The trick to make something old seem new again is to describe it using different words. The world will be mesmerized by the novelty. The ploy worked for Andy Warhol’s soup cans and made him a fortune. To be honest, I don’t believe there’s been a new idea in literature since Theatre of the Absurd. And while I applaud an artist’s effort to make that world seem fresh, too often it’s a game of trying to make someone believe the king is wearing new clothes.
I feel that way about Shaj Mathew’s attempt to interpret the “Readymade Novel,” where “form is now all-important – more so than content.” (“The Readymade Novel,” by Saji Mathew, New Republic, July/August, pg. 82.) The focus of such novels, he explains, is more on what’s “behind the work of art—behind itself—than its execution.” (Ibid pg. 83.) To clarify, he relies on theorist, Vila-Matas, who compares the new literature to a painting where, “Paint is not the thing, but the effect it produces. In other words, the impact of art has now become more important than the canvas.) (Ibid pg. 83)
Poor fool me. I always thought impact was the point of art. All these years, apparently, I’ve been wrong. But wait. There’s more. The new art reflects a revulsion for studying the appearance of an object or an event in the belief it will reveal truth. The point of the Readymade novel is to move the reader away from reality. Villa-Matas explains, “We are amazed by writers who believe the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they are to truth, when in fact, the more details you pile up, the further that takes you from reality.” (Ibid pg. 83) In the case of writer Donna Tartt, I’m inclined to agree. (Blog 7/23/2015) Nonetheless, to explain what the Readymade novel isn’t fails to show us what it is.
Villa-Matas obliges by explaining he once became a Readymade novel. Yes, that’s what I wrote. He became a novel. In 2003, he was invited to participate in a weeklong writer in residence program, a Documenta project in Germany. His assignment was to sit in a Chinese restaurant and scribble. During the hours spent there, he talked with customers who appeared to come from all walks of life, including one who scared him. His act of writing in a public place was deemed a public performance and so, as it was documented, he became a Readymade novel. As the curator of the “exhibit’ elucidated after the event was over: “Art is what you make of it.” (Ibid pg. 83)
I confess, the curator’s remark left me confused. What was different about Villa-Mata writing in a restaurant from what other writers who populate coffee shops have been doing for centuries? When he remarks that the new age of writing is a journey that seeks “no goal, no fixed objects, and [is] clearly futile,” (Ibid pg. 83), I throw up my hands. Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Gadot claimed that territory in 1953.
Most troubling of all is the assertion that “you don’t actually need to see a readymade novel to ‘get it.’” Mathew warns, however, that if you do go to see one, you become incorporated into the art, as well. “You’re not merely a passive observer, but an active participant in the artwork’s formation.” (Ibid pg 83.) Sounds like another way to describe performance art to me.
Years ago, when I was editor of my college annual, I recorded the year in photographs and supplemented them with lines of poetry written by a classmate. One picture showed students attending an art show. Some stood before a painting with their weight shifted to one leg. Others bent close to the canvas. Still others stood at a distance, a chin cradled in one hand. The line beside the picture read: “They are more art, these people standing unaware.”
If the Readymade novel intends to combine the visual with words for the purpose of documenting an event for others to reflect upon, then I wrote such a novel in 1957.