By Edward S. Robinson
Davis Schneiderman enjoys two parallel careers, although to apply the overused ‘schizophrenic’ to his output would be rather misleading. By day, Schneiderman is a professor of English Lake Forest College, Illinois, where he is currently the Professor of English and Associate Dean of the Faculty. He’s well respected in his academic field, as a specialist on the work of William S. Burroughs. He’s also earned himself quite a reputation as an experimental novelist who doesn’t shy away from testing his readers, while producing books that are items to be relished, treasured and explored for their physicality almost as much as their contents.
These two facets of his life, while largely separate, clearly have an interdependency, because in his creative output, Schneiderman practices what he preaches. That isn’t to say he’s a second-rate Burroughs wannabe, but that he applies his knowledge of avant-garde and postmodern literary theory to his own writing.
As such, his novels are imbued with theoretical complexity and a keen self-awareness, but without being smugly in your face with self-reflexivity. Consequently, an a priori knowledge of literary theory isn’t a prerequisite for the appreciation of his ‘fiction’. But his writing indisputably engages with contemporary discourse and is designed to provoke thought and debate. His aim is seemingly to frustrate, to irritate, to dazzle with its audacity.
His latest book, [SIC] is no exception. Plagiarised wholesale from public domain texts and without any pretence of being anything more than a catalogue of appropriation, the sum is, nevertheless, greater than the parts, challenging ideas of ownership and authorship in a way that continues the trajectory of Burroughs’ cut-up works of the 1960s (namely The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded and Nova Express).
I became aware of Schneiderman’s academic work during my research for Shift Linguals, and was pleased to meet him in person at the inaugural conference of the European Beat Studies Network in Middelburg, Netherlands, in September 2013. Personable and intense in equal measure, Davis concluded the conference proceedings with one of his remarkable spoken word performances that evoked the ‘derangement of the senses’ Brion Gysin spoke of when discussing Surrealism and the cut-ups. I subsequently suggested an interview, and was grateful for the opportunity to discuss his work via email some time later. I’m very glad that I did…
ER: Although very different from one another, your novels strike me as being very much conceptually orientated. Do you consider them ‘concept novels’ and if so, is there an overarching ‘meta-concept’ that connects them?
DS: Yes, and no. I consider each project individually and try my damnedest not to write different iterations of the same book. Drain (TriQuarterly/Northwestern 2010) is assaultive sci-fi, Ballardian chaos, taking place in Lake Michigan, emptied of water, while Blank, is, well, largely blank. This is not the difference between Dean Koontz novels.
Yet I find that sort of predictability soothing as a reader, even in high literature. This is something I have noticed in writers such as Paul Bowles. Bowles’ work always feels like Bowles to me, something that I find comforting, yet I don’t, at this point, want my readers to be caught in a tape loop.
To some extent, I think I am oversimplifying Bowles; his is the literature of upper middle-class recuperation and satisfaction. One sees a type of otherness in his works, perhaps even lives it, and yet the reader finds himself reconstituted at the closure of the text. The reader almost becomes a “better” person for it.
Despite his existentialist leanings, Bowles’ writing is also the literature of late-art-is-everything-Modernism (although reset for the non-Western, decolonizing African period). My books, however, are not Modernist. I believe less and less in “art” as I age, while recognizing with increasing awe its various seductive abilities. I am amazed at the workings of a “good” novel, while simultaneously wishing for those works to become an exploded diagram: Pieces hanging in the air, spilling over the edges of the book that for me is no longer about itself. I am appalled at the sameness of the product (although as a 14-year old I listened again and again to the song “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging” from Gabriel-era Genesis). These traps, too, have ensnared me.
Despite its minimal text, I would say that Blank is fundamentally a plot-orientated work. Was that part of the idea behind it – or was it more of a comment on the formulaic nature of plot?
Both. It is The Morphology of the Russian Folktale by Vladimir Propp for a mash-up culture. It is an endpaper remix of the worst novels you’ve ever read. It is the substance collecting at the bottom of an ancient stove: Cake. As in “Let them eat…”
The chapter titles do tell a story: “A Character” / “Another Character” etc. These convey the story of your life with all the pathos of the real thing. In fact, and I hope I am not ruining a surprise at the end, people die; the last few chapters are bloodier than the close of Titus Andronicus.
This book is also the beginning of my thinking of the “book beyond the book”. There is a standard and a color edition, pyrographic art from Susan White, and Bach remix tracks from Dj Spooky that serve as “part” of the book. So, if there is plot here—and there has been discussion at HTMLgiant.com—such a plot well exceeds the bounds of the traditional space.
By contrast, the plot of Drain is often submerged by the narrative form. Is there a specific correlation between the form and the content?
Only insomuch as form is content. This is prevalent in the most-realist of realist novels—think of the historical movement of realism as a reaction of Romanticism and Gothic literature. There is no Stephen Crane, realist symbolist extraordinaire, without a vomit reflux to James Fenimore Cooper.
Therefore, the form of the experimental or conceptual novel (both, in fact) becomes as constituent of its meaning as the essence of a realist novel is taken from its relative form. The contours, there, are entirely familiar, though may be jiggled a bit in each new iteration. This is to make the reader feel a novelty that is rarely more than a smoke-and-mirror narratological trick.
In Drain, I do not escape this problem, yet I seek to scuttle expectations (even my own) to an extent that causes the reader to be continually disoriented. I didn’t want the book to be without pleasure, but my pleasure here has more in common with Acker and Genet and Burroughs than it does with Bowles (although the stamp of his descriptive technique is very much embedded in my desert-that-was-the-Lake).
The promo film for Blank looks like it was a lot of fun to make. But along with the humour, it seemed like a literal interpretation of the avant-garde ethos of creation being born out of destruction. Is this intentional – or an example of a major flaw in the academic practice of applying theory to literature?
Well, it’s about a major flaw, certainly: The veneration of the book as sacred object, even when the contents are crap. This may have been a necessary position in Alexandria. I’d be much happier if those books survived, and I certainly do not authorize Nazi-style book burnings…
Yet, when one destroys with a chainsaw, as I did in this video, a copy of a Stephen King novel, or H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, or a colonialist policy book from the 1950s about to be discarded from a college library, only the material insubstantiality of those texts is at risk. Stephen King will be fine. Just fine. He’s thriving, in fact.
Most new books are pulped and destroyed, after a period of being remaindered. The books in this video, and many are still in my office, are cut and cleaved and severed, but otherwise improved upon. (So long as we take “improvement” in a decidedly non-Hegelian sense.)
I read an interview on Word Riot with David Hoenigman in which you said ‘Just because I’ve published in my scholarly guise on William S. Burroughs doesn’t mean my novels are all Burroughsian. Although I wouldn’t necessarily describe Drain as ‘Burroughsian’, the fragmentary narrative does certainly invite comparisons – and then there are phrases that are lifted from Burroughs. What is it about Burroughs that appeals to you, and was the writing process for Drain?
I have been, at-times, linked to Burroughs. In fact, you and I have become familiar with each other’s work through the European Beat Studies Network (important note: I am not a Beat, and neither was Burroughs, really).
Drain lifts from so many other texts that I couldn’t begin to tell you where or how much it is influenced, and yet it is only a standard text that uses influence implicitly in comparison to my forthcoming [SIC], (October 2013), a completely plagiarized text that is part of the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy (Blank, [SIC], and Ink, Jaded Ibis).
[SIC], the Latin abbreviation for “as written,” includes public domain works I have published under my name, including “Cademon’s Hymn,” Sherlock Holmes, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. [SIC] also includes works in the public domain after 1923, and so includes Wikipedia pages, intellectual property law, genetic codes, and other untoward appropriations. The text also pivots on Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” taking the publication history, in all languages, through a replicated series of Google auto-translations. [SIC] as a web presence will have images from visual artist Andi Olsen—a few of use here—an introduction from Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, and sampling-based tracks, already created for other projects, from Illegal Art label acts Yea Big, Oh Astro, Steinski, and Girl Talk.
The fine-art edition ($24,998.98) will be packaged with a biological pathogen, which the reader may choose to deploy over the text. In this way, the book [SIC] will make the reader sick — sick about copyright. The book is timed to the release of 25 free, full-text e-books — including The Red-Headed League and Young Goodman Brown, now marked with my name.
Olsen’s photos are of me in a Lycra suit, around Paris, a pathogen inserted into the text of (For Ink., the future follow-up and last in the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy, Tim Guthrie has taken photos of me in a black Lycra suit, in the woods and other natural settings. Those images will be inserted as loose pages into the book, hand dipped in ink.)
[SIC] is a completely appropriated work, ideal for a world populated and reduplicated by copies. This is not my idea, nor is it new.
I read extensively in Burroughs from ages 17-30, with regular visits since. In my early 20s I took particular interest in the cut-ups as developed through empirical practice. Burroughs excelled at cut-ups-as-volume-experiment, and I took up the method with enthusiasm in a series of notebook experiments. Since I am a tolerable mimic, I developed the ability to emulate the mosaic style of Naked Lunch, or the randomness of the later cut-ups simply through repetition. I deployed these in shorter phrases that intersperse within and around the “narrative” elements of Drain.
Put another way, the more “viral” images of text are used in the same way that Burroughs might connect cut-ups with explanations of forms in the Cut-Up/Nova Trilogy. Yet those juxtapositions are often paragraph-by-paragraph, whereas I tend to use the technique differently: Phrase against phrase, with the cut-up-sounding phrase providing the aleatory, associative commentary on the not-always-clear narration of the “plot.”
I also, for Drain, recorded my dreams by mumbling into a tape recorder. I would type these dreams into my 1951 Remington, often unclear to me in playback, with full abandon. Those sheets would form a “bank” pile, and whenever I drew a blank for a moment, I would pull randomly from the pile, freely transforming the material into Drain. I would also write in the mornings, often falling into a deep sleep, uncontrollably, after an hour or so of writing. On these days—and there must have been a good month and a half of this in the summer of 2003—I would “dream” the content of the next scene, and then cut in the dream bank material with the concept when I woke.
In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom writes that ‘weaker talents idealize; figures capable of imagination appropriate for themselves.’ This seems most fitting to both Burroughs, in terms of the cut-up, and to the reference-filled riffing style of Drain. Do you think originality is desirable in the age of postmodern literature, or is appropriation and intertextuality where it’s at?
No. I don’t believe in originality, but I also recognize that my critique of such is sponsored by the liberal humanist education that has allowed me to come to this position. This is a problem I have yet to solve, although Drain, Blank, and the DEAD/BOOKS trilogy are attempts.
I am also attracted to appropriation, of course, but suspicious of “conceptual literature” qua concept; the boundaries of such a movement are porous, but not endlessly so, and I have seen my share of uninteresting intertextual engagement. I don’t want to suggest that anything is off limits, and yet I must constantly recalibrate what strikes my interest. At the moment, influenced by a conversation with David Shields, I am rediscovering aphorism: Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is the most contemporary text I can think of, through quite “old” in the snap flash world of an Instagram feed.
I am also deeply suspicious of Harold Bloom, ever since the long lists at the end of The Western Canon made their way into my chainsaw. I’d take Pessoa there too, if I thought his work would look good when scored. Who knows; they might look even more disquiet.
How do you reconcile the two distinct aspects of your work, the academic and the creative, or is there a substantial overlap?
I don’t. There is no possibility of doing so. I was trained in the academy and am certainly a career academic. This comes with all the rights and pomposities of the institution. I am a frequent defender of liberal education, and read often in university settings. I recognize the criticisms of this position, and yet I am circumscribed. This sounds more bleak than I feel it to be—I gain great creative energy from teaching and interacting with others in the academy, whether in my own classroom, at the &NOW conferences I help to coordinate, or in my recently assumed administrative role as, gasp, Associate Dean of the Faculty at Lake Forest College.
It’s also fair to say that I don’t reconcile either position because each remains fungible. I’ve spent a good part of my current sabbatical (yes, I know) working on my first non-fiction/memoir work (yes, I know again), I’ve Never Been Me (A Memoir in Pieces). This work explores the tensions between our lives that gradually “make us who we are”, and the terrible impotence of that idea. This is the story of five events in my “real” life—as the victim of vicious childhood bullies; as a brainwashed college fraternity member; as the adoptive father of a Chinese orphan; as makeshift lawyer and trailer-park investigator after the violent death of my mother-in-law; as ghostly mirror to the enfeebled man that my father—a seven-year brain cancer survivor—has unwillingly become.
Taken together, these pieces refuse to add up to a life well lived or an identity permanently conceived. Rather, I assume a series of self-impersonations that continually resists unification in anything other than a series of temporary costumes. This is a memoir of terror: The terror of living in a remixed world, where the things we cherish most about ourselves may be little more than convenient wisps of magical thinking.
Why should any of this reconcile? I believe in the big tent.
And P.T. Barnum.
Your ‘readings’ are pretty unconventional and extremely lively affairs, more akin to interactive performance art. When did you first develop this approach to promoting your work, and what kind of responses do you get from audiences?
Slowly, of course, and it changes. In my early readings, I read quickly, shouted at the audience, and felt a bit like the Sex Pistols. If you don’t get it, fuck you. I possessed all the arrogance of the typical deconstructionist graduate student. Time has polished that edge while honing the effective performance elements of what I do as a reader.
Yes, I will thread a 100-foot rope through the audience, clipped to my belt, so I can be pulled in reaction to what I read; yes, I will put out matches in my mouth between lines of my “Spruce Goose” poem; yes, I will sometimes read “straight” with practiced comic timing and hand gestures I learned from watching slow-motion videos of various political demagogues. In short, I aged.
Side note: Part of the performance thrill comes from collaborating with the audience. Collaboration is an essential part of the my practice, since (at least) the early 2000s (see my collaborative Abecedarium, with Carlos Hernandez; with Guthrie and company in the Museum of Alternative History, or the “remix” edition of Multifesto: A Henri d’Mescan Remix (Spuyten Duyvil, August 2013), with James Tadd Adcox, Matt Bell, Molly Gaudry, Roxane Gay, Lily Hoang, Matt Kirkpatrick, Alissa Nutting, Kathleen Rooney, Craig Saper, Ben Tanzer, and William Walsh).
What I get when I let myself go in writing, or audiocollage with Don Meyer, is what I get when I trust the audience to perform with me and against me.
Since you’ve physically destroyed large quantities of books, annihilated narrative linearity and all semblance of conventional plot, and stripped out all but the barest structural elements of ‘plot’, is the popular idea of ‘the novel’ dead?
No. Look how wonderful Fifty Shades of Grey is, with all the spanking and such.