Text as Aesthetic Object

Louis Armand, The Garden. Salt Publishing, 2001. $11, £7.95 UK.

So much Australian writing has grappled with Eurocentric conceptualizations of the land and landscape that when one comes across a book entitled, simply, The Garden by an Australian writer, one can be certain that whatever it contains it most probably won't be simple. Terra nullius was, of course, believed to be the antipathy of cultivated, controlled space. Significantly, contemporary Antipodean problematizing of how place might be seen or articulated has far-reaching effects, both critically and creatively. Radical destabilizing of the possibility of singular perspective and point of view, literally and metaphorically, has opened many unexpected and experimental spaces.

It is appropriate, then, that of the descriptive terms which spring to mind in relation to Louis Armand's recently published novella, The Garden, avant-garde may be one of the most fruitful. As Julia Kristeva has argued, poetic language, the avant-garde and other ruptures of the symbolic fabric can be regarded as accompanying "crises within social structures and institutions" (Desire in Language). Such crises return us to the notion of a space or a tear, through which that which is suppressed by the dominant symbolic structures may surface.1 Yet, while the historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century has been much defined, even desiccated, and the crises involved explored, one might well ask what can this term mean in a contemporary, post-modern context and what might it mean when applied to contemporary literature?

In Theorizing the Avant-Garde, Richard Murphy explores some of these issues in detail.2 For Murphy the avant-garde text may, to some extent, be described as the staging of subjectivity as fragmentary and discontinuous, as a constellation of personae or as a series of mutually conflicting and contradictory roles played out by seemingly separate figures. Through various strategies avant-garde texts are concerned with this dramatisation of subjectivity, not via traditional narrative formats or realism, which derive from the Cartesian concept of a coherent or continuous self or lyric "I." Rather, avant-garde writing explores the aesthetic construct of subjectivity through montage, displacement and discontinuity and in the process disassociates itself from, and deconstructs, the hierarchies of modernism while nevertheless still being entangled with modernism. Which leads Murphy to conclude that much of what is claimed as post-modern today actually either coincides with, or grows from the avant-garde.

Needless to say, "the decentered subject" and "representational instability" are hardly at the core of most "best-selling," or even "literary" prose today, in spite of the fact that these are issues daily to be confronted in a myriad of contexts - which is why Salt is to be congratulated for publishing this mesmeric little book. Not that Armand is an unknown quantity; his work has appeared in journals since the early 1990s, and in numerous anthologies with volumes of poetry published in the US, UK, Continental Europe and Australia, including three major collections: Sťances (Twisted Spoon), Land Partition (Textbase) and Inexorable Weather (Arc).

While Armand has clearly established himself as a creative force to be reckoned with in contemporary poetry, The Garden, however, marks a new departure in his work. Although it might be considered a prose poem, the book eludes easy definition. Unsurprisingly, for those acquainted with his other work, it is a text which crosses boundaries bearing many similar concerns and idiosyncrasies as his poetry.

At first glance The Garden is daunting. It flows in elegantly, suggestive but unpunctuated prose down the page in a narrow column. This format draws attention to the physical presence of what is on the page first, the text itself as an aesthetic object. It tends to disrupt a conventional reading approach to what appears to be a work of fiction - more banally, the desire to proceed in a linear fashion from beginning to end. For the critic, it also presents a challenge to the conventions of citation - again concerned with beginnings and endings and how to determine an inherently unified quotable portion of a run-on text without distortion.

However, despite the initially resistant surface, The Garden is so thoughtfully and beautifully written that Armand succeeds in drawing the reader into a complex, multi-layered and ultimately undecidable tale, which defies reduction to a simple narrative. More specifically, The Garden approximates what Roland Barthes neologistically nominates as a scriptable, or writerly text, which calls attention to its own rhetorical techniques, to its own artistry, the goal of which is "to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (S/Z).3 Armand forces readers to take on the whole notion of the space, not only around the words on the page but also in the "story." The reader is obliged quite explicitly, due to the perversion of the conventions of punctuation, of narrative voice and so on, to step into the flow of the "story" wherever s/he will, and make of it what s/he will.

In this sense The Garden follows some of the traces of the nouveau roman in what Chris Keep refers to as its "austere tone, precise physical descriptions, heightened sense of ambiguity with regards to point of view, disjunctions of time and space, and self-reflexive commentary on the processes of literary composition."4 Indeed, Armand seems indebted to Alain Robbe-Grillet in regard to some of the ways in which he frustrates desire for a straight-forwardly coherent or realist structure by employing an overlapping pattern, where female and male voices create a mise en abyme world of stories within stories. Robbe-Grillet's assertion, in Pour un nouveau roman, that the traditional novel (in its narration, adherence to the unities of time and place etc.) is divorced from "the discontinuous and aleatory nature of modern experience" also returns to a vocabulary largely contiguous with that of the avant-garde.5

The title, coupled with the cover image, designed by Armand himself, suggests not only Eden, as a lost mythical place of origin, but also of Hieronymus Bosch's horrific Garden of Earthly Delights, an antipodean or overturned Eden. Moreover, the cover image, with its references to Bosch, its assemblage of seductive images and cross-section anatomical drawings of a female torso is worth remarking upon. Visually, the erosions of words, and bodies, the overwriting, scratching and blotting out, and repetitions, prefigure the text's unstable relation to origins (physical and metaphysical) and signal the blurring of distinctions between "high" and "low" art favoured by postmodernity. The allusions to both paradise and fall, pleasure and torment permeate the text which follows, where self and sanity, loss and longing, death and desire might be identified as recurring "themes."

Appropriate to the Edenic frame, the text develops around a female and male voice, or rather voices, which overlay each other with the effect of montage. The book opens in a space apparently between sleep and waking with a depressed female voice, mentally reconstructing her physical, waking self:

                              eyes lips dreams & then night goes first night & then day &
                              she must open her eyes & confront that other that intractable
                              real of light & solid objects but eyes need not be open for this
                              to be real eyes could be shut one could still be able to sense
                              to listen to recall impressions this body this bed this room the
                              words speak themselves from somewhere further on [1]

This voice/narrative is spliced with a harsher male voice, the voice or narrative of, perhaps, the writer. The shifts in voice are bridged with subtlety, and upon closer inspection are far from arbitrary. In the first of these slippages the woman's narrative segues with the male voice just as the female voice reaches a crisis in trying to gain her bearings, retracing, just as the reader finds her or his eye wandering back through the words on the page, some unlocatable, non-existent point of origin:

                              as if i had followed one by one all the steps of the route chosen
                              going back to the start every time a doubt or suspicion directed
                              me there in other words i have not been allowed i have not
                              allowed myself to arrive at a single conclusion without having
                              retraced all the thoughts that precede it but is that even possible
                              chance when i seek it is beyond my reach i could say it escapes
                              me but it is not from me it escapes since i have never had it in
                              my grasp & in fact can barely conceive it & at the same time
                              something resembling a memory breakdown sets in i begin to
                              be afraid of forgetting as though unless i made a note of
                              everything i would be unable to hold onto any part of it [4]

The male voice is introduced on the words "pass away" just as he is returning from a woman's funeral. This word play upon euphemism, just as the female voice first disappears, is nonchalant, missable and is illustrative of the careful crafting of Armand's writing. The narratives lead downward in a wandering journey through a grim, urban, memoryscape, alluding in part to Orpheus and Eurydice. This is a descent into the underworld of both the city and the self, where descriptions and details proliferate and multiple possible stories emerge. To whom do these voices belong? What is their relation to each other? Is the female voice created by the male "author" or the male voice a figment of her hysterical imagination? Does she commit suicide, or does he kill her off as a character in a work of fiction? Each layer of narrative opens further questions of guilty desire, complicity and the implicit theatricality of (self) analysis:

                              always the suspicion in the back of his mind that he will have
                              wanted her to die that her death was somehow pre-empted
                              by his desiring it the idea that everyone has a double the
                              concurrence of two souls a spectator & an actor one who
                              speaks & one who answers [34]

The plot structure of these stories does not unfold dramatically onto an epiphany, or resolution, their conflict remains traumatically and threateningly present from beginning to end. Each voice is, in some respect, excessive in its self doubt and self examination, so that from the very beginning, their identities cannot be fixed their activities cannot be verified against any 'truth'. And yet these voices emerge not as stagey inquiries or vehicles of abstract concepts but as painful and engaging subjects.

In the end this is perhaps the supreme irony, and simultaneously the chief achievement of the book. Amidst a labyrinth of fragmentary unreliable narratives which the reader may thread together as s/he pleases, these voices ring true. The Garden is an extraordinary piece of fiction which succeeds at being both mesmeric and traumatic, avant-garde and contemporary while evading the fetishized, self-consciousness trickiness of what is usually considered postmodern.

Clare Wallace edits The Prague Review.

1 Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language, Oxford: Blackwell 1982 p.125.
2 Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde, Cambridge: CUP 1999.
3 Roland Barthes, S/Z, Trans. Richard Miller. London: Cape 1975 p.4.
4 Christopher Keep, The Electronic Labyrinth, www.jefferson.village.edu/elab/hfl0260html.
5 Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un nouveau roman. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit 1963. See also Keep et al., The Electronic Labyrinth.