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99: The New Meaning by Walter Abish

Abish, Walter. 99: The New Meaning. Providence: Burning Deck, 1990.

American author Walter Abish is probably most often mentioned for his first novel Alphabetical Africa, which is written in a kind of beginning of word lipogram (I’ll review it in the future). 99: The New Meaning is a more recent and less known book consisting of five short texts from fourteen to twenty-six pages in length. While the pieces are “by” Abish they are not, technically, “written by” him, rather they are all collaged, or, as he has it, “orchestrated” (9, as are all other unpaginated quotes).

In his introduction Abish briefly explains how he created the book. For the piece titled “99: The New Meaning” he states that he used 99 passages from page 99 of 99 different books by 99 authors. The number 99 is “mystically significant” to him (similarly, Queneau often worked numbers that he considered significant into his works). “What Else”, a “European pseudo-autobiography” was created from 50 “self-portraits, journals, diaries, and collected letters”. “Skin Deep” and “Reading Kafka in German” revolve around Flaubert and Kafka, respectively, taking passages from their work, biographies, letters, criticism, etc. A fifth piece “Inside Out” remains unexplained but is also a collage.

As one reads the book one is unavoidably drawn to the collaged-nature of the texts by the numbers that precede each passage, signifying the number of words in each passage. These signs keep the reader from too smoothly blending the passages together. Abish does not cite any of the sources for these passages, and most remain quite obscure, either in their brevity or lack of clear indicators (“About time too. I’m worn out.” (66)). A few offer indentifiers for those familiar with the works quoted (I recognized two passages from Queneau). In the end, he tries to erase the origin of the texts, yet by retaining the numbers before each he does not subsume them into a homogenous text. He is not plagiarizing, nor is he simply quoting.

The five short pieces — he calls them “explorations” — read like dreamscapes: characters appear and disappear, pronouns shift genders, landscape come into view and fade away, dialogues come and go. The reader does not pass smoothly through the works, yet the passages do blend together at points. The reader fills in blanks, connects dots, if they are willing to put in the effort, though it is almost unavoidable I think (creating narrative is rather second nature to most of us).

Some of the passages even seem to refer back to the text itself, though we know they are referring to some other text (unless, sneakily, Abish has hidden some of his own words in the book):

We have no difficulty in recognizing the interplay and mutual illumination of two worlds in this example, but the challenge is more severe when it is not clear who is speaking, where the ordering of the parts is less controlled or where there are more than two parts. (54)

This succinctly shows the difficulty for the reader: connecting any two passages can be done rather easily, but when the passages proliferate, the connections become more and more problematic. In this sense, the explorations benefit from their brevity. I found them much more readable than Burroughs’ cut-up novels such as The Soft Machine. Perhaps the “this example” is the text itself.

I was never quite taken in by this “automatic writing.” But I have enjoyed the game for its own sake: an only son, I would play it alone. Now and then, I used to stop writing and pretend to hesitate so that I could feel I was, with my furrowed brow and far-away look, A WRITER. Besides, I adored plagiarism, through snobbery, and I deliberately carried it to extremes, as will be seen. (109)

Ironically that “as will be seen” comes on the penultimate page of the book. We have already seen. This passage also refers us back to Queneau and “automatic writing”. The author of this text (could it be Queneau? Or some other former Surrealist?) mocks automatic writing in opposition to the work of the writer.

Over all, “What Else” and “Skin Deep” are the best pieces. “What Else”, collected from various personal writings, maintains a first person “I” narrator, which allows us to more easily connect the passages and build up the narrative in disconnected bits of life lived. “Skin Deep”, on the other hand, maintains coherence with a certain thematic unity revolving around Flaubert and his travels to Tunisia (perhaps my own preference for Flaubert over Kafka causes me to prefer “Skin Deep” to “Reading Kafka in German”).

As far as constraint goes, “99: The New Meaning” offers the best example: 99 passages, 99 different authors/books, all from page 99. There are varying potentialities for the appropriation of others’ work for the creation of new literature. Even if not directly using the passages themselves, they could serve as the basis for semantic (Roussel’s Method) or syntactic (Homosyntaxism) constraints.

Oddly, after reading this book, I went on to read Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, and at the end of the book I found a passage that I recognized from Abish’s book. Maybe I will go on to find more as I continue reading. In this way, the book almost works as an odd commonplace book.