By Colin Herd.
Coma, Pierre Guyotat, trans. Noura Wedell, Semiotext(e) 2010
“Day and night, when I write, the limit of what I write and of the real world in which I do it is the coral, the live, invisible enclosure of the island.”
Pierre Guyotat is a writer for whom the act of writing and the act of living are sewn so tight together that a large part of his project is the annihilation, through folding and scrunching, of the seam between the two conjoined flaps. Nowhere are the stitches pulled tighter than in his legendary and controversial book Eden, Eden, Eden, which was immediately banned upon publication in 1970, and remained so for 11 years. That text’s rejection of the full-stop (not one in its 163 pages) immerses the reader in the relentless, present-tense undertow of his extreme, highly sexualized, brutal prose. As Roland Barthes wrote in his preface, “we are left simply with language and lust, not the former expressing the latter, but the two bound together in a reciprocal metonymy, indissoluble.” The intensity of Guyotat’s language in books like Eden, Eden, Eden is difficult to stomach, and many have dismissed his writing as pornographic and ‘unreadable,’ while others have credited Guyotat with ‘creating new languages,’ and still others, such as the writer Stephen Barber, have delighted in Eden, Eden, Eden‘s capacity to ‘derange’ and ‘scar’ those brave enough to be carried off in the torrent. Coma, first released in France in 2006 but just out in English from Semiotext(e), is a meditation on or, much better to borrow Gary Indiana’s vivid word from his preface, “reenactment” of the very real toll that such a demanding project takes on the writer.
In the period from 1977 to 1982, when writing his texts Le Livre and Histoire de Samora Machel, Guyotat’s immersion in writing pushed him to extreme mental and physical deterioration, culminating in a coma induced by starvation and insomnia. These events form the subject of this book’s lucidly personalized and ruminative prose, prose that is on the face of it dramatically different to the thrilling onslaught of Eden, Eden, Eden. Coma is an extraordinarily tender evocation of depression and of the torment and strain of extreme artistic practice.
“It is already hard enough that this world, my world, cannot be reproduced, because of its sexual power, even in future anthologies! but that its language, at least for a time, must also be pronounced while it is read, that is unbearable: it is unbearable as well that the simple inscription on the page, the simple reading of printed lines do not allow for understanding, for beauty! I am here, on this field of the dead, crushed by the ordinary reader I have become.”
Part of the pleasure of Coma, then, is the reflection this candidness casts on Guyotat’s earlier books. Reading Coma in the wake of his other books refocuses attention away from the initial shock of his subject matter and relentless prose style towards his key concerns: creation and creativity, the relation of self to a wider conception of human, and animal, life. But Coma is not just a reflection of those texts, it is also a continuation of the engagement. In this sense it’s a comma as well as a Coma, a joint and a seam, rather than a break. One of the most striking stylistic features of the book is that it dominantly inhabits the present tense. Gary Indiana calls this “a horizontal text, as a comatose body is horizontal” that “erases time as diachrony.” Events are described without a straightforwardly chronological development, experienced, almost, as if all at once. Where Eden, Eden, Eden conveys this sense through punctuation, the abhorrence of the full-stop, the fear of breaking off and resting, Coma articulates the same panic through its descriptions of Guyotat’s “sweet, deliberate insomnia” and his hyper-concentration:
“How can one be two thousand years ago, now, and two thousand years hence, at the same time?
Anxiety has me shaking from head to toe, my friend clasps me to him, his words are what my entire body awaits: I am in the world.”
And Guyotat’s restless nomadism, travelling around France in his van, which he also sleeps in, (when he does) in his van. Near the end of the book, when Guyotat is very weak and being cared for by friends, he still wants to inhabit the edge, the margins, and exist nomadically: “I want to spend the night in my van, parked along the hedge that borders the house along the dead end.”
For all it is a text of deterioration, of plowing into a coma through over-work, over-art, and over-language-creation, it is also a text of great sensitivity to the world and to humanity. It’s an urgent, necessary publication that speaks, loader than anything else, the import of writing, and the implications of artistic engagement. These implications are dangerous, and so inescapably, so palpably, real. Coma is a generous gift: Guyotat’s writing is literally stunning but it’s not stunted, and never stunting.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 5th, 2010.