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Displaying words in narrative configurations, reimagining print narrative: William H. Gass, Mark Z. Danielewski, Vanessa Place

Brigitte Félix


Cet article s’attache à la signification de l’hybridation entre le textuel et le visuel dans trois fictions américaines contemporaines, The Tunnel de William Gass, Only Revolutions de Mark Z. Danielewski et La Medusa de Vanessa Place. Dans chacun des trois romans, la narration se déploie, selon des modalités différentes, en assemblages visuels et textuels qui interrogent notre relation à la lecture. En soulignant le processus de l’inscription sur la page et en ouvrant la possibilité pour la narration de s’incarner dans de l’image, ces textes attirent notre attention sur la condition du livre et de la littérature à l’ère numérique. Ils nous mettent au défi de trouver ou d’inventer de nouvelles formes d’analyse critique adaptées à leurs configurations narratives hybrides.

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  • 1 Out of sixteen sections, in the third revised edition published in 1988, which Caws uses.

1In a collective volume of essays entitled Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print, one of the contributors, Mary Ann Caws, offers a reflection on textuality and the visual inspired by the work of architectural philosophers and conceptual artists Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins. Mary Ann Caws’ analysis centers on The Mechanism of Meaning, the book in which Arakawa and Gins present their long-term (1963-1971) research and conceptual art project on the notion of meaning. The first fifteen sections of The Mechanism of Meaning1 contain “thinking environments” (Arakawa and Gins, Preface, n.p.), photographs of panels with “exercises” drawing upon perception and thought, on such matters as the energy of meaning, its reversibility, texture, mapping, feeling, logic, and, ultimately, the meaning of meaning. These image-texts create “fields of sensibility” (Preface, n.p.) that consist of visual-verbal representations in space of the process of meaning-making, through radical revisions of habitual perception. Mary Ann Caws notes that “the reactions to the verbal and to the visual are differently temporalized, and the activities do not match” (125). The viewer-reader may feel all the more perplexed as Arakawa and Gins’ panels are “presentations of thinking—verbal, pictorial and architectural”, in ways—sometimes visually elaborate, sometimes deceptively simple—that unsettle “the conception of thought held by many textual critics” (Caws 126).

  • 2 See the beginning of the eponymous essay, “The Pictorial Turn”, in Mitchell’s Picture Theory (11 ff (...)

2Looking into the visual and textual hybridity of Arakawa and Gins’ aesthetic-conceptual system, Mary Ann Caws concludes that “[w]e are complex readers” (149) but that at the turn of the 21st century, well past the “pictorial turn” described by W.J.T. Mitchell2, “we have not learned, most of us, to be complex viewers” (149). Further in Reimagining Textuality, Charles Bernstein, responding to Mary Ann Caws’ article, states that “[l]anguage is embedded into these works [Arakawa and Gins’] not as something to be read, as on a page or even a screen, but as something to interact with in an unfolding/enfolding web” (183). The goal of their work “is neither to aestheticize the non aesthetic nor to de-aestheticize the aesthetic but rather to create a zone that is no longer subject to this oscillation” (184), which we can then experience “as an emplacement of textuality into concrete sensory-perceptual fields” (184). Consequently, the signifying system of the text and its referentiality lose pre-eminence, and the text is above all a form acting within an immediately perceptible field. The process Charles Bernstein calls “emplacement” can be understood as a re-placement of meaning in space. However, Arakawa and Gins’ artistic project cannot be summarized in the fusion of the textual and the visual. In some panels, the text — isolated words or sentences — still reads like instructions for a set of exercises: it indicates to the viewer where and how to focus her perception on the accompanying visual elements, so that she can think about, and build, the dimensions of meaning that are contained in the assemblage. There are also panels in which the embedded text is something to be more than seen: it “informs” the visual, gives it meaning and form, in the movement from watching it in its spatial display to actually reading it. There may not be much to read, but this does not necessarily eliminate the act of reading the words as an essential part of the viewing, or as a mode of interaction, without which the perception of the work would be incomplete.

  • 3 In Radiant Textuality, Jerome McGann uses this expression to include typography and the spatial dis (...)

3The introduction of the textual within the visual extends the “zone” where contemporary art unfolds, and it modifies art’s own self-perception. In similar manner, the association of visual and typographical effects in literary fiction foregrounds the materiality of the text and its “bibliographic codes”3, which are included as a narrative component. The combination of words and images in literary works is neither new nor specific to a contemporary type of creativity, as the history of literature and the history of printing both show. In the field of textual studies, especially since humanities have gone “digital”, critics have pointed out that digitization processes mostly illuminate the graphicality of writing, which was already manifest in medieval manuscripts. This graphicality was in fact set aside with the invention of the printing press, because of the limitations of print technologies (until the advent of the digital), and because the cost of reproducing images, using colored inks or composing elaborate layouts on a page was, until recently, much too high.

4In the past two decades, “the hyperrepresentational power of digital technology” (McGann, 184) has been echoed and defied by some contemporary American writers and their variously sophisticated combinations of textual narratives and visual elements in print fiction. That has become a hallmark of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novels since House of Leaves (2000) and Only Revolutions (2006). Published by Fiction Collective Two, whose catalog includes a number of novels experimenting with the visual design of text, Vanessa Place’s La Medusa (2008) may be read and also “seen”—in all senses of the verb—as a visual-typographical rewriting of Joyce’s Modernist project in Ulysses. But William Gass’s illustrated text and use of plastic typography in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife (1968), and, more recently, his novel The Tunnel (1995), can be considered two eminent forerunners of this trend in contemporary American fiction, which goes back to a now not so contemporary moment, the 1960s and 1970s.

  • 4 Blake Butler, Debra DiBlasi, Jonathan Safran Foer, Carol Maso, Lance Olsen, Steve Tomasula, to name (...)

5At that time, in addition to upsetting the narrative conventions of the 19th-century model for novels and stories, a number of writers started including images in their fictions, sometimes transforming their texts into visual performances in print. Apart from William Gass, John Barth and Letters, Donald Barthelme and his illustrated stories, Guy Davenport and his collections Tatlin! (published in 1974 and dedicated to photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard) and Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), come to mind. The new directions opened by their attention to the visual inscription of text did not close with the next generations. What was labeled “postmodernist” experimentation thirty years ago has since then been integrated into the available means of composing narrative fiction. This is no longer considered eccentric, even though this is not mainstream fiction. Today, for many authors other than Mark Danielewski4, who can be regarded as a master of the genre, the “image-text” has definitely become a mode of fiction writing.

6Like literary writing, reading as an activity is influenced by the digital turn. It has to adapt to the material and immaterial condition of electronic texts, which only further enhances the fact that reading never was something “natural”. Reading William Gass’s The Tunnel, Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions and Vanessa Place’s La Medusa makes us experience the artifice of reading, think about its modified procedures and its significance, as the boundaries between literature and the visual arts are expression of the narrator’s anti-semitism. The “tunnel” of the novel is a trope for the text, a metaphor for digging into one’s life, an image for narration as burrowing into the significance and import of words, their use and abuse. The ultimate forms of manipulation are embodied in the disturbing ambivalence of the narrator’s vision of history and of his position within that history—suggested by the mock-academic rhetoric, equivocally balancing “guilt” and “innocence” in the study of Nazism.

  • 5 We will use “narration” to refer to the act of narrating, the writing of a narrative, and “narrativ (...)

7The Tunnel starts as an exploration of the metaphor of its title, building a “whole” in dissolving. The visual narrative fictions of the digital age require to be read and watched at the same time; the reading becomes plastic, like the literary materials themselves. The visual effects that defy the linear trajectory of reading — though we know this linearity is partly an illusion — are not aftereffects of the inclusion within the pagespace of images, photographs, typographical composition and other manipulations of the text. They foreground the graphicality of the textual inscription of the story, diffract its imaginary line, and open the narration5 to iconic embodiments, which are the visual stuff that narrative fiction can also be made of.

  • 6 The “unbooklike” book is Kohler’s loose memoir, but also the author’s: Gass even wanted his Tunnel (...)

8Our discussion will center on the three novels mentioned above because of their exemplary quality, each of them showing a different mode of generating narrative in visual-verbal assemblages. In William Gass’s The Tunnel, there is a predominant reliance on the word, and thus the creation of a narrative that includes expressionist “wordspaces”, where words are expressively displayed; in most occurrences, the visual mode of the wordspace is rather mimetic. With Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, the visual mode is kinesthetic, and diegetic: the narrative is in the circulation, from the rhythm of the sentences to the organization into eight-page units of “action”, while the typography and the circular reading protocol set both reader and text in interdependent motion. As for the boxed-in narrative sequences in Vanessa Place’s La Medusa, they suggest an allegorical type of visual narrative, where Medusa is altogether the city of Los Angeles, a narrating consciousness and a brain, which literalizes William Gass’s definition of the novel as “a mind aware of a world” (Habitations of the Word 111). Focusing on what these narrative fictions look like and read like in a selection of pages will lead us to discuss the interaction between words, images and in. This is a potentially dangerous move with this book, considering the depth of the narrative tunnel, and the darkness of the narrator-tunnel digger’s mind. Yet, the “risk” of succumbing to mimetic illusion is mitigated by the restrictions that were imposed on William Gass’s mimetic ambitions for his text. It would have been too expensive “to put into the visual side of the text as much complexity and interest and continuity as is going into the auditory side” (Ziegler 112); the auditory can inexpensively be performed by the readers, but the images cannot be “performed”, they have to be given. The result that William Gass wanted to achieve, by making each page as “physical” as possible, was “to suggest […] this book’s basically unbound unbooklike character”6. The writer’s project narrative, and what this interaction does to reading.

Words At An Exhibition: Mimetic Wordspace In The Tunnel

  • 7 Or, rather, writing as “finding a form”, to use the title of a collection of essays Gass published (...)

9In her monograph on William H. Gass, Claire Maniez shows how Gass’s use of typography and page setup corresponds to the way the writer conceives writing as form7 and notation, in the creation of the fictional space. The Tunnel came out in 1995 after William Gass had worked for twenty-six years on a text that he considered a “keystone” in his carrier (Maniez 105). This is quite an apt image for someone whose writings explore “the relation of architectural form to literary form” (Ziegler 118), while he thinks of “stories” — plot — as “sneaky justifications […] interesting only when they are floors in buildings” (William Gass, Finding a Form 46).

  • 8 The text of page 174 is printed on the photograph of a grayish sheet that suggests a crumpled paper (...)

10The narrator of The Tunnel is a fifty-year old historian, William Frederick Kohler, who is working on a book entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Failing to write the introduction to his book, Kohler starts another narrative: his memoirs, from his childhood to his present day’s insipid life, dwelling a lot on his formative years as a student in the 1930s in Germany, and on his passionate love affair with a woman named Lou. These personal recollections are interspersed with considerations about history and Nazism, which include the very direct language from a hole (Maniez 106). The materiality of the book itself, the physical sense of its presence are reflected in the visual elements (drawings and designs, as well as the mention of colors), which are meant to give the illusion of the subjective identity they emanate from, that of the narrator-character Kohler. As in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, these visual components also point at “the very great ontological distance between the conceptual and the actual: text written on a grocery sack, for instance, which represents a sack of oranges Kohler and his mistress once shared together […]. If the narrator begins to write on such a bag, what does it tell you about him?” (Ziegler 112-113)8. But what William Gass does not mention is what this also does to the experience of reading. The imitation of materiality (the texturized page mimicking crumpled paper bag, 174) brings the narrative to the edge of the metaleptic game, where the fictional world beckons the reader “had to remain notional” (Ziegler 113); he kept just enough visual ingredients to allow the reader to “get the idea” which, he deplores, “is not the same as feeling the effect” (Ziegler 113).

  • 9 PdP” stands for the “Party of the Disappointed People”, for which Kholer imagines various flags an (...)
  • 10 The edition we are using is the 1999 Dalkey Archive paperback which is a black and white edition. T (...)

11The reader progressively enters the text of The Tunnel by turning a succession of pages mingling traditional editorial information and pages showing images that already belong to the fictional world of the novel: first come the inner title and author page, the copyright page; then, the second title page (without the author’s name), an unnumbered page showing two flags presented as “the pennants of passive attitudes and emotions”, the acknowledgements page, a second visual page with two drawings (the “PdP” banner9 and the “Medal for ingratitude”), the novel’s dedication to “Mary”; finally the third title page (the font size decreasing from the first occurrence), and a grey shape outlined in bold black on a white background and encircled by a black line10.

  • 11 This shows how economic constraints — the cost of a color edition — actually bear on the existence (...)

12The two pennants before the acknowledgements page list attitudes and feelings all charged with moral reprobation, like “pettiness”, “malice” or “sloth”. They cannot yet be connected to any story, but they are foretokens of the subjective mood and mode, confirmed by the narrator’s first words: “I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language” (4). Some system seems to be intended in the division of each flag into nine geometrically different sections with different colors—one for each “emotion”. In the course of reading, we discover that the flag and the medal opposite the acknowledgments page belong to the same segment of the novel’s visual universe, which shows drawings of various objects designed by the narrator for his PdP (267). But the original colors are lost in the black and white paperback edition, which also prevents any sure connection with other drawings of flags using a coded color system11, as on page 267. Nevertheless, even though the replacement of colors by nuances of gray diminishes the visual effect intended by William Gass, the pennants function as signals, whose significance will be established retroactively. They “flag” The Tunnel as a visual text to begin with. Even before the narrator’s discourse begins, they introduce a sense of uneasiness in their relative mystery. For instance, there is a clash with the dedication: the writer’s acknowledgment to his wife, Mary, is opposite the page where the narrator’s drawing of the “medal for ingratitude” appears. The juxtaposition is obviously a transgression of the separate ontological levels of “reality” and “fiction”. But whomever the medal should be awarded to (the narrator, the author—or the dedicatee...?) is secondary to the fact that the two pages face each other, in a visible comment on the stakes of interpretation in this novel. Finally, both banner and medal enclose uncommon visual emblems (geometric shapes and drawings). At this early stage in the narrative, they cannot be understood as references to any “text”, hence their disturbing aspect. They fuel the reader’s expectations for an explanatory narrative, which will be partly frustrated. In fact, the meaning of these drawings will not and does not have to be “explained” by the narrator, because it first resides in their puzzling association with the text.

13The beginning of the narrative text is delayed by the page showing a thick black line ringing an undefined shape, an irregular line which itself surrounds a patch of gray (red, in the color edition). The whole picture is somewhat reminiscent of the view of a cross section of something. It also resembles a Rorschach figure, and even produces an optical illusion of depth through the contrast between the white and gray surfaces. This enigmatic drawing announces the graphic quality of the next page, where the printed text can also be seen as an interplay of visual impressions in white (the page) and more or less deep black (the titles, the lines of text): the black lines of the circle on the left page (3) unfurl into the blackness of the title in bold capitals, “THE TUNNEL” (4); the use of capital letters and bold type embarks the letterform in the narrative by translating into scripted and significant words the black lines of the baffling image on the previous page.

14Françoise Sammarcelli’s reading of William Gass’s novel in “Le Creux et l’excès: jeux d’encre dans The Tunnel de William Gass” shows that to develop a critical analysis of such a text means to describe the texture of the narrative, and to pay a meticulous attention to all its signs, verbal and visual. The text is written and printed to be looked at, but how should we understand the insistence on the material inscription of certain words on the page — through variations in types, font size, and style? The letters are both the narrator’s and the novel’s signature as William Gass explains:

I wanted to make sure that the text which the narrator is engaged in creating is as personal, odd, and as far from the historical research and writing he has been doing as possible. You don’t find cartoons, doodles, limericks, and so on, in any ordinary history book. I wanted to convince the reader that the text he or she is reading is an entirely private one; that it has no ultimate or public aim. […] These manipulations are evidences, evidences of a mind operating very oddly, and they also personalize the text in a way that the narrator couldn’t merely by means of language, because in normal books the type is always the same in every copy. (Ziegler 111-112).

  • 12 See the following passage from Gass’s essay “Representation and the War for Reality”: “A point must (...)

15Typographic play can be likened to a stylistic signature, marking William Gass’s interest in writing as mindful notation12. But is it a reflexive metanarrative about signs and symbols, or does it work as a commentary on the narrator’s discourse, and, maybe as a counter-discourse? Does it illustrate or denounce, as in the “rat-tat” pages (23-25), where the paronomastic “rat” and “tat”, treated as onomatopoeias, are interpolated in bold type between words? Because of the thematic context, the intrusion of “rat” and “tat” is reinterpreted by the readers not as purely visual interferences but as significant noise — the sound of shootings — which cannot but evoke the mass executions conducted by the Einsatzgruppen. So the two words figure the return of the “buried” story of Kohler’s life, his relation with the deadly Nazi ideology, his ill-concealed anti-semitism. It disturbs the syntactic and narrative “order” of the “surface” text, which becomes a dense outpouring of highly alliterative sentences. Another example is provided by the “shot-gas-hang” passage (48-49), where the three words are woven into the blanks between the lines of text. They open a secondary reading space, and the words in bold type actually end up overriding the other narrative. “Reading” the words as visual signs means integrating their significance as such within the narrative construction. Kohler does not always comment on the drawings or typographical effects of what is supposed to be his text. This adds an extra layer of equivocation to his ideological position: the hierarchy of values in the visual components themselves is as equivocal as the hierarchy of values in Kohler’s narration.

16One telling example can be found on pages 30 and 31. The layout and the typography are part of the narrator’s ambiguous project of exposition and exposure, which hovers between denunciation and self-loathing. Kohler lists Jewish men’s and women’s first names in the shape of a star of David and comments on his gesture:

I write these names down slowly, as if I cared, forming the letters with a certain calm disdain. I arrange them emblematically (for am I not at play?), forming a star my imagination floods with yellow like urine. It gives me pleasure. They are strange names, for the most part; dug out of biblical crannies like tiny obstinate weeds. These are the names given demons in magic spells, filthy names, names so Jewish even their noses are hooked, their skins are swarthy; look at the kinks in those k’s, the low craft and chicanery of z. (31)

17The description continues for another six lines in the same vein. Just as the narrator’s imagination associates execration and (bodily) excretion — here, the yellow color of the star with urine —, his descriptive prose fills the page with words that refer to the crassest racist stereotypes. The sheer size of the calligram (half a page) and the transformation of “31” (the page number) into “00031”, whose lettering imitates a concentration camp tattoo number, are visually as disturbing as the narrator’s own ambivalent indulgence in such representations. There seems to be no way out of the narrator’s discursive “tunnel” of loathing and self-deprecation. The star is the visual exhibition of the discrimination latent in the “carefully conventional appearance” of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Like the academic rhetoric in the writing of the book (starting with the rhetorical balance of the title “Guilt and Innocence”), the pseudo-aesthetic aspect of the calligram barely hides the reality of disgust and death, leaving the narrator and the reader with nothing but the representation of extermination:

This star, this shape, is like my book, my history of Hitler and his henchmen (their homosexual hearts, their hermaphrodite designs), and exposes itself the way my work exposes the parts and conditions of their crime. […] Ah, my book cries out its commands, and events are disposed like decorative raisins on a cookie […]; it huffs the wind it flaps in, and soon all fog is blown from circumstance, confusion is scarred from the corn, an empty field is ringed with quotes like barbarous wire; well, in the same way this pretty pattern of names removes disgust from a dozen dossiers, rips up some threatening proclamations, decorates death like a pennant on a spear. (31)

18The contrast between pages 48-49 and pages 146-147 shows that the narrator’s ethical position and the significance of visual devices are equally unstable. After the dramatic repetition of the words “shot”, “hang” and “gas” in bold type, which disturbs the linearity of the print and of the reading, the narrator reverts to a rather benign use of mimetic typography: the vertical, stair-like succession of three occurrences of the adjective “nervous”, coinciding with the moment when Kohler is going downstairs to the basement of his home, where he is about to start the digging of an actual tunnel. Some hollowed out letters (block letters with blank inside) [“Hah!”, “Yes!”, “Pow!”, “Bam!”, “O Yes!”] on the same page seem to have been exiled from the “funnies” that the narrator earlier recalled enjoying (26-27). If this is the only explanation, then the visual play in the novel also serves to confirm the vanity of any grand narrative of any kind. Some petty facts are meant to be ridiculously present, alongside momentous events. The last page of the novel is one last picture of the three initials “PdP”, like a final punctuation mark.

19The inclusion of visual elements and the numerous typographical variations fulfill a mimetic function. They create the illusion of a presence, which is not so much that of a narrator-speaker as that of his discourse, but they also give access to the contents of the narrator-speaker’s mind through the imaging of words on the page. Thus, in The Tunnel, language is meaningfully exhibited as the site of the narrator’s and the writer’s interrogations.

20Contrary to the first pages of The Tunnel, in which there is no elaborate play with the paratext, Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is permeated from cover to cover by the fictional

21At the start of her analysis of the hybridization of “narrative and its associated temporalities” with “data and spatiality” in Only Revolutions (“Mapping Time” 176), Katherine Hayles remarks that “[w]hile the social, economic and political consequences of overwhelming amounts of data have been extensively researched, the literary implications remain under-theorised and largely unexplored” (“Mapping Time” 159). One of these implications is the “explosive increase in the kinds of reading practices afforded by the text” (159). For example, the double narrative of Only Revolutions can be read in units of eight pages (the editor’s recommendation, after Mark Danielewski’s suggestion), switching from one voice (Sam or Hailey) and one side of the book to the other regularly. The novel can also be read by following a different rhythm of alternation between the narrative voices. Whatever reading protocol is chosen, each page “incorporates within its topographic dimension no less than five distinct discourse, which incorporates the book itself. As an object, the book functions in two ontologically separate worlds: that of the fiction’s narrative, and that of the readers. Because of its all-embracing ambition, Mark Danielewski’s work on image-text seems to carry out the visual-textual project that William Gass had in mind but could not take as far as he wanted to.

Only Revolutions’s Kinesthetic Diegesis

  • 13 See the novel’s site: and K. Hayles’ “Digital Companion to Mark Z. D (...)

22The difference between The Tunnel and Mark Danielewski’s novel is not only due to extra-literary conditions. In fact, the technical and economic limitations that William Gass mentions finally compelled him to use typography and images as illustrative supplements, rather than as primary ingredients in his writing. House of Leaves and Only Revolutions are entirely dependent upon their images, their typography, their color coding, and their bookish materiality. Although a black and white edition of Only Revolutions is imaginable, it would deprive the novel of some of its essential nonverbal narrative networks, and reduce the visual pleasure of reading an illuminated text.13 temporalities (Sam, Hailey, their associated chronologies and the time of reading)” (Hayles, “Mapping Time” 167). But the most literally spectacular aspect of the innovative combination of database and narrative in Only Revolutions is the inscription of the novelistic text on the page—the translation of narrative moments into movement. The text becomes kinesthetic through the succession of typographic variations in font and font size, page layout, and color letters and signs. The resulting narrative is equally determined by an all-pervading semiosis and a kaleidoscopic storyline. The whole “system” is activated by the reader’s networking of verbal and nonverbal signs, and by the 180° rotation of the book itself with each switch from one narrative side to the other, whether regular or not.

  • 14 Danielewski wrote the historical timelines in collaboration with a selected group of readers and ac (...)
  • 15 For a thorough analysis of the textual system at work in Only Revolutions, see Hayles’ “Mapping Tim (...)

23Although Mark Danielewski likes to say that he initially wrote the text in pencil, the elaborate composition could only be achieved thanks to digital technologies and tools—hardware (a large computer screen to deal with the split narrative spaces), appropriate software (to manipulate typography and text appearance), and the internet14. The narrative form is generated by constraints: the 360 pages of the novel, the 360 words per page, each page being divided into four quadrants, the lists of objects, plants, and animals, the use of color codes, the symmetrical disposition of the two main blocks of print on each half page (the vertical historical chronologies in the gutter, and the narrative) and the semantic mirrorings between the top and the bottom, the left and the right of each block on each page. These constraints “function as the visible linguistic technologies made possible by digital technologies of inscription; nowhere present in the narrative diegesis, digital technologies are everywhere apparent when we consider the writing-down system as a whole” (Hayles 171)15.

  • 16 See Hayles’ interpretation, relying on the idea that Only Revolutions radically differentiates itse (...)

24Digital technology facilitates the metaleptic extension of the fictional world to the paratext and the book itself as a three-dimensional object. The visual components in Only Revolutions first of all serve the unfolding of the narrative. The green and gold colors systematically applied to each occurrence of the letter “o” work as a characterization and narrative device: the color scheme differentiates each of the two characters and each of the two sides of the book. Even the cover art of the first edition is related to the visual isotopias of the fictional world. Incidentally, that is the reason why the blue and brown cover of the paperback edition misses the point. Not only are the colors irrelevant, but the cover photograph (a straight road disappearing into the horizon of some Western desert landscape) highlights the thematic surface of the “road novel” type of story to be found in Only Revolutions, to the detriment of the innovative image-text and its aesthetic narrative design. The paperback edition also neglects the semiotic function fulfilled by the end pages, of which one half is missing on both sides. In the hardback edition, the colored end pages (green on one side, gold on the other) prefigure the intensity of the text’s verbal and visual universe: they consist of dense, small-print series of words in mirror writing, enclosed in oval, elliptic and round shapes. It is hard to decide whether the lists of words shape the ovals, ellipses and circles, or whether it is the opposite principle that presided over the conception of the end pages, with the geometrical forms imposing a limit to the size of the lists, and, possibly, to the length of the words that could fit in. Moreover, the thematic lists all contain words that do not appear in the main text of the novel16, so that the reproduction of only half of the lists in the end pages of the paperback edition neglects the holistic nature of the novel as text-image, narrative fiction and print book.

25The reading of Only Revolutions is submitted to the same constraints as those that presided over the writing. The text is lineated, and the lines can be very short; the vertical tropism, which affects the reading, is regularly slowed down by the horizontal, graphical expansion of certain words, like the neologism “boooomblastandruin”. The recurrence of such words generates visual “text marks” that are seen even before they are read for the words they also are. This diversion in the vertical drive of reading is the visual equivalent of a digression in writing.

26We can describe the constraints, the principles of the chromographic narrative composition, but this does not answer the double question of the form of meaning, as well as that of the meaning of form. To provide an interpretation is to try to establish the link between the phenomenological experience of reading on the one hand, and the poetic and aesthetic analysis of that experience on the other hand. Eventually, the book’s complex assemblage of constraints makes it difficult for the critical discourse to detach itself from the sheer description of that complexity.

27As opposed to what happens in House of Leaves, Only Revolutions does not tell the story of its own existence as a material document (Hayles, “Mapping Time 172); nor does it “allegorise the unrepresentable impact of digital technology on our experience” (Hansen, “Print Interface” 179). The “power of print” is not the subject of the book, but “the vehicle of its construction” (Hansen 179). In his study of Only Revolutions, Hansen focuses on the double construction of the text with its two “characters” and the co-presence of fictional narrative and historical references. As a consequence of such an arrangement, the readers have “to negotiate between and across narrative and history, phenomenological and objective time” (186). The book “affords us, its readers, an opportunity to engage with the collective, digital archive of history […] to experiment with the varying impact this archive has on our efforts to temporalise our present” (197). These temporalities are mainly the self-referential, phenomenological time, embodied in the characters’ asymmetric narratives, and the objective, historical time, represented in the historical sidebars, which supply fragments of a referential context to each change of era in the fictional narrative. Because it does not “incorporate the flux of time into [its] technicity” (Hansen 197), the print book, can “function as an interface onto time, a technology facilitating complex correlations among markedly divergent temporalities” (Hansen 180).

28Concentrating on Mark Danielewski’s handling of time and temporality, this reading leaves aside the narrative and temporal stakes of the semiotic interplay of textual and visual constraints. We need to see the nature of the aesthetic events on the page, before we can truly read the assemblage of the visual and the textual. As Jerome McGann writes in Radiant Textuality, “[c]ontent in poiesis thus tends to involve more broadly ‘semiotic’ rather than narrowly linguistic materials. The perceptual features of text are as apt for expressive purposes as the semantic, syntactic, and rhetorical features” (183). The analytical tools made available by digitization show the extent to which “a printed or scripted text should be understood as a certain kind of graphic interface” (McGann 199)—the most elaborate of those interfaces being those determined by poetic texts. This leads McGann to conclude that the difference between informational and imaginative texts is also inherently “visual”: “the former aspire to transparency [a minimal use of bibliographic codes], the latter to noise, redundancy, repetition. One is vehicular, the other iconic” (19). With Only Revolutions, the graphic interface is also a narrative; conversely the narrative functions as an interface allowing the reader to apprehend the graphic nature of the text as visual poetics.

  • 17 See the first two “installments” of what Danielewski announced as a twenty-seven volume series enti (...)
  • 18 Joyce looms rather large, an heritage Vanessa Place incorporates into La Medusa, as in the first fr (...)

29The scope of Mark Danielewski’s experimentation with textual-visual narrativity in the writing of print novels is probably unique among the contemporary output of fictional works, and, to a great extent, it appears unsurpassable, except by Mark Danielewski himself17. However, his all-encompassing incorporation of the visual and the textual is one possible development of William H. Gass’s conception of writing as notation. Our third example, Vanessa Place’s La Medusa, follows a slightly different path, in which the text offers visual diagrams of the Modernist narrative of interiority18.

La Medusa’s Narrating Frames

  • 19 The “La” of the title is the abbreviation of Los Angeles as “L.A.”, but it is also a linguistic mar (...)
  • 20 The phrase comes from Donald Barthelme’s definition of writing—in an essay entitled “Not-Knowing”— (...)
  • 21 In the same interview, Vanessa speaks of her novel as containing “the many heads of many characters (...)

30As Vanessa Place explained, the writing of La Medusa started with a minimal, conceptual constraint: “[…] it began as a documentation project, where I logged thought-shards for 41 days, then built off these broken bits. I had a neuron’s belief in impulse, receptors, and emplasticity. I wrote the first draft in a year or so, then worked on the words” (Place, Lemon Hound blog). The neurological imagery fits in with a novel conceived as a polyphonic text representing the “decentralized, many-headed” city of Los Angeles19. The novel represents the manifold ways of apprehending the world and the many voices that the contemporary city is made of. Facing the multiplicity of the text, reading becomes an experience, which includes the possibility of “not-knowing”20: “With Medusa, the idea is that we who live, most of us, in urban or cosmopolitan areas encounter languages all the time that we don’t understand, and we don’t bother. It’s another head21 that we don’t particularly comprehend, but it passes through our field of experience” (Charret-Del Bove, n.p.). The book, the city, the self and the brain function as interrelated metaphors for one another, telling a tale of fragmentation and simultaneity: it is a choral text, gathering disparate voices within the same place, and events occurring in separate spaces but within the same time frames.

31The thirteen sections of La Medusa are all associated with two images (a square photograph and a pencil drawing) of regions and parts of the brain, such as the pineal gland, the cerebellum, or the thalamus, which serve as “headings”. The sections are divided into subsections of various lengths, each of which is coupled with one character-focalizer in the third-person narrative. The unanchored, anonymous but omniscient narrative voice and reflecting consciousness, introduced as “me” in the “Intro” (15), seems to be in control of the whole arrangement, as we can see with the boxed-in reports named “The History Channel”, which recapitulate the history of Haiti in documentary style. Film is a major narrative trope for the novel: the subsections are headed by editing instructions borrowed from the conventions of script writing, “slug lines” like “INT. FEENA’S BEDROOM—MIDCITY—CONTINUOUS” (25). These slug lines frame each subsection, providing a summary of the narrative conditions—time, space and focalizer. The rectangles which contain the anonymous narrator’s discourse are the diagrammatic equivalents of the photographs and drawings of brains heading every section: they envelop the thoughts of the floating consciousness. As a “mind […] metaphorically aware of the world” (Gass, Habitations 141), the novel is aware of the phenomenological world, which is figuratively—and not analogically—represented by the variations in typography, and by the arrangement of sentences and paragraphs on the pagespace.

  • 22 Outro” is the mirror of “intro”. The word “outro”, modeled on intro, shows the writer’s attention (...)
  • 23 Anaphora, as, for instance, in the opening lines of Ash Wednesday: “Because I do not hope to turn a (...)

32In the final section, “Outro”22, a thirty-page monologue, the first-person and narrative consciousness returns, but it has become plural: an “I”, born in South Dakota, who is also Medusa and Narcissus, as well as the ten year-old girl Feena. This polyphonic and singular voice—a whitmanesque “I” containing multitudes—brings the text to an end with a parody of T.S. Eliot’s use of anaphora and paradox23. Still, the content of the last lines moves away from the Modernist extolment of the impersonal. It is as if the personal (“I am”) were valuable again, inseparable from its affirmative self-expression, and ultimately became the residence of aesthetic value (as suggested by the enhancement of the last word, “Beautiful”):

The others. I am the others.
I am dying in living and living in dying
I am in the end and in the beginning.
I am the word, the sentence.
I am

33Instead of a left and right justification, the text on the last page is centered from the first to the last lines. This visual disposition asserts the centrality of the multiple subjective entity, which is the narrative consciousness, and the narrative’s aesthetic principle: the word made beautiful...

  • 24 The quotation—attributed to neuroscientist Idan Segev—can be found in Francis Crick’s The Astonishi (...)
  • 25 “Une chambre qui ressemble à une rêverie, une chambre véritablement spirituelle, où l’atmosphère st (...)

34As in The Tunnel and Only Revolutions, it takes a few preparatory pages before we reach the first one of the many core narratives of La Medusa. The first pages are not visually spectacular, but they indicate the future graphic framing of the text, which might very well be one of the underlying structures of the book’s composition. First, there are two epigraphs, one in English and one in French. The first one is a scientific statement on the brain’s connection with the nerve cells24; the second one is a quotation from the first lines of Charles Baudelaire’s prose poem, “La Chambre double”25. The two epigraphs place the novel under the double tutelage of science and poetry and anticipate the double valence of the brain in the narrative: as a material body part and as the site of an immaterial mind, or consciousness (Baudelaire’s “spiritual chamber”). A double “o” (“oo”) separates the two quotations; the sign is ambivalent, both verbal and visual, both a graphic symbol and a potential syllable. Structurally, this double “o” announces the double “intro” on pages 13 and 15, and is repeated in the word “look”, in the first occurrence of the leitmotiv “Every epic begins with a look in the mirror” (13). The layout of page 13, with its few words surrounded by the blank space of the page, and the two font types and sizes, prepares the reader for the spatialized reading to come, which is confirmed by the typographical design of page 15: six of the main character-focalizers are introduced, one per line, and each line is printed a little further to the right margin of the page, like a metaphorical arrow inviting the readers to turn the page at the end of the list (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 14-15

Fig. 1. Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 14-15

Courtesy of the author and FC2

35The six characters are all defined by some relation to sight or reflection: Dr. Bowles eyeing “his mirror’d visor”, Feena’s pink Barbie mirror, Jorge who can’t see because of the sun, while the golden-bellied woman is “blind as a bat”, and an anonymous narrative first-person, as two-dimensional as glass, is “flattened and weeping in one hundred and one windows”. A dotted line runs across the second half of the page, with the instruction “tear here” underneath. It is “mirrored” by its slightly dissimilar counterpart at the top of the page before the “Outro” (459), which has much smaller dots and invites the reader to “detach at perforation” (but the page is of course not perforated). Such structural framing is reminiscent of the Modernist novel’s spatial self-consciousness and ideal of self-containment. But the dotted line and the invitation to tear or detach a fragment from the book also place La Medusa in the wake of John Barth’s “Frame-Tale”, the programmatic story printed on the right edge of the page at the beginning of Lost in the Funhouse (1968). If you cut the strip of paper where the text is printed on both sides along the dotted line, glue the two ends after twisting them 180° into a ribbon, you obtain a Möbius strip telling the minimal but infinitely beginning and ending story: “Once upon a time there/was a story that began”. Thus the dotted lines at the end of the Intro and at the beginning of the Outro in La Medusa suggest a visual kind of intertextuality, and, through the mirroring of Barth’s antecedent invention, an acknowledgement of the metafiction of the 1960s that experimented with the visibility of print.

36Changes in typography and page layout visually materialize the variety of the text: the character-focalizers, the anonymous enunciators, the factual and the fictional, the personal stories and the collective histories, the voices and noises of the city, in large chunks or in fragments (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 40-41

Fig. 2: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 40-41

Courtesy of the author and FC2

37Every page contains a graphic “treatment” of some kind, like the one-paragraph, third-person fairy tale on page 65; after a blank space, on the right hand side of the page, the first person intrudes with a theatrical “({Enter me.})”. It is theatrical because it is written like a stage direction, but also because of the accolades: a not too frequent sign in print, their significance as a typographical code is elusive, but their undulating shape is like a sort of visual costume around the words. “{Enter me.}” is a discursive performance, a performative self-manifestation on the part of the narrative first-person who regularly surfaces in the text. A few pages further, one sentence is partially repeated in larger font at the bottom of the page: “NTLE JAG OF ITS STEADY CONSONANTS” (71). The font size seems to have determined the amount of text that could fit the available pagespace between the margins, since the beginning (“the gentle jag...) is truncated, which is mirrored semantically by the use of the word “jag”—whose etymology means “portion”. The repetition points at the text’s ability to comment upon itself in a double trans-metatextual and meta-iconic circulation. Finally, the text at the bottom of the page is transformed into something that seems meant to be first intensely graphic, not so easy to decipher, so that it does not matter whether “the” and “ge” are missing at the start.

38Throughout the book, there is no a priori predictable format from one page to the next, with the exception of the section headings. The reading must deal with these variations not as interferences, or mere additional illustrations, but as essential features of the narrative structure and meaning. The visual display of words, sentences, and images affords variable frames for a narrative whose fragmentation and multiple voices constantly “unframe” the horizon of reading (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 220-221

Fig. 3: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 220-221

Courtesy of the author and FC2

  • 26 Except on the following pages: 169 (three ink stains that could be blood stains, following their te (...)

39As a matter of fact, variety, multiplicity, unpredictability and decenteredness are the principal modes of presentation of the text on the pagespace. The visual representation of these modes in La Medusa is mostly achieved through typography and page layout, whereas Only Revolutions relies on a larger range of devices. In La Medusa, there are almost no other images than the black and white photographic reproductions heading the chapters26. But the text indicates there could have been more: it includes several captions without the corresponding illustrations, as on page 365, where an editing instruction replaces the missing image: “Figure 12: Tattoo spanning Myles P.’s lower back: [INSERT MEDUSA HEAD].

40Commenting on the boxes that frame a variety of textual fragments throughout La Medusa, Vanessa Place indicated that their significance is attached to the play of voices in the novel, which explains why they progressively fall apart when “the separateness of the voices starts to atrophy” (Charret-Del Bove, n.p.). Not only does the framing visibly underline the polyphony of the narrative, but it also reveals Vanessa Place’s own interest in the visual forms of narrative inscription. This brings her work in La Medusa close to Mark Z. Danielewski’s conception of the novel as a text-image, and as a field of experimentation with the representation of the act of narration itself. There is no divide between text and image now, Vanessa Place argues. The page is “like a canvas, or something like that, set in a grid, which is always a kind of narrative” (Charret-Del Bove, n.p.). The page is a “topographical space” and “a visual unit”, and the frames on the page aim at “invok[ing] a kind of simultaneity that is otherwise not available in traditional books” (id.). Such a transformation of narrative writing inevitably modifies the reading experience. It also has deep implications for the critical analysis of such different novelistic objects as La Medusa, Only Revolutions and The Tunnel.

The Critical Challenge

41In our digital age, any discussion based on dichotomies such as human vs. machine, print vs. digital, or text vs. image is bound to appear outdated. As Katherine Hayles notes in Electronic Literature, “print literature consists of digital files for most of its existence. So essential is digitality to contemporary processes of composition, storage and production that print should properly be considered a particular form of output for digital files rather than a medium separate from digital instantiation” (159). For Katherine Hayles, “print and electronic literature […] are best considered as two components of a complex and dynamic media ecology” (160), which implies that their dynamic interrelations “can be observed in the complex surfaces emerging in contemporary digital and print literature” (160).

  • 27 See Côme Martin’s PhD dissertation Le roman visuel : relations entre texte et image dans la bande d (...)

42The narrative combines written by William Gass, Mark Danielewski and Vanessa Place are not just experiments with elaborate “book design” and the kind of creative typography both made possible by powerful computational tools. When the narrative comes as an assemblage of textual and visual elements, how are the narration (the act of writing) and the narrative mechanisms altered? We could turn to the specialists of the graphic novel for useful suggestions on how to deal with text-image combinations in storytelling27. First, narrativity is changed in ways that are quite congruent with the digital world we live in. In “Intimations of Immateriality: Graphical Form, Textual Sense, and the Electronic Environment”, Johanna Drucker suggests that we add the category of “configured language (that is, language in documents where format, graphical organization, or other structural relations contribute substantively to textuality)” (155) to logical (computer programming) and natural languages. Configured language, which produces “configured meaning (in which configuration is taken to be part of textual information)” (155), is a notion that can help us deal with “the question of how aesthetics and form function as components of meaning” (155), that is “the functional link between form as it appears to cognitive consciousness and the “sense” produced in grasping that form” (169). How, Johanna Drucker asks, “is sense form in some fundamental way, such that an idea is grasped in form-as-sense in cognitive terms?” (169). Such issues are of special interest to her in her reflection on computer language as code, in which configuration itself is information, because “[b]oth binary sequence and the topographic location of code storage/machine address are representable in diagrammatic form as images, maps or locations” (172). But these questions can serve as a starting point to study the narrative textuality and the textu(r)al narrativity in the type of novels we are considering. The open field of inquiry is the following: what are the modifications undergone by narrativity when narrative comes in configured writing?

  • 28 In the often-quoted passage from her Lectures in America, Gertrude Stein writes: “Poetry is doing n (...)

43We know that print books will not disappear but co-exist with digital literary media, which is why we need to understand how this contemporary situation acts on the writing of narrative fiction in print. Johanna Drucker and Charles Bernstein both provided directions for thinking these transformations almost fifteen years ago, in their respective contributions to Reimagining Textuality. Defending an aesthetic approach to writing as material inscription, and playing with the Steinian idea of poetry as “caressing nouns”28, Johanna Drucker underlines the importance of what she proposes to call “the affective massage coefficient of form […] whereby the graphical and visual properties inflect the text with a meaning that is not separate from its linguistic content, not exactly proper to it, but interpenetrated with the text itself as its fundamental expression (thus the ‘massage’ of meaning, a bending, flexing, of its ‘message’)” (160). As for Charles Bernstein, he emphasizes the constructivist-like nature of electronic textuality, which, like other material aspects, was so far often overlooked in print textuality. Charles Bernstein believes that writers become “language environment designers—textual architects” (Bernstein 179-180). This is the backdrop against which we should try to explore the significance of literary fiction under the influence of the digital context of our epoch.

44Although the novels we discussed are print texts, they belong to this larger cultural context that is now digital. They are print “products” of this particular medial environment, in which, as Joseph Tabbi notes, “literal nonlinearities in hypertext stimulated literary theorists to rediscover nonlinearity as the rule, rather than the exception, in print narratives” (207). Quoting from Hanjo Berressem’s Chaos/control; Complexity, Joseph Tabbi presents the fundamental singularities that account for the critical challenge posed by hypertext and electronic literature. The most basic of these distinctive features of digital writing is material and concerns the inscription of the signifiers: “In digital carriers, there is no longer a ‘stable textual basis’ for such interpretive activity and sustained close reading” (207) as opposed to static works in print. It is not just that “every reading path [is] different, [but] the text that is read is different as well” (207). So far, “literary activity, with all its devotion to the generation of complexity, consciousness, and reflexive understanding at the level of the signified, has depended on a stable, simplified, largely forgotten page as a material carrier capable of fixing language at the level of the signifier” (207). The processual page of the digital text does not exist “in itself”, as a retrievable site of immovable inscription; the existence of the page is virtual, partly contingent on technical factors, and no “larger cultural or publishing concern is going to preserve the text for us” (208). Since in electronic writing the physical nature of the object changes, criticism can hardly but change with it. For instance, the instability of the page raises the question of “the form of narratology [that] can be envisioned for a processual text” (Tabbi 208). Contemporary narrative breaks down into “singularized reading movements” (Tabbi 208), so that in the absence of “a sense of narrative continuity, we are placed, as authors and readers, in the curious position of having to create our own context or framework within the selections, citations, and emergent narratives [that] can be recognized and preserved […]. Instead of an object, the page is to become a description of a possible object, reflecting only what the author makes of materials that the reader can, in turn, cast into further potentials” (Tabbi 208). But criticism cannot be content with the description of the configured text; it is not commensurate with the literally spectacular evolution of that famously protean literary object called “novel”. As Jerome McGann writes about print books in general: “There [is] no struggle between books and computers. From now on scholarship will have both, willy-nilly. The question is — the choice is — whether those with an intimate appreciation of literary works will become actively involved in designing new sets of tools for studying them” (186).

45In the conclusion of his article “Architectural Bodies and Fictional Worlds”, dedicated to House of Leaves and Arakawa and Madeline Gins’ Architectural Body, Ronald Shusterman explains to what extent Arakawa and Gins’ work, by emphasizing the body in space, “is a way of getting us away from an excessive linguistic hegemony” (184), and leads the artists to object to Wittgenstein’s proposition that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. As analyzed by Shusterman, the work of Arakawa and Gins “seem[s] to posit phenomenology rather than language as the bedrock of our existence” (184). So, Shusterman concludes, “it may indeed be the special role of the arts, of all the arts, to conduct experiments in plasticity” (186). The visual in the text—the textured and narrativized presence of images combined with texts—generates a new poetics of narration, which includes aesthetics. Fiction writing, then, is not only the creation of worlds within the words; it places words, sentences and narration within the world of physical phenomena and makes a narrative out of this. J. Tabbi proposes the inspiring term “designwriting” (209) to designate the contemporary (print) fictions “distinctive in that their narrative innovations go all the way down, to the material look of the page itself” (209). Much attention has been increasingly devoted to text-image thanks to the development of media and intermedial literary studies for the past three decades. The nature and boundaries of textuality, reading habits, and the “ethics” of reading, as Derek Attridge defines it— an “attentiveness to what is outside the familiar” (123)— are reconsidered. Let us also reflect upon contemporary literature as “designwriting”. We would like to suggest that this calls for the reciprocal invention of “designreading”, of a poetics of reading that will aim at a more complete understanding of novel forms of narrative fiction like William Gass’s The Tunnel, Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions and Vanessa Place’s La Medusa.

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Arakawa, and Madeline Gins. The Mechanism of Meaning. 1979. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988, 3rd ed. Print.

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968. Print.

Barthelme, Donald. “Not-Knowing”. Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme, ed. by Kim Herzinger. New York: Vintage, 1997. 11-24. Print.

Bernstein, Charles. “Response: Every Which Way but Loose”. Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print, ed. by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux and Neil Fraistat. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 2002: 178-185. Print.

Caws, Mary Ann. “Taking Textual Time”. Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print, ed. by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux and Neil Fraistat. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 2002: 123-151. Print.

Charret-Del Bove, Marion and Françoise Palleau-Papin. “Vanessa Place: An Interview in Paris”, Transatlantica 1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

Danielewski, Mark Z. Only Revolutions. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006. Print.

Drucker, Johanna. “Intimations of Immateriality: Graphical Form, Textual Sense, and the Electronic Environment”. Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print, ed. by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux and Neil Fraistat. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 2002: 152-177. Print.

Gass, William H. Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife. Triquarterly Supplement Number Two, Northwestern University Press, 1968.

————. Habitations of the Word. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Print.

————. Finding a Form. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print.

————. The Tunnel. 1995. Normal, Il: Dalkey Archive Press, 1999. Print.

Hansen, Mark B. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

————. “Print Interface to Time: Only Revolutions at the Crossroads of Narrative and History”. Mark Z. Danielewski, ed. by Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2011: 178-199. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 2008. Print.

————. “Mapping Time, Charting Data: The Spatial Aesthetic of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions”. Mark Z. Danielewski, ed. by Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2011: 159-177. Print.

Maniez, Claire. William H. Gass: L’Ordre de la voix. Paris: Belin, “Voix américaines”, 1996. Print.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2001), 2004. Print.

Place, Vanessa. La Medusa. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: FC2, The U of Alabama P, 2008. Print.

————. “Vanessa Place, Round 2”. Lemon Hound blog. Tuesday, September 09, 2008. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

Sammarcelli, Françoise. “Le creux et l’excès: jeux d’encre dans The Tunnel de William Gass”, Transatlantica 1 (2006): n. pag. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

Shusterman, Ronald. “Leafing Through a Universe: Architectural Bodies and Fictional Worlds”. Architecture and Philosophy: New Perspectives on the Work of Arakawa & Madeline Gins, ed. by Jean-Jacques Lecercle and Françoise Kral. Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2010: 169-187. Print.

Tabbi, Joseph. “The Processual Page: Materiality and Consciousness in Print and Hypertext”. The Future of the Page, ed. by Peter Stoicheff and Andrew Taylor. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004: 201-230. Print.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass in Germany”. Conversations with William H. Gass, ed. Theodore G. Ammon. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003: 111-119. Print.

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1 Out of sixteen sections, in the third revised edition published in 1988, which Caws uses.

2 See the beginning of the eponymous essay, “The Pictorial Turn”, in Mitchell’s Picture Theory (11 ff).

3 In Radiant Textuality, Jerome McGann uses this expression to include typography and the spatial display of text on what he calls the “pagespace”.

4 Blake Butler, Debra DiBlasi, Jonathan Safran Foer, Carol Maso, Lance Olsen, Steve Tomasula, to name but a few.

5 We will use “narration” to refer to the act of narrating, the writing of a narrative, and “narrative” to refer to the text produced by narration.

6 The “unbooklike” book is Kohler’s loose memoir, but also the author’s: Gass even wanted his Tunnel to be actually unbound, though he knew “such a format was impractical” (Ziegler 113).

7 Or, rather, writing as “finding a form”, to use the title of a collection of essays Gass published in 1996. In the eponymous essay, “Finding a Form”, Gass illustrates his title’s programmatic value by asserting his belief that “the artist’s loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making” (35). As a writer of fiction, he defines himself as a “Methodologist (for whom the medium is the muse)” reformulating “traditional aesthetic problems in terms of language”. The “problems” are: point of view, character, themes, denotation, verbal beat, sentence length and vocabulary choice, rhythm and alliteration, the interconnection of concepts to generate thought, the management of metaphor to enhance imagination, the use of modal operators to influence narrative reliability. Finding a form that will produce a desirable text means paying attention to “the logic of the language—its grammar, scansion, symmetries, rhetorical schema and methods of variation” (51).

8 The text of page 174 is printed on the photograph of a grayish sheet that suggests a crumpled paper bag.

9 PdP” stands for the “Party of the Disappointed People”, for which Kholer imagines various flags and letterings presented on page 267.

10 The edition we are using is the 1999 Dalkey Archive paperback which is a black and white edition. The colors used in the original edition appear here in shades of gray. In the original edition, the shape is red.

11 This shows how economic constraints — the cost of a color edition — actually bear on the existence of the text itself. The ambiguities generated by the black and white edition were originally unintended, and the visual effect created by the presence of colors contrasting with the black and white page of print is missing. It does not change the narrative per se, but it certainly modifies the nature of the book as a material object, which is part of Gass’s narrative “statement” in The Tunnel.

12 See the following passage from Gass’s essay “Representation and the War for Reality”: “A point must become a dot before a body can be thought to be in a position at one. Musical marks (notes, clefs, and staff) revolutionized music, just as those new squiggles did logic. They aid the memory, they facilitate communication; they let us think; they also lend conviction. After all, who would believe in zero until it was formed as an O, and infinity’s fallen ∞ suggests the endless curvilinear entrapment it represents in some theories.” (Habitations of the Word 98-99).

13 See the novel’s site: and K. Hayles’ “Digital Companion to Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions”:, accessed 21/12/ 2016.

14 Danielewski wrote the historical timelines in collaboration with a selected group of readers and active participants in the forum dedicated to House of Leaves. He asked them to send him contributions following a set of precise instructions.

15 For a thorough analysis of the textual system at work in Only Revolutions, see Hayles’ “Mapping Time, Charting Data”, from which we are quoting, and the last chapter of her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 2012).

16 See Hayles’ interpretation, relying on the idea that Only Revolutions radically differentiates itself from House of Leaves, an assertion of difference which is inscribed in the end papers: “Each topographic form articulates an ideational cluster. In my parsing of the clusters, they include kinship (‘Brood’), media and mediation technologies (‘Write’), grammatical parts of speech and language (‘Word’), seeing and looking (‘Choose’), grace and condemnation (‘grace’), inwardness, interiority, ‘in’ words such as ‘inalienable’, ‘inane’, etc., gods and religion (‘Devotion’), architectural structures and components, and colors. All of these ideational groups are central to House of Leaves […]. In the mirror text of OR [Only Revolutions], they indicate what cannot be written, cannot be said. The mirror Concordance thus functions as a kind of anti-concordance, indicating words and concepts forbidden in Only Revolutions.” (“Mapping Time” 169)

17 See the first two “installments” of what Danielewski announced as a twenty-seven volume series entitled “The Familiar”: The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May (New York, Pantheon) that came out in May 2015, and Into the Forest (New York, Pantheon), which came out in October 2015. Each volume is a sophisticated, full color book-object on glossy paper, totaling more than 800 pages. As in the cinema, an art form that is dear to Danielewski, the “production” of the book, which cannot be separated from its conception, is the result of the collaborative work of a team of designers, among whom the writer is only one contributor, even though he occupies the central position as author of the script and the scenario, and as the “director” of the whole “staging” of texts and images.

18 Joyce looms rather large, an heritage Vanessa Place incorporates into La Medusa, as in the first framed intervention by the “skull” which reads: “Ladies and gentlemen, mes dames and meine aschen Herren, your indulgence if you please” (18). These words recall the appeal to the public in Finnegans’ Wake, before the story of the Mookse: “Gentes and laitymen, fullstoppers and semicolonials, hybreds and lubberds! Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse”.

19 The “La” of the title is the abbreviation of Los Angeles as “L.A.”, but it is also a linguistic mark of the feminine (“la”, in Romance languages), associated with the mythological figure of Medusa, under the aegis of which the novel is placed. The novel’s title alludes to Hélène Cixous’ manifesto, Le Rire de la méduse (1975; Paris, Galilée, 2010), in which Cixous exhorts women to “come out” as women in writing, and describes writing as an exploration of the spaces of difference, in between the Self and the Other.

20 The phrase comes from Donald Barthelme’s definition of writing—in an essay entitled “Not-Knowing”— as “a process of dealing with not-knowing” (12), because for him “art is always a meditation upon external reality rather than a representation of external reality or a jackleg attempt to ‘be’ external reality” (23).

21 In the same interview, Vanessa speaks of her novel as containing “the many heads of many characters, but also the many heads of different genres, which is another narrative device, or expository device, and it fits very well in Los Angeles, which is a very decentralized, many-headed kind of city”.

22 Outro” is the mirror of “intro”. The word “outro”, modeled on intro, shows the writer’s attention to the poetic texture of her text. But the evocation of the beginning in the end, and the temptation to produce a self-contained form are highly reminiscent of Modernism’s hypostasis of the perfect art object. Finally, the use of this 1970s neologism (borrowed from music, as well as from radio and television broadcasting) is also in keeping with the novel’s thematic use of the power of the media to determine the shape of information and knowledge.

23 Anaphora, as, for instance, in the opening lines of Ash Wednesday: “Because I do not hope to turn again/Because I do not hope/Because I do not hope to turn/Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things”; and paradox as in The Hollow Men’s lines “Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralysed force, gesture without motion”.

24 The quotation—attributed to neuroscientist Idan Segev—can be found in Francis Crick’s The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Touchstone, 1995). The origin of the quotation is not mentioned, but the subtitle of Crick’s book provides a rather seductive hint at the possibility of reading La Medusa as a poetic and narrative “search for the soul” of the city of L.A.

25 “Une chambre qui ressemble à une rêverie, une chambre véritablement spirituelle, où l’atmosphère stagnante est légèrement teintée de rose et de bleu”, from “La Chambre double” (published in the posthumous collection Petits poèmes en prose in 1869). The short text progressively unveils the duplicity of the dreamy or drugged mind, which had transformed the reality of a dingy garret—and life— into a soft-colored, aerial fantasy.

26 Except on the following pages: 169 (three ink stains that could be blood stains, following their textual context); 221 (three black and white photos of a seashore, palm trees and a stretch of road in a desert, resembling postcards, spread in a fan-like disposition on the page with the words “Greetings from California” underneath them); 270 (a black rectangle with a white stain in the middle is superimposed on the text, whose last four lines are then partly concealed—a bird dropping, if we follow the concomitant telling of Dr. Bowles’s car window being soiled by some sparrow at the moment when he reaches for the radio so that “he changes his mind momentarily from audio to visual as he squirts the crap with water and wipers it clean”); 406 (a transparent map of southeast Asia/Vietnam with black lines superimposed on the text, 454 (the same “stains” as on page 169—associated to a story of vomiting, this time).

27 See Côme Martin’s PhD dissertation Le roman visuel : relations entre texte et image dans la bande dessinée et le roman américains contemporains (Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2013).

28 In the often-quoted passage from her Lectures in America, Gertrude Stein writes: “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns” (Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures 1909-45, London, Penguin, 1971, p. 138).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 14-15
Crédits Courtesy of the author and FC2
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Fig. 2: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 40-41
Crédits Courtesy of the author and FC2
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig. 3: Vanessa Place, La Medusa, pp. 220-221
Crédits Courtesy of the author and FC2
Fichier image/jpeg, 54k
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Référence électronique

Brigitte Félix, « Displaying words in narrative configurations, reimagining print narrative: William H. Gass, Mark Z. Danielewski, Vanessa Place », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 21 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 juillet 2017. URL :

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Brigitte Félix

TransCrit (EA 1569) ; Université Paris 8 (Université Vincennes à Saint-Denis)
Brigitte Félix est Professeur de littérature américaine à l’Université Paris 8 et membre de l’équipe de recherche TransCrit (EA 1569). Elle est l’auteur de plusieurs articles ainsi que d’une monographie sur William Gaddis (William Gaddis: L’alchimie de l’écriture, Paris, Belin, 1997). Elle a dirigé la publication d’un volume d’essais consacré à ce même écrivain, Reading William Gaddis (Orléans, Presses Universitaires d’Orléans, 2007). Sa recherche porte sur la fiction américaine à partir de la seconde moitié du xxe siècle jusqu’à aujourd’hui, sur la poétique des formes innovantes dans les écritures contemporaines, et notamment sur les nouvelles textures narratives, dans leur rapport à l’image et au visuel (Mark Z. Danielewki, Percival Everett, Vanessa Place, Steve Tomasula).
Brigitte Félix is a Professor of American Literature at the Université Paris 8 and a member of the research team TransCrit (EA 1569). She is the author of several articles and a monograph on William Gaddis (William Gaddis: L’alchimie de l’écriture, Paris, Belin, 1997), and the editor of a collective volume of essays, Reading William Gaddis (Orléans, Presses Universitaires d’Orléans, 2007). Apart from William Gaddis’s work, she dedicates her research to American fiction (from the second half of the 20th century to the present), to the poetics of innovative forms in contemporary writing, and more specifically to new narrative textures and their relation to images and the visual (Mark Z. Danielewki, Percival Everett, Vanessa Place, Steve Tomasula).

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