- Dissecting an Octopus
In the desert, a woman dissects an octopus to determine her own identity.
In the novel, a writer dissolves her language, slicing it apart phrase by phrase. She wields punctuation like a scalpel, paragraphs like specimen jars to hold what comes apart, and the pages fall away, layers of skin peeled back and discarded. In the octopus, the woman finds herself. In the novel, the writer finds a place of total dissolution, where the words become nonsense, non-words, rearranged to the point of narrative lunacy, completely disassembled. Later, she reconstructs this language as a children's book, as Latin, as a wandering reverie into the hypo-ethical search for truth. Who am I? What is this body? What results when I am torn apart? The dissection is drawn out to its logical conclusion. What results is an illustrated introspection on the female form, on language, on the female form as it represents language, and on writing as it represents feeling.
Janice Lee's novel, Daughter, delivers everything an enthusiastic reader of experimental writing has come to expect and require in a work of fiction. For example, there's the unexplained juxtaposition: an octopus in the desert. Someone is as usual writing on the body. There's the mixing of high and low language—the phrase "cool dude" butts up against the inevitable "hegemony." Then there's the word "perhaps," starting sentence after sentence. And T.S. Eliot is quoted. It's all sort of familiar. Even the two amusingly named men (Juan and Jorge) who chat about being gods, and order Mojitos, seem old friends to me. One of them might be the octopus. I think that is the twist. I don't see anything wrong with writing experimental fiction that feels comfortable. After all these years, I would hope a true genre would begin to emerge. A recognizable landscape, even in a world turned purposefully upside down. The landmarks make Daughter an enjoyable read.
The work is illustrated by photographs. Some appear to be purposefully old-timey, with scratches and shadows artificially produced. Others are maybe purposefully murky: an octopus obscured in its jar, showing either an eye or a tentacle, unsure. Still others would have benefited from a little clarity, I think. The content is interesting: a masked woman in different frames for example. Seeing this in ebook format, a reader will appreciate the color, the effect of the different shades of background and text. The books is also available in a fine art limited edition, a fetish edition you might say. It comes in a box with octopus parts in jars, a set of surgical tools, and the novel printed on skin on a bed of sand, hidden in a secret drawer. Knowing that the fetish edition really exists, knowing the photos of a real octopus are reproduced throughout, helps a reader accept the ebook as its own form with its own identity and benefits, instead of a mode of cheap reproduction. Knowing the fine art edition is out there brings a certain reverence to the novel, makes the work more undeniable, and tangible, even if only in the abstract.
It is an ambitious book, but the ambition is a familiar one too. Lee's is the literary goal that cannot be pursued too hotly or too rigorously. It's an ambition that has to dance around in your brain like a game of hot potato with an idea for the potato and neurons for hands. So as you're writing it, you're never holding it too tight, never pinning it down too much, never working it over and wrestling it into a shape. It takes a shape on its own, and if it veers left, you let it, and you realize later that you always meant it to go left right there. Because it is obvious. You can't revise a piece like this. You might wreck it, you see. The ambition is to cycle back around, always tangentially, and to create some whole meaning out of seemingly random fragments...