This review (though without this title) appears in the brand spanking new CRAYON 5 which can be ordered from SPD Books.
Out of Context: What’s Class Got to Do with It?
A Review of LIAR by Mike Amnasan. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2007
by Robin Tremblay-McGaw
July 2, 2007
The relation between class and the production and reception of literature has always been a fraught one. Just as often, it has frequently gone unremarked by those engaged most intimately in the processes of writing itself.(1) Who writes, why, and how? And furthermore, who is heard, published, read? Mike Amnasan’s third book, LIAR, does not shy away from these indelicate questions. His novel begins: “I never claimed to be honest when I identified myself as working class. Then again I wasn’t really given a choice as to what that identification meant. I couldn’t determine how I was seen. Know what I mean? No, you probably don’t” (7). The first paragraph of the book locates the first person narrator as “working class’ and at the same time it calls into question what such a label might mean; simultaneously it casts into doubt discrete notions of honesty, artifice and fabrication and wrestles with what it means to be identified and recognized by oneself or others.
Think about it. I have no capacity for artifice. I can’t change. When I tried to change what working class meant I began living a lie. It wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me as an individual. It was simply a matter of how others could most easily recognize me as someone. Now I’ve got to make a falsehood into an acceptable way of life. Even if nobody listens, this lie is the glue that holds the various strands of my life together.
As the narrator informs us, these questions are pertinent not only to the narrator personally, but have to do with larger social relations. In its construction of the desire for and the refusal of identity and recognition, it presents a Hegelian version of consciousness in the dialectic of master and slave with its multiple mirroring gazes and problematizing of the locus of power. The text explicitly extends this figure in a consideration of politics. The opening paragraph is followed by a third person account of several responses to the 1987 televised hearings of Oliver North on the Iran-Contra affair. The news station has sent a crew to San Francisco’s financial district to interview people during their lunch hour about the hearings. One man says, “‘There are bigger concerns than Oliver North. I think we should put that whole affair aside and move on to more important matters’” (7) while “a young woman in a different part of the plaza adds, ‘He was only following orders from people higher up’” (8). The newscast moves to a different geographic location in the city, south of Market, where a construction worker responds: “‘He’s a criminal and he should do time for what he did!’” (8). Class shapes responses to the world and the actors in it. But contrary to what might be suggested in the quote about various responses to Oliver North, the working class world depicted in LIAR isn’t constructed as some simple utopian realm of truth. LIAR is so much more complicated than this. The book articulates a world of dislocation and dishonesty, and produces a subject always out of context. In the end, LIAR exposes the lie in any claim that a specific subject has dibs on authenticity, truth, or privileged access to the field of experimentation. Every position is a false one.
The novel consists of segments of first and third person narration inter-cut with sections of a science fiction story that the main character Joe is writing. The novel charts the fragments of the sci-fi story and the dynamics of Joe’s failing relationship with Jane, a visual artist, and his S/M affair with married lover Ann. At the same time, Joe finds himself caught not only between two women, but also two worlds, two realities–the construction site where he makes his living and the mostly middle class experimental writing community he struggles to participate in while also partly eschewing it. Each of these communities is further fragmented by its own internal divisions and contradictions. For example, on the construction site there are workers, supervisors, stewards, the union, and corporations, each of which have their own particular interests and places in the hierarchy. With Jane, Joe is more of a bottom if he has a role in that relationship at all, while with Ann he’s a top. The experimental writing community has its own divisions: “Joe was once told, ‘If you want to talk about class you can bear that cross, but we won’t cop to any guilt trip you want to lay on us. If you’re not interested in derailing standard English, fine. No one’s asking you to;” (106). In a recent email exchange about class and the San Francisco Bay Area writing scene, Amnasan wrote:
To talk about class issues was considered an attempt at one-ups-man-ship, trying to get special attention through an illegitimate means that no one was going to take seriously. A lot of middle class writers felt that if a working class person learned from the books and resources that they themselves had learned from they became middle class with the same privileges....I think the basic attitude among a lot of language writers was that the social class of an individual had become too hard to distinguish with all the different kinds of labor and vocations people now had so that class was no longer valid as criteria in regard to individuals and so it was simply no longer interesting (June 16, 2007 email from Mike Amnasan).
If the experimental writing community doesn’t provide an arena for Joe to locate himself, neither do the academic or governmental data: “I see myself in regard to articles and books about wage workers as not even normal enough to equal the common assumptions that come with statistics” (138). Joe isn’t fully comfortable for long in any of the places he finds himself: “In the larger scheme of things, I’m a fish out of water” (85). The disjunction between the first and third person narration in the text literalizes this displacement. Is the first person narrator, Joe, the character the third person narration creates? And who is the reader addressed by the text?
Like other New Narrative texts, a writing project that coalesced in the early 1980s around San Francisco Bay Area writers--Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Francesca Rosa, and Camille Roy, and Amnasan himself–this novel explores language, genre and the place of narrative, representation, the subject, and the experience of everyday living, all of which were constructed as problematic and contaminated in the wake of Marxist and structuralist understandings of history and language, particularly as they were explored by the Bay Area’s Language Writers. Like the work of many of the New Narrative writers mentioned above, Amnasan’s writing is shaped in part by his engagement with and critique of the ideas and practices of the Language Writers, including Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman.(2) Amnasan does not jettison the subject, a subject who is a subject of discourse but also of feeling, experience, community and discontinuity; he opts for expenditure and risk, exposing the negativity that constitutes experience with its blind spots and in all of its confusion, humiliation, frustration The writing is cool in tone, carefully controlling a rage against the machine, yet simultaneously unafraid of exposing lies, guilt, envy, and shame, what Sianne Ngai has called “ugly feelings.” The narrator states: “I never expected to be very happy, and so the pleasures in my life seem extra” (51). Like other New Narrative writers too, Amnasan addresses the reader on multiple occasions in such a way that the reader feels implicated, put on the spot. This address to the reader is coupled with an exposure on the part of the narrator, a display of abjection and then a question, almost a demand of the reader as in this example: “Everything I’ve done up to this point could be viewed as a series of false steps, or weak moves, that can never make up for not having taken the appropriate course for gaining the attention I’d wanted in the first place. Do you understand what I’m saying?” (44). Sometimes too the narration exposes how power makes use of silence before it implicates the reader : “I’m trying to express a conflict of interest. For me to be openly rejected might call attention to the way things are done. That can’t happen. You see what I’m saying?” (106).
LIAR references a debate in the Bay Area writing community that played out in the 1980s and 1990s at readings and talks and in print, manifesting in one particular instance in an article entitled “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject” written by Ron Silliman and appearing in 1988 in the journal Socialist Review. In this article, Silliman introduces the work of several Bay Area poets including: Aaron Shurin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lisa Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino, Bob Perelman, Beverly Dahlen, Nathaniel Mackey, and Carol Dorf. He situates these writers as having different audiences and readers while also positing that for some, their relationship to literary experimentation particularly vis-a-vis formal innovations and the construction or deconstruction of the subject is “more conventional.” He does this by setting up a dichotomy between the “subjects of history” who are largely white, heterosexual males and others who have been history’s objects–women, people of color, sexual minorities, etc. Silliman writes:
One political content of the poem is its constitution of a specific social subject out of multiple discourses, a subject that may be decentralized, destabilized, or even fragmented. The ways in which this content manifests itself differs dramatically according to the author’s (and the audience’s) location in the larger social body. Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history–many white male heterosexuals, for example–are apt to challenge all that is supposedly ‘natural’ about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers–women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the ‘marginal’–have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.
Leslie Scalapino, one of the writers whose work is discussed by Silliman, objected to his construction of the field of experimentation as the provenance of white male heterosexuals while constructing the need for stories as belonging to everyone else, especially those on the margins. Scalapino wrote a letter in response that the Socialist Review refused to publish because Scalapino’s “language was too poetic and did not qualify as political discourse” (“What/ Person?” 52).(3) The exchange of letters between Scalapino and Silliman was eventually published as “What/Person: From An Exchange” in Poetics Journal in 1991. LIAR explicitly (and sometimes not so) refers to this debate in numerous passages and in the very premise of the book as a whole:
In an attempt to fill out my past experience I mentioned another writer, Ron, whose theories I disagreed with. I quoted him extensively in the text I had prepared, but what I had stated in my talk, back then, no longer seemed to matter. In fact Ron’s assertions have lasted the course of time in regard to my own possibilities. As he stated in regard to what he referred to as “the whole spectrum of the marginal” I have to direct my efforts toward having my story told, rather than calling into question such conventions as narrative, persona, reference. In my talk I argued against the way he had cornered the more experimental concerns for his own social group (white, heterosexual, middle class males), but I never really had a substantial position from which to question this idea. My personal story never really took on the significance of a public challenge to Ron’s theories (41).
Leslie had responded to Ron’s article even before Joe had seen it. She gave Joe the issue of Socialist Review it was published in. It’s easier to treat a blue-collar worker in the dismissive manner women have been subjected to in the past than to respond in this way to someone like Leslie, a woman with considerable standing in the writing community–even if she has felt slighted in similar ways (42).
...I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’m never going to be asked to speak about anything broader than my personal life (106).
The avant-garde will invite anyone into their ranks who has the social skills that come with a more comfortable life, but I’m not just going to write the conventional narrative expected of someone like me (85.)
LIAR is Amnasan’s challenge to a literary community that might expect him to tell his working class story but not to tell it slant. The book isn’t concerned much with plot but it is interested in narrative and the kind of inquiry that can be engaged through it: “A part of me wants things to get worse, for a plot to get exposed that would be easy for an outside-observer to identify as wrong-doing. I often feel trapped in abuse that conventional observation will never reveal” (75). While one reading suggests that this consideration of plot has to do with shady doings on the construction site, another suggests that simultaneously it references the writing community, the book LIAR and perhaps relation itself. At some point, the tactics at the construction site, in the experimental writing community and intimate relationships begin to blur and bleed: “Gale will always make our work as personal as he can. He operates through repeatedly transgressing personal boundaries. He’ll get in your face if you suggest that any exist. All rules are pliable, and the narrative of work is constantly broken up by moving us around” (101). If part of the problem of the experimental writing or any community is that “It’s a people thing, a people thing initiated where there is a lot at stake. It is the merger of friendship (whether close friendship or a version extended to include a broad network of families and friends), and professionalism, into a form of judgement that only judges normative responses of no practical use” (43), then the answer for Joe is, “a politics of the friendless. He wants institutions where people without friends can succeed there by virtue of all the policies and services in place that allow people to succeed according to what they can contribute” (98). This community of the friendless echoes Georges Bataille’s “community of those who do not have a community” and Maurice Blanchot’s “unavowable community.” Blanchot writes:
a being does not want to be recognized, it wants to be contested: in order to exist it goes towards the other, which contests and at times negates it, so as to start being only in that privation that makes it conscious (here lies the origin of its consciousness) of the impossibility of being itself, of subsisting as its ipse or, if you will, as itself as a separate individual: this way it will perhaps ex-ist, experiencing itself as an always prior exteriority, or as an existence shattered through and through, composing itself only as it decomposes itself constantly, violently and in silence (6).
Given the history of how LIAR came to be published (before its publication by Ithuriel’s Spear, the sole surviving copy of the manuscript was in the hands of Camille Roy who photocopied it for classes she was teaching), its main character’s desire for a politics of the friendless is utopian. Or is it? Does LIAR exist in published form because of a system that enables those who can contribute to do so? Or is it available because a friend has preserved a manuscript and brought it to the attention of a publisher?
The pleasure of LIAR is located in its stark poetry–the way seemingly discordant sections move rapidly from construction sites to sex and domestic scenes to sci-fi and philosophical meditations about class, meaning, identity, writing. And there is the sex too (with Ann), or the lack of it (with Jane) and its relationship to Joe’s sense of himself and his subject position in the writing community: “Sex is never only about the two of them [Joe and Jane]. Joe is limited in his ability to go against traditional writing because of his need to talk about his own background and the work he does for a living and this effects how he looks even as a sexual being” (21). While the narrator asserts that Ann’s “voluptuousness is on the verge of breaking into parts” (115) he slyly asserts that “she wouldn’t demand that the realistic means for producing sensation be circumvented for the sake of a larger picture of what intimacy should be about” (108). The secret sex with Ann is predicated on restraint and its corollary abandon, an S/M dynamic that structures most if not all relation in this book. It is the lie–at once a narration and its disruption–that holds the book together.
Language is both the problem–an insufficient and inadequate means for exploring, constructing, and exposing life in all its complexity–and one of the tools available with which to stage an intervention: “My use of language is guilty, and yet I try to use language to absolve my guilt” (44). If disruption and inconsistency, lies and artifice are the architecture of the text, they are related to a subject’s experience on several levels. These forms of discontinuity and estrangement arise out of: necessity (“I write narrative after work in the way one might expect of someone who does construction work” 59); memory, that disruptive process that organizes experience otherwise (“...the third type of memory....returns at a greater frequency the more it is emotionally reinforced. This is the memory more likely to produce odd combinations. Because it is not within a chain of causal relations, it can return out of context”  and “Joe is distracted by the impertinent return of thoughts that only return by virtue of his individual sense of what is important, thoughts that have no appropriate place for their expression, what he often calls lying” 45); and Joe’s liminal subject status, between and out of context everywhere. Formally the text enacts, via the rhyme of themes and structures, these disruptions that are at once discontinuous and problematic and the source of the writing itself.
Some of the ways that contiguous sections rhyme with one another include: the structure of hearing as in “‘I don’t know,’ George replied. ‘I can just tell you what I heard’” and “Jane, laughing in incredulity, tells Joe that she overheard her supervisor talking to a friend from another department, discussing whether or not some job candidate came from a ‘good family’” (32). Another rhyme occurs with stories: in one paragraph Joe is licking Jane’s pussy in a public park: “As she looks around she tries to think of a story, to tell David, to explain why she’s late arriving home.” This is immediately followed by a paragraph about the construction site: “The stories of all four were consistent. They said that Wayne should’ve known better than to start them working or replacing the duct above the driveway” (47). Are these stories excuses or evidence, or both? There’s pleasure to be had in tracing the narrative exposed by the recurring photographs and images Jane has on her desk or expresses an interest in: they include figures submerged, sometimes up to their necks, in water. Are these figures a trope for Jane’s position or Joe’s? Or perhaps it is the narrative itself? Two-thirds of the way into the book there is a shift; suddenly: “Jane sifts through her photographs, fingering through a card file, until she comes to a photo of a shark painted on the wall of a dilapidated building. She pulls this photo out and places it in front of her on the desk” (88).
Like many New Narrative texts, LIAR uses prose that works like poetry and manages to have the best of all possible worlds. It mobilizes the devices of various discourses and genres--poetry, criticism, roman a clef, narrative--while it recasts them as provisional, contingent, suspect. LIAR fearlessly faces the gulf between who we want to be and who we are, as well as what others, we ourselves, language, and the social make determinate. It is a writing out of context, one that doesn’t locate the truth in any particular story, but demands multiple and differing, partial narratives: “There’s no limit to what can be added, what can be factored into a judgement of this kind. It can continue for his whole life, with no conclusion” (19).
1. There is a long history of interest in class issues and literature in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Left Write Conference organized by Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott in 1981 to bring together Left oriented writers to work on a common agenda explored class issues. Karen Brodine, author of Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking: Poems 1978-1987 co-founded the Women Writers Union in San Francisco and was a national leader and San Francisco organizer for Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party; and the language writers explored issues of class, particularly from a Marxist perspective. In addition, class and work have been the subject of a number of publications and discussions within the experimental literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. A partial listing includes: Soup edited by Steve Abbott, Ottotole, edited by Mike Amnasan, Tripwire Issue Number 4 Winter 2000-2001, eds. Yedda Morrison and David Buuck; HOW2 Forum on Class & Innovative Writing, Vol 1, Number 2, September 1999, eds Kathy Lou Schultz and Robin Tremblay-McGaw (also reprinted in Lipstick Eleven Number 2); HOW2 Panel on Class & Innovative Writing, San Francisco Art Institute, December 5, 1999 (with Kathy Lou Schultz, Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy, Robert Glück, Robin Tremblay-McGaw); in addition, Myung Mi Kim and Kevin Magee had a talk series at their home in the El Cerrito when they lived there in the 90s and at least one of these events was dedicated to a discussion of class. Kevin Killian affirms that there was a photocopied newsletter produced to accompany these talks.
2. The term New Narrative first appeared in 1981 in the journal SOUP, edited by Steve Abbott. In this journal, Bruce Boone, criticizes Language Writing; he writes, “But it isn’t what you would call an engaged writing and as a movement it suffers from some serious defects for this reason.” Amnasan notes : “I’m sure I had plenty of arguments with language poets, at various events, particularly Bruce Andrews” (June 16, 2007 email).
3. This claim on the part of the journal interestingly constructs Scalapino’s language as inappropriate, too poetic and perhaps then, too experimental for the context of a political journal (though this same journal is printing poetry, including Scalapino’s own!).
Blanchot, Maurice. The Unavowable Community. Trans. Pierre Joris. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988.
Boone, Bruce. “Language Writing: The Pluses & Minuses of the New Formalism.” Soup, 1981:2-9.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Silliman, Ron. “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” Socialist Review, 1988: 61-68.
Scalapino, Leslie and Ron Silliman. “What/Person: From an Exchange.” Poetics Journal, 1991:51-68.
Note: Many thanks to Robert Gluck and Mike Amnasan for their valuable input on this review.
Mike reading at Modern Times Bookstore, San Francisco, June 12, 2007. Photo courtesy of Francesca Rosa.