BJORSQ Revived

Review by JR Foley

1998.6
Matthew Roberson
FC2, 2002

98.6
Ronald Sukenick
FC2, 1975/1994


     Two disclosures up front: (1) Matt Roberson solicited an essay from me and published it in Musing the Mosaic: Approaches to Ronald Sukenick (SUNY Press, 2003); and (2) Ron Sukenick's 98.6 is one of my favorite novels.

     Old stories have always begotten new stories. To speak of novels only, the very first one, Don Quixote, was the bastard son of Amadis de Gaul and who knows how many other possible paters of Medieval romance. There's Homer's Odyssey-and-Joyce's Ulysses. 98.6 itself has a number of uninvoked affinities with Hawthorne's Blythedale Romance. About the time 98.6 first appeared Kathy Acker began appropriating Cervantes, Dickens, Sextus Propertius, Faulkner, Rimbaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini and any number of others to tell herstory. I doubt, however, any two novels are more intimately filial-paternal than 1998.6 and its progenitor.

     For those of you who have not yet enjoyed the delights of 98.6, I quote its wonderfully concise blurb:

A group of people, trying to contend with the failure of hope that took place at the end of the sixties, withdraws from what they call "The Dynasty of the Million Lies" and creates a settlement in the woods of the far west. These refugees from our culture, trying to live a healthy, normal life as pioneers of a latter-day frontier, find they are forced to pay heavily for their retreat in terms of sexuality, death, and insanity. The novel consists of three parts: "Frankenstein", "The Children of Frankenstein", and "Palestine". The first section is a disjointed documentary collage expressing the violent chaos of the culture, the second is a narrative about the settlement with its communal and sexual experimentation, and the third, "Palestine", is a utopian vision of Israel that takes place on a perfect kibbutz in which all problems are solved. 98.6 is a novel that marks the end of a generation of hope without giving in to hopelessness.

     True ... to the surface of things. The only misleading element in this description is the absence of the narrator's comic deadpan assurance throughout that he's making it all up. But as he says of the "State of Israel" in "Palestine:" "We are capable of living in a state in which certain things that have happened have not. At the same time that they have." And vice versa. It's all made up, it's all imagined, it's all lived, it's all real.

     These paradoxes and necessities are what also drive the narrator of 1998.6. I will not detail even a little of the myriad correspondences between the two narratives. Suffice it to say that 1998.6 is also divided into three parts named "Frankenstein", "The Children of Frankenstein", and "Palestine" that roughly parallel 98.6's "disjointed documentary collage" of cultural chaos, a "settlement" of more or less "communal and sexual experimentation," and a visit via TV/Internet to a wrily idealized "Televisrael". The settlement is not West coast, however, but Midwestern, on the barely noticed shores of Lake Michigan. Instead of the Monster communal barn built of unfinished redwood, plywood, occasional scrap metal and colored glass, bull sperm and yucca sap, the latter day settlement is simply an old three-story Mansion "just across the tracks along the wrong side of the river." The eight inhabitants of the Monster have fled diverse lives as civil rights lawyer, go-go dancer, carpenter, sculptress, auto mechanic, teacher's college dropout, businessman, macramé knotter, writer. The Mansion, on the other hand, houses eight personalities almost as diverse, but they're all grad students, arts and letters majors at that.

     The main correspondence, however, is the prose in which the seventeen of them live: from 1975 through 1998 a continuous run-on deadpan colloquial erudite stand-up punny funny sparely-punctuated monologue articulating everything in its path but trying always to go beyond, to speak and translate bjorsq the language that keeps the secret of the Ancien Caja, the language no one can understand. Roberson's mimicry of Sukenick's style is not only perfect, it is as spontaneous and inventive as Sukenick's; which is to say it riffs on into a voice of its own without losing the timbre of the other for a beat. Listen:

98.6: 10/23 he has a thing and that is that he's only interested in the extraordinary. He thinks that the extraordinary is the answer to The Problem. For example he'd rather sit home and watch the hummingbird at the feeder outside his window than go through the motions of a common seduction with nothing special about it. Hummingbirds are special birds the way dolphins are special animals they have a certain perspective a kind of openmindedness about their intelligence that makes him feel kin. Ariel was a hummingbird. He believes in powers meaning the extension of the ordinary to the point of the incredible and he believes these powers are real though they can't be willed and they belong to everyone who isn't blinded by the negative hallucination of our culture. A negative hallucination is when you don't see something that's really there. ... He believes that to get rid of negative hallucination you have to be enchanted. He believes all people need to enchant their lives but that only those succeed who neither search nor close their minds but simply remain open to the unknown. He thinks that this is the source of all civilization.

1998.6: 10/01 he has a thing about the extraordinary. He's been told that the extraordinary is an answer to The Problem and he wants to believe in its powers meaning the extension of the ordinary to the point of the incredible. He wants to think that these powers are real that they belong to anyone who isn't blinded by the negative hallucinations of our culture in other words not seeing things that are really there letting the ordinary blot out the extraordinary. Get it. But how to get it the extraordinary sitting home reading watching tv playing on the computer never going wherever outside somewhere else finding the extraordinary making it happen. Maybe it's not out there but in here he thinks. In where in here. Waiting. For what for him. Then what should he do. The best he can is what he figures he makes the most of what's at hand latches onto small things pulls them together mixes them up. ... He's a recycling machine is what he thinks. Even his ideas of the extraordinary they're other people's ideas he's taken them up taken them over now they're his in a way. As long as they're part of become part of his experience then they're his own original to him. Is this enough is this extraordinary or extraordinarily typical. What's the difference. He doesn't know but it's the best he can do he imagines.

     In fact, he does more. These extended quotes from very early in both novels give not only a good flavor of Sukenick and Roberson riffing on Sukenick, they go to the heart of the matter. The specific imagined by both for what ails them is openness to the extraordinary, the unknown, indeed pursuit and exploration of the unexperienced. Sukenick finds a clue and a metaphor in the Yucatan, both in a Mayan pyramid and in a jungle clearing pulsing with millions of yellow butterflies. Out of a dream comes a nonsense phrase, the Ancien Caja. Literally it means old box but it doesn't mean old box. Here's the character "Matt" in 1998.6 trying to explain The Problem and the Ancien Caja in the dissertation on Sukenick he's having, in fact, extraordinary difficulty making headway on:

"The Problem," as he puts it, is that Frankenstein is a world in which information is supplied by the news media, "ABC network news feature pyramids," and the information supplied is likely to be about new directions in an insatiable consumer desire for goods (and who can tell whether the news media report or create that desire) the pyramids discussed by ABC news "are the latest consumer craze sweeping the nation ..." Frankenstein is, according to Sukenick, a world in which "people are not in touch it's dull and sometimes painful" and happening on a mass scale. Or, rather, Frankensteinians have a mass of scales before their eyes and are subject to negative hallucinations ...
     That "pyramids" are the latest consumer craze is, of course, significant because for "him," pyramids symbolize "The Answer" to "The Problem." This answer, for the narrator, is "The Ancien Caja," a becoming-earthly; this Ancien Caja is "of the earth ... heavy scaled with rust and mold buried." It is primitivism, nature, the reality of death, the extraordinary. The Ancien Caja is, in fact, like many things (just as are The Problem and The Answer); it is "like the jungle air filled with butterflies...like the slow throbbing of the fountain of blood in your hard prick your cranky mind for once asleep in the cradle of your body. It's like the narrow hewn steps under massive stone blocks...like the secret code on the leopard's fur and the tortoise shell."
     The Ancien Caja is not actually even "like" these many things, but it "is" these many things....

     And many more as well. The "Ron" in 98.6 goes west in quest of the Ancien Caja, not so much to discover or capture it as to create it, for himself and a few others. As they create it together in their clearing in the redwoods, within sight of snowy peaks and a short walk to the ocean, he makes a novel of their efforts, or makes their efforts with a novel. Whichever or both; but it is not only an escape from Frankenstein, the "Dynasty of a Million Lies," and its ongoing neverending Slaughter, it's an attempt to create new life out of the despair that is being escaped.

     The "Matt" of 1998.6 experiences a crisis of meaning and direction no less pressing than "Ron's" in 98.6, even though the historical moment of his Frankenstein is neither violent nor radicalized. (Mischievously "Matt" conjures up a second character named Matt, as Sukenick has two different Joans in his book, just so we don't get too sure-footed for the fun and games.) The important fact of the Frankenstein of 1998.6 is that it's the same Frankenstein as 98.6's, only grown larger, denser, even more intricate. Twenty-five years of tumultuous history have not improved it. As Roberson paraphrases Sukenick: "Let's say that Frankenstein never recovered from The Big Depression. It was such a trauma to our ancestors that it got into their bloodstream their genes. And it got into our parents despite their rebellion there was still that despair all but the best gave up sold out caved into Frankenstein."

     So we are presented with the children of the Children of Frankenstein. Their immediate concerns are economic, not political (in even the generalized sense of the original Children). Will they find teaching jobs, and where, once they've completed their dissertations? Frankly, the reader doesn't care; but more to the point, the students, at heart, care almost as little. A job's a job. What they make of their lives is what they're having great trouble focusing on.

     At least as Matt sees it; and although he's always in the third person, like "Ron" in 98.6, what Matt sees, or imagines, is all we see. He's stuck on his dissertation about the novels of Ronald Sukenick, and his adviser could not be less encouraging. He worries the writer's block a lot as he watches tv a lot. He has a Wife and an unconsummated lust for a Student, with whom he imagines all sorts of consummations; but this is the chaos of Frankenstein from which he'd like to escape. Watching tv he has what Oprah calls a lightbulb moment. "... Matt thinks he can understand Sukenick by writing a novel recording whatever happens to their group they're all characters in his novel including himself this is what Sukenick would say to do." The "group" is a group of grad student friends; but, significantly, nobody we've seen before. He imagines a big old three-story Mansion "a mile off the Great Lakes," peopled with these friends, or friends-based-on-friends, four other men and three women. They are lucky, on the whole, not to suffer the intrusions of dangerous neighbors, as do the Children of 98.6.

     But they do suffer one big intrusion. Cam, an apparent loner in the attic, rigs up a digital camera on his computer and invites his housemates to "[o]ffer images of their worlds themselves share snapped shots with anyone who's interested in looking." He leaves his computer on 24/7 for any of them to act out in front of or write up whatever. The distinct general unenthusiasm of the group for this proposal leaves them unprepared for what does happen. Only much later when a creepy enthusiast starts bombing them with emails do they discover what we have known and as fellow voyeurs participated in all along. Matt sneaks up to the attic to record, under names borrowed, natch, from 98.6, all their comings and goings, ups and downs, sexual ins and outs. (The book even prints pictures he's taken of them with his own miniature digital cam.) He plays god and devil, gets under their skins brings them to life.

     Roberson takes a big risk in holding a mirror up to his most likely readers, current and former English major/grad students, instead of winging out with a fantasy of escape like Sukenick. (Sukenick once spent a couple weeks in a commune in upstate New York, but never moved in, much less moved out to help build one on the other coast. 98.6 is autobiographical, assuredly, but not in any anecdotal sense.) Grad students might relate only too well, but shy from the pain, however dull: the malaise. Roberson meets the risk, however, with unresting comic energy, a verbal playfulness as entertaining as Sukenick's, and also, whenever he chooses, gripping insights into his characters, female as well as male.

     There is much else going on in both novels. Both impel their Children to explore, through sex and beyond sex, love, pain, jealousy, insularity. Sukenick is always at his most comic when he's most serious; and this must have struck a deep resonance in Roberson, for he behaves similarly without striking a single false note. Sukenick's recurrent punchline is bjorsq, as in Vex'd pig hymn waltz fuck bjorsq, a pangram (including every letter of the alphabet only once). He likes to make up pangrams and left-over words because they sound much more meaningful than the words and phrases we use in every day life. "He believes that one day he's going to find a word this way that will be the key to The Problem a word that didn't exist before." Roberson carries on the quest. He revives the language of bjorsq.

     It's been said that a reader does not need to know Sukenick's book to enjoy Roberson's. I have no doubt that's true. But why cheat yourself? For this review I reread each section of 98.6 before reading the corresponding section of 1998.6, and there is simply no better way to savor the pleasures of what Roberson is up to ... and vice versa. Sukenick extends Roberson as much as Roberson extends Sukenick. Both books have fun together. Join the fun!


Ronald Sukenick contributed an extensive interview, "The Rival Tradition", as well as a short story, "life/art", to the first issue of FlashPøint.