Response to Futures by Ken Edwards

J. H. Prynne

Dear Ken,

Here is a letter right out of the blue, for you as it will arrive and for me also as I come to be writing it, snatching in usual form my stolen moments from the over and over disturbances of earning a life. The thing comes about because by the most perfect accident my eyes fell upon your novel, Futures, which has I suppose been on the premises here for some while but which, I have to confess, I never exactly noticed before now. It took another accident of very advanced proportions to start me reading it; but from then on it has had my undivided and fully alert attention.

It surely is a remarkable book, for all its modest-looking format, and I have been very stirred in thinking about it as I have followed its narrative through the loops and turns across which it runs. Its effect has both roused me to acute states of regard and at the same time has puzzled me a great deal: no doubt with reciprocating instigation on both sides. I hope you’ll forgive me if I fumble without the slightest intention towards mere courtesy, because I am not at all sure if this is a good or successful novel. Yet I obscurely feel it to be important, deeply and profoundly close to something other than what it is or at least seems; and I hold a mounting surety also that this other shadow which accompanies your story is not a hazard of optics but the thing itself, done or at least approached by a kind of dense substitution. How wantonly obscure this must sound!

To set out a few beginning points, I must own that I rather quickly perceived what this book might be looking to fit itself towards, to be a species of soul adventure by violent breech of the contours of sentience and recognition; fugue mentality, disorder in connection parallax, overwrite of data mapping. Well, I did wince a little. Brief stencil-blurs from motives which sought to erase sexual trauma from the transfer of gender affect occurred also, as in consequence my reader-anxiety that I was going to recognise this book, and to have difficulty thereafter in not putting it down. After all, each of the profiles of behaviour and construction fits a knowable form; the locations carry a colour-code of hospitality which laconic signalling does little to temper down to neutral. The question of a magic future, magic tartan, magic cash in large-value notes, made me ask momentarily if the hurts of sexual predation were not being badged up once again. You see the stupid canvas I made of the options apparently on show.

Also there were schemes for the exotic transformations within the dream-work which established in retrospect a real-time disposition for traumatic amnesia, making provision for memory loss and flicker in which the reading subject seems invited to know more about the links and boundaries than accepting their magic replacements to cover the suppression of violence; for some moments the implicit explanation for these blanks did seem in danger of overriding the direct experience of disconnection through narrative itself, suspending the value of suspensive frame by frame disclosure. Within the disturbance patterns there really can be something that happens for the first and last time, shining or darkened within the montage of transformation: but no reader willing to travel like this wants also to hedge bets with a managed case-history of recaptured memory and recuperative overview. The flicker of free fall into shift after shift of figure has to somehow outlive a writing process in which the future of an unknown finale is increasingly devoured into a past of completion. Making sense will relegate into nursery fables the whole necromantic brilliance of Ovid’s or Titian’s seizure of form and its sacrificial transmutation. A reader starting out will shrink from a reserve fund of prior catchment, of future in the past, precisely because reading does proceed like that, as writing does in advance of where the reader treads.

But even in the wildest circus extremities, on board the satellite and whirled about in its feral auditorium, none of these flashcard matches in fact brings more in train than its impacted sense of occasion, or not much more. A line goes out, to connect with the three-speed pastoral or the vertigo of innocence and forgetfulness like a self-propelling wheel; but then we recognise, as stabilising denials, that Eden denotes only nostalgia just as Eye detests mere countryside - of course! Innocence is a harder nut, because the circle of animal magic does offer protection and sanctuary, a margin of safety; but again everything transforms into knowable counterpart, gaining and losing, and the hounds that fulfil their damage to the lurking Antaeus are not from a peaceable kingdom; their power is subverted from the greed of men. Eye forgets everything which keeps her almost in the present, but in fear also for the past and its shadows. Only the thin narrow line of the future itself may perhaps be innocent because unknown and unknowing, like the zero point of birth which tells us nothing.

And even so the momentum of the narrative doesn’t keep up like this, attached to values in grasping out for them; the tracks falter and the address of simple need to its steps of remedy folds away like an undercarriage, again and again. Eye has no politics, neither trusting good intentions nor fearing bad ones, though her horizon flickers exotically with plumes coloured with panic and darkness and transient epiphany. Where she is brought to explain that the future will just write back on to the past if the run towards it is planned or even known, we have heard this in a hundred road movies of determinate vintage; yet the narrative invests only a side interest in this easy charm, and the petrol-station boy endured familiar disasters and his simple comic escapades one after another; once again the argument is not the point but its shadow. After the violent collision under the railway fans up the glitz of cockpit showbizz, whirling and howling and needling out the contest for justification, there’s the retrospect that memory returns and she is at last by a split second ahead within the future, ever present there, here. But the angels fade to daylight, her story becomes from then on quite banal and ordinary, if anything more so than before.

I hesitate but only a bit to be proceeding thus crabwise, because even your conclusion sends out clear signals that it is a proxy terminus, not a decoy intending to install deflection or irony but rather a trope of well-intentioned and deep-set omission. Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala sometimes does this, also Douglas Oliver’s The Harmless Building; but to go back to a death with the ransom of a new life seeded from its alter ego. as to cathect an obsession, amounts to everything which is also nothing much, and your narrator thankfully doesn’t make all that much of it. The conclusion in new birth seems almost to belong to a different novel altogether: La Vita Nuova doesn’t end here but its thread has mutated, leaving in a kind of suspended web the moments of ardency and dedication for which not even a temporary description has come to light. Or, if there is light in some unconfirmed glow, it stands always in its own shadow; neither giving out money nor casting it away in dollops does more than sentimentalise the theft of already stolen power, and by the time the reader arrives at these points it’s obvious that hurried, fumbled action and abjection will not express this occluded nexus underneath. Just open your eyes and pedal!

It feels like an overlooked bundle, somewhere abandoned casually and thereafter present only in shadow or by absence. The aura is ethical and joyous but does not direct or control possible action. Each time the story veers round to a previous site of recognition there are more perspective additions clinging to the image of convergence; and yet each time also the convergence of fable scarcely touches the nib of this germ, which feels not hidden by pythagorean allegory in the least degree, but perplexed by its own fleeting selfevidence. This gives a reader or this one a kind of vivid and unusual hope: vivid because any instant can throw out shoots of desire which connect to a motive to realise a self inward to our sense of its location; unusual because this hope is specifically not realised and the reader becomes content to know in obscurity what cannot be projected in action or assemblage. That is the reader’s reward: neither bright-eyed patience nor any spirit-scheme that can be ported into a fresh account. When this book closes down it takes almost everything away with it, which itself clears the deck for thought while stowing most of its ready instruments.

But then, what are the confirming signs of this parallel-world effect for which the direct evidence seems so wedded to displacement or negation? Some analysis could be performed, as has for instance been mounted up in respect of Beckett’s Watt, to map out the latent fault-lines. But the most notable feature to my ear is the way that your sentence structure so steadily keeps its distance, in cohesional outreach, from the one next about to follow it. Of course there is connection of sense and directive; but beneath the form of that linkbuilding there is, dare I say it in hope not to be misunderstood, a steady measure of indifference to inner momentum. The present sentence does not need the anticipation of its as yet phantom successor to make it writable, and also readable. Maybe certain conditions of specifically localised aphasia seem to present like this, as traumatic memory-loss within target functions, and maybe in certain cultures this condition can attract auras of sacredness; but the primary method here is informal and claims little on the grand scale, except what is in bravura montage after the fact.

Even where spirit-fable is written down into a humdrum or disguised everyday garb the reader is frequently in other performance styles offered little radiant morsels as a key to hidden focus and connection, so that an outcome may translate from a terminal reflex to either transcendence or tragic defeat. Heavy disguise won’t deflect the reader from sniffing out aromatics of soul, nor writers from planting their divinations. But when your run of sentences begins to get excited, here, it tells us nothing we need except as hints to what we hardly need at all; the meaning of this narrative is being held in a different account, and at the end this account too seems drained of all but small sums, small blips of attention. We readers have spent this transferred income as it came in, leaving the end more or less free with vacant possession, with no privilege or culmination from standing last in line. I use these crude financial metaphors in comic disbelief at how inept they are, but also in admission that where this getting and spending actually takes place is most deeply obscure.

The sense is in each little gap after the end of each sentence, as they accumulate and mutate and disperse in a scatter of light and dark, not coded for signal correction or error testing, not coded for anything but the transit of human attention at its most intensely held and focussed, holding against loss the thread of immediate proximity. The gaps are naturalised as link defaults but that seems a temporary holding explanation. Sense does not inflect here, does not accumulate in the joins over more than the immediately short term, and is held the more out of these sites by the low densities of anaphora and prolepsis. But even so, something all the way unusual is at work or at issue in this, and the only way to register the presence of a tacit, unknowable future within these periodic arrests is to read with full attention the story strung out between them. Having just done exactly that, I am full of grateful regard for the result, which I find so hard to describe and to measure except in this quite unusually roundabout manner. I hope at least that you will understand the tribute intended, because it is offered out of a clear blue sky in recognition there of a sky-colour not before ever quite so intensely perceived.



5th March 2000