There is something niggling about this book. It is, as Ray Davis has described, one of those works which deals with a deep trauma through literary extravagance. You could even say that it is about dealing with deep trauma through such extravagance. The trauma is the Holocaust, and if the work is not as arbitrarily generated as Beckett’s Watt, it tries its best. And there is something niggling about the effort.
(“Niggling” might make a less pretentious and more value-neutral substitute for “uncanny.”)
It’s not the metafictional artifice, with its fourth wall eternally under construction. Federman introduces himself at the beginning and discusses how he came to arrive at the book, and how his two assistant narrators, Namredef and Moinous, are going to help him talk about this horny old Holocaust survivor writer who is about to be exiled to another planet on the eve of the millenium. (The book was published in 1982.) The old man, we’re told, was born in the same year as Federman’s father. Federman himself discusses the two narrators here.
It’s not the intentionally perfunctory science fiction trappings. Federman dispatches them early on and only returns to them obliquely, when he gets involved with the Jane Fonda stand-in “June Fanon,” clearly in her post-Barbarella phase. He drops Lem and Bradbury’s names, but is content to sling a few insults at generic science fiction: “most science-fiction tends lamentably towards unconvincing futuristic descriptions and explications of the impossible…with simplistic characters and melodramatic plots which animate elementary didacticism.” Most metafiction tends towards narcissistic tail-chasing, but let’s keep going.
June Fanon is one of many women the old man is involved with, and a fair amount of time is spent detailing his successes with wild abandon. But it’s all in the past since he’s about to be exiled as part of some mysterious exile program, which is not actually exile, Federman explains, but a dumping of society’s refuse into space. The process is never clearly explained, but it’s very definitely a Holocaust metaphor. The old man is a survivor, and the two fulcrums at work are his hesitation about what has happened in the past, and the haziness and blankness of his upcoming exile. As a contrast we’re offered specifics–his continued anger at Germany, culminating in him expectorating (and worse) on a bed of Deutschmarks, and his rabid activism, all of which are not related to either of his exiles.
The book is driven by a generation of realistic but absurd plots that all proclaim their independence from the mysterious Holocaust and the mysterious exile. Most strikingly, the old man seduces a starlet by telling her the story of a boy narrowly escaping the camps by jumping from one train to another. She’s convinced it’s him: “I know it’s your story, the way you tell it, has to be your story.” He scores, but hates her and hates himself, and continues to insist that it was not him, “just a story.”
The underlying spirit at work, more than Beckett, is that of Edmund Jabes, whom Federman mentions twice. The only part of Beckett present is his playfulness, not the sparseness nor the precision, and without such stark contrast, the result can seem frivolous. “But that’s the point,” a response could go, “to focus on the quotidian which can be described to elucidate what cannot.” Jabes also worked in the space around what he believed he could not speak, and Federman ultimately seems to be marking territory with “Keep out!” signs. The problem is that the lightly comedic quality of the rest of the material references the dark center without illuminating it.
That niggling quality: it is that you can work through pain and suffering and the most awful thing in the world, and you can have fun doing it while making sure to be conscious of the unconscionable past and future, and you can even write all about that, but that elliptical quality that Jabes references, illumination, is, perhaps intentionally, absent. Left instead are pure aesthetics, hovering without reason, seemingly treasured.