:: Article

Imagined Transcriptions : A Conversation between Chris Campanioni and Christopher Linforth 

By Chris Campanioni and Christopher Linforth.

In June of 2020, Otis Books released its two books for the spring season: Chris Campanioni’s A and B and Also Nothing and Christopher Linforth’s Directory. Both authors were struck by the similarities between their books and the thematic and textual interplay. Intrigued, they sat down to have a conversation.

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Chris Campanioni: I like making lists. As I read Directory, I couldn’t help but compile another list, one that tracked resemblances and similarities between our two books. I couldn’t help but think that my attempt at making a book that replaced plot with coincidences eventually began to form more coincidences in my daily life. Like, that’s how it works usually though, right? The work of art actualizes what we feel, or want to feel, outside the work; outside the work, we aspire toward the conditions of possibility set forth by the book. It’s not a question of what comes first—the chicken or the egg is irrelevant here, because it doesn’t matter which is which, or even what comes first, only that it comes. Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m impressed by the insight of the editors who chose our texts for Otis Books/Seismicity Editions’ Spring 2020 catalog, because the two books seem to have always and already been responding to each other. Directory is a work that is interested—deeply curious, I think—in producing an identity that is both anonymous and multiple. “Plot” moves between the cracks of narrative, literally through slippages but also through reunions and family rites, tradition. There’s this really important negotiation I think, between the past as naming (the nameable past?) and the future as utopic (and non-specific) multitude. As I read, I kept thinking not just about this “directory” of content and narrative but also about its arrangement: how many other versions of this book were there? What was the process of organization pre-publication? What segments—do you read them as “chapters”?—went where, and why? A *directory* provides advisory—but not compulsory—guidance, and I think this is important. Was one wish for the reader to re-assemble these stories at their discretion? To read the directory in whatever order they wish? I ask several questions at a time, it’s the only way I can think to talk about things—to talk to people I have had to imagine across space. Like any correspondence, we don’t expect complete answers but only partial reveals.

Christopher Linforth: The process of writing Directory emerged in writing spurts, three of four a day, over a sustained period. Early on, I wrote the title story and soon realized it was the anchor of all that had been written up to that point and all that would come after. The conceptual apparatus of the collection would be then a series of listings, of stories, which could be read in any order. However, I wanted some semblance of narrative, of control of how the book could be read, and so I ordered the stories to show a progression of sorts for the narrator/s. Of course, the book is open to be read as a directory, as a series of individual stories that could be read in isolation. I was very glad, after finishing A and B and Also Nothing, to be paired with such a stellar book. Though mine has some experimental and innovative tendencies, I think yours is much more avant-garde. Your approach in tackling American identity through intra-literary lenses is quite remarkable. Indeed, since finishing it, a large part of me has been wondering how long you’ve been working on this project? And how did you get started?

CC: The book was intended as an essay, written in response to a seminar I was in, on Henry James and Gertrude Stein, two writers I had hardly read before entering that shared space. In general, I like to perform as interloper, out-of-place, as passerby or trespasser. And in some ways, I think that absolves me of any degree of specialization, of expertise. The audacity, someone might say, to write a book about Henry James and Gertrude Stein, after reading exactly a week’s worth of material belonging to the two American writers. But I never considered the project—or really, any project—to be about anything, so much as near things, and places, and people. And in that proximity—forced, coincidental, associatory, imaginary, virtual—I found that I could produce an identity of the Americas that was similarly ensemble and conditional. So perhaps I had been working on this project for far longer than the five months I was enrolled in a class called “James and Stein” although those two writers, their celebrated oeuvres, became the literal pre-text for composing A and B and Also Nothing. You mention the avant-garde, and I feel (even now) ambivalent about the term, or maybe about my identification with or aspiration to the (vanguard) movement. Even today I’m unsure of myself, of my desires, in the book. I remember asking whether it isn’t always better to come from behind. And I don’t really ever answer that question, because it’s not really a question but a suggestion, and yet I do continue to wonder about the usefulness of names, of naming, especially in terms of aesthetics, in terms of collective movement and coalition. A related question: can we write about things without naming them?

Chris Campanioni, A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books, 2020)

The uncanny similarities I mentioned earlier, between our two books, don’t begin and end with naming, but there’s certainly so much to consider with your use, throughout Directory, of the non-identifiable “we”—this friction between selves (two, three? missing? latent?) that are not exact copies, not twins, but only lookalikes; i.e. resemblances. There’s a literal cast of other lookalikes masquerading as “originals” as well: New Girl and Newer Girl; First Jim, Jim Jr. Jim III, Son of Jim, and “not Jim” … the names continue to drop, in list-like fashion. There’s that revelatory moment, the moment of crisis, I think, at the very end, the last page of your book, where, for the very first time, the narration shifts from the plural to the singular. The moment where the narrator, still anonymous, reaches for the telephone, in anticipation, in acknowledgment, in the expectation of returning home, which is an expectation of connection, or at least recognition (dial tone). Is this homecoming a moment of surrender or a celebration?

CL: Yes, you’re onto something with your observations about Directory, and I appreciate your reading of the “not twins,” which was one of my aims. The plural identity of the narrator/s inhabits the ambiguous and creative space of identity, fluid in gender and age and number. However, at the book’s conclusion, rather than surrender or celebration, I saw the release from the oppression of a performed identity. This wasn’t a direct line of dialogue to the work of Judith Butler, though some of her ideas were always floating around. For me, it was more about questions beyond performativity: without that curated identity what does he/she/they have left? When finally alone, with no one to perform to, what is the narrator’s identity? Though these questions are unanswered, I circled the ending back to the opening, to the one aspect the narrator cannot shake: the mother.

In A and B and Also Nothing and your textual riffing on the works of Gertrude Stein and Henry James, I do see those contentious aspects of naming arising in your book, both in the oblique qualities of James’s prose and in the repetitious and circular habits of Stein. Now I mentioned avant-garde as more of a compliment and not as an attempt to situate your work in a historical straitjacket, or part of a contingent of white male philosopher-artist-writers, though I can see that reading, and, yes, I’m thankful you brought up the dangers of throwing around terms without supplying context. In your book, there is an abundance of intertextual commentary, an almost Pac-Man consumption of theory and literature. I read some of this nearness to these texts as part of persona construction. Your prose varies from the aphoristic to the personal to the theoretical and the poetic. I see you commenting on the transformation of the self, that the persona—or at least one of the personae—is struggling with a large change in his life. I found it fascinating how the book interrogates voice and silence and that part of the persona’s attempts to understand himself at this critical juncture is perhaps holding back a change in his life. I read this as his interlocution with American capitalism and its ability to devour people, to shape a body, and to form and reform an identity. Is this a fair reading?

CC: More than fair—it’s a very generous reading! The negotiation between the public (and performative) self and the self-in-solitude—a self without an audience, perhaps—by which you explain Directory’s climax can also apply to A and B and Also Nothing’s insistence on the “partial reveals” of a confessionary mode of writing that yet rejects or evades the modern “individual” of American democratic capitalism and all of its markers (nationality, sex, race, gender, etc.). There’s that moment where “I wish to disclose everything I know” is countered or contradicted with the insistence “not to tell the truth but to tell of the moment truth evacuates into legend.” A related question (or response) might be: to what extent does this attempt to reclaim an autonomous self—an escape from American capitalism’s consumption of bodies—require the tactics and strategies of American capitalism, the “Pac Man consumption of theory and literature” you describe as my preferred mode of composition? And also: if listening—a response that moves beyond hearing, that also attends to the needs, presence, experience(s) of another—is a key component of both of our texts, how does the fact of absence—“no one left to perform to,” as you say—problematize these strategies? If every performance has what we call performance limits (that which a glitch reveals, or produces) is it necessary to move beyond a speaker-audience dialectic (as in storytelling) and toward transmediated activity where static or linear temporal and spatial orders are both reproduced and subverted? I’m struck, even now, by your very first sequence—the eponymous “Directory” duplicated, also, on the back of your book—and the fact that the narrator not only listens to their mother on the phone with strangers, but that they also record the telephone calls. I like to imagine the transcriptions, to compare the recordings with the reality we receive on page.

CL: Yes, unlike Nicholson Baker’s Vox, I went in the opposite direction, so that there’s no direct reproduction of the telephone calls. The device, if you will, of the telephone, of this electrical carrier of language, is a device prone to glitches, to misunderstandings and words omitted, to static and to copying. Listening is a central aspect to both of our books, whether “characters” heed what’s being said is another matter. Yet, the glitches of reproduction, whether electronic or transcriptive, strike me as an essential part of contemporary existence. And, as such, require an audience of at least one. I’m unsure of where this leaves storytelling exactly. For sure, in Directory, something—however nebulous—is being told. The book itself is a performance of narrative and aesthetics, but whether the narrator/s realizes that is another question. In A and B and Also Nothing I kept wondering how much of your book was designed to be in a transcription mode (in that, some of the book has the appearance of mind-to-page transcription) versus (for lacking a better term) a literary mode, where it’s clear the author pays close attention to fierce page-conscious aesthetics, as in the opening pages?

Christopher Linforth, Directory (Otis Books, 2020)

CC: There’s that “note on translation” at the very beginning of the text, which I think provides one clue. Originally, all the items lived in a single envelope, a fact that I think rooted the project, for me, as a call and response, even if I was both sender and recipient. I began to “add” to the book through removal—removing one slip of paper and inserting its sequence into the text, to later be arranged (and arranged and arranged again …) in what I have lately called a combination. Each combination constituted the text at various points in its life–even now, I fantasize about other combinations of the notes, and how these formal modifications might remake A and B and Also Nothing’s narrative. Almost all of the content in the book was produced in the week leading up to February 14, 2017, and I wanted to be very conscious of that “lived-in moment” and to try to retain, as best I could, the “mind-to-page” transcription you point out. When the book was contracted for publication, I added the very last sequence (“nothing”) and that streaming preface that wants to sum up the experience of the book that is to follow without really summarizing anything, except maybe the act of transcription, of copying out. In the book, I think you can identify the moments where *thinking* solidifies into *thought*—all the longer, more narrative moments massaged from actual notes. In some ways—or on some days—I wish I preserved the notebook structure of the original, the flashes of consciousness committed to print on February 14, 2017 (and then on September 11, 2019), without the self-conscious movement toward narrative, or longer, more fleshed-out passages—examples of when thinking concretizes, or ossifies, into finite thought. But I think your question is as much about the materiality of sentences and their dispersal as a question of spaces, intervals, which is a question of timing, tempo.

Your Directory is also such a compact text—no chapter or sequence is longer than three pages, and yet the book begs constant returns. Lately I’ve been thinking about the various uses—and usefulness—of the short or portable book; a book that can be read in a single day, as a single experience; a book more like a music album or a film, where duration—and timing, tempo—becomes an aesthetic experience for the reader. Was the length of Directory, and its composite stories, a conscious decision to retain a mode of transcription, the behavior of the telephonic reproduction that ignites the book’s narrative? A related question: what does the “portable book” offer you as a reader and a writer?

CL: It was while procrastinating on my novel that I wrote Directory. I wanted the book to be short, to beg to be reread, and, as you mention, capable of easily being read in one sitting. The portable book offers accessibility on the time level, while also being a text that can be dipped in to now and again. I fought against making Directory too long. I had visions the project could end up “deliberately boring” like one of Kenneth Goldsmith’s books. I was desperate to avoid his style of appropriating texts and repurposing them into unreadable books. On some level, I tried to make the book entertaining, so actual transcriptions were not going to cut it. The number of stories, which I think is forty or forty-one, offered the potential of the guise of a directory. No one in their right mind should actually read a telephone book or something similar. In A and B and Also Nothing I felt intellectual and emotional and literary pulls to keep reading, to see where it would end up. Did you envisage the types of readers who would read your book? And what they would make of it?

CC: You know, because I had conceived the book as a “presentation”—a recitation in a Ph.D. seminar, and later, a multimedia presentation as part of an “Anti-Conference” conference—I certainly always had an audience in mind, but I thought of such readers as accomplices. And when A and B and Also Nothing became a book, I still harbored fantasies about the text less as a “book” than as a source code that invites readers to contribute more than just their attention or their generosity “to listen.” Although I don’t often think of specific readers or an intended audience when I write, or even when the writing is done and the book made available, I do envision the kind of experience and response I wish to cultivate for the reader, the kind of behavior I would like for them to imitate or counter, which is a mix of consideration and distraction, a productive escape from the text, a reading-at-a-distance that is also highly personal: to bring their own associations and experiences into our correspondence. I like this idea, the freedom, of a book that offers itself to readers as a textual flaneur—the casual now and again attitude of spectatorship which is also about accumulations and intensity—because it allows readers to access the text from different vantage points, in various registers, environments, moods, an itinerant style of reading that builds intimacy between text and reader through duration and interval. I wonder what the editors assigned to our two submissions thought when they double-clicked? Maybe Otis Books wanted to make a unified statement about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, our mutual inclination to name-drop Walter Benjamin—one of his ideas is much beloved by your narrator—and yet we never find out exactly which one. We can consult a directory or we can just decide to listen.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Christopher Linforth is the author of three story collections, The Distortions (Orison Books, 2021), winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize, Directory (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), and When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014).

Image by Louis Botha

Chris Campanioni was born in Manhattan in 1985. He is the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland and the author of six books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James’s The American and Gertrude Stein’s “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work has appeared in Ambit, Nat. Brut, American Poetry Review, Life Writing, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and M/C: Media & Culture, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. Twitter: @chriscampanioni

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 3rd, 2020.