[NOTE: A somewhat different version of “On the Road (not Taken)” originally appeared as the preface to the reissue of Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It, Normal, IL: FC2, 1997; Federman’s novel was originally published by the Fiction Collective in 1976.]
There are MANY ways in which the thing I am trying to say may be tried in vain to be said. —Raymond Federman, Take It or Leave It
I want to write a foreword that cancels itself as it goes.—Larry McCaffery
The highway is alive tonight, but nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes —Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
One could imagine that it happened this way:
Once upon a time an exasperated critic looked down at yet another attempt to write an opening sentence to a foreword he'd agreed to provide for a novel that was about to be reissued by the Fiction Collective 2 on the twentieth anniversary of its original appearance. What he saw was this:
“The experience of reading Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It [hereafter: TIOLI] might be compared to a wild car ride you've somehow found yourself on with a bunch of rowdy, talkative characters who are all competing for attention with the driver—a middle-aged, vaguely European-looking guy, still sexy, in great shape, with a prominent nose and an even more prominent, incredibly thick French accent who's wearing an outmoded blue double-breasted suit and smoking a stream of foul-smelling French cigarettes, a guy who can't seem to keep either his eyes or the car on the road but who had announced, bilingually, in French and English, just as you climbed aboard, an elaborate itinerary he'd precisely mapped out for this joy ride, 'the great journey in search of America,' he called it, 'from the EAST COAST to the WEST COAST,' although now that you're moving, spatially and temporally, on the road, it's soon apparent this guy behind the wheel has no clue where he's heading or how to get there if he did, because he keeps veering off the main narrative Interstate, crashing through road blocks onto by-passes and detours, slamming on the breaks, then lurching foreword down more side roads that seem to lead back in the same direction you came from, all the while laughing idiotically at his own jokes and carrying on an animated dialogue with the other passengers, bilingually, in French and English, about the sights we'll eventually see on this great journey, "the great plains the mississippi the grand canyon gangsters in chicago las vegas and the casinos and . . ." and somehow also managing to deal out the chips and cards for a poker game while simultaneously and bilingually, in English and French, engaging in heated arguments with anyone who'll listen about philosophy, politics, semiotics, and responding to complaints about where the hell does he thinking he's taking them by rationalizing, justifying, fictionalizing the routes he's taking, but also frequently telling everyone to SHUT UP and QUIT BUGGING ME because what he obviously mainly wants to do is tell the story about what this other guy, a young Jewish kid, supposedly told him about the Jewish guy's narrow escape from extermination by the Nazi's (his family were wiped out, X-X-X-X, at Auschwitz), about his arrival in America after the war and his miserable life the first couple of years living in Detroit and New York before volunteering to join the Army, and about the 30-day pass he was given, a period he planned to use to drive across the country by car, a Buick Special, a trip that would allow him to leave the margins and finally plunge into the heart (or the cunt) of the heart of America, a trip that began with a side trip from Fort Bragg (NC) to Camp Drum (in upper state New York) before embarking on a fabulous journey across America to San Francisco, where he would rejoin the rest of his unit to ship out to the battlefront of Korea. . .
As should be obvious, this foreword was for a very wild and peculiar book indeed, a novel some reviewers had dismissed as being incoherent and unreadable but which the critic had greatly admired and which had even decisively influenced (or infected) his own writing, including the foreword he was struggling to complete.
These "symptoms" of TIOLI’s influence (or infection) included sudden attacks of nausea, vertigo, diarrhea, and uncontrollable laughter which began afflicting the critic whenever he came into close proximity with certain kinds of traditional texts, particularly those relying on linearity, accumulation, causality, logic, and other features of Western rationalism to "contain" a reality the mind of the post-TIOLI critic perceived to be an uncontainable fictive construct to be collaborated and played with, storified, and (above all) laughed at . These symptoms had played a crucial role in the critic's decision to reject the traditional literary foreword's empiricist, formulaic devices and "content" while developing his own prefatory remarks about TIOLI.
[DIGRESSION ON FOREWORDS.] Most forewords, like most works of fiction, achieve coherence and meaningfulness through a process of logical accumulation of facts, summaries, paraphrases, and personal insights about specific books and authors, information which is recorded and gradually revealed in the foreword in much the way that fiction accumulates specific situations and, more or less, credible characters, so that both foreword and fiction progress towards a definite goal—the revelation of knowledge. To read a foreword, then, was to learn something about the book and about the author in exactly the same way that to read a novel was to learn something about the world and about man. [END OF DIGRESSION]
The critic's rejection of the form and content of traditional forewords—a gesture which produced only an absence or a series of gaps, or holes in the foreword he would eventually write—still left him with the dilemma of figuring out what sort of foreword would be appropriate for a book such as TIOLI, which moves in exactly the opposite direction as that of most fiction ("progressing" by unexpected leaps and bounds from impasse to impasse not to revelation, denouement and self-understanding but toward incoherence and non-revelation), whose protagonists (Frenchy, the young Jewish immigrant and the narrator or second-hand teller) likewise begin and end their journeys in the same place, in the same condition, without having acquired the least knowledge about themselves or the world they live in, and which thus depicts not the familiar initiation story it claims to be telling (the journey on the open road in search of America and self discovery which retraces earlier routes of Huck, the Joads, Springsteen's protagonists, and other American innocents) but a very different sort of journey: towards chaos, non-knowledge, erasure, cancellation and (it should be added) to personal freedom as well.
By reply, the critic began a foreword which would not merely analyze, summarize, paraphrase, contextualize and promote TIOLI, as most forewords would, but would represent more directly the novel's manic pacings and energy, its digressiveness and unreadability, and above all its damn-the-cops-and-the-roadblocks sense of reckless adventure by being cast in the form of an extended conceit borrowed ("boosted" in Lacanian terms) directly from the drive shaft of TIOLI itself—specifically the Great American Car Ride—a metaphor that was easily (re)tro-textualized for use in his own foreword whose opening sentence we saw the critic was examining earlier, and which the critic might well have continued along the following lines:
. . . of Korea. Now this car you're riding in isn’t just any car, mind you, no, it's certainly not the kind of car most people were riding around in the mid-70s, like one of those stripped down "Minimalist" models or boxy Japanese imports, the kind with automatic seat belts and great gas mileage but no cigarette lighters, ashtrays, or beer holders, and definitely no pick up, no, the car you've hitched your ride aboard is a distinctly AMERICAN model, one of those huge, gas-guzzling models from the early 50s, say a Buick Special, the equivalent of what Melville and Whitman used on their journeys, one whose enormous engine and tailfins literalize the freedom, power, and futuristic associations of the American Dream, with 8 cylinders capable of delivering a smooth ride at 90 mph on just about any paved road, with 4 wheel drive capability that let's you veer off the open road, even off the beaten path, to blaze your own trail when you want to, and with a spacious interior with plenty of "leg room" to roam around and stretch out in, the extra space you can especially appreciate on a ride such as this one, because otherwise you'd feel mighty cramped in here with all these other passengers, a very bizarre cast of characters you only really started noticing when. . .
Before his next obvious move (describing the passengers), the critic paused. He felt uneasy, queasy—symptoms he knew resulted not from the very obviousness of what he was about to do (hadn't he rejected obviousness when he swore off conventional forewords?) but from the recognition that obviousness was just one of many obstacles he needed to steer clear of, most far more dangerous and difficult to avoid than something as, well, as obvious as obviousness. Before continuing blindly foreword, he began to create a list of other impediments which needed to be avoided, evaded, canceled, erased, not written about, a list whose first ten items had (de)materialized within just a few minutes:
DOWN THE DRAIN: Topics To Be Not Discussed in My Foreword to TIOLI:
1. [DEFINITELY OMIT!] Attention-grabbing, one-two sentence combination that softens up readers' underbelly and sets up later knock-out—the kind that might have begun something like “This reissue of TIOLI—FEDERMAN’s brilliantly crazed version of the GREAT AMERICAN ROAD NOVEL—is a major literary event just waiting to happen, if only because it can now begin seducing, amusing, frustrating, mesmerizing, annoying and otherwise infecting the sensibilities of the younger "alternative" generation of readers with its willful incoherence and digressiveness, its playfulness and obscenity, and the delirium and manic energy of its voice. While TIOLI may not be Federman's most radically innovative novel ALSO OMIT PARENTHETICAL COMMENT—E.G. (for sustained experimentalism, nothing can quite match Federman's first novel, Double or Nothing (Swallow; 1972) a novel in the form of 200+ pages of individually designed "concrete narratives," which required nothing less of its readers than that they learn how to re-read on every page), but in terms of its range (and appropriateness) of experiments, its thematic ambition, the energy and variety of voices, the conviction of its satiric impulses, and—above all—its sheer story-telling skills, it remains the richest, most readable and most rewarding of all of Federman's works." DOWN THE DRAIN.
2. Claims for TIOLI as a "landmark book," or as a "culmination" of the reflexivity, metafictional impulses, playfulness, etc etc found in the works of Delany, Barthelme, Abish, Bernstein, Barth [DELETE REF “ALL COLLEAGUES AT SUNY-BUFFALO”] Coover, Sukenick, Gass, and other postmodernists from late 60s and early 70s. DOWN THE DRAIN--ALONG WITH: observations re: TIOLI's ongoing impact [EXTENDED ANALOGY WITH VIRAL INFECTION ALSO CANCELED] on other writers and readers being so disproportionate to its relatively modest sales. Expression of hope that TIOLI's reissue will start gaining for Federman the kind of readership and critical attention in America which he already enjoys in Europe has been receiving in Europe, particularly in Germany DOWN THE DRAIN—ALONG WITH “Federman IN GERMANY” DIGRESSION). AND PUB INFO FOR OTHER REISSUES THIS YEAR—E.G..: The Twofold Vibration (by Sun & Moon), Double or Nothing ((FC2), or the huge (800 ms. pg.) "Recyclopedia" of materials by and about Federman, edited by the critic himself, FEDERMAN, A TO X-X-X-X (SDSU Press).
3. Discussion of TIOLI as "First American Poststructuralist Novel." DOWN THE DRAIN—WITH CLARIFICATION: ". . . its sophisticated employment of radical concepts formulated by such leading European theorists as Lacan, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Foucault, Barthes, Derrida and others such as dialogy, the death of the author, heteroglossia, carnival, decenteredness, slippage, jouissance, denial of originality, ecriture, etc., which not only anticipated analogous usage found in later works by Acker, Leyner, Wallace, Daitch, and Vollmann nearly a decade before most American readers had ever heard of Anti-Oedipus or Of Grammatology ." DOWN THE DRAIN.
4. ALL RELEVANT BIO-BIBLIO INFO—birth (Paris, 1928), Nazi's, the closet extermination of parents and sisters X-X-X-X at Auschwitz, the trains, the potatoes, the farm DOWN THE DRAIN the arrival in America (1947), the east side of Detroit, the factory, high school, "Frenchy," the tiny rooms, jazz, black women, the Catskills, golf, New York, the hunger, the filth, noodles, the affairs, LouLou DOWN THE DRAIN the Army, the paratroopers, Fort Bragg the trip across country, Korea, Japan, return, the GI bill Columbia U., the first stories, Phi Betta Kappa, grad school UCLA, Beckett thesis (Journey to Chaos), the mid-60s SUNY-BUFFALO, the Guggenheim, Paris, first poetry collection (Among the Beasts, 1967), first novel, Double or Nothing, Ronald Sukenick, the Fiction Collective, the French novel (Amer Elderado) re-written (not translated) as TIOLI. DOWN THE DRAIN. the 20 pg. novel, The Voice in the Closet (1979), the 80s The Twofold Vibration (1982), move away from blatant reflexivity and playfulness towards silence more feeling more realistic (seeming) forms, Smiles on Washington Square (1986), translations/ adaptations/acclaim in outside America, the 90s Aunt Rachel's Fur (1996). DOWN THE DRAIN.
5. Influences (most important) Beckett and Celine DOWN THE DRAIN (direct influences) Ashbery, Baudelaire, Calvino, Camus, Cioran, Descartes, Diderot, Kafka, La Fontaine, Joyce, Mallarme, Montaigne, Nietzshe, Proust, Rabelais, Racine, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Sartre, Yeats DOWN THE DRAIN (indirect influences) Blake, Cervantes, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Mann, Pirandello, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Sterne (people not directly influential but with whom Federman feels affinities) : Abish, Katz, Sukenick [ALSO CANCEL SUKENICK, FICTION COLLECTIVE DIGRESSION], Gass, Hawkes, Katz, Burroughs, Barth, Coover DOWN THE DRAIN—ALONG WITH MALE-CENTRO NATURE OF INFLUENCES DIGRESSION
6. Extended discussion of TIOLI as many different books. DOWN THE DRAIN. Alphabetical list of literary terms, labels, analogies which could describe these books: TIOLI as a: po-mo autobiography [ALSO DELETE parenthetical analogy with Vonnegut, Katz, Hunter Thompson, Barth, Celine, Miller, Burroughs and to "life-story" motif]; book about America and the American Dream; a deeply skeptical, often hilarious academic novel; DOWN THE DRAIN border novel; book about beginnings (birth but also being birthed into new life-story by American language); bi-lingual novel, book of borrowed time DOWN THE DRAIN critifiction; a cancellation; class-novel; a CUNTfrontation; cry of pain; literary carnival (Bahktin) DOWN THE DRAIN Derridean dialogic, auto-deconstructive, democratic novel about differance and the democratic nature of writing; a book of displacements; extended digression; demolition derby; book about death; more dangerous than a photocopying machine; dead end; book of discovery DOWN THE DRAIN book of erasures and evasions; extemporaneous novel; elegantly chaotic narrative exploring or expressing the concept of ecriture ; book of exaggerations; epistolary fiction DOWN THE DRAIN failure; book of flights (in the manner of LeClezio); exemplary gesture of forgiveness (and love); book about the fifties; about forgetting; DOWN THE DRAIN garden of forking paths; game; the first postmodernist gambling novel; book existing in the gap between memory and imagination; book that emerges not from the head but from the guts; golf story; DOWN THE DRAIN proto-hypertext novel; po-mo-post-Holocaust novel (and a book about the impossibility of such a novel); DOWN THE DRAIN initiation story ; a search for identity, an immigrant novel; DOWN THE DRAIN Jewish novel; one long jazz solo; journey to chaos DOWN THE DRAIN; book about knowledge and the limitations of knowledge DOWN THE DRAIN; labyrinth; book of laughter and laughterature; series of interrelated language poems masquerading as an autobiographical novel; novel about language and its limits, the way it speaks us and shapes our sense of ourselves and others ;a book of lists; a bi-lingual novel; DOWN THE DRAIN a word machine; metafiction; masturbatory gesture by the 20th century's great poet of the monstrous machinery of erections rushing in motion DOWN THE DRAIN book of non-knowledge; narcissistic novel; novel about novel-writing DOWN THE DRAIN obsessive novel and a book of obsessions; oedipal novel DOWN THE DRAIN playful novel; parenthetical expression; Proustian novel about the past and its relationship to present; the first American poststructuralist novel [ERASED EARLIER]one of the most powerful and convincing political novels of the past twenty five years; book of plagiarism; pseudo autobiography DOWN THE DRAIN; book of questions (in the manner of Jabes), book of quotations DOWN THE DRAIN a road novel; book about racism DOWN THE DRAIN; second hand story; surfiction; spatial displacement; struggle of word-design against word-syntax; book about exploring space (of America) and constructing space (textual space); book of and about stories DOWN THE DRAIN bilingual time machine; book about translation/mis-translation/re-translation DOWN THE DRAIN unreadable novel; book about unspeakability DOWN THE DRAIN book of a voice (or voices)-within-a-voice; visual literature; book about violence (political, linguistic, racial, etc. etc.); verbal text as visual art; violence of language; violence of the holocaust DOWN THE DRAIN war novel; retelling of the story of the Wandering Jew DOWN THE DRAIN book about X-X-X-X DOWN THE DRAIN a young-person's novel written by a 48 year old man DOWN THE DRAIN a novel which excludes a return to zero DOWN THE DRAIN
7. VERY RELUCTANTLY DELETE “Brilliant Disguises”—the unexpected, extended comparison between Federman and Bruce Springsteen (in general) DOWN THE DRAIN the gradual piling up of one remarkable similarity after another between their lives and careers: the obsessive exploration of a series of primal scenes focusing on the separation between child and parent; the European features sex appeal and Jewish name and nose; the distinctive accent and emphasis on voice, the ear for street lingoes, the lack of almost any formal education until exactly the same age (27) which they partially compensate for by immersing themselves in a musical scene heavily black in orientation where they can express themselves; the release of their first works (Federman’s Among the Beasts, Springsteen’s 45 single with his first band, The Castilles) in 1967; the importance in both their lives of a black saxophone player (Parker and Clarence Clemons), the intuitive recognition early on of the possibilities of using their own lives as a mythic expression of something larger, the first major releases at the end of 1972 (Federman’s Double or Nothing, Springsteen’s GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK) which are both full of surreal, autobiographical stories full of odd characters and street lingoes; and the 2nd release a little over a year later (Federman’s Amer Eldorado, Springsteen’s THE WILD, THE INNOCENT THE E-STREET SHUFFLE); the word-of-mouth-reputation begin to establish as great live performers; their breakthrough third works (BORN TO RUN and TIOLI) which are both conceived as “concept” works based on the American Dream, automobiles, and the Open Road; the release in mid-career of pivotal new works (Sprngsteen’s NEBRASKA Federman’s Voice in the Closet) whose starkness, bleakness and stripped down qualities are utterly unlike their riotous, energized early works; the fact that among their greatest strengths as artists is a quality no one associates with their work—subtlety; the gradual move in their later works towards seemingly more conventional works whose “realism” is of a highly reflexive, ambiguous nature, all this and much much more, DOWN THE DRAIN.
8. Reference controversial formal concepts (Imagination as Plagiarism/Pla(y)giarism, Leap-Frog Technique, unreadability, Surfiction, Laugherature, etc.) DOWN THE DRAIN.
9. TIOLI's reputation as "unreadable" and "narcissistic" denounced with impassioned counter-claim that "readability" has always been one of Federman's greatest strengths as a writer DOWN THE DRAIN citation of episodes in TIOLI ("Frogliness," "Remembering Charlie Parker," "Cyrano of the Regiment," "The Buick Special," etc" ) as being among the most memorable set pieces in recent American fiction; DOWN THE DRAIN point that too often academics fail to note that TIOLI and all the rest of Federman's work are all books which are perhaps MOST FUNDAMENTALLY expressions of love and forgiveness [ERASE ANALOGY WITH WHITMAN, Unconditionally of love, etc.] —and about the need for people to give up hatred by laughter. DOWN THE DRAIN.
10. CANCEL Punch-line set up by ref to laughter and laughterature, the book's success as a rousing, comic exploration of self and America DOWN THE DRAIN satiric impulses display the coherence and consistency of viewpoint which TIOLI's narrative chaos conceals. DOWN THE DRAIN examples of coherent patterns emerging from the turbulent interactions occurring on TIOLI's textual surface—DOWN THE DRAIN in fact, remarkable thematic consistency, readability, thematic and symbolic coherence, other indications of the book as being morally, aesthetically, philosophically and literarily unified and "successful" etc ALL DOWN THE DRAIN—AND THEREFORE—THE [CANCELED] PUNCH LINE] "TIOLI as a book of deliberate failure which fails so perfectly that it fails even in its effort to be incoherent and unreadable!” DOWN THE DRAIN
The critic was greatly relieved when he stopped to reread his list; certainly there were other gaps or absences that would need to be filled in later, other topics which would need to be not written about, canceled, avoided—after all, there was a great deal to not write about in TIOLI!—but even this obviously incomplete list had at least removed some of the largest "impediments" to the real foreword whose journey he could now resume by describing those rowdy passengers:
. . . to, a pretty mixed bag: Beckett, Jack Nicklaus, Kerouac, Tel Quel critics, Holocaust survivors, crazed unreadable authors like Celine, Paul De Man and other Nazi sympathizers, Derrida, Artaud, Quentin Tarantino, Jean-Luc Goddard, e e cummings, Charlie Parker, a long-haired hippie wearing a name tag reading CAM TAATHAM is pulling what looks like a rattlesnake out of his pants and taunting the driver to step on it, various and sundry illiterate stupid macho hillbilly GIs who seem to have wandered off the set of Deliverance and who spend most of their time in the back seat making racist jokes and masturbating and playing poker; rounding out this whole sick crew are a bunch of obviously tight-assed, tweed-coated academic backseat driver types, who keep mysteriously materializing out of nowhere to bug the driver. complain about the rough ride, and ask him a barrage of pretentious questions, bilingually, in French and English, about why he's heading this way or that, can’t he ever just take the most direct route to anywhere, and why doesn't he keep his mouth shut and his eyes on the road while he’s driving rather than talking so much about what he’s doing, his plans, his rationalizations, his excuses about why he’s taken this or that detour, and
He had just about gotten his literary car ride motif back up to speed and was about the shift into passing gear when the phone rang, seemingly a deus ex machine device but in fact an actual phone attached to an actual human voice, that of Curt White at the FC2 office in Normal, saying that the deadline for getting his foreword in was up, and he meant the REAL DEADLINE, so either FAX the foreword to him PRONTO (don't bother MAILING) that is, NOW, TONIGHT, or the TIOLI reissue would appear without his foreword, so there you had it, put up or shut up, TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT!
After placing the phone carefully back on the hook, the critic's first response was a muted cry of pain and frustration. After all the detours and false starts, after being so close to the completion of his prefatory journey—and now to have the whole trip canceled. He gazed sadly down at the jumble of computer discs, folders, the tattered copy of TIOLI, his pages of notes and lists and innumerable false starts; saddest of all were the few paragraphs of new material he'd been able to complete that night on the real foreword. Such a promising beginning. DOWN THE DRAIN.
Finished . . . it's finished . . . the side trip to Detroit to pick up Uncle David and Ernie . . . DOWN THE DRAIN . . . the match race with the guys from AMER ELDORADO and their puny French racing car to be held at the Indianapolis 500 . . . Finished. the personalized license plates (MOINOUS) . . . Yes, as to the real foreword he had hoped to write, well, he said to himself regretfully, we'll never know. Because it's all finished.
And so he folded himself upon himself like an old wrinkled piece of yellow paper there at his writing desk as he thought of the foreword, yes, the big beautiful prefatory journey he could have taken readers upon before they embarked on TIOLI itself, with all the exciting, non-formulaic details and insight about the book but now it's all canceled no need trying to go on . . .because it was all finished.
Suddenly, it came to him: Why not take a page from Federman’s own book (so to speak) and use non-knowledge, incoherence, unspeakability, and above all ABSENCE as a starting point for a displacement of the erasure he had just suffered? That is, why not use the canceled material—all the stuff generated by and around his initial gesture of rejection earlier, the one that produced the holes, gaps and cancellations whose absence and unspeakability had been displaced in the list of topics to be not written about—as a substitution for the foreword, thereby serving as a displaced displacement for the primal erasure of the real foreword? Such a substitution had the added advantage of mirroring TIOLI's own incoherence and unreadability, as well as its principle of using the unbridgeable void, or gap between word and referent as his own foreword's essential moral and aesthetic concern which displaces the original event, the unspeakable enormity and complexity of TIOLI itself?
Yes, why not? As for the real foreword, too bad it had to be canceled, but perhaps then the next time . .
yes . . the next time [SO LONG EVERYBODY!]