American Book Review, March / April, 2001
by Doug Nufer
Afterword by Marjorie Perloff
Coach House Books
401 Huron Street, Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5S 2G5
112 pages; paper, $16.95
What constitutes a book and how do you read? Few writers command these questions with as much playful authority as Kenneth Goldsmith does in Fidget, which is sold as poetry, can be seen and heard at www.chbooks.com, and was compiled by taped dictation in order to provide a transcript for a performance. On the back cover and in Marjorie Perloff's afterword, we learn that three years ago Goldsmith spent thirteen hours of Bloomsday recording his basic body movements by speaking into a microphone attached to himself to fulfill a commission by the Whitney Museum for a collaboration with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and that Goldsmith went stir-crazy hanging around his apartment all day and so he went out and got drunk. But what of the text itself?
Primarily this work may have been a transcript of descriptions to serve as a script, but, after all, it is a book. Although the title may provoke readers to jump around, those who forge ahead without stopping may be rewarded for their diligence. Sections are numbered by the hour from 10:00 through 22:00. Each one is a block of prose, unbroken by paragraphs, a few pages long. At first, the action is obvious: "Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow." Cadence and diction and subject matter established, the text poses some mild moments of suspense, as you Goldsmith might wonder how the writer will handle the various basic bodily functions, whether the character will ever do anything besides urinate, masturbate, eat, and drink. Things do change, if only because Goldsmith comes up with odd ways to note actions we take for granted as he breaks down the simplest motions (drinking coffee) into even simpler elements (reaching to lift, bending the elbow, swallowing). Eventually, monotony inspires monotone: "Reach. Grasp. Reach. Grab, Hold. Saw. Pull. Hold. Grab. Push." Having exhausted that potential, Goldsmith gets loose, pouring on the wordplay a Bloomsday project would advertise. In the midst of this spree comes a rare pronoun. "Thandclapsle. Extend out in sled. Brokenicular clap in scent of body. In the chive leash forward. Stay stay, no. Rightut. Arched egg. Feet and egg platforms. I mean then a platformed body as does leave somewhat unsteadily." But just when it seems that drinking saves the day from the boring quotidian routine, the final chapter appears to be the first chapter printed backwards: ".etarapes regniferof dna bmuht thgiR. flac thgir sehctarcs dnah thgiR"
To read Fidget straight through, without peeking at any explanation, requires a weird combination of discipline and luck. How do you discover this book without having someone say, "This is an art project where some wacko tried to record every move he made in a day"? Such a pure or naïve approach, however, is simply one way to encounter this thing. Indeed, with the final chapter, Goldsmith goads you to read various ways at once. Some of the words make sense with a vengeance when reversed (the bland conjunction and preposition and" and "from" become "dna" and "morf"), undermining the author's apparent intention of recording personal events free of meaning. Most words spelled backwards, however, defy explanation or even pronunciation. It's easier to go back to the first chapter and read it word for word in reverse. The crude syntax is so flexible as to invite inversion. One man's "Buttocks drop." is another man's ".drop Buttocks." Goldsmith informs us (through Perloff) that the speech on the end of his tape was so garbled he couldn't understand what he had said, so he decided to do the reverse job. This suggests yet another rendition of the final chapter, pushing a technique used by Beckett and developed into a performance by video artist Gary Hill: Why not run the tape backwards and reproduce the words as they sound when spoken backwards? But then, the gobbledygook of the final chapter's presentation invites the reader to consider another option: skip it entirely.
Teasing the reader is an activity Goldsmith explored in his 1997 book, No. 126.96.36.199-10.20.96 (The Figures), a 600-page poem that organizes words and phrases ending in the sounds ah and er according to syllable count and alphabetical schemes. The marvel of that book is, although virtually nobody would read it all the way through, anybody could spend hours tripping through the pages. As austere as the constraints of that project may seem, Goldsmith's method (collecting phrases he read and heard between the dates in the title) yields what is essentially a big, goofy compendium of ordinary expressions: populist rather than elitist.
Although he organizes the material he collects for Fidget with a somewhat less stringent set of rules, Goldsmith must have heavily revised and edited his tapes. As Georges Perec found when he embarked on a rigorous experiment in realistic description (returning annually to one place to note "everything" there), the use of words to describe things and actions in all of their lifelike glory is fundamentally absurd. Rather than attempt the impossible (to record every voluntary and involuntary move), Goldsmith deploys a notation form that's a burlesque of efficiency, as the recurrence of key words like "swallow" and "mucus" set a brisk pace. Of all of the decisions he made, one is particularly intriguing: the limit of first-person pronouns. When "I" does appear (in the later sections), he doesn't do anything; he reflects on what happens, but these observations of his don't reveal his character or identity. He could be author, narrator, character, or some guy Goldsmith met on the subway.
Given a choice of forms and of ways to engage them, I'm tempted to take Fidget for the memoir to end all memoirs, a first-person account without the I's to see everything in the goddamn world as ripe with meaning for the author/hero to pick and then hand to you, the reader: a memoir of everyman as a human animal.
Doug Nufer holds the patent on eleven literary constraints (most of which he stole from others). Northwest Edge (Two-Girls) and Help Yourself! (Autonomedia) contain samples of his work.