Nicole Brossard’s The Blue Books

The Blue Books [Coach House Books, 2003] brings together Nicole Brossard’s first three novels: A Book, Turn of a Pang and French Kiss, or, A Pang’s Progress. In the introduction, Brossard discusses how fiction has changed since these novels were published in the 1970s. She writes that part of fiction has gone off with reality – and “reality, as we know, is now an industry.” Another part has “morphed in autobio/fiction at the speed of me descending the staircase of life.” Another “perpetuates the work of writers seeking new spaces within language as a place to deploy their quest for meaning.” All of these factions, Brossard writes, have generated a shift away from “emotion” toward a more controlled state: the writer is now experiencing a feeling generated by the imagination. This feeling is “the much sought-after thrill” that comes from anticipating the “outcome of the formal performance” of the finished work. Brossard asserts that nowhere in contemporary fiction are we entering the present as experienced by the writer – the pen moving across the page, the keys of the computer or typewriter being pressed, the moment of expression coming into being. The present in fiction according to Brossard has become tautological. It circles back onto itself as a time created in the past by the writer imagining the future.

Brossard goes on to make an interesting remark about the hand that grips the pen, the fingers that press the keys, the writer who desires to reach out and communicate through words: “The body (a theme my generation cherished above all else and hastened to associate with the pleasures, disorders and impulses connected with writing), the body, from here on fragmented right down to its genes, is today an installation, an object, a veritable shopping mall. And so what of our humanity?”

I didn’t read The Blue Books recently. I read the novels last summer, but not until recently could I articulate much about them. The experience of reading them was intense, but I could not say how or why largely because of the density and difficulty of the material. I found the last of the three novels, French Kiss, or A Pang’s Progress, translated from the French by Patricia Claxton, to be particularly hard. I was humbled to learn in Claxton’s foreword that her translation “is a little more accessible than the underlying French.” Only now almost a year later can I say that the last book was hard with the physical act of writing about passion – lesbian passion – as it is rushes into and through the hard fact of the word – “turning into language all the urges that beckon and invite her to partake,” Brossard writes.

Variations in typeface within French Kiss emphasize the hard physical reality of a book, its ink, its paper. Some chapters appear in large font and reveal a shared passion for truth at odds with the lifeless world that impersonally tries to lull and trick the individual into forgetting what she has learned in and through her body. “Our part in reality was that we weren’t taken in by anything,” Brossard writes in one of these large-print chapters. Coming after many chapters of more obscure sentences rendered in smaller font, these words are so clear and visible they make “normal”-sized font look for a moment like tricky fine print. “At least we managed to communicate among ourselves all the fragments of knowledge and wisdom each of us had access to from our own enquiry and experience.”

Our part in reality was that we weren’t taken in by anything.

It’s a hard part to play, not being taken in by anything. In telling the story of those playing this part, French Kiss subverts fictional conventions that, through their familiarity, take readers in. Without these conventions, a book is hard, but the hardness of French Kiss makes sense and cannot be separated from its characters, the alluring part that is taking them in and the un-story of their lives – but my fingers, after typing this last statement, paused. I deleted and retyped the sentence and then went to the top of this document to copy and paste in here Brossard’s statement about the contemporary body – that the body is now “fragmented right down to its genes.”

It’s probably naive to say in 2005 that a trait of a book cannot be isolated and removed from its original context. The hands typing these words know the reality of genetic engineering, having been formed in part by tomatoes crossed with cloned bacteria and potatoes engineered with genes from chickens. No financial incentive exists to isolate the hardness of experimental fiction and introduce the trait elsewhere, but experimentalism does have one appealing gene that the publishing industry’s market-tested crops conspicuously lack: excitement and newness, the thrill that comes from reading what has never been done before. What if the publishing industry were to isolate this trait and introduce it into their products, which, while easy to read, are often predictable and boring?

What if they could introduce the firefly’s cloned light into their dependable fields of corn? How their sentimental novels would glow, and the firefly – an organism on the edge of extinction – would never be able to say a word about the engineered result without being charged with jealousy. After all, the light emanating from these crops would far exceed the glow produced by the individual tail. What if? I ask again, trying like the firefly to illuminate a passing moment in a world of too much light. The surplus is one of the reasons fireflies are becoming extinct. They can’t see each other.

Originally posted on 5.6.2005