Saturday, April 16, 2011

Negativeland - A Book You Can't Forget

It wasn't awful, but I couldn't have read another page.

Published in 2004 by Autonomedia, Negativeland by Doug Nufer is a constraint novel.  Like haiku or sonnets, it's a literary technique in which the writer must follow a specific condition which forbids certain things and/or requires others.

It begins:
None of the stations played anything good, but I kept at the buttons, pushing off songs from a childhood we were all supposed to have had.  Commercials bothered me more than ever, news was propaganda, and traffic reports were no more useful than the weather.  It wasn't yet 1988, and I was driving home from Tacoma. 
I liked Tacoma because it wasn't Seattle, the same as I liked Seattle because it wasn't New York, and vice-versa.
You couldn't miss what the constraint was, could you?  Not only does every sentence contain some sort of negative construction, even the chapters are negative, starting at -6 and proceeding to 0.

In an interview, the author talks about how people who didn't know about the constraint form prior to reading, didn't much care for it.  As another writer, I have to say that the author is very, very skilled at what he is doing, and conveys the bones of a reflective, interesting story.  At the same time, it was neither graceful, nor easy reading.  Although interested in the story and intrigued by the style, I found I could not read it straight through, but had to put down, frequently.

Part of that reflect other storytelling challenges by the author.  The main character is a former Olympic gold medal swimmer from 1972 (fictional - an East German actually won "his" races) who subsequently married a Rose Queen, and was used by his ad agency father-in-law as promotional figurehead for a chain of shady gyms across the country.

It touches upon themes of celebrity, of homecomings, of shoddy business practices, gambling, and hucksterism.

This story is told in first person, with flashbacks, as the main character in 1988 is doing a road trip across the country with his current girlfriend.  So, timewise, it skips all over the place, without many clues in each section as to when that particular action is taking place.  There are few dialogue tags to tell us who's speaking, so "she" may refer to the (now) ex-wife, or the current girlfriend, or the current girlfriend before she was the girlfriend.  Oh, and the main character is named Ken Honachick, but the current girlfriend calls him Chick or Chuck and other characters call him Ken or Kenny.

Dizzy?  So was I.

As a writer, I have to ask myself, could I do this?  Could I write at least a page of two in this style?  So for that reason, I recommend giving it a read, or perhaps another of Nufer's constraint novels, Never Again, in which no word is used more than once.

As a reader, I can't recommend it.  I already have a day job that makes me exercise my brain significantly.  When I turn to books, it's primarily for pleasure and relaxation.  While I enjoy books that make me stretch a little, this one is 186 pages of hard work.  I couldn't escape into it.  

User-friendly, it's not.


All writing, of course, has some kind of constraint. Generally, something is written all in one language or jargon, though there may be occasional outlier terms or words.  It can't be called a blog if it's not on the Internet.

We may write a piece to fit a certain length.  We may write about a certain subject (f'rinstance, A-Z, anyone?) or be required to include certain links or location.  A story of mine just published fits all those constraints.  

They're taking submissions, so check out their guidelines and submit your own short-short story to them.

Up for a shorter constraint challenge?  Try Nate Wilson's A-Z Challenge at Sometimes, The Wheel Is On Fire.  There are even prizes.

Have you read Negativeland, or another constraint novel?
What did you think?
Have you ever tried to write a novel or essay under constraints?