Sound, Fury, and Consistency: Writing Recombinant Fiction

Posted filed under Featured, Research.
   |   

Multiple recent digital narrative works utilise recombinant poetics. Yet such an approach to fiction is not dependent on code. Multiple examples predate the computer. In Electronic Literature (2019), Scott Rettberg argues that the study of digital literature ‘not only takes us forward to explore new horizons but also on a retrospective journey that can lead to better understanding of how the past of literature propels us toward its future’ (6). By exploring earlier literary works that utilise recombinant poetics, we can develop a better understanding of the future of digital narratives. To do so, I will first explore early works of recombinant fiction. I will then analyse and reflect on my own creative practice in developing Little Emperor Syndrome (2018), which was born out of researching William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929). I will then draw comparisons between Oulipo works and recombinant fictions by exploring the value of consistency in the recombinant digital novel novelling (2016) by Will Luers (video, design, coding), Hazel Smith (text), and Roger Dean (sound).

English author B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of twenty-seven unbound booklets, held together by a wrapper, contained within a box. The first and final booklet are specified; the other twenty-five booklets are presented in a random order. The reader is advised, by a note on the wrapper, that if they ‘prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may rearrange the sections into any other random order before reading.’ 

The text offers 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 ways to order the text (Hooper, 2014) but it always tells the story of a sportswriter sent to an unnamed city who is haunted by memories. The twenty-five disordered sections represent these memories, which give the work the impression of unreliable recollection. If one re-reads The Unfortunates, the experience is somewhat different. Yet Johnson wrote the work in some form of linear mode. Even if he composed and drafted various segments simultaneously, sentences were not randomly selected by a computerised word generator. At the very least, Johnson had some conception of an overarching, chronological narrative.

From the author’s perspective, there are numerous ways to approach writing recombinant fiction. One approach is to create a linear fiction and then break it into parts to form a database. Such was the process in developing my Little Emperor Syndrome. The work is a contemporary global drama of the Selkirks, a middle-class Australian family. It contains multiple chapters told from the perspective of each family member. In its development, the text had three iterations. The first draft is a traditional print novel without any digital functionality. It contains eighteen separate chapters with a total length of approximately 80,000 words that depicts six different characters’ perspectives: four chapters for the characters Craig Selkirk, Jocelyn Selkirk, Rosemary Selkirk, and Lachlan Selkirk; and one chapter for the characters Graham Selkirk and Aldo Bulgarelli.

A few years after writing this first draft, I was researching William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I found Faulkner’s novel challenging as it depicts the titular ‘sound and fury’. The first two chapters are particularly chaotic, reflecting the stream-of-consciousness of the intellectually-disabled Benjy and suicidal Quentin, respectively. Faulkner uses involuntary memory to trigger recollections. For example, in the following sample from the first chapter:

‘Wait a minute.’ Luster said. ‘You snagged on that nail again. Can’t you never crawl through here without snagging on that nail.’

Caddy uncaught me and we crawled through. Uncle Maury said to not let anybody see us, so we better stoop over, Caddy said. Stoop over, Benjy. Like this, see. (2)

Benjy is caught on the nail, and this causes him to recall a memory, which is indicated by the change to italics. The whole chapter takes place in the ‘present’ (April Seventh 1928), but fluctuates between Benjy’s memories. There is no indication as to which period is being referred to, only that a change has occurred. This is signified by a change to italics or reversion back to roman.

As an experiment, I rewrote Little Emperor Syndrome in a style inspired by Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness and his desire for ‘unbroken-surfaced confusion’. This second print draft contains six chapters, with a total length of approximately 44,000 words. The four Jocelyn, Craig, Rosemary, and Lachlan chapters were each compounded into single chapters. As the initial draft uses a free indirect style to allow the characters to recall past events, each of these chapters has multiple periods between which it fluctuates. For example, the Jocelyn chapter contains twenty-four distinct time-frames. Contrasting my two first drafts, the most obvious difference is length. While there were minor changes to the narrative, the fundamental choices and scenes remain in both versions.

In 2018, I again transformed the work by adding digital functionality. This digital version was inspired by the 2012 Folio Society colourised edition of The Sound and the Fury. This 2012 edition was based on an assertion Faulkner made in an angry letter to his literary agent, following a rewrite of his manuscript with which he was dissatisfied:

I wish publishing was advanced enough to use colored ink as I argued with you and Hal in the speak-easy that day. But the form in which you now have it is pretty tough. It presents a most dull and poorly articulated picture to my eye… I think it is rotten, as is. But if you won’t have it so, I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up to it. (Faulkner, 2012, viii)

Included with this edition is a key, which the reader can use to orient themselves in relation to the events depicted in the characters’ stream-of-consciousness. 

The digital version of Little Emperor Syndrome takes Faulkner’s proposals further and allows the reader to additionally fragment the text by introducing various modes of reading. Time-frames are grouped together and can be randomly ordered in a ‘chaos’ mode. Functionality then allows the reader to put the work back together. It can be read chronologically using a ‘cosmos’ mode or colourised and, using a key in the margins, navigated in relation to the diegetic timeline of events. While Little Emperor Syndrome has recombinant functionality, it is not solely a recombinant narrative. Yet as recombinant narrative (i.e. reading using the chaos mode), the randomisation of the lexias creates new connections, making subsequent readings of the narrative seem a little different, not unlike the uncertainty of one’s own recollections. 

Rather than a complete surrender of authorial control to the reader/user to construct the narrative, Little Emperor Syndrome controls the boundaries of play. For example, the first chapter depicts the claustrophobic thoughts of Graham Selkirk as he dies of a heart attack. Whichever way this chapter is ordered, the final lexia always represents a potential dying thought. The chapter depicted in chaos mode always depicts the character’s death of a heart attack. Despite the recombinant functionality, there remains a narrative cohesion that persists (though it should be noted that it is impossible to test out every single permutation, given that number would approach infinity). The reader does not appear to remake the text, at least no more than any other traditional print text.

In 1995, media researcher Bill Seaman, in comparing and contrasting the literary experiments of Oulipo with recent digital works, coined the term ‘recombinant poetics’ as a ‘particular approach to emergent meaning that is used in generative virtual environments and other computer-based combinatoric media forms’ (423). The origin of the word ‘recombinant’ is biological: ‘Of genetic material: assembled by genetic recombination or genetic engineering. Of an organism, cell, or protein: being or containing the expressed product of such genetic material’ (Oxford English Dictionary). 

A recombinant narrative requires a database of materials. This can include text, audio samples, video clips, photographs, and other media. It also requires rules for how these materials are presented or arranged. These rules are determined using computer code or, as in works such as The Unfortunates, set out paratextually. 

In recombinant poetics, Seaman argues that computer code ‘enables a jump from literary invention to literally inventing…’ (428). He believes that recombinant digital works represent a coupure. While the reader of a work such as Johnson’s The Unfortunates is still creating within the bounds of Johnson’s rules of play, Seaman argues that in digital recombinant works the reader well and truly becomes the author of their own experience and meaning.

If Seaman’s assertion is true, then what impact does this have on authors of recombinant fictions in digital environments? Can one even be said to be an author of recombinant fiction? Despite Barthes’s assertion of the death of the author/birth of the reader, the narrative author must, as a practical matter, believe they have some degree of control over what the reader feels and experiences. 

A text that represents a database without a clear narrative is Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973). It dramatizes a group of gatherers telling stories through a game of tarot cards. A set of tarot cards is essentially a database and the laying of the cards is a set of rules for recombinant functionality. The reading of the cards by the ‘fortune teller’ is a remaking of the narrative from the database. The Castle of Crossed Destinies is made first of pictures (tarot cards, images from the database) and second of text. The reader is presented not only with the interpretations, but illustrations of the laid-out cards. Various tales are told. Once all the cards are laid out, the narrator describes a tale called ‘All the Other Tales’. The tarot card arrangement contains not an infinite number of stories, but too many to stage in such a way as to be notable for the reader. The second half of the novel introduces a new group of gatherers at a tavern. Again, the tarot cards are laid out and various short tales are told. The novel ends by using the tarot cards to simultaneously tell summative versions of Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. In his notes on the text, Calvino expresses a desire to write a third frame. This idea, however, was abandoned. Calvino claims that he published The Castle of Crossed Destinies to be ‘free of it’:

it has obsessed me for years. … I realized the tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn; I was tempted by the diabolical idea of conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck. (119)

The Castle of Crossed Destinies represents not a recombinant fiction, but the dramatization of a recombinant fiction being played out. The initial appeal of such a hypothetical text is the belief that it contains all narratives. The text would allow a reader to read any and all stories, just as Calvino was able to simultaneously read Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. In Cognitive Fictions, Joseph Tabbi poses the question ‘when all information is archived for eternity … what communication is possible?’ (52). If Calvino’s tarot card machine were allowed to produce (approaching) infinite stories, would it become incommunicable? In telling every story, does the deck of tarot cards in fact tell no story? This is the risk of recombinant fiction. If no set meaning or narrative borders are prescribed, then the recombinant fiction can potentially contain every story. When everything is expressed, nothing is expressed. Such is the shift in the contemporary writer’s attempt to construct meaning and reality: narrative construction is less an act of discovery, more an act of navigation. This much was clear to Calvino in his decision to abandon The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

In Calvino’s final work, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), he composes a series of lectures on literary values he holds dear: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. Calvino intended to write a sixth value, consistency, but passed away before the lecture was completed. Nevertheless, his potential treatment of this value can be inferred from his treatment of the other memos. Calvino’s memos are defined through binary opposition. For example, he defines exactitude as the opposite (or absence) of opacity. His memos, however, are not ‘values’ in the sense that one value is preferable to its opposite. Calvino does not posit that exactitude is superior to opacity. While he makes the case for particular values over another, he makes allowances for the possibility of the other value. The memos have ‘anti-constraint’ built into them, e.g. the possibility for an exact text to depict opacity precisely. Indeed, it is the possibility for one value to contain another value that gives it its preference. Regarding consistency, Calvino prefers consistency in that it can contain inconsistency. Such consistency informs the structure of his later hypernovels. For example, in his If on a winter’s night a traveller… (1979), every second chapter of the book presents the first chapter to a different book. At first glance, this does not appear to exhibit structural consistency. Yet, once this inconsistency is established, the expectation is always fulfilled. The inconsistency is consistent.

Shifting from the recombinant fiction writer to the recombinant fiction reader, how does the reader approach the work? Almost all works of electronic literature are defined paratextually (Block, 2018). This is true of digital recombinant fictions. For example, Luers, et al.’s novelling begins with the declaration:

novelling is a recombinant digital novel that employs text, video and sound. … The work is a generative system that algorithmically orders and spatially arranges fragments of media (design elements, text, video and sound) in 6-minute cycles. Every 30 seconds the interface changes, but the user may also click the screen at any time to produce a change.

novelling unfolds through suggested narrative connections between four characters. The characters, immersed in their isolated life-worlds, appear to be transported elsewhere by what they are reading. Are they reading and thinking each other? How does the writing relate to the reading? Are the words on the screen versions or even drafts of the novel? Do the sounds come from a different interior world? … The variable and deterministic system of selection and arrangement produces a fluid, ever-novel and potential narrative.

The reader is not thrust into the work with nothing. Rather, they are informed not only of the digital construction, but also of the narrative construction (i.e. that there are at least four interconnected characters). In other words, the paratext introduces a level of consistency. Of his process, Luers (2016) writes that the narrative and generative system emerge symbiotically (6). Of novelling, he (2018) writes that the text fragments of a ‘virtual’ or ‘potential’ novel suggest ‘other fictional characters in acts of reading, observation and interpretation of the world.’ He highlights that the work uses ‘repetition, abstraction, multiplicity, absence, opacity and noise to depict and enact the liminality of reading and authoring fiction’ (it should be noted that Luers’s values – repetition, abstraction, multiplicity, absence, opacity, and noise – seem to echo/invert Calvino’s values of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency.) Luers’s use of the term ‘noise’ refers not only to the use of sound, but of confusion, clamour, and chaos. Yet ‘narrative’ itself suggests some level of order, some attempt to make meaning.

In the case of ‘noise’, the binary opposite is ‘order’. In novelling, there is some level of consistency: the four characters. Somewhere, in the work, the reader/user maintains the assumption that the four characters remain, on some level, consistent. With no consistency, the work would cease to be a recombinant narrative. It would simply be recombinant. 

Luers (2016) writes that in digital fiction, ‘narrative’ is understood as a process: 

If every reading is different and there is no “correct” path, then the “narrative” remains an untamed force within the text and may never be completed, extracted or fully mapped by any reader. Is such a text still a narrative? Perhaps not.’ 

I would argue that in recombinant works such as Luers’s, the narrative is not completely untamed. While no one is able to read all 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 orderings of The Unfortunates, there is still a narrative that is comprehended on some level. The same is true, to some degree, of novelling. The success of Luers, et al’s work comes from the fact that it pushes the limits of ‘reading’ and meaning-making, yet it is not so untamed that all consistency is abandoned. In fact, it is hard to imagine what a truly untamed narrative force would look like. Not an absence of narrative that can be filled with all meanings, as in Calvino’s tarot cards, but a narrative work of total inconsistency. One imagines a work like Beckett’s prose, constantly attempting to snip any attempt to comprehend. Yet there is still a character somewhere in Molloy, just as there are (at least) four characters in novelling. The work that is perfectly inconsistent would be perfectly consistent in its inconsistency. This would be its meaningful process, which would be understood as narrative.

References

Beckett, S. (1959) Molloy. Richmond: Calder and Boyars.

Block, F.Q. (2018) Electronic Literature as Paratextual Construction. MATLIT: Materialities of Literature. S.I., 6(1), 11–26. https://impactum-journals.uc.pt/matlit/article/view/5244. Accessed 19 May 2019.

Calvino, I. (1988) Six Memos For The Next Millennium. Translated by Patrick Creagh. London: Vintage.

—. (1976) The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Translated by William Weaver. London: Pan Books.

Faulkner, W. (1987) William Faulkner Manuscripts. Edited by Joseph Leo Blotner, et al. New York: Garland Publishing.

—. (2012) The Sound and the Fury. London: The Folio Society.

—. (1995) The Sound and the Fury. London: Vintage.

Hooper, M. (2014) Why BS Johnson suits the digital age. The Guardian, 15 Oct. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/oct/14/why-bs-johnson-suits-digital-age. Accessed 19 May 2019.

Johnson, B.S. (1999) The Unfortunates. London: Picador.

Luers, W. et al. (2016) novelling. Cork: New Binary Press. http://novelling.newbinarypress.com. Accessed 19 May 2019.

Luers, W. (2018) Getting Lost in Narrative Virtuality. Electronic Book Review. https://electronicbookreview.com/essay/getting-lost-in-narrative-virtuality/. Accessed 19 May 2019.

—. (2016) Having Your Story and Eating It Too: Affect and Narrative in Recombinant Fiction. The Creative Media and Digital Culture Program. Washington: Washington State University.

“recombinant, adj. and n.” (2019) OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. www.oed.com/view/Entry/159697. Accessed 19 May 2019.

Rettberg, S. (2019) Electronic Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Seaman, B. (2001) OULIPO vs Recombinant Poetics. Leonardo, 34(5), 423–430.

Tabbi, J. (2002) Cognitive Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wright, D.T.H. (2018) Little Emperor Syndrome. www.littleemperorsyndrome.com. Accessed 19 May 2019.

David Thomas Henry Wright won the 2018 QUT Digital Literature Prize and 2019 Robert Coover Award (2nd prize). He has a PhD (Creative Writing) from Murdoch, a Masters (Creative Writing) from The University of Edinburgh, and lectured at China's top university, Tsinghua. He has been published in various journals.