By Edward S. Robinson
There is a crisis in the publishing industry, despite the headlines of record-breaking paperback sales and the boon times in digital publishing. People are reading novels, that much is true, but the books they’re reading are far from diverse or numerous, and herein lies the problem – or at least one substantial facet of it.
Mainstream publishers, while looking for the next ‘big’ thing, remain fundamentally risk-averse. Fifty Shades had already broken before Vintage Books (a subdivision of Random House) decided to give E.L. James a publishing contract. The explosion of genre fiction has begotten an explosion of genre fiction, with formulaic crime and fantasy novels of epic proportions dominating the market. In this context, it’s unfortunate that many of the renegade independent publishers have placed so much emphasis on rebellion and ‘alternative’ writing, or otherwise apeing the tastes of the mainstream, that quality has all too often been relegated to second place. The outcome is that smaller, non-mainstream publishers are often criticised for their amateurism – which is a pity, given the substandard prose the bigger publishers have been touting and getting away with (my PhD supervisor erupted into a fit of apoplectic rage on receiving the news that Lee Child was to receive an honourary doctorate in 2008, and rightly so: Jim Grant, aka Lee Child, is a dismal writer and a twelve year old could probably pen more credible dialogue) – slapdash product is rife throughout the industry.
It’s for this reason we should be eternally grateful to publishers like Penny Ante editions: a ‘boutique’ publisher (to use the parlance of vogue) willing to take risks, while at the same time publishing works of extraordinary quality. Works that are both literary and accessible, but also challenging and above all different, a world apart from the lop being served up by the big guys. The ‘Success and Failure’ series has already included an LP by Lynne Tillman and books by Jarett Kobek (also published under the Stewart Home-curated ‘Semina’ series by Book Works), Momus, John Tottenham and Stewart Home.
‘Novels are hard for me, I’m weary of made up people doing made up shit,’ writes Rice in one of his conversations with ‘Matt G.’ And so it is that Tex is not a novel, but a text, an explosive compendium of pieces of a life, a document compiled of documents – virtual documents – rendered in print and bound between covers.
The artifice of the conventional novel has been the terrain for many an exploratory text, and while the linear novel and all of its trappings may remain the dominant form, it’s worth noting that the novel is a comparatively recent development in the history of the canon. It’s fair to locate the initial challenge to the form in modernism, Joyce’s dispensing with the conventions of character and linearity simultaneously presenting new possibilities and marking the borders in the battle between the established form and that which transcends the printed word. Burroughs (William, not Edgar) can justly be identified as having made the most sustained attack on convention as he strove to liberate himself, his readers and the words from ‘the straitjacket of the novel.’ The simple fact is that while the novel is a fine medium for presenting linear stories, it is not an ideal vehicle for presenting life as we know it. In that sense, the realist novel is an oxymoron. Life is non-linear and occurs as multiple simultaneous events – and non-events – with the internal and external overlapping from time to time, but hardly on a basis that could be considered overtly sequential.
The fragmentary narrative is presented in a two-column format, akin to a newspaper. And while the text is clearly designed to be read in the standard manner – top to bottom, right column then left, Rice problematises the act of reading by disrupting the flow, splicing completely different, unrelated exchanges with different people, on various pages. Chronology is also skewed, with time and dates stamped text and email exchanges presented out of sequence. While in some instances this preserves the unity of individual threads of conversation, the effect is still disorientating. But this is not a case of disorientation for the sake of it, instead demonstrating Rice’s working through the difficult task of presenting the way multiple conversations overlap, in short, reflecting the reality of communications in the digital age.
While Burroughs most famously employed the cut-up to reflect – and dismantle – the ever-accelerating pace of life and the limits of the human mind to process the immeasurable volume of information fragments, he also experimented with columns and collage to convey the real-life experience in a way that more closely replicated reality and perception.
Tex finds Rice adopting a broad range of methods, and the text is an extremely ‘busy’ one, not least of all visually, incorporating myriad typefaces and numerous images. Although the form means that on one level it’s often difficult to ‘engage’ with the ‘characters’ in the conventional sense, what Tex brings to the fore is the all-pervading dislocation and the agonising distance of the modern age: communication may be instant and free, and as such may be easier on a practical level, but it by no means brings people closer. That his is a ‘queer’ novel that traces its author’s explorations in communities that facilitate hook-ups and works through various cultural and subcultural etiquettes through digital media only adds to the layers on which the text functions.
That the narrative is constructed only from text messages and emails means the real-life interactions are omitted from the book. This only throws into sharper relief what is missing from digital, text-based-interactions. The warmth, the humanity, the sense of connection: these things are not conveyed by words alone (at least stripped of narrative detail and description, of which Rice provided none).
It’s perhaps apparent by now that Tex is not an easy or accessible text – and it most certainly is not a novel. Yet it’s precisely because it’s neither easy nor accessible that it’s worth the effort. As is the case with the most powerful art, Tex provides challenging and uncomfortable insight into the human condition. Tex is a book of our times. One day, the mainstream will catch up.
Tex is published by Penny-Ante Editions