Fiction : An Experiment in Pleasure

Elizabeth Block
A Gesture Through Time
(Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2005)

While there are many talented experimental novelists working today, writers who are able to transcend the traditional limitations of the novel in order to present rare states of experience and consciousness, a rarer state of experience and consciousness occurs when an experimental novel is actually fun to read. A Gesture Through Time, Elizabeth Block’s debut, is that rare and sparkling find.

Not only is Block’s novel more entertaining than most avant-garde writing, but it gives more pleasure than many mainstream novels from large and small presses alike. Spuyten Duyvil Press, which in recent years has been steadily improving its batting stats, hitting doubles and triples and the occasional home run, has finally hit one clean out of the park.

It would be a waste of ink to try to describe what kind of novel A Gesture Through Time is beneath the surface, because, to its endless credit, it is a novel without any surface at all. The cover, with its luminous MRI of a brain, is the perfect representation of what lies within.

This is a novel about the workings of the human mind, the workings of perception, and the workings of illusion, both in the “real” world and in the world of the artist. Three women, Magnitude Hortense Zappa, Sarah Ona Broome, and the authorial doppelgänger known as Elizabeth, interact, merge, and separate as each not only takes up the job of narration, but consciously re-interprets that job, often with erotic, insightful, and hilarious results.

In a scene that would melt the credit-card numbers off a more conventional erotic transaction, Zappa is a Detroit steelworker who allows herself to be seduced by a 16-year-old girl in a field behind the steel factory. The girl reflects:

“I didn’t even know what I was doing, it was too late by the time I realized this was real sex and not my imagination, real sex like I never had with any other human body, this was the real real real fantasy turning into reality, that rare split second where time and space compress into unbelievable travel . . .”

The book’s honest sexuality is typical of the compassion that Block brings even to the most abstract of her experiments.

As the novel deconstructs before us, we are treated to a very funny exchange between Pleasure and Humiliation, whose dialogue characterizes them with more accuracy, sharpness, and speed than we’re likely to get when Philip Roth investigates them.

PLEASURE:

I’m hungry. I have to get up and make some dinner. Stop touching me.

HUMILIATION:

Let me wipe your tears first. I missed you so.

Block shifts narrators in a thrilling increase of hysteria, until even the conventions of multiple points of view must break down and we are left with an astonishing and highly amusing dialogue between the Narrator and the Author.

Narrator:

I think I want to abolish you.

Author:

Sort of already been done, my friend.


Scattered between these hijinks we have a series of highly fevered technological observations about photography and filmmaking, as though John Dos Passos had taken his Camera Eye apart and reassembled it, then used the Camera Eye to investigate, well, the Camera Eye. Mailer played with Dos Passos’ experimental techniques in The Naked and the Dead over 50 years ago, but novelists have left these modernist experiments on the shelf ever since, where they’ve been waiting for Block to dust them off and put them to innovative and stunning use.

Block appears fully aware that there is nothing “new” about experimental writing, and this awareness is what frees her to reach her new synthesis. Reading A Gesture Through Time is like wandering into the nexus between modernism and post-modernism, with new-millennium versions of the poetry riffs, prose poems, and stream-of-consciousness flights that are found in Ulysses or “The Waste Land.”

Indeed, if Joyce and Eliot were alive today, celebrating literature by taking film cameras apart, celebrating stream-of-consciousness by dictating their love of technology into digital recorders, and celebrating sex by showing us what the lesbians are doing behind the steel plant, then Block’s prose would be the prose that they would be required to write.

While it might sound cheeky to suggest that some of the blank pages in this novel are copied directly from Tristam Shandy, the comic spirit is similar, and the illustrations Block employs are just as declarative as anything done in Sterne’s day. We won’t find Hogarth in these pages, but we’ll find someone just as good: Evri Kwong, an artist of national reputation who takes over the storytelling duties from the Narrator(s), if not from the Author. Kwong’s drawings crystallize the book’s humor and intelligence in abstract harmony with the pathos of the text.

A Gesture Through Time is a novel that tells us that “The worst crime in the world is having pleasure taken away—suddenly—with no hope or foreseeable end to the solitude.” As long as Block continues to write and publish books as compassionate, intelligent and entertaining as this one, we are at no risk of being permanently separated from pleasure. Robert Clark Young teaches writing for the University of Phoenix. His novel, One of the Guys, is out from HarperCollins.

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Robert Clark Young

Robert Clark Young teaches writing at the University of Phoenix.