in love with and eventually marries. They have a son, his wife dies in childbirth, and Samuel’s existence is further rocked when a roaming vagrant tries to kidnap the child when he is 3 years old. During the scuffle, Samuel is killed, and his spirit inexplicably enters the body of his assailant. Now unable to interact from inside this new vessel, Samuel spends decades bouncing from one body to the next, moving on to a new host after his current host dies, inertly looking through the eyes of strangers, all as he attempts to conjure a method to influence his hosts’ actions and make his way home to his son. This shaggy journey shuttles him back and forth across the U.S., as well as oceans, and much like the TV programs Samuel consumes, the bodies he inhabits represent a variety of narrative genres. Riker is a gifted storyteller, and his novel’s enchanting exploration of humanity and philosophy, of how humans connect with their environment and community, is unforgettable. —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“The debut of Riker’s first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, is so thrilling for us bookish types.” —The Millions

“This is a comic-philosophical novel, the other side of the same coin as Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’” —The Wall Street Journal

“A lush, comic, and bighearted journey through the minds and experiences of American strangers.” —Literary Hub

“Reincarnation, cycles of violence, and the history of television: Martin Riker’s debut novel finds an intriguing overlap between a host of seemingly disparate subjects.” —Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“A darkly funny contemporary story.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is the needle and thread that connects life and death, grumpy old man and flâneur.” —New Pages 

“A philosophical yet fast-paced tale filled with satisfyingly unexpected turns.” —Booklist

“John Donne once proclaimed, ‘I sing the progress of a deathless soul.’ Well, so does Martin Riker. His Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is a masterpiece of metempsychosis. That it also warbles and bellows so brilliantly about fatherhood and husbandhood, about the religious life and the mediated life, is an indication of Riker’s range, which is as rolling-field-expansive as his empathy.” —Joshua Cohen

“One of our finest readers is now one of our most exciting novelists. . . . A funny, amiable, wholly original time-bender of a debut.” —Ed Park

“By turns hilarious and tragic, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is a haunting and bizarre novel of twentieth-century television and other forsaken American landscapes.” —Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi

“Funny, gorgeous, haunted.” —St. Louis Magazine

A man torn forcefully from his son lives many lifetimes trying to return.
This debut novel by Riker is an odd philosophical meditation on life itself and can be dryly funny and emotionally frustrating in turns. Our narrator is Samuel Johnson, a young father living in picturesque Unityville, Pennsylvania, circa 1960—and no evident relation to the eminent 18th-century English writer. After his wife dies in childbirth, Samuel’s only salve is his young son, Samuel Jr. But one night a maniac with a gun grabs the child, there is a struggle, and...Samuel Johnson is shot in the head and dies. Unpredictably, he is immediately thrust into the body of the man who killed him. That man dies soon after in a car accident, flinging Samuel once more into the body of the nearest person. “I tried every possible escape...but what was there to try?” he says. “No actions to take, no choices to make. Just awareness of myself as a being in nonspace, witness to a life that was not mine and had nothing to do with me.” What follows is something of a comedy of errors as Samuel lives out the lives of various hosts, mostly of poor character, including a long stretch with a heroin-addicted sex worker. There are some hints at redemption—Samuel gets a clue about what happened to him and meets another trapped soul who teaches him to gain some control over his host body. But there’s something unsatisfying about the narrative, be it Samuel’s judgmental, catty voice or his hosts’ pitiable, very human arcs. Riker makes some interesting observations near the end, using Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal return as a touchstone, but the many lives of Samuel Johnson just don’t add up to a satisfying denouement.
A quirky novel that uses the transmigration of the soul to meditate on the human condition.

“This peripatetic novel somehow manages to be a thoughtful treatment of TV AND a beautiful statement on why we write books.” —Josh Cook, Porter Square Books (Cambridge MA)

“After his violent death, Samuel Johnson inhabits multiple souls as he strives to reunite with his now orphaned young son. Traveling between dark humor, unfathomable tragedy, and tracing the history of television in America, Martin Riker's outstanding debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return illustrates how the human spirit can persevere.” ―Caitlin Luce Baker, University Book Store (Seattle WA)

“Ambitious and memorable, deadly serious and unexpectedly comic, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is the ghost story you’ve been waiting for.” ―Michael Hermann, Gibson’s Bookstore

Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return is about Samuel Johnson, who dies only to find himself inside someone else's body a mere passenger. Though seemingly powerless to influence his host, Samuel is desperate to get back to his son and the life he left behind. That’s a fun and creative plot, which alone would probably sell me on the book. But Martin Riker’s debut novel is full of so much more. It's also about Nietzsche and friendship and what we spend our time doing and especially television. Riker’s long subplot about television is almost as extraordinary as Samuel Johnson's own journey. Is life merely one long repetition? Does television unite us or divide us? Can you live a life without all the boring parts? I don’t know if Riker answers these questions, but with witty and captivating prose, the journey to ask them sure is worth it.” —Kyle Curry

“A perfectly wondrous tale, wildly engaging from the  start, so sure and graceful in the telling, so crazyhuman in the best ways. It is now one of my favorite books.” —Rikki Ducornet

Martin Riker grew up in central Pennsylvania. He worked as a musician for most of his twenties, in nonprofit literary publishing for most of his thirties, and has spent the first half of his forties teaching in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2010, he and his wife Danielle Dutton co-founded the feminist press Dorothy, a Publishing Project. His fiction and criticism have appeared in publications including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, London Review of Books, the Baffler, and Conjunctions. This is his first novel.

Christopher Norris - Hunchback ‘88 is a book... or a novel mirror of haunted house ferox... or a puzzle in no rush to be solved... or a plot dug in ocean mist... or a moment that exists between flesh-stab and blood... or a cannibal moon of terror... or an oozing artifact

Christopher Norris, Hunchback ‘88, Permanent Sleep Press, 2018.

Hunchback ‘88 is a book... or a novel mirror of haunted house ferox... or a puzzle in no rush to be solved... or a plot dug in ocean mist... or a moment that exists between flesh-stab and blood... or a cannibal moon of terror... or an oozing artifact... or pus to the slasher night... or youth coming apart... or an eye-rolling task of which none the dumb words above help make it sense.

Christopher Norris, the notoriously misanthropic artist behind bands like Against Me!, Atom & His Package, and United Nations, has penned a book about bodies coming apart.

Christopher Norris "Hunchback '88"

A conceit of incurious criticism is the pat description of music or literature as “cinematic.” It is evident what is implied here. Cinematic music is predominantly instrumental music that unfolds the exhibition of a range of emotions—even something like Riz Ortolani’s soundtrack for Cannibal Holocaust moves through a spectrum of idyll, brooding horror, and disco—while being suitably deferent to the presumption of an attendant—yet absent—image. Cinematic literature is an earnest effort at not only depicting the necessary human activities necessary to propel the narrative which is the common presumption of cinema, but indulging just enough to be significant in the soft focus of setdressing and atmospherics.
Contrary to the claim that such works are cinematic is the fact that they are only embodying the realms of film that music and literature already occupied as the consulting agents of soundtracks and screenplays. These works are of the cinema. They are not analogous to movies. They have not really learned new things from existing with and after the cinematic era. They behave in a manner by which cultural mediums seek to superimpose themselves on film as gaunt echoes, rather than finding methods for transmigrating the “cinematic” into a never-coinciding location parallel to film, with all of the properties of their own mediums embodying a new form that is neither evocative of film or evocative of literature.
What do we call this thing? Is it new, or just unrecognizable in our contemporary understanding of literature? Such is the hematophagous aftertaste of Hunchback ‘88, the debut novel of Christopher Norris, published by Permanent Sleep Press in 2018, an exceptional work of literature—a new ilk of cinematic literature—that prompts this unpacking.
a warningsliming along
in whisper
your field of vision—or mine, or, really, your field of vision—what I tell you it is and could well match mine, you will never know—but, let us get it right, right now, right at the start: I own. Your eyes. This held sight, yours that is mine now… a box over your head… or rather a box with a rectangular opening in front, up front – your front – a thick-black framing all periphery. A horizontal rectangle. But, mind you, not a vista or panorama or ever granting an option for the warmth of a graceful berth. There is no comfort here. This moment, and those to come, are a trap, a cage, restriction: visual… otherwise, and the rectangle, such as it is, is closer to a square… with a bit of legroom… a cut of flesh given to the left and to the right. Just a bit. A fraction. But it’s not a square. It is a rectangle. Oblong. A tunnel. Corridor. A body fits. Possession has you paused at the far end. A distance. The walls are black. A flat white screen… out of reach… imagine a glow that is out of reach, thin, a needle.
I approach this consideration almost entirely through the foil Wayne Booth. I bought Booth’s encyclopedic book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, in 1999 while working on a research project to develop a primarily verbal methodology for preparing architectural construction documents. My concern was how to crack open the highly controlled pictorial visualization of buildings by capitalizing on the openness of text. This openness could become so unfettered as to be useless, and thus the interest in Booth. He explores the translation of rhetoric into a medium for which it was not originally conceived, that being late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels. And although the classical oratory model of rhetoric has held sway over the discursive structure of literature from the first linguistic constructions specific to the written word until the present, its functionality has changed to meet varying needs. The visibility of rhetoric as a featured mechanism of writing has fluctuated along the axis of time and across the axis of literary forms. It never fully disappears. However, as it moves from application to application, the devices of rhetoric evolve along with us. The project of Modernism rejects the editorial—rhetorically persuasive—voice. Booth asserts that in its stead, “all of the old-fashioned dramatic devices of pace and timing can be refurbished for the purposes of a dramatic, impersonal narration.”
As was my discovery of the intermedium movement in architecture, the absence of some authorial guidance results in something seemingly useless. Or, if not useless, more accurately, it would lack the generally intended effect of its artifice. Booth artfully establishes the variety of ways that rhetorical principles existed formally and insidiously, rather than transparently. “Patterns of imagery and symbol are as effective in The Hamlet as they are in Hamlet, as decisive in Ulysses as they are in The Odyssey.” This change is significant in the scaling outward of rhetorical effects from the tactical level to broader strategic application of the performance, from the isolation of the representational phrases to the sweeping blur of the presentation. This is an important characterization, a sort of phase change that continues to take place.
The phase changes of rhetoric are not just constrained to the medium of writing however. Transmigration of oratory rhetoric into text wasn’t an accident. Rhetoric is just a formalization of the way our cognition organizes and assimilates stimuli into our emotions or vice versa. It defines the way we use language to persuade. And language structures the manner in which we think. Thus, all expressive works undertaken by humans perform under some rhetorical structuring. And its evolution does not always follow an intramedium trajectory. One of the most significant transmigrations of rhetoric in human history involved the full bloom of movies as a communicative medium. In his Notes on the Cinematograph Robert Bresson says, “The cinema did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.” The purely visual tactics of movies are developed atop the rhetoric of literature, atop the rhetoric of oration. These tactics can be analogized and in those analogies are fruitful clues as to how these phase changes take place. But let me first indulge in a brief digression to provide some historical context.
No matter its execution, the structures of rhetoric enable opportunities for tenuous persuasion (control) even in situations that are meant to seem free. My interest is not in the manner Hunchback ’88 skillfully juxtaposes Booth’s model of rhetoric with the visual rhetoric of film, but how it abandons the traditional rhetoric of literature for a visual rhetoric that would be impossible without movies, yet is only possible back in the form of literature. The movement back from the way images function to the way text functions is not unlike any other translatory action with its loss of fidelity. One must simply be thrilled about that loss rather than lament it, and one must find a way for this thing to come alive in its new skin. Perhaps the most reassuring thing about this notion of visual rhetoric is that, as literary conceit, it is not new. In fact it is much more indebted to the dawn of literature in the 1500s than the commonplace literature of our contemporary culture that is the seventh son of the seventh son of the first maggot on the corpse of Naturalism.
The ceiling.
Feeling harangued.
Decorative tine, once painted white – now chipped from cheap, rusted from time.
No bulb screws into a dump-mangled socket set awkward at the middle of repeating curves and embossed flowers and crusted rounds creased in nubs, rope expressions and dots and slashes.
Every corner – eight total – a tacked juncture of three flats where dust collects dust, mossy and dense; each pulled buckle a tried sum of dead ends and dead zones; death in general, probably.
So, what was happening 400 years ago? An indispensable resource in answering this question is Rosemond Tuve’s comprehensive book Elizabethan & Metaphysical Imagery. Renaissance poetry was noteworthy and distinct for its significant investment in images. This is different than the metaphorically thematic use of “imagery” we observe in the last 200 years of poetry (after Baudelaire). Tuve describes an image as “the transliteration of a sense impression”. The use of images in Renaissance poetry was a facet of the still-codified and entrenched mechanisms of oratory rhetoric. Images were understood to be aligned with rhetorical principles, “topographia” for instance, the description of a place… or “icon,” a picture cultivated through similitude… had particular gearlike roles in the machinery of rhetoric. Their organization and interaction was governed by the more syntactical aspects of rhetoric, but their contents were lush and indulgent. Tuve:
Modern readers are prone to think, for example, that either ineptitude in narrative or naive pleasure in merely decorative ornament must have produced a long, slow, rhetorically sumptuous description like that of Mortimer’s tower in Drayton’s Mortimeriados. But an artist’s images are not likely to assist the aims we set for swift and faithful narrative of happenings if his intention is that his images should go far beyond naturalistic fidelity in expressiveness and should be part of a design which by its formal beauty heightened the significance of this matter.
This heightening of significance is known as “amplification.” Amplification was the practice of excessive ornamentation in the composition of these images with the sole function of distinguishing them, making them noteworthy in the slosh of text. Tuve elaborates:
‘Why add the ornament characteristic of poetic discourse, when the idea can be more clearly and economically stated otherwise?’ The Elizabethan, I think, would have simply answered, ‘Because it would not be heard.’
Now, to return to Bresson’s point, “cinema did not start from zero.” As written literature for 300 years meandered on an evolutionary path from the rhetoric of oration, so too do movies build upon that evolution in the structuring of its images. Certainly, movies inherit the narrative rhetoric of literature, but they also undergo a more significant phase change with what I would describe as the in-camera rhetoric of their visual composition. These visually rhetorical tactics, although not new in intent, give us a new understanding of the underlying mechanisms inherent to those tactics—whether in speaking, the written word, or the image—and how those mechanisms more elementally articulate our cognition. In our “seeing” something like parataxis made flesh, we begin to understand the rhetorical function of language differently, less in terms of the logic of its argument, and more—in a return to the aspirations of poetry—for its sensory effect. The conclusion of Bresson’s thought, “everything to be called into question,” might seem antithetical to something that did not start from zero, something that has a terrain. But what is called into question is that the terrain cinema was erected upon was not its own, and that coordination of the new over the old will necessarily involve some clever trajectories.
Ecphonesis: The face—glabrous, white, feminine with the creasings of a perpetual scowl over rotten teeth and dead black eyelids—flashes on the screen for 1/8th of a second in The Exorcist. / A sentence consisting of a single word or short phrase ending with an exclamation point.
Ellipse: The camera in Taxi Driver is shifting away from Travis calling Betsy from a payphone to spare us the agony of watching his rejection, but it only heightens the agony. / The suppression of ancillary words to render an expression more lively or more forceful.
Parataxis: In the passenger seat of Michel’s car, the flickering camera of Breathless on Patricia through the streets of Paris, gestures interrupted, quality of light abruptly changing. / Using juxtaposition of short, simple sentences to connect ideas, as opposed to explicit conjunction.
Adjunction: The camera passes over a doffed tuxedo and evening gown strewn across the floor, past a fire in the fireplace, to Roger Moore as James Bond’s awkward post-coital kissing—was Sir Roger capable of anything but awkward kissing?—with Countess Lisl von Schlaf in For Your Eyes Only. / When a verb is placed at the beginning or the end of a sentence instead of in the middle.
Non sequitur: A femur is flying against a pale sky a satellite is drifting against the blackness of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey. / A statement bearing no relationship to the preceding context.
Paraprosdokian: Danny rides his bigwheel through the abandoned hotel corridors in The Shining, weaving, racing across different floor coverings, racing in great loops, into a dead end where young twin girls ominously stand waiting for him.  / A sentence in which the latter half takes an unexpected turn.
Enjambment: In a shot of Meet the Parents Ben Stiller nervously leans against a white tile wall chewing nicotine gum, in the reverse shot a skimpy men’s bathing suit hangs from a clothes hanger over the back of a wooden chair. / The continuing of a syntactic unit over the end of a line.
Anadiplosis: Sergeant Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz is on the tube holding his Japanese peace lily, and holding his Japanese peace lily on the platform of a rural train station. / Repeating the last word of one clause or phrase to begin the next.
Epanalepsis: As the camera pans in It Follows, through a window a girl in a white shirt and jeans distance is innocuously walking toward its axis of rotation and it continues to pan, across the protagonists Jay and Greg, across a host of other extras, the interior of the building, and pans back out the window where the girl in the white shirt and jeans is even closer than before, still walking. / A figure of speech in which the same word or phrase appears both at the beginning and at the end of a clause.
Diction (Poetic): The nimble camera of Tenebre crawls across the facade of a house, slowly, uninterruptedly poring over every architectural detail, intermittently presenting useful framed views of its occupants. / “Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly-coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered.” -Aristotle
Ignoratio elenchi: Fixation on a childhood drawing in Deep Red seems to reveal that Carlo is the murderer, when in fact it is his mother. / A conclusion that is irrelevant.
Alliteration: Madeleine shimmering in a green silk dress in Ernie’s restaurant, Madeleine in a green Jaguar on the streets of San Francisco, emerald green boxes stacked in Podesta Baldocchi florists, Madeleine floating in the green water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, Jane in a green sweater and skirt standing between two green Podesta Baldocchi delivery trucks, the vaporous green glow of the Empire Hotel sign washing over Jane/Madeleine emerging from the bathroom, the luminous green sheer curtains silhouetting her figure in Vertigo. / The conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words. (Or more generally, a way of creating rhythm that is independent of time.)
These examples are free of the greater structure of meaning they serve in their cinematic bodies. They are rhetorical tactics that function like simple machines on their own, as gifs let’s say, aphorisms of the moving image. This is visual rhetoric. The connection of this cinematic imagery to the momentum of narrative is not where its agency lies. The capacity of the image to communicate independently is the true evolutionary clade of rhetoric in movies. It often labors on a completely different suite of agenda items than the verbal aspects of the movie. And this is, on some level, at play in all movies. But so often film falls short of the power available in its visual language, desperately using images to “Chekhov” (verb: to visually foreshadow) later events–conspicuously framing the rifle on the wall above the fireplace, if not lingering on it for a moment–because it is an image necessary to the rhetoric of the tale, not functional independent of the tale as a pure turn-of-phrase.
Certain types of movies traffic more heavily in the primacy of visual rhetoric. Lucio Fulci calls these “absolute films.” And it so happens that many, if not most of them are horror movies. Fulci describes his movie The Beyond as:
A plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from the Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images… People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: any idiot can understand Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, or even Carpenter’s Escape from New York, while The Beyond or Argento’s Inferno are absolute films.
I am not asserting that narrative and the Boothian rhetoric of fiction have no role in film—many movies are quite comfortable and productive functioning as visual tales—but that it is beneficial for our understanding of where literature might head to look at examples in which that is not the primary agenda. This is similar to, for example, an astronomer masking out superfluous radiance with a background frame, leaving only the object under observation.
Small grey room. Small. No windows, no observation booth, no exits to be outlined for a mind-map or hiding in plain sight. Total minimalism: a trap. Feels like a trap… Dangling low on the world’s grossest wire from a ceiling of infinite shadow and mystery and plumbing: a bare bulb strikes below-barren light. Under that: a large Formica table. Under that: two wooden chairs tucked and parked across from each other… and those chairs appear to be melting? From the hall they do anyway; thick brown snot covering a lounging skeleton watching itself watch itself. Confidence mirror cracked. Across the room, the other side of the table, against the far wall, a smaller, also Formica-topped, table with one of those old VHS/TV combo units sitting dust, turned on; screen a dark wobbly looking magenta… slight sudden fuzz breaks across it during my short gaze—I blink once, space out, blink again, turn back into the hall and black, look back into the room and… Place my left palm on the red gloss, it is warm, maybe hot, yank away with a shake before the burn can really get tested. Steps start, slow, continue until I’m standing at the first table, between the two sweaty chairs, looking down at a mound of shredded paper cleanly sculpted and peaked in twists of wormy construct. A cone. A small head dunce cap. Next to it: a paperback-sized stack of yellowed papers. I flip the yoked top sheet, which is blank, the next page: The Creamiest Babysitter.
Horror movies are particularly suitable experimental mechanisms because of our low expectations for them. They possess freedom that derives from if not their unreality, then at least their foreignness. One hopes that very few of us know what it is like to awaken on an operating table with a severed head performing oral sex on us (see Re-Animator (or don’t see it)). Our frame of reference, our threshold of credulity, is not as rigorous. We open ourselves to the visual—the momentary—in the absence of a pertinent larger picture. In that freedom is the promotion of the rhetorical bit and a demotion of causality. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is much closer to the raw ideals of literature, the magic liberty of mere words, that Rosemond Tuve was discussing above. Horror movies are primarily visual in the way they relate information. They are visually rhetorical in the way the manipulate the viewer. They do not typically hinge on information revealed in dialogue, a practice that hinges much more on the traditional application of verbal rhetoric. Because these images are increasingly emptied of their propulsive capacity, they gather their own gravity and separate themselves from the whole. The fixation is on the tactical setpiece. In an interview with Dario Argento, the questioner suggested, “If you were forced to make the choice between an amazing visual effect and a plot point, I imagine you’d always go for the visual,” to which Argento replied, “You’re right.”

If there was a pristine alignment of the arguments that Fulci and Argento are making it exists in Beyond the Black Rainbow, an almost genreless horror/scifi movie in the tradition of Scanners. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, director Panos Cosmatos said of his methodology for the film:
When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated films but I would spend hours at the video store just looking at the box covers of the horror and the science fiction films and imagining my own versions of them without seeing them. Remembering that time was the inspiration of the film — the idea of making a remembered or imagined film.
This is virtually a template for a film constructed of the visual simple machines described above.
As we move to understand how this visual rhetoric, which is pervasive in the way the contemporary consciousness apprehends information, has moved back toward literature without falling back into its old comfy tropes, it is useful to visit Jose Ortega y Gasset at great length.
We have here a very simple optical problem. To see a thing we must adjust our visual apparatus in a certain way. If the adjustment is inadequate the thing is seen indistinctly or not at all. Take a garden seen through a window… Since we are focusing on the garden… we do not see the window but look clear through it…  But we can also deliberately disregard the garden and, withdrawing the ray of vision, detain it at the window. We then lose sight of the garden… Hence to see the garden and to see the windowpane are two incompatible operations… Similarly a work of art vanishes from sight for a beholder who seeks in it nothing but the moving fate of John and Mary or Tristan and Isolde and adjusts his vision to this. Tristan’s sorrows are sorrows and can evoke compassion only in so far as they are taken as real. But an object of art is artistic only in so far as it is not real. But not many people are capable of adjusting their perceptive apparatus to the pane and the transparency that is the work of art. Instead they look right through it and revel in the human reality with which the work deals.
We are looking for a literature that becomes one of vision, not the vision represented by the text, but the vision of the text. We don’t want to see what the text is describing, but what the text is.
Rene Huyghe says in Art and the Spirit of Man:
We imagine that an art language would inevitably serve to render, in images, ideas as distinct as those expressed by words–a sort of visual literal translation. To begin, the language of art need not in the least be a duplication of verbal language. Actually, art often serves to make up for gaps or weaknesses in writing.
Because text is assumed to stand in for a totality, each bit is assumed to have a greater whole lingering within it. We write the word “lake”, and we are forgiven for not presenting the verbal cartography of its shoreline—for after all, where does that end, at what scale do we choose to describe it, at what magnification of its materiality, tracing every grain of sand with analogies, “This cluster looks like a calyx, and the next like the wet fur on the scalp of a kitten, and the next…” —for not presenting the bathymetry, the temperature distribution, the color temperature of the light reflecting from every angle. And what of the treeline, and what of the summer camp where the counselors let a young boy drown while they were making love? So, we write the word lake. But the single word “lake” embodies all of that and more, an exploitation of what Huyghe describes as the shortcoming of writing, because it is both empty and vast, large and containing multitudes. And then we follow the word “lake” with another word until we have a book. But instead of stringing these full words together across time and space in a gallivanting tale that undervalues the expansive breadth of each word, is it possible that the entirety of a book is the protraction of a single instant, a single image, or flicker of a few frames from a movie, quite similar to the way a geologic timespan is described using our 24 hour clock where humans arrive on the scene at 11:59:59. This may sound like a shortcoming—after all the movie has thousands of these moments strung together in a grand spectrum of fluid titillation—but it is the book that has stopped time, that has crawled inside the instant like into a cave or a fractal to gaze around at its leisure on the fascinations and possibilities of the entire universe of human knowledge contained in that moment.
A bump in the night. That classic moment of versed, well-worn hauntings… Pretty much the first blood in any and all spooky experiences… was to be my warning: Bump. It was night. Left eye slit, the webbed ectoplasm gurgling above me; lustrous and hard and thick and thin. Untidy. Churning. Soft. A ghost, or this ghost, seems like it could be, would be, more substantial than it probably is, but no surprise: a ghost is an illusion, a brain trick… Thousands of tiny muffins cooking in your oven. What is a surprise is how it feels when it licks your skin. Running a soppy purple-white tongue from top to bottom… Cartographic discovery in every fold, stretch and follicle of my flesh. Then, whoa, when it sinks into you? Pressing dead tongue past the dermis to lick your guts or your cerebral cortex or your left femur or your nervous system… and then when the wild sparks from that attention… When they jolly your body? Well, you feel elevated, bigger than alive, bigger than death… Actually, the farthest from dead you’ve ever noticed being… ever, ever, ever… And I wonder why there is not more of it to be had, immediately, in the future, in a memory… And the creamy apparition whispered in maggot flow, …my captors, comedians and comediennes, a most vile degradation…
Think what a film can do in panning across a landscape of detritus in which a variety of significant and possibly allusive objects are embedded, and even utilizing a camera movement that may be allusive (think of, for instance, the camera movement following Henry and company into the back door of the Copa in Good Fellas and how tropic it has now become). An earnest response to this situation is to admit that text cannot perform the same function as the image and therefore narrows it must narrow its scope. Rather than a high-fidelity novelization of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, why not an entire book devoted to the moment before Sally falls unconscious, the blackness, and the moment following her awakening.

The passiveness by which the image in movies may communicate is what literature lacks. One cannot idly “show” a messy room in text. One can say “the room is messy” or one can list the things in the room and describe their position. The first is the jaunty nominal mode of contemporary prose. The second, in its precision, is not actually messy. Rosemond Tuve, discussing a similar disconnect painting and poetry, intimated that, “An Elizabethan poet would have accomplished such an effect by an ingenious tissue of magnifications and ‘diminishings.'” This is not dependent on richness of language, but on the mechanics of how it is rhetorically deployed to address the visual, which is dependent on linguistic silence, the mainlining of a sensation. Tuve’s tissue is woven by connotative gravity, but also by the visual disposition of text relative to the other masses of text and to the structure of the poem, and consequently its location on the page. These latter of these broaches what would be categorized as issues of paratext.
One can “make” a messy room out of text.
Gérard Genette, the godfather of the paratext (author of Paratexts (or originally in French, Seuils (or “thresholds”))), describes it as:
What enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or—a word used apropos of a preface—a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back.
This is “making” a book that is separate from its “writing”.
Perhaps the notion that has the greatest distinction from “writing” is also the simplest, most pervasive, most insidious notion of what is at stake with paratext is the book’s size, or what Genette refers to as its “format”. His archaeology of the sizes of books and their meaning is fascinating, if for no other reason than the articulation of how that size is a product of how many times the sheet of paper is folded before it is cut (quarto, folded twice, four leaves, or eight pages per sheet; octavo, folded four times, eight leaves, or sixteen pages per sheet). But the paratextual function, initially derived from the cachet of devoting more paper to a significant work and less to an insignificant work, is more of a culturally perpetuated notion. There have been all sorts of deviations from this. One could visualize the appropriation of the quarto for a vanity publication as easily as for the complete works of Rousseau. The size of the book affects the manner of our approach to it. Consider the paratextual journey of the small book, which Stendhal rejected as “novels for chambermaids”. Eventually, through the Penguin and Pelican pocket books, publications of more significant works of literature in small mass market formats began to divest the size from its the abject dismissive connotations of cheapness. My copy of The Red and the Black is a mass market paperback. Take that, Stendhal. Now books are generally found in two sizes, mass market and trade. This simple distinction telegraphs the historical paratextual connotations of size, where mass market books are typically pulpy pap and trade books are conventionally “literature”. These are conventions that can be used imagistically. For instance, Hunchback ‘88 is in mass market format and from this it inherits the entire contemporary consciousness of schlock literature like Dean Koontz, or what have you. This is not rhetoric in the classical sense. It is not rhetorical even in the transitional sense that Booth describes. It is a visual rhetoric that preys on our shared understandings of culture. Now imagine for a moment all the other characteristics Genette unpacks in his book: cover, typesetting, print quality, inserts (another thing that Hunchback ‘88 employs), etc. And imagine the fullness of possibility in exploring and capitalizing on each of these and all of these for its rhetorical capacity.
Paratexts inflect the writing, but they are not writing. They are visual. Their productive, communicative use pushes writing closer to this realm of visual rhetoric that is so special to movies. Sonja K. Foss, a scholar of feminist communications, writes that visual rhetoric is at play when, “the creation of an image involves the conscious decision to communicate as well as conscious choices about the strategies to employ in areas such as color, form, medium, and size.” This would imply that the author of a book would need to be considerate of all these issues as the book was being composed. This is rare. One can “will” the experience of a book in this direction, to see the image of the book rather than its contents, through cultivation of distracted reading as a way to engender the visual effect of focus/neglect of focus. It seems that the text would be something that frustrates this strategy. But, just as the phonemes of the horror movie—knife, blood, lifeless eyes—allow it to speak without speaking, the text of a book invested in the paratextual, imagistic experience, is vitally important. Philip Wheelwright, in Metaphor and Reality, establishes the concept of the diaphor, a type of metaphor whose possibility—its magic—lies “in the broad ontological fact that new quantities and new meanings can emerge, simply come into being, out of some hitherto ungrouped combination of elements”. Where words begin to take on visual qualities as their logical destinies are thwarted… it is impossible to expect that the English language is fully capable of a word becoming solely an image, but the disruption of its beholdenness to discursive meaning, and its marriage with the visual aspects of the book is a step toward that reading performance. This is the visual rhetoric possible in the productive symbiosis of text and paratext.
Perhaps most importantly, the paratext, and its family of possibilities, are completely, 100%, distinct from the mechanics of rhetoric that literature inherited from oration. These are things only possible with the book object. Not surprisingly, this is found being indulged in the early literature of the printed word when the book form was a novelty. Perhaps no other book in the pre-cinematic era of literature so lovingly embraces its bookness, the impossibility of its composition in the oratorical theater of rhetoric, than Tristram Shandy. Rather than make a fool of myself as an armchair Sterne critic, I will close with the uncanny reclaiming of Tristram Shandy‘s visual rhetoric by Christopher Norris, and its marriage with the post-cinematic diaphorical prose of the novel you’ve been glimpsing throughout this essay.
Shandy / Hunchback
Shandy / Hunchback
Shandy / Hunchback
Tristram Shandy / Hunchback ’88
…a syncopic fade-to-black about 2/3 of the way through Hunchback ‘88, black pages, clutching sensation of death and smothering, is a particularly compelling trope of horror movies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre for instance—a relatively bloodless and rather slowly burning movie—builds to an intermediate crescendo at which the protagonist, Sally (Salleeeeeeeeeeeeey), is driven to unconsciousness through psychological trauma, what she wakes up to, and what we wake up to in Hunchback ’88 after the syncope, is a third act of almost plotless (relative to the first 2/3) visceral horror, it is a tremendously effective mechanism that propagates the experiential characteristics of the reader/viewer directly with the content and structure of the work… the trope is used elsewhere in film… Martyrs, Frankenstein’s Army, The Descent, and House of the Devil come to mind. This is the first experience I have had of it in a text…
Hunchback ‘88 is a book that is cinematic not at the discursive level but at the presentational level. It is not cinematically representational; it is cinematically performative. There is not much doubt that humans will continue their infatuation with the moving image. Although its artifice is sure to change, and is changing already from the static composition of the film to the elective stream of video games and the self-curated fragmentation of social media (stand over someone’s shoulder watching a bunch of Instagram stories and try to ignore its bizarre relationship to Eisenstein’s montage). The mechanics that movies have adopted from literature are maturing into their own entities. Surely this will loop around through culture as everything does, as it has, and what I’ve been interested in here is the mature state of what literature began adopting from cinema 75 years ago, where it stands alone yet again. - John Trefry

Christopher Norris...
who goes by the alias Steak Mtn.,
who has been the artist behind several notable punk album covers,
who is responsible for the visual identity of the band Against Me!,
who does not listen to Against Me!,
who has made art that is permanently inked on people’s flesh,
who cringes when reminded of that,
who once sang in the grindcore band CombatWoundedVeteran,
who is quite ashamed of that fact,
who became notorious in the hardcore scene,
who was relentlessly aped by the hardcore scene,
who has crafted a reputation as a misanthrope,
who works very hard to maintain that persona,
who probably hates you,
who probably hates me,
who is my close friend,
who designed a book I co-authored
...is now an author in his own right.
Hunchback ‘88 is Norris’ debut novel. It’s not tied to a traditional, linear structure but is instead a free fall of off-putting scenarios, grotesque word pairings, and the deranged brain droppings of an artist who is possibly a genius but possibly also completely insane. There are no chapters or page numbers so it’s easy to feel lost—stranded, really—in the dark recesses of his mind.
Those who have had the misfortune of following Norris and his antagonistic Steak Mtn. endeavors since his CombatWoundedVeteran days in the late 90s may notice a thread of similarity between his graphic design work and his prose. Norris’ trademark artistic style on the covers of albums like Combat’s I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos was immediately identifiable among its punk peers—a perverse heap of neon limbs, decapitated skulls, blood spatters, and seared flesh. After Norris popularized the style, a number of—to be polite—“similar” works started cropping up on record sleeves and t-shirts, leading you to wonder if they too were original Steak Mtn. designs. But of course, if you had to ask whether it was a Steak Mtn. design, it wasn’t. Norris has always had a way of always staying one step ahead of the trends in hardcore, a perpetual progenitor of provocation.
Norris has been notoriously and deliberately difficult to hire, and even more difficult to work with. He has been sparing with his design services, doing work only for select artists like Atom & His Package, Jeff Rosenstock, United Nations, and the client who has been able to stand him the longest, Against Me!. He is typically blasé and unenthused about the work he’s done, and life in general, but there are glints of real, actual excitement buried deep under his surface-level apathy when discussing Hunchback '88, which he worked on for six years, mostly writing it on his phone, and largely as a distraction. Maybe his excitement stems from the fact that this book marks the first time he has stepped out from behind his protective Steak Mtn. shield and truly put himself out there.
And so… an interview with Christopher Norris about Hunchback ‘88...
Noisey: So which of the Harry Potter books would you say your book is most like?Christopher Norris: The ass cabin one. Yeah. That’s what it’s called, right?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Ass Cabin, yes.A Fun Night at Ass Cabin. I think we’re done. Thanks.
How would you describe the book?It’s a horror book. I guess it’s rooted in horror but I always like things—movies, books—that look like one thing but are another thing. I like people who write below genre. It’s tacky to say they write above it because it means that they’re above it, but below it. So, horror movies that don’t seem like horror movies, horror movies that are smarter than they lead on.
So what does this book purport to be and what is it actually?I’m sure I’ve got plenty of dumb, pretentious things to say about it, but realistically speaking, it all boils down to: I like seeing bodies come apart. And I like writing bodies coming apart.
Much of it feels like an exploration of space on the page, but also, there are sections that are composed of lengthy, complex, really disgusting and off-putting word clusters. Where’d your writing style come from?At some point in time, I thought to start writing screenplays. Not like I would ever make anything, but just to see if I could do it, because I like reading screenplays. I like the skeleton of a screenplay. So then I was like, “Well maybe I’ll write a book that’s just a screenplay.” And then I wrote five movies, essentially.
I liked the idea of writing a book but I always thought, ah I’ll never be able to do it, or I’ll never be able to do it in a way that I want to do it. So I started finding writers that I actually like, because I also don’t read a lot. I like the idea of reading, and the rhythm of words, but I thought I’d never be able to do that. Because even though I have an art background and understand abstraction and things like that, you think, “Who’s gonna have patience for something that’s all fucked up and weird?” So once I started finding things that were similar to movies but in novel form, I was like, oh this could happen. I don’t have to have a three-act structure. I don’t even have to have a fucking ending. Books are way more forgiving than any other art form. You could spend 20 pages describing something that doesn’t really matter.
I notice on the cover you did not put Steak Mtn., you put Christopher Norris. Why?Because Steak Mtn. is so stupid. I think this is the first thing that I’ve ever done that’s not dealing with bands or things like that that… I’m not gonna say I’m proud of it, but it seems more in line with any creative ability that I have or would rather align myself with. Also, Steak Mtn. is a thing that’s gonna follow me around forever, that I’ll never be able to schuck. You name yourself something stupid when you’re 18, and then all of a sudden it takes off and you can’t avoid it. So I didn’t want to put Steak Mtn. on the cover. And Matt Finner, who put the book out, was… I don’t think he was bummed about that but he was like, “Oh, well... I kinda gave Steak Mtn. a book option.” And it just looks tacky, it’s such a stupid name.
If I may psychoanalyze: I think you’ve often used Steak as a veil to hide behind and poke fun at people and things with some level of anonymity. Would you agree?Yeah, 100 percent. Are you kidding me? It’s a hammer.
So is it scarier then to have your name on this? It’s harder than writing it off as just fucking with people, which has been the premise behind Steak Mtn.It would be scarier if it was the beginning of my career, if I was more sensitive to things like that. A lot of it is a little weirder, but for those who know Steak Mtn., chances are they know my name anyway. It’s a little scary, because I don’t know if it’s good, but I know I liked doing it. It’s like most art where it doesn’t actually matter if it’s good.
Who do you think your followers are at this point?Like, 40-year-old hardcore kids and sweaty teenagers.
Sweaty, teen Against Me! fans.Yeah, exactly. And that’s kind of how it’s been for ten years. And most Against Me! fans don’t know Steak Mtn., either.
But certainly they see some congruity between the band’s albums and the merch and Laura [Jane Grace]’s book.You would think. But I don’t know if anybody’s that perceptive. I think if you are sensitive to art and aesthetic and aren’t just consuming it at face value, or you think this looks “sick,” but you don’t create that timeline in your head… I don’t think people are that smart.
How do you think the average Against Me! fan would feel about Hunchback?There’s a version of Hunchback that’s way sketchier, way meaner, that’s way more… I wouldn’t say sexist or misogynist, but I would say treating sexuality in a really abject, transgressive way, that I pulled out, like a month before it went to press. It maybe made me nervous a bit. It also just felt unnecessary inside of a book that’s full of unnecessary things. Most of it was kind of not very PC sex stuff that makes people nervous. But again, books are different because people will read something fucked up and will not get as super offended as if it’s in a movie or a fucking song by somebody. It’s strange what readers—proper readers who love reading—will take. I like that idea that movie fans or music fans never really wanna get out of their lane, but readers will read almost everything.
I couldn’t believe the lack of depth of the average online reader when I saw the reaction to that “Cat Person” story—people getting angry about a character being called fat and what not.Absolutely. In general, a writer writes personalities and lets them bounce off each other. So, of course if you have a person who sucks, they’re gonna say shit that’s awful. Sure, it’s in the mind of the writer who’s like, “What’s the worst thing this person could be called?” But obviously we’re in this strange culture of… not even knee-jerk, not even trigger-finger. It’s crazy—you don’t even finish the sentence and you’re in trouble.
There seems to have been a movement in recent years of older, artsy hardcore dudes writing books of poetry or dark novels. Do you consider Hunchback above that or is it part of that?It’s part of that because it’s unavoidable. Somebody like Wes Eisold or Max Morton, people who are working in a transgressive manner, I’m definitely writing in that mold. There’s a new term called “horror-adjacent” that I’ve been hearing a lot—horror movies that aren’t horror movies, the artsy horror film. So I think in general, hardcore men and women who are writing these books, they’re obviously like, “I’m in line with that because my interests are like that.” They like seeing bodies come apart, or they like tales of drug abuse, they love [Herbert] Selby and people like that or Peter Sotos. And I like all that stuff too.
Do you think you’ll retire Steak Mtn.?I would love to retire Steak Mtn. I would love to not have to rely on it for money. Let me rephrase. I would love to not have to rely on it for the occasional money. Because I’ve set up Steak Mtn. so that I don’t do Steak Mtn. very often. There are stretches of time where I don’t do work, because I’m either turning it down, or I’m goofing on bands where I take the work, drag them along, and then fucking dump ’em. So sometimes the persona of being Steak Mtn. is more interesting than making the art. So to me, being difficult is the most fun. And I have the option to abuse people in a very PG way.
So being difficult is an integral part of the Steak Mtn. body of work?Always. The whole body of work is about being difficult, and testing people’s limits of what they’ll take from you.
I noticed a parallel between sections of Hunchback and the I Know a Girl Who Develops Crime Scene Photos LP, in that it was this word vomit of well-strung, disgusting phrases.Great.
And even going back to the Amputees art you did, I feel like there’s a real similarity between the two. Do you see that or no?My goal on that work back then, when [Dan] Ponch and I started Combat, we were seeing all these bands, bands that we loved—Crossed Out, Man Is the Bastard, No Comment, even the San Diego stuff like Antioch Arrow and Heroin, fast and loose, crazy grind stuff or jumbled insanity—what we were seeing was a lot of dumb black and white stuff that I looked at and said, “I don’t want to do that.” I want to do that, but I don’t want to put a fucking dead baby on the cover that’s been blown out on a Xerox machine. We’re gonna take that dead baby and we’re gonna give it bat wings and we’re gonna put it on a fluorescent pink background. Because it’s familiar but it’s different. That’s how the work has always been. I’m drawn to these dumb things. I’m drawn to skulls. I’m drawn to dead, idiot things. But I don’t want to do it that way.
After you made a lot of the Combat art, did you see a lot of similarities cropping up in hardcore?I think there’s a lot of similarities but I think also these things happen like zeitgeist. They happen in four different places and you have four different people doing…
Parallel thought.Parallel thought. The brain is complex but it’s not that complex, and the human condition all works with the same details. So it’s not surprising that some idiot kid in Minnesota, and me, and somebody in California, and somebody in New York, and somebody in Germany all had the same idea.
A lot of that Combat art was based on the design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. That had a huge effect on me, that insanity, Gary Panter’s design, and that color and that strangeness. And even something as silly as like, the work that Rob Zombie was doing in White Zombie—La Sexorcisto and all that stuff. He was drawing these proto-Coop stupid devil doll girls on fluorescent green backgrounds with zombie heads.
You and I have talked a lot about using a work to analyze the author’s view of the world. How do you think someone would interpret your worldview through, any of your work really, but Hunchback specifically?They probably would think that I don’t really care much about people. Which is true. I think people would just think my worldview is sour. But also, it’s kind of like this: you’ve got a villain and a hero. And chances are, there’s somebody above the villain that’s a supervillain. The supervillain understands empathy and all the honesty of the world, they just don’t like it. They shit on it. And that’s why they’re supervillains. So I’d love somebody to say, “He’s a supervillain. He just doesn’t give a fuck about the human condition. He wants to take it apart.” Also, I think that somebody would just think that I like fucking with people, because that’s what the book is, too. It’s a mystery that doesn’t need to get solved. Everybody’s so worried about a resolution and I’m not. - Dan Ozzi


Gil Orlovitz - "After struggling with its gimmicks of style... its elaborate streams of consciousness... its absolute jungle and jumble of words, I've come to the conclusion that it would take me ten years to understand"

What Are They All Waiting For?
Gil Orlovitz, What Are They All Waiting For? Stories, Poems & Essays: 1944-1962. Tough Poets Press, 2018.

What Are They All Waiting For? is an anthology of long out-of-print works by Philadelphia-born experimental novelist, poet, playwright, and screenwriter Gil Orlovitz (1918-1973), one of America's most innovative, yet virtually forgotten, writers of the 20th century. This volume contains 9 short stories, 4 essays, and 49 poems, originally published between 1944 and 1962. Also included is a comprehensive biography of Orlovitz and a bibliography of his works.  

"His work is known only to a handful of poetry lovers who read the verse magazines and purchase slender books issued by publishing houses with names like Inferno Press and Hearse Press. He is nonetheless one of the finest — the most versatile — poets now writing in English. Long before the San Francisco Renaissance exploded with public and police clamor and articles in Time, Orlovitz was writing with a Dionysian frenzy combined with perfect control of language that has been equaled by few, if any, of the Beats."— Chad Walsh, Today's Poets (1964)

"As to Orlovitz, I find him at his best, very good. Certainly his delivery seems original."— Charles Bukowski (1958)


Gil Orlovitz, Milkbottle H, Calder & Boyars, 1967.

Milkbottle H is a tragicomedy of contemporary existence treated with compassion and bitter irony, in which all of mankind are conceived as being inextricably linked. Told with a heightened naturalism in which our thought and speech processes are reproduced with an amazing fidelity, the book may baffle and even infuriate, Yet it makes its presence felt, forcing us, almost as if against our will, to conclude we have here something very important to the heritage of modern literature.
There are two essential themes running concurrently through this monumental work, both related to the protagonist, Lee Emanuel. On the one hand we have his passion for the fifteen-year-old Rena Goldstein, and the subtle oppositions to this passion by both families. On the other hand we have the story of the death-in-progress of Lee's father, Levi Emanuel.
With Lee's second marriage, the strands of the parallel themes convulse, separate, re-form, and intertwine. In the relating of the several events and themes that spring from the fusion of the two central threads, time and characters seem to merge so that "all time is eternally present" and the people are alike, one unto the other. The physical scene is Philadelphia, with constant shuttling to New York and Los Angeles.

"A major work of fiction by any standards. It has a breadth and intricacy of vision, an audacity of technique, and an unwearying energy of expression that put it in the very front rank. Milkbottle H is a major event in the history of the American imagination." --The Scotsman

"Not since Joyce has anyone used words with such magnanimous clarity.... This book is one of the great, if not the greatest, literary achievements of our time." --Cork Examiner
In parts, Milkbottle H is lucid, gripping and richly descriptive of human experience; in parts it resorts to what, read aloud, sounds like a series of agonised grunts and groans." --Irish Times

"Milkbottle H took Gil Orlovitz ten years to publish. After struggling with its gimmicks of style ... its elaborate streams of consciousness ... its absolute jungle and jumble of words, I've come to the conclusion that it would take me ten years to understand." --Oxford Mail

"Milkbottle H is a great book, an experimental novel-into-poem. For anyone interested in the widening possibilities of the modern novel, or in gaining insight into a tragicomic human experience, the reward is immense." -- London Tribune

Gil Orlovitz, Ice Never F, Calder & Boyars, 1970.

Ice Never F is the second part in a trilogy of novels by the American poet Gil Orlovitz. The protagonist is again Lee Emanuel, living in Philadelphia, and the major personalities from the first novel--Lena Goldstein, now his wife, Lee’s parents Rachel and Levi, as well as a host of other people--appear again in it. Orlovitz has written that his aim in his books is ‘to educate a protagonist in the ramifications of the paradoxes of apparently commonplace phenomena’, and to this end he employs a variety of interrelated personal and contemporary events to suggest a ‘created presence’, in which conventional dogmas of time and character are rejected in favour of a poetic approach that celebrates the multiplicity of existence. In a long essay on Orlovitz in a recent issue of the Kenyon Review, the American critic Hale Chatfield notes that while this approach bears some resemblance to the painting of Jackson Pollock and the self-consciously absurd juxtapositions of Surrealism, Orlovitz ‘characterises himself by the intensity of his search for the significance of his own associations and his militant reluctance to let them go by without exploring themselves’. Mr Chatfield adds: ‘If Coleridge were here to evaluate Orlovitz, I am confident he would confine the Dadaist and Surrealist to the realm of fantasy--and admit, if not elevate, Orlovitz to the Kingdom of Imagination.’

Did you ever experience the sensation of shaking your brains loose from their moorings so that they become a sort of fish swimming around in your skull and once in a while look through your eyes. The fish looks at you now…
Lee Emanuel is the fish. Your skull is the book. Or you are the fish and the book is your skull. Or is it Lee’s skull…
I want to see something come out of the wall, that’s why I stare at it so intently, I want a transformation to take place in my loneliness up there on the wall that Sam Abrams paints.
The book opens with disorientation. but a creeping awareness occurs through lucid moments embedded in a rush of fractured memories. The prose is hypnotic with sentences stopping short and pulling up stakes to move elsewhere, while prior nomadic sentences slide in to occupy the now vacant real estate. Plot, such as it is, advances imperceptibly. Lee Emanuel as child, as teenager, as young adult, as approaching middle age, married, single, pursuing any number of women, all intervals interwoven with dense and coruscant (borrowed from Gil!) stitching. Lush impressionistic prose thick with neologistic flights of poetic fancy describes life anchor-moments and intricate sketches of family members and friends, the characters materializing over time, sometimes through wandering perspective, but by the end all becoming known.
Orlovitz owes a stylistic debt to James Joyce, although he is still doing his own thing here. Time is not finite as in Ulysses, for example, but rather spreads out and contracts over decades. Both time and space explode into dust. There are also some surface similarities to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, concerning time, nature as a character, interiority of multiple persons (though less regularity of shifting here, with primary focus on Lee). Imagine a compendium of several decades of one’s life, all of the pivotal events that one returns to over and over, carefully directing each scene, often unaware of how it changes from one performance to the next, only convinced of its significance as an ingredient in the substrate on which one grows one’s understanding of oneself.
Faith in words is what Orlovitz exhibits. It is definitely a poet’s novel. There is some humor here and there, perhaps just enough. One on hand we see the complicated love of a son for his parents dissected while on the other hand we experience the exquisite visceral pleasure of a child picking his nose. Lee’s world is tactile, sensual, bursting with color (violet repeats itself, for one). Some of the interior babble is just that, but it never lasts long enough to engender frustration.
A partial list of themes treated in varying degrees of depth: family relationships, romantic relationships, war, Army life, madness, mystery and confusion of childhood, interpersonal attraction in its many forms, urban life (specifically Philadelphia) both pre- and post-WWII, first and second generation immigrant experience in America (specifically Jewish), coming-of-age, death, personal and societal morality, love (its glory and its passing), spirituality (specifically Judeo-Christian), art and creativity, humanity, existence…
Style notes: Orlovitz eschews apostrophes and chapter breaks, while wreaking havoc with capitalization and sentence structure. (It’s a lot of fun.)
Either it is the astonishment of the absolute indifference, that defense against astonishment, the ultimate defense, the complete absence of feeling except that which informs you you operate in a body. But at any time the astonishment may burst open, and I am not Lee Emanuel, I tell you I have no name, I tell you I have not been born, I tell you I know nothing about death—I can tell you only that I fornicate, eat, shit, feel terror—but that that could be anyone walking down the street, ascending a stairway, interviewing a prospective employee, compassionating a beggar—I ask you; who does not feel all these things? Is this a distinctive personality? a precisely differentiated human being? who can possess at times the faculty of total recall and in other hours remember only a jumble. - S. D. Stewart

gil orlovitz: an astonishing faith in words
Gil Orlovitz was a writer who never quite made it, though not for lack of trying. Known primarily for his poetry, though even then not widely and more so after his death, Orlovitz also wrote and published two novels and many short stories, as well as penning and producing several plays. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Orlovitz served four years in the Army during WWII, after which he wrote and published prolifically during the 1950s and 1960s. He died in 1973 alone and destitute at age 55, a few years after the publication of his second published novel, Ice Never F.
Orlovitz’s writing can be described as avant-garde or experimental, and his novels as anti-novels or “no-novels,” as Book World reviewer (and Joycean scholar) Kevin Sullivan designated Milkbottle H, Orlovitz’s first published novel. Sullivan goes on to suggest a definition for this new “no-novel,” as a “genre that no longer experiments with form but discards all form and concentrates on the presentation of immediately felt experience or, more accurately, allows that experience to present itself.” Certainly Orlovitz read Joyce, and there is a Joycean flavor to Ice Never F, written as it is in an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. But being a self-contained novel, microcosmic in its deep reflection of the author’s own experiences, it bears little resemblance to Joyce’s work in content. This novel was part of a planned trilogy and, according to Guy Daniels in his “Notes Toward a Bibliography of Gil Orlovitz,” was actually intended to precede Milkbottle H. The third book, known in manuscript form as “WFFM,” was never published, though according to Daniels, it had been read by Anais Nin, who tried unsuccessfully to get it published. At the time of writing (1978), Daniels noted his suspicion that the manuscript was “still around in somebody’s files.” A short story manuscript also came into the custody of UK publisher Marion Boyars, publisher of Orlovitz’s first two novels, but this collection never saw publication.
Milkbottle H, while received quite favorably by critics in the UK and Germany, did not fare so well in Orlovitz’s home country. American critics for the most part panned the book, with only one extant positive review to be (easily) found (the Sullivan one referred to above). Reviews of the second book, Ice Never F, are even more difficult to track down, suggesting that it received even less attention. While I have not yet read Milkbottle H, from both my understanding of that book and through having already read Ice Never F, I wonder if the critical reception would have been better if that latter novel had indeed been published first, as Orlovitz intended, for it may have been a degree or two more accessible. Certainly if either book had appeared just a few years later when the American postmodern novel was beginning to more widely infiltrate popular readership, it would likely have fared better.
If Gil Orlovitz had not passed on so prematurely, would he have finally found wider success? It’s hard to say. He wrote from the margins of society, and certainly some writers who share that marginal ground have eventually garnered a larger readership. But the literary past abounds with so-called experimental writers whose popularity rose and waned during their lifetimes, or never even exceeded a modest plateau. Once they are gone, though, it is ultimately up to us as readers (and reviewers) to resurrect them. The fate of their literary legacies rests solely in our willingness to read and share the wonders of their words. It is in this spirit that I share my review of Gil Orlovitz’s novel Ice Never F.
Chatfield, Hale. Literary Exile in Residence. The Kenyon Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1969), pp. 545-553
Daniels, Guy. Notes Toward a Bibliography of Gil Orlovitz. The American Poetry Review. Vol. 7, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 1978), pp. 31-32
Fagan, Edward R. Disjointed Time and the Contemporary Novel. The Journal of General Education. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jul 1971), pp. 151-160




The Award Avant-Garde Reader, ed. by Gil Orlovitz,Award Books, 1965.

From the back-cover: "The Avant-Garde Scandal - No writing in our time has caused such controversy as this. The movement has been a source of inspiration...and scandal. The writers have been praised...and damned. The works have won best-sellerdom...and have been suppressed. Now you can make up your own mind! Here are nine exciting stories from around the world, by writers at the very pinnacle of the avant-garde movement. "Proclaim Present Time Over" - William Burroughs; "Passage de Milan" - Michel Butor; "The Fantom of Marseilles" - Jean Cocteau; "The Open House of Asmodeus the Tortoise" - Peter Jones; "Wakerobin" - Thomas McEvilley III; "I'm Just in Sparta on a Visit" - Gil Orlovitz; "Ravenna" - Antonio Pizzuto; "Capriccio Italiano" - Edoardo Sanguinetti; "Someone Just Like Me" - Sol Yurick

Gil Orlovitz was born in Philadelphia and served in the Second World War. For some years he has been highly regarded by his fellow writers, but it was only with the publication of Milkbottle H that he reached a wider public. He has always been interested in the theatre and has written several plays and has also published many volumes of poetry and short stories. He is married with three children and now lives in New York.
There is this: http://phillysound.blogspot.com/2006_... which has a selection of his poetry.