Thursday, February 17, 2011

Evan Lavender-Smith's AVATAR

So on the flight to AWP I got my hands on an advance copy of Evan Lavender-Smith's novel Avatar. I had known of the novel's existence for some time, and its impending publication, and was aware of its premises -- the story's premise, in terms of the idea of a protagonist-narrator who is floating between two points of light that may be stars, and the premise of the language: this is a novel without punctuation. Meaning no periods, meaning no commas, no quotation marks, no apostrophes, no anything. There are also no paragraph breaks. 

I consider Evan a friend and a mentor and I have tremendous respect for him as a writer, but I'll admit I always regarded the prospect of this conceit with some skepticism. While it's only half-accurate to describe the book as being one long sentence, certainly this is the intended impression -- and, well, I'll admit I've gotten a little bored of books that aim to exist as one sentence. A lot of the edgy experimental writer types (including me!) have played with the idea and I'm honestly not convinced that it's ultimately that interesting. There's a wonderful tension in the ending of one sentence and the beginning of another, in the space between these things, and I don't think what you gain by writing one big long sentence will generally make up for the loss of that tension. But this, I think, gets at what makes it work out so well in Avatar.

Because grammatically this is not designed to be read as one sentence. It doesn't tell you when to stop (or another way of looking at it is that it doesn't give you explicit permission to stop) but the syntax is such that the effect is like reading many interlocking, overlapping sentences. The novel opens with these words:
they were my friends for a great number of years they were my greatest friends they floated alongside me to keep me company they were the first great friends I made here I would awaken from sleep I would awaken after a night of sleep or after a day of sleep I would awaken to find my tears still floating at my side I would be overjoyed upon awakening having opened my eyes to find thousands of tears thousands of old friends still faithfully floating alongside 
And it continues in this fashion until the novel has finished. Notice that these clauses have not been designed such that you are meant to experience them as one sentence. In fact they come in uncommonly small, discrete syntactical units that very strongly suggest pauses and rhythm and breathing and voice and order in the way that punctuation is expected to do. "They were my friends for a great number of years" is a sentence. So is "They were my greatest friends." So is "They floated alongside me to keep me company." Or rather they have all the grammatical properties of sentences, of complete clauses and thoughts, such that on reading them you can register them and understand. And yet there is more -- so that you have to determine where to pause, where to breathe, what the tone is, the relationships between ideas and images and so on. The tension normally associated with the place between one sentence and the next is present in every word of the text. You have to read very actively merely to understand the thing at all. But if you want to understand it, you will. This is a lovely formal technique for forcing an audience to work for an empathetic connection with a narrative. On Monday I saw Evan read from the book, and it was striking how he rendered the language: not as a drone, not as a drumbeat, but as a series of thoughts in a variety of registers, tones, rhythms, voices. The narrator has to maintain his own sanity without the relief of any sort of interruption. This is what loneliness is about. The reader must do the same.

This is a novel that does wonderful things with breath -- that makes you take control of your breathing. It's a novel that requires your total attention. It is completely absorbing.

It has, I think, one of the stronger logics of plot I've seen in a novel in my recent reading. Evan begins by introducing a series of objects or words, and then these are returned to one by one until they have all been exhausted, at which point the book begins again. In a book with one character, delivered in a mode that seems antithetical to plot, we begin with a central tension and we end with that tension. In fact I knew at the book's outset more or less how it would end. This is, in other words, unlike so many in the avant-garde, a book that encourages your participation -- that is designed for use. It is physically designed for use (its small size and generous white space are ideal for its style) and its language is designed for use. Even when I wasn't sure about the language, I was sure about the premise -- a man floating alone through space, a great idea -- and the premise is carried through in the language, is genuinely the novel's commitment.

Which is, I think, what sets Evan's work apart from so many experimental writers. That he goes beyond the form of the thing. He spoke about this Monday, the way that so often formally interesting work becomes only formally interesting; the difficulty of connecting emotionally with some Calvino works, for instance. He talked about how badly he wanted to move past that and into something deeply affecting. Avatar succeeds in this. It is, in addition to being one of the smartest books I've read in a long time, one of the most engaging to me as a human being, as a body, as a lonely creature. It is, quite honestly, beautiful, and I hope it finds all the success it deserves. You should maybe go buy it.


  1. If the language includes pauses, breaths, a rhythm, then why omit punctuation? Is the language supposed to dovetail with the narrative, the content, and - if so - is this technique successful in telling the story?

  2. Because the omission of punctuation complicates and intensifies the experience of pauses, breaths, etc., in part through increased reader participation. The language does dovetail nicely with the narrative, though, also, and yes, as I argued above, it's successful in telling the story.

    I mean your questions are pretty much literally addressed point for point above, not sure what this aggressive vibe is all about.

  3. The omission of punctuation is an interesting literary device but I'm skeptical of its usage. If it was predicated by story content (the main character is a beam of light and this the only way he can tell his story), it would contain an inherent logic. Otherwise, it could be a mere experiment in prose, which doesn't matter if it's a good read, but is worth noting. My words are not meant to communicate any aggression. I'm sincerely curious. I wouldn't know of the book nor be compelled to read it if I had not read your review. Now, I'm buying it. Like I said, it's an interesting premise told in an unconventional manner, and I would rather see that on a bookshelf in Barnes & Noble instead of another Harlequin novel, despite my reservations.

  4. My point is that yes, the narrative and the device are unified. I keep writing that and you keep deciding not to read it. That's what's making you seem hostile: you don't seem to be reading what I'm writing. It isn't "a mere experiment" although if it was, that would be fine.