"...But I Could Not Speak...", Jono Schneider. O Books, 2002. 110 pp. $12.00
The title of Jono Schneider's book of experimental prose, "...But I Could Not Speak...", is paradoxical. Isn't the voice that announces "but I could not speak" in fact speaking? On closer inspection this title seems to enunciate frustration with the standard modes of articulation; it seems to say that if a voice speaks in a way that satisfies standard expectations for prose, it will fail to capture the pulse of contemporary existence. In other words, if a voice follows the typical prose patterns of established literary work, it will fail to introduce into the dialogue of literature the contours of life as it is lived today. Unable to speak in these patterns without uttering what is yesterday and now false, Schneider thus says, "but I could not speak."
In retaliation against the gagging influence of standard prose, Schneider announces early in the book, "So I would permanently break into sections." This declaration in effect brings into focus the fragmentary aesthetic of his work. Although at first glance the work seems to borrow some of its aesthetic from Proust, on closer inspection many of its sentences shift midstream in a manner that applies a tourniquet to straightforward meaning, and the interval or gap between these sentences only adds another layer of dislocation. Taken as a whole, these shifts and odd combinations of phrases give Schneider work a cut-up and disjointed feel that often reminds one of Ashbery. For example, Schneider writes, "I suddenly recalled that his philosophy hearkened back to the days when the crisis of death set in, formed by smallish bombs floating heavily above him until their weight broke him open with their fire." In sentences such as this the relationship between particulars--for example "his philosophy," "the crisis of death," and "smallish bombs"--is skewed and unwieldy; it skirts meaning without suggesting definitiveness and exudes hyperbolic undertones that give an inflated and ironic and thereby somewhat whimsical import to everyday events. It is in through sentences of this sort that Schneider strikes one of his most resonant notes.
Many of Schneider's sentences also follow turns of consciousness in a mode reminiscent of Blanchot's work, particularly The One Who Was Standing Apart From Me. In this mode the majority of "action" is mental, interior, or theoretical, with an ambiguous "I" meditating on its voice or actions, or on the characteristics or actions of a third person, who is usually reduced to a "he" or "she" (though an "Olga" appears toward the end of Schneider's book). These features help distinguish Schneider's aesthetic from Silliman's New Sentence and its focus on perceiving particulars; they also push Schneider's work in a narrative direction, though this direction is not necessarily directed.
In his famous essay, "The Storyteller," Benjamin claimed that sanitized information (i.e. the news hour) has supplanted the traditional narrative of the storyteller, and it is into this absence--the story's absence--that Schneider commits his voice. Instead of telling a seamless narrative or relating an epic trajectory, Schneider speaks from a multitude of perspectives through use of a fluid and expansive "I" that cannot be associated with the author, a stable narrator, or a character. In this mode each of his fragments--whether sentence or paragraph--operate as a discrete narrative unit. Speech here reminds us of the archipelago, where each sentence is an island that introduces us to the immensity of an unbounded ocean. The fragments don't necessarily add up to a whole, they don't pretend to sum up our context in the world today, and yet they speak to our condition. Or do they? As Schneider asks:
But could inventing sentences neither connected to nor comforted by the others surrounding them be the answer to the problem of context if context, while perceiving the difference between ideas for the sake of democratic idealism, spread us out across the fields of interest as a quick decision to either accept or decline each other?
In its expansiveness, Schneider's "I" reminds us to a certain extent of Blanchot's Bavard. "The Bavard... is a mute who gives expression to his muteness" writes Blanchot, "his 'I' is so porous that it cannot be kept to itself; it makes silence on all sides..." Schneider's voice also seems unable to stop speaking, and yet at times, as its montage of divergent stories overwhelms the reader, it cannot be heard. This, however, seems to be the only possible mode for the storyteller in the story's absence. Only a sort of plural or neutral speech that says both yes and no, that begins again and again, always issuing from the same level compositional field--a field that lacks a coherent plot or set of characters--seems capable of engaging the reader in a familiar narrative containing recognizable characters. Thus, Schneider says about his mode of articulation:
That it was no longer a novel--a voice whose speech did not name the character who spoke it, instead letting it issue forth a flow of words attached to the conditions that created the story's absence, a space which could not be filled by naming the speaker or supplying the author's intention to the reader--could only be confirmed by a careful reading that did not deliberate over questions of legitimacy.
All in all, Schneider's "...But I Could Not Speak..." offers an open work, the type of book that can be opened on any given page and read without any loss of meaning. Similar to Hejinian's Border Comedy, it "has no horror of dispersal." Each fragment unfolds a new story that ends where the next fragment begins. It is as if Blanchot spoke of Schneider's sentences when he wrote:
[W]hile they are interrupted by a blank, isolated and dissociated to the point that one cannot pass from one to the next--or only by a leap and in becoming conscious of a difficult interval--they nonetheless convey in their plurality the sense of an arrangement they entrust to the future of speech.
Although many of Schneider's sentences contain turns that frustrate understanding, the difficulty of these turns should be understood as necessity; only new arrangements of words can suggest new meanings and possibilities, and thereby transform a book into "a written lantern which uses letters to light the path of future progress." Any difficulty that arises from these new twists and turns should be seen as intrinsic to the task of giving the reader some glimpse at the future of speech and narrative, in all its fragmented plurality.