Looseness of Association in Postmodern Works

Many postmodernist writers disrupt the smooth production and reception of texts by welcoming chance into the compositional process. The infamous The Unfortunates (1969) by B. S.Johnson, for instance, is a novel-in-a-box which instructs the reader to riffle several loose-leaf chapters into any order. Only the first and last chapter are denominated, otherwise the sections can be freely mixed. The point of this contrived format is not just to perform a cold, technical experiment. Rather, Johnson wishes to recreate the unique disposition of his thoughts on a particular Saturday afternoon, when reporting a football match in Nottingham for the Observer. It was the first time he had returned to the city since the death of his friend, Tony. The peculiar form of the novel mirrors his churning feelings. So, ironically, the loose-leaves of The Unfortunates are not intended to be random at all, but strive to render the workings of the mind more naturally.

William Burroughs also forays frequently into serendipity. The arrangement of the twenty-two individual sections of Naked Lunch (1962) was regulated solely by the adventitious order in which they happened to be sent to the publishers. Indeed, the untidiness of the room in which the manuscript was assembled sometimes disturbed the sequence of pages. Small wonder that Burroughs confessed that ‘You can cut into at any intersection point’. Burroughs wields chance less randomly in three novels from the 1960s which are often grouped together as a trilogy: Nova Express (1966), The Soft Machine (1967) and The Ticket That Exploded (1967). These books make methodical use of the cut-up. The cut-up is the brainchild of the artist Tristan Tzara, who envisaged it as a verbal equivalent to the cubist and Dadaist collages in the visual arts. Further extensions of the idea can be traced through the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and the newspaper pastiches of John Dos Passos. The cut-up was taught to Burroughs by Brion Gysin. It involves placing excised sentences from a range of texts into a hat or other container, shaking them, then matching together the scraps of paper which are picked out at random. This rigmarole has prompted skeptical critics to make unflattering comparisons between Burroughs and monkeys with typewriters.

Another chance technique favoured by Burroughs is the fold-in, in which a page of text is folded vertically, and then aligned with another page until the two halves match. Just as the cut-up allows writing to mimic cinematic montage, the fold-in gives Burroughs the option of repeating passages in a specifically musical way. For example, if page 1 isfolded-in with page 100 to form a composite page 10, phrases can flash forward and back like the anticipation and recapitulation of motifs in a symphony.

The fold-in, like the cut-up, strains to evade the manacles of ordinary fiction. Few texts directly borrow these techniques, but Burroughs‘ spirit of chance-taking is decidedly congenial to the postmodernist writer. In this respect he is rather like the musician John Cage, who opened up tremendous ground for exploration by later composers, although his experiments with dice and the I-Ching proved to be unrepeatable. Nevertheless, as Julian Cowley noted in an essay on Ronald Sukenick (1987), in both music and writing ‘Readiness to ride with the random may be regarded as a characteristically postmodern attitude….’


Source: The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism Edited By Stuart Sim Routledge  London and New York 2001

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