The Unnamed

James Tierney

It was recently revealed by the Guardian newspaper that an Afghan inmate of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay wrote his Pashtun verses by carving words onto the sides of styrofoam cups, which were routinely discarded. In time, paper and pens became available, two sheets of paper at a time, and on these, and those donated by fellow inmates, the man recorded by his own account 25,000 lines of poetry, most of which he says is still in the possession of the U.S. military. A clandestine distribution system of threaded pulleys was devised so that the verses satirizing the strange and brutal ways of their captors could be passed among the detainees, for pleasure.

If his necessarily abstracted God, “the bastard,” can be seen as the everyday captor of the otherwise free world, it is easy to read Samuel Beckett’s tragic comedies as satires of this strange and brutal God, written in spite of a watchful eye. And Beckett, in this vein, is the most direct way into the elusive opening pages of R. M. Berry’s novel Untitled. Berry has written critically about Beckett’s fiction with uncommon lucidity, and this natural affinity he has with the dead writer’s obsessions puts Berry’s writing into a ready-made context in which his own complaint has built to a pitch that necessitates a variation on that expression. Everyone, after all, has their own version of a particular grievance. As the principle force behind the publishing collective FC2, for example, it is easy to imagine an abstraction of its own distribution system as being aptly represented by the one made of threads loosened from Muslim prayer caps.

As Untitled unfolds, or uncrumples its “phantasmagoria” before us, it is as if a concerted effort is being made to put down every hint of a bas-relief rising up out of its inscrutable face. The entire world, presented as it is in these pages, dissipates almost immediately into pure abstraction, not necessarily to idea so much as to voice. The voice “resounds” and the echo chamber of Berry’s box breaks speech, and thus coherence, into a layered noise of mutually amplifying and nullifying waves. The text itself becomes something of a wash over a frictionless surface.

And there you are, inside the box made of this folding surface, purely conceptual architecture it would seem, though real enough to feel the confinement of such an intellectualized constraint. Within such a box there is no question of escape, a palpable restriction of movement, and yet an inability to remain still. The occupant is compelled to always search for footing and a position of rest, but every minor adjustment on this sort of surface leads to a frantic scrambling as the occupant attempts to maintain one position—as a preference for either comfort, perspective, defense, variety, or defiance—over another.

To the end of perfect clarity, I confess that, for as long as I can recall, my ambition has been uprightness, that grasp on the perpendicular, what I conceive as constant rectitude amid life’s buffets. My Keepers understand. They know me like myself.

The only at-rest position for such prose as this is an abject slouch in the corner of the box, neck bent painfully, knees up, and fingers splayed without purchase on the side walls, a position that will induce only torpor. The indignity of the awkward scramble (uprightness remains an ambition) is a viable defiance of one’s captors. In this manner, the repeated employment of words, in an attempt to make something out of what quite clearly, and immutably, is a six-sided space of nothing, has its own hysterical qualities in the view of the stronger, the Keepers, who certainly do understand, by way of their sadism, our protagonist’s masochism. (“There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.”)

One really can’t make enough of the box metaphor, because there is a deliberate effort made by Berry to give the reader little else to “hold onto” over these opening pages. In its reluctance it resembles birth. An individual, and his 25,000 lines, is struggling in this monologue to be, in spite of what appears to be inklings of a history. But it’s as if this history, and the individuals that may have been present to aid, by their mere friction, in the assemblage of an identity, are due to their present absence not trusted. If there can be dreams, the past may be an illusion, and if there can be nightmares, the future may yet be a terror.

But a past slips into the narrative nonetheless, and the simple second-person address, when it makes its presence felt, is enough to begin the process of an identity. So long as there is a reader, for instance, there is a writer.

But slowly I came to revel in my ignorance, these countless shadows on memory’s wall, and started cataloguing enigmas.

It was the second darkness that began this accommodation. I know it seems preposterous now, conceiving such a hodge-podge as continent, but until the speckles appeared, I dreamt every absence was identical, each of my relinquishings indistinct. Laugh if you must.

In a slippery, flailing, and grimly comical effort at continence the narrator even denotes as distinct, counts them even, one and two, the voids he is working out of, and gives them names, conjuring in this moment a veritable cast of characters from which a book, a life no less, may extend itself from emptiness into being. “For an undetermined period following my body’s assumption, by which I refer to me happening, I was the man I’d always been...,” in this way a tractable world begins to take form in real-time, real writing time. That is, as the writer writes, the world reifies before him, assumed as he is bodily into it. And like the illustration of the empty frames of a cartoon, the world suddenly, in a narrative box.

And without the slightest effort, without so much as a seeping murmur of judgment or gossip, a whole society is taking shape around our narrator. With this the “I” begins to build, or rebuild, an identity around it, just like a box. The repetition is both horrifying and comical, and at the same time, for the more sober among us, a curious intellectual puzzle. One cannot simply exit, because what you will see out there, Berry is saying, makes you I, boxes you up. The processing is done in the dark:

At night I would float supine in my darkness, my bed ballooning with puffs of down, and as a glaze of ice slowly encased the planet, I would know it was I, I, who had seen.

At that point of recognition, as the processing becomes systematic, even something like a past becomes possible, and with a past, the purely abstracted memory, in solitude, of another’s hair, lips, shoulders, and eyes. If another exists as the hopeful absence in the box, the unimaginable worst, though it has come many times before, has certainly not yet come for good:

No, no, dream that none are without, that your semblance never hears, that beyond my box stretches purest devastation, smoking flesh, rubble, vistas of unspeakable anguish, well, such nightmares have been tolerated before and will be tolerated longer, but, please, never say this absence isn’t you, that your silence hasn’t been pronounced. Even nothing comes to an end somewhere.

The book goes on.