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Minimalism and beyond: A discussion on two postmodern works of American fiction.

(Part 1)

By Dilshan Boange

‘Art for art’s sake’ is a line that we are more than familiar with and the adversities such outlooks meet in
the face of market forces. ‘Literature-for-the sake-of-literature’ is the core slogan at the heart of the USA
based publishing operation Brown Paper Publishing, an independent literary press that was not built on
the sole basis of profit motive. Clearly a space for the ‘alternative’ in what could seem the torrentially
oppressive streams of modern print capitalism Brown Paper Publishing represents a number of authors
whose work present the writer’s vision unselfconsciously, in a rawness that disallows dilution to fit in
with popular requirements of the market place. How much commercial success Brown Paper Publishing
has developed so far, I do not know. What I believe can be safely assumed is that their authors have not as
yet gained a notable readership in Sri Lanka. I have not as yet come across any of their publications in
bookshops in Sri Lanka though the product quality of their productions would certainly meet the
standards that local book publishers and sellers would be conscious of as a factor that relates to
marketing. After all none will deny that the ‘look of the cover’ isn’t the first thing that gets a browser
started on a subconscious judging process of the book as a work.

The works of Sarah D’Stair and Pablo D’Stair

In this two part article I wish to discuss a novel each of two authors represented by Brown Paper
Publishing. The works are –Hand to Bone by Sarah D’Stair and Pablo D’stair’s Leo Rache, works of
fiction that would be categorized by present day publishing industry criteria as novellas.

What merits for discussion the two selected works of two authors who would be virtually unknown
amongst the general English literature readerships in Sri Lanka? In my opinion it is the scope the two
works concerned would present in respect of certain postmodernist features. The interest that is gradually
developing in Sri Lanka towards generating more discussion on the lines of postmodernist literary
development may find some contributions through this article’s foci.

The themes of content and techniques of (narrative) form in postmodernist literature is by no means
simple enough to count off from one’s fingers as it should always be kept in mind that what is perceived
and viewed as postmodernism and the postmodern age is still a trajectory in an ongoing process. And
therefore what I intent to make the groundings to comment on the two novellas, are related to a selected
few themes such as –subjectivity, identity and minimalism.

“Hand to Bone”

Sarah D’stair’s “Hand to Bone” struck me as a one of a kind from works of (experimental) fiction I have
encountered so far. The narrator remains unnamed through the narrative like the protagonist in Knut
Hamsung’s “Sult” (Hunger) the novel that birthed the Modern(ist) novel with ‘stream of consciousness’.
The banality of the events are severely mundane and present no discernible ‘plot’. From a point of
cultural appreciation I suppose a reader in Sri Lanka would find some of the mundane events something
new to meander though for its ‘Americaness’. But in terms of conforming to the general conceptions of
what a novel ‘ought to be’, Sarah’s work does not fit into the framework. What is striking however is the
ground the text provides for explorations for thematic substance on the lines of postmodernist literary
thought. The minimalism adopted by Sarah is to such a severe degree that it presents a narrative built on a
very skeletal structure of descriptivism.

Between staccatos and rambles

Thorough out the 53 page work there is not a single metaphor or simile or any of the other usual poetic
devices that generally literary works are characterized by. The word constructions are such that the
narrative varies between staccato and ramblings and narrative modes that appear to address an audience
(reader) and then appears to be self addressed, and thereby creates a string of ambiguities. At certain
points in the story the narrator displays a psyche disjointed from the fullness of one’s ‘being’ –body and
mind. The reason to make such observations is that at times the speaker seems to attribute certain body
parts as almost autonomous! The following is demonstrative of this quality –“First this foot moves then
the other foot moves how do the feet know how to move one after the other to take one to a place where
one decides to go.”(p.22) Please note that the text does not have a question mark at the end of the line
quoted. No, it’s doubtful that it could a typographical error/omission. The whole text does not provide the
sign of the question mark though lines may carry the tone of a ‘question’. Once again the ambiguity of the
speaker’s intentions comes out strongly through this technique that leaves even the idea of ‘what is a
question (?)’ open to discuss. After all if it’s in the strict privacy of one’s own consciousness, are there
really question marks and exclamation marks at the end of the line? That is exactly what ‘Hand to Bone’
representational of in the narrative it presents.

Objectivity of observations and existential vistas

Observations of the narrator are very fact like with stringent objectivity, stripping phenomena down to the
‘physically’ factual with little or no emotions being attached to the descriptions be it a thing, a person or
act. It is by far the most introverted interior monologue I have come across and shows at times a snap shot
discursive through staccato sequences of images which are utterly banal. Pages 33-34 has a fourteen line
sentence what seems like a madness of repetitions that makes one wonder is the consciousness
represented one of an autistic person? The narrative shows the instantaneity of perceiving (an object,
person, phenomena) but not as the primary basis in terms of the ‘perception point’ presented to the reader.
Such instantaneity is not the norm of the text but the refection and recollection of acts and phenomena.
This vantage crafted by Sarah almost makes the narrator depict a voyeuristic self depiction which
resonates strongly with the theme of identity and the dilemma of an existential being. The fact that there
are no solutions sought to the existential dilemma like in modernist literature (such as Albert Camus’s
The Outsider) Sarah presents a quintessential postmodernist approach where no solutions are sought for
the existential reality and instead devises (a) play within it.

Stripping identity to the ‘bone’

The narrative’s end brings the reader to a place where there seems some cessation is intended, however if
it is a complete cessation or a symbolic one meant to show the end of what the reader is privy to of the
narrator’s perceptions (through the numerous faculties) is unclear. ‘Minimalism’ as a the technique has
taken an all pervasive quality to define the existential groundings in Sarah’s work which presents a notion
of ‘facelessness’ through the narrator, who may not be labeled, and identified in terms of name,
occupation, or even gender (though the tone may imply a female consciousness) and thereby develops a
strong case of ‘identity’ and its markings as a social construct. “Hand to Bone” seems to strip down the
flesh, the blood, the veins the tissue that makes us the beings that we are to mere ‘bone’. The very basic
fundamental that remains for millennia even after we are no more.

Readerships?

The very basic element that history devises its studies fusing materials on to it to recreate the ‘whole’, a
notion that seems to be challenged from postmodernist perceptions. When stripped down to ‘bone’ an
individual may not carry the social distinctions that mark him as a societal creature. Instead it is just acts,
objects, phenomena that one finds, either static or in motion. Along trends of modern day print capitalism,
who would ‘pay’ to read this book? I simply cannot imagine. But then “Hand to Bone” is far from
anything that may even resemble entertaining reads. It seems the scope of the text far more academic. It
would be a suitable text whose textual body is ripe for dissection and vivisection from a point of literary
analysis by academia.