Negativeland by Doug Nufer

Nufer, Doug. Negativeland. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004.

I first heard of Doug Nufer online. He wrote an article in Seattle’s “The Stranger” about the Oulipo Compendium. Following some links and searches I discovered his novel Never Again at ubu.com and then this novel, Negativeland. With glowing blurbs by Harry Mathews and Gilbert Sorrentino, the gold standard of English constrained literature, I had high expectations for Nufer’s work, and I started out with this one. I was not disappointed; in fact, my expectations were exceeded.

Negativeland tells the story of Ken Honochick, “Chick” to his travelling companion, as he crosses the country with his friend Miriam. Ken won two gold medals in the backstroke at the Munich Olympics of 1972, and now he’s unemployed and persona non grata to many. As Ken and Miriam travel from Seattle to Florida, they revisit numerous locations from Ken’s past. As they travel forward in time, a series of flashbacks go chronologically backwards in time, so we start in the middle and move both ways as the book progresses.

This organization of time makes the flashback episodes a work of ellipsis. At first it is hard to completely grasp how Ken got to where he is. There is a mysterious sounding “agency” that at first is unexplained and made me think of none other than CIA (probably because of Mathews’ most recent). There is a beautiful wife and her executive father. There is a chain of health spas. The details fill in as the book goes on. We see the post-Olympic fame of Ken, how he cashes in on that fame, and how it all falls apart. At the same time Ken and Miriam have their own, not unconnected, road trip adventures visiting casinos, race tracks, abandoned commercial towns, and past-their-prime attractions.

The chapters are numbered like a countdown from -6 through -5 all the way to 0, recalling both the forward and backwards movement of the narrative. This bi-directional movement also recalls the backstroke with which Ken won his medals, moving forward but looking backwards.

While the title connects to this backwards movement, Negativeland also refers to the constraint at work in the novel. Each sentence is written with some kind of negative construction. Often this is just the use of a “not”, “never”, or “none”, but Nufer is not so obvious or strict with how he creates the negative sentences. This constraint is echoed not just in the narrative time movement but also in the losses Ken endures in the flashbacks and the kind of negative sum that amounts from the mass of media and advertising schemes that fill Ken’s past. While Ken’s story is personal it also casts a critical eye on the advertising, mass media, fame, and the intrusive personal interest that goes along with it which saturates contemporary society.

Once I started the book I didn’t want to stop reading. It is a well told story that is incisive, often funny, and skillfully written. The prose is not overburdened with description. The story is written with Ken as the “I” narrator and he does not wax poetic or overstate his story.

Almost at the end of the novel, a child asks him for a bedtime story:

The kid seemed unreal. I didn’t know how long he’d been there, but then he said, “Tell me a story,” not startled or scared.
“You don’t want to hear any of my stories. My stories have no morals, they go the wrong way, and the heroes aren’t people you’d want to be or even meet. Don’t you want a drink of water, instead?”

While providing a commentary on the novel itself this passage also shows a small variety of the negative constructions and how some of them (the first sentence in the passage) are less obvious than others.

I am delighted to have discoverd Doug Nufer. I’d recommend this book to just about anyone. As well as being a fine novel in itself it is also a great example of the use of constraint, how it doesn’t necessitate odd structures or circumlocutions and can be integrated into the theme of a work. As soon as I finished Negativeland, I started on his novel Never Again, which is written without repeating any words. It is damn impressive. More on that when I finish it.