Amalgamemnon by Christine Brooke-Rose
Review by S. D. Stewart
I wondered if the book would be dated, having been published in 1984 and dealing as it does, in part, with the encroachment of the digital age that has long since enveloped us in its sludgy morass of ones and zeroes. What I found was that the issues Christine wrote about 30 years ago are still very much the same issues that are today facing the world as we know it, namely terrorism, war, energy crisis, and global economic ruin. That Christine is able to write about these issues back then, and write about them in the inimitable way that she does, without unwittingly setting traps leading to her own literary irrelevance in the years to come, is a solemn testimony to her genius. That we seem today to be not anywhere closer to resolving any of these issues, and in fact have instead been poking them viciously with a stick for the last few decades is depressing, though largely outside the scope of this review. (Besides, in our defense, we have been a little distracted by the Internet for the last decade and a half or so.)
I suppose I should note here that my interest in ‘experimental fiction’ is rather narrowly focused (though that focus does tend to move around at random intervals, much like a wobbly tractor beam attached to the restless alien vessel that is my reading mind). And after all, what does that term ‘experimental fiction’ even mean today. We live in a post-everything, genre-is-meaningless literary world, where to my sometimes-cynical alien mind, it almost appears as if certain writers strive to be as outrageous as possible, not so much working helplessly under the influence of a feverish literary vision as from the calculated urge to generate the public buzz they so desire to hear in their swollen ears.
I don’t want to talk about them, though. I want to talk about Christine.
In 1984, well, it was different back then. Being a female ‘experimental fiction’ writer was perhaps still just a little more unusual than it is today. And I feel okay about calling Christine ‘experimental,’ especially for her time. For one, she makes up a lot of words, like ‘softwarily’ and ‘tractotalitair.’ And by creating her own lexicon to describe the looming digital age, she also avoids rendering her text as destined for obsolescence, allowing us to read her terms today and see that their generic-but-just-quite-accurate-enough nature still makes sense whenever we take a step back, shade our eyes, and stare bleakly out at the aforementioned morass of ones and zeroes. Christine also keeps several story pots boiling on the stove at once, stepping over to stir up the next one without even cleaning the spoon after stirring the first one. She also moves the pots around in random order as she stirs. The stove story, the one that all the other pots are simmering on, is about a woman, a teacher of literature and history, who loses her job, becomes redundant not only in her particular position, but also in her skills and interests associated with that position. For the world she lives in is changing…
The new generation will supertouchtype programmes and games all to be superdevised by an elite of supertechnicians of communication […]
Soon the economic system will crumble, and political economists will fly in from all over the world and poke into its smoky entrails and utter soothing prognostications and we’ll all go on as if.
[…] well, certainly the presence of oil in the complicated psychology of anti-Westernism will make the volatility of the Islamic world especially perilous, with all the unforeseeable consequences we must expect.
As for election results they will be divulged in less than no time by galloping vote projections so that the speedier the media the slower but surer will be the disenfranchising by disenchantment what, nine months of crap for three minutes of suspense?
I could go on, but it is already apparent that 30 years can mean little in the continuum of history. Other than the rise of the Internet, not much of global significance has radically changed since 1984. (Well, okay, there was the Fall of Communism and various other major events, but I would argue that in terms of far-reaching radical change, nothing comes close to the Internet). The same basic wars rage. The same basic groups of people continue to hate each other. The same problematic economic system dominates the world stage, even as it continues to spawn vicious greed, human exploitation, and environmental collapse. But certainly the potential impact of the emerging digital age was a cause for concern in 1984, as Christine’s redundant character exemplifies:
Even in the supernew present technorevolution I could at best be the female slave who’ll type the data into a memory for analysis but never, never the softquery expert who’ll compose the analytic programme. I wouldn’t understand.
She can, however, go ‘back to the land,’ befriend a toad, and raise pigs. And the pigs will procreate and there will be piglets named after American states. She can also fantasize about the ancient Greeks, which she does at length. There can also be various other personae she feels free to slip into at any given moment, whose lives each simmer in one of the pots on the story stove.
In order to successfully write the way Christine does, there are a few techniques an ‘experimental’ writer can employ to keep the whole meal from going up in flames. Repetition is one (‘the rhetoric of repetition will protect me,’ says Christine in the book). And indeed it does protect, namely us, from sinking into meaningless word mud. Entire paragraphs repeat throughout the book, often with slight clever changes, and many familiar phrases and sentences are strung out like lifelines to keep the struggling swimmer-reader from going under. It’s also so important to keep stirring all the pots. In my mind, story cannot be sacrificed for the sake of inventiveness. When it is, I check myself out of the experience. And here, despite the lack of transitions, a sly arc does form in the fluidity.
Christine writes for language lovers, for readers who never cease wondering at the infinite ways in which words can be fitted together. Sometimes understanding remains off in the distance, but we can still feel the words moving through us. During my time with the book, I found myself growing anxious after too much time away from it, a feeling I admit has lately been lacking in my reading life. I thought about the book a lot during each day. I’m still thinking about it. And I will be seeing Christine again…and we’ll all go on as if.