Rain Taxi, Spring 2002|
By Doug Nufer
Granary Books, 2001
(D.A.P., dist.), $17.95 paper (496p)
Kenneth Goldsmith has a novel approach to poetry: He records chunks of experience and releases the transcriptions as books. The books resemble fiction, as his observations take prose form, but his focus on the bits and pieces of language (to the exclusion of fiction's standard preoccupation with plot, character, and theme) gets his work consigned to a peculiar dustbin of poetry. No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 (The Figures, 1997) displays sounds and phrases he collected over the period noted in the title. Fidget (Coach House, 2000) is his tape-recorded notation of the moves his body made in a single day. And now, Soliloquy consists of every word he said in one week.
This book is less refined than his earlier transcriptions, in that the author doesn't mediate his observations as he does in Fidget or arrange phrases as he does in No. 111. It's even less refined than a: a novel, the minimally edited (and somewhat designed) series of transcribed tape recordings produced by the Andy Warhol Factory in the 1960s. Yet Soliloquy is perhaps the purest example of Goldsmith's transcription methodology. It is a quintessentially unwritten book. Sentences veer all over the place, crashing into fragments as they're jammed one after another into long stretches that break only at the end of the day. Each day gets a chapter, called an "act." For almost 500 pages all you get is what Goldsmith says, in nonstop one-sided conversations with his wife, friends, pets, and everyone else he talks to, in person or on the phone, in a chatty vernacular that's mercifully devoid of overt self-conscious displays of wit and wisdom. He refers to his project once in a while, but a hidden microphone lacks the intrusive absurdity of the cinema verite camera as it monitors the stuff of everyday life. Now that anyone in terrorized America is subject to surveillance, Soliloquy might even cultivate sympathy for those poor bastards in the intelligence sector who must listen to every scrap of verbiage that comes over the wires and through the air.
So, in addition to being unwritten, is this book unreadable? Like Goldsmith's other books, Soliloquy defies anyone who would read it straight through while also inveigling the curious to pick it up and have a go. Skip around, zoom ahead, avoid the web site shop talk of his day job, cruise the prattle of the dog walks, savor literary gossip over lunch with Marjorie Perloff, and ogle the unspeakable practices of natural acts. Despite its fidelity to quotidian tedium, the book does manage to generate a kind of plot as you may wonder and the subjects finally discuss how they feel about more or less exhibiting their intimate moments. While the bulk of all of this is necessary for the book's sheer existence, it's not necessary to read the whole thing in order to appreciate it.
What is necessary? This is the question experimental work often poses, even if such inquiry exposes the work's weaknesses. Although Goldsmith's recorded experience is much different from that of Warhol's dopey superstars, Soliloquy takes a certain risk by replicating a technique that may well have been exhausted by a previous avant-garde. Then again, techniques that don't draw attention to themselves or question the necessity of their existence stalk the literary earth with all of the clout of dinosaurs. Publish a novelized memoir and the slightest deviation from the standard issue of tropes may get you accused of originality. Publish an experimental work that is substantially unique but for one or two predecessors, and you're a copycat.
The value and fun of Soliloquy is that it raises such questions and refuses to explain them away by taking dead aim at the meaning of it all.