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What’s in a Name But Letters? Embodied Books in Three

By Jordan Harrison-Twist.

Marcel Duchamp, “Rotorelief No. 3 – Lanterne Chinoise – Modèle Déposé” (verso) (1935)GIF via televandalist.com


I’m only a string of noises after all.

Enclosed between the bared breasts and buttocks of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is a string of noises, one that might hold pearls for an illicit liaison in the shadows; one that contains even deep within the avowal itself the assonance of intercourse—I’m only a string of noises after all—I / oh / ah / I / oi / ah / auh—and yet, the character, this Lonesome Wife, in the TriQuarterly First Edition, 1968, seduces not with her body as she is touched, because she has no body to flaunt, (and her breasts and her buttocks are manipulations to draw you into her), but she seduces with her copy, her body copy, and her eyes are dotted and her teeth are crossed and her spine is exposed and her covers uncovered—for, her husband, her poet, is inattentive; she is language, and she longs to be read.

William H. Gass’s 1968 novella is a peculiar artefact, and difficult to quote. Any attempt compels one to ask first who am I quoting?—littered as it is with alienated voices, names, characters; unannounced switches of speaker; split texts and cut-ups. It also has no page numbers, not that they would help ordering the book’s incongruity. It is undoubtedly a metafictional novel, a term evolved from the less positive epithet the ‘anti-novel’—the characteristics of which are listed in J. A. Cuddon’s A Dictionary of Literary Terms:

little attempt to create an illusion of realism or naturalism for the reader […] lack of an obvious plot; diffused episode; minimal development of character; detailed surface analysis of objects; many repetitions; innumerable experiments with vocabulary, punctuation and syntax; variations of time sequence; alternative beginnings and endings.[1]

By exhibiting these characteristics, the novel becomes a moment of autocritique, and parades its scars of artificial creation. In the case of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, the novella flashes with cosmetic graphology, with changing typefaces, font sizes and weights, orientation, paragraph style and shape. And this self-consciousness is mirrored at the narrative level as Babs Masters experiences herself coming into being (‘coming’ being the operative word) in an embrace with the mind of the reader: ‘I feel sometimes as if I were imagination… —imagination imagining itself imagine’.

When in 1967, Roland Barthes published his essay The Death of the Author about the self-determination of a text after its flight from its creator, he imbued the text with a sense of mobility, to escape the networked trenches of an author’s biography. Published a year later, Babs, in Gass’s book, doesn’t kill the author to leave his cadaver amongst the correlations of history, so much as she cuckolds him, lifting his chin as she couples with readers in exotic and improbable positions. Gass celebrates the virility of language as it spills into promiscuity—not affording the text sexual agency so much as sexual deviancy. In this sense, another of Barthes’s essays The Pleasure of the Text (1973), switches its subject of pleasure from the reader to the read.

If making love is the metaphor chosen by Gass to illustrate the tripartite relationship between reader, writer, and text, and if one imagines the quest for comprehension to be the substitute for orgasm, then he also weighs in to extinguish any sense of transcendence. In an interview with Thomas LeClair in 1977, Gass explains his attachment to formalism as a sort of dropped portcullis—his arthritic father mourned the loss of his baseball career by driving his mother to drink, and in so doing forced Gass to take such seemingly arbitrary steps as changing his handwriting to a staid Germanic ‘barbed-wire’ graphology. To Gass, this was a transformation of the only thing about him he admired: his making of words. He was, sharing a sadism with Lonesome Wife, ‘[stuffing] another tongue in [his] mouth’.[2] The irony of the novella is that Babs is enclosed in a naked skin which is not her own. This alien erotic body is her cage—as a word might be to a change of handwriting. Even in those instances when she seems to flow from the page, away from Gass’s pen (in both senses of the word), he pulls back the chain—the author becomes authoritarian. A short intimate passage in which Babs alludes to Descartes’s dualism between mind and body—‘you are your body […] and the poet is his language’—concludes with her exchanging her idea of a breastbone with the sound ul — ‘that’s very full that sound. Ulllllll. How do you feel it? How about ul instead of your breast bone?’

Ul is an immanent sound. It is in ulcer, vulva, ululations, muscular, gulp; backwards in look and lungs and love. Babs is making sculptures of onomatopoeia, hoping they are so arranged to become corporeal. She longs for phonemes to become flesh, glottal bodies, but within this plea for transformation is despair. The wordsmith’s tongue is used not to kiss her, only to speak her, to condemn her to the book.

A bare leg toes tentatively from the page-side, and with Babs nowhere to be seen in this address, Gass writes to us directly: ’The muddy circle you see before you and below you represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup’—beneath which, the printed representation of a brown stain surrounds the words Dante’s seventh circle.

Inasmuch as it describes the movement of planetary bodies, the ring is the resting face of the universe. But as Babs falls silent with the arrival of this motif, which draws attention to the surface and thinness and absorbency of the page, it calls to mind the ring of allegiance in marriage, or a terrible signifier of domestic violence—‘the name a man has all his life must do something to him, just as no woman, poor thing, at her birth, receives the name she’ll—wedded—go to bed with. Language’s consummation occurs never on its own terms, and it is not the same once it is fucked.

Historically (in surrealism, for instance) women have been presented as both muse—I’d made him see my love entire in a vision—and the art itself. True animus is never granted by the artist-poet; instead it is held in abeyance, in formaldehyde, in broken joints; captured and bottled, or bent into agreeable or manageable shape. In Gass’s book, away from her controlling coffee-drinking Master, in the ever-lengthening footnotes, Babs begins to conduct her affair. Now that I’ve got you alone down here, you bastard, she chides, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily.[3] But as the footnotes pile up, and the barbed snakes of asterisks wriggle from margin to margin, they evoke the removal of expletives—as if her real intentions are censored by her author.

Asterisks when used this way are words denuded or obfuscated or euphemised. To fuck is to fuck and some—with an editorial moral judgment appended: it is to fuck even though I know it to be wrong. But, language, in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, seemingly needn’t always be this way; no, the language of Shakespeare (which Gass spells Shakespere owing to the late 20th Century fixing of the more familiar spelling) is so rich it has the power to literally materialise: ’so that the sight and sound sun, in Shakespere, is warm and orange and greater than the page it lies on’. The book sweats with the contingency of language: of both the freedom and the boundaries of the pen; of the infinite potential of the sentence, and the sentence which condemns and imprisons forever.

Within Shakespere is espere, the French for to hope. This is the ingredient denied to Babs Masters, from an author, as most, unable to bestow the agency of Shakespeare. ‘What’s in a name but letters, eh?’ It appears there is much. Babs Masters’s forename Barbara contains bars; her surname — to whom she is beholden.


Sergeant Pluck searches for the name of his detainee.

‘Are you completely doubtless that you are nameless?’ he asked.
‘Positively certain’.
‘Would it be Mick Barry?’
‘Charlemagne O’Keeffe?’
‘Sir Justin Spens?’
‘Not that.’
‘Bernard Fann?’
‘Joseph Poe or Nolan?’
‘One of the Garvins or the Moynihans?’
‘Not them.’
‘Rosencranz O’Dowd?’
‘Would it be O’Benson?’
‘Not O’Benson.’
‘The Quigleys, the Mulrooneys or the Hounimen?’
‘The Hardimen or the Merrimen?’
‘Not them.’
‘Peter Dundy?’
‘Lord Brad?’
‘Not him.’
‘The O’Growneys, the O’Roartys or the Finnehys?’


‘My name is not Jenkins either […]’
‘Roger MacHugh?’
‘Not Roger.’
‘Sitric Hogan?’
‘Not Conroy?’
‘Not O’Conroy?’
‘Not O’Conroy.’

This extraordinary exchange between two characters in Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman (1967) sets out in microcosm a governing law of the universe he creates—that of defining litotes: that people are only the opposites of what they are not. Built on tectonics of infinite regress, as phenomena are inflated to the unimaginably large and reduced to the imperceptibly tiny, the universe traversed by our nameless narrator sweats with a troubling sense of futility: he is in motion always, looking to escape the nightmarish barracks in which he finds himself captive, and yet he is utterly stationary, unable to reach the ever-retreating horizon. The premises and physical constants to which human beings are accustomed are reversed here: existence is predicated on the ownership of a name, and thus the nameless narrator cannot, even with the help of the eponymous policemen, retrieve a watch supposedly stolen from him—for without a name, how could he be living, and if he were not living, then how could he own a watch?

There is a recognisable logic at work in the absurdity of The Third Policeman, but it sidesteps and shifts shape to obfuscate the experiences of the narrator. Nevertheless, the lingering of Reality, in this diluted state, ensures that the final twist of the novel retains its shock value. We eventually discover that the narrator is dead, and he roams an afterlife, tormented for his transgressions: the murder of Old Man Mathers and the acquisition of his fortune.

In O’Brien’s depiction of nightmare, he does not dredge up monsters from the depths of the unconscious, nor does torment take the form of specialised machines, designed to stretch or maim; instead, nightmare is formed in the disintegration of the novel—with the uprooting of narrative yardsticks, such as the passage of time, the shape and size of material, and the naming of characters and things.

Time passes, indeed, but in several conflicting ways. We do experience a number of days, and we know this because the narrator seems obsessed with unimaginative descriptions of the morning-time, and how it illuminates the (rural and quite mundane) landscape: ‘Clouds of white and grey pillowed [the sky] and on its soft shoulder trees and boulders were put pleasingly to make it true. I could hear a morning wind making its way indomitably throughout the world […]’.

In fact the morning-descriptions are so hackneyed that they become annoying, like being awoken from deep sleep by a squawk of proselytising sentiment. But, it is mornings which return us to a harmonious existence with our world, just as they deliver us from nightmares. In the novel, this axis of the morning, about which the days and nights’ nonsense spin, is complicated by a recurring sense of vagueness which O’Brien breathes into the passage of time in the plot. It is as if the morning is soiled with the smog of a hangover.

‘I was born a long time ago’ the narrator notes on the first page, and immediately, this indeterminacy removes the numbers from the clock-face of the novel, just as, later, the loss of the narrator’s watch removes the big and little hands. The result, at the conclusion of the novel, is that as readers, we are as reliant on descriptions of the morning as the narrator for our dislocated grasp of the passage of time.

The unfastening of hours becomes a shifting of days when the narrator reports his stolen watch to the grotesque Sergeant Pluck. He is told ‘this is not today, this is yesterday’—a smokescreen which begins the narrator’s inability to anticipate or recall any useful detail of his life. Later, he is introduced to the Eternal Present—a place which palpably exists in this universe—a place where cigarettes burn forever and beards do not grow. What is learned in Eternity, for readers, too, is that the experience of time’s arrow is a relative phenomenon. It is encapsulated in O’Brien’s earlier novel At Swim-Two-Birds (1939): ‘the tense of the body is the present indicative; but the soul has a memory and a present and a future’—the peduncle from which the wildly popular television series Lost (2004–10) was unfurled.

When the narrator escapes the barracks on a bicycle, he returns home to meet his accomplice John Divney and claim Mathers’s prize. He learns that twenty years have passed since he left, for Divney now has a family. On our redirected timeline, only a few days have elapsed. With this final shock, in O’Brien’s parsing of time into separate planes, he calls to mind the two competing durations of all narration: that of the time it takes for the narrative to iterate itself, for the transferral from the page to the mind; and that of the time passing in the story. The long list of names with which I began this section, with its repetitive structure of question / negation, question / negation, question / negation, stretches a faulty premise—I am certain I am nameless—into the seemingly infinite interrogation of that certainty. Its sheer length slows the passage of narrative time to a halt. O’Brien uses this idea of stretching into the formless infinite again when the narrator finds a magnifying glass which expands an image so large as to be unrecognisable; and in reverse, in contracting into the infinitesimal, with the exchange of particles between human beings and their bicycles (in what is known as ‘The Atomic Theory’). The result in both cases is a double-displacement: the narrator from his grasp of real time and his reliance on his senses, and us from our vicarious association with him.

In The Third Policeman, material objects lose their sanctity, too: in solids, latticed arrangements of atoms are disfigured into a sort of plasmatic flow. The barracks themselves are distinctly there, as the narrator tries his utmost to describe them, but objects are visually defined by where their boundaries lie, and the barracks seem to flicker, like a shadow—existing, but tethered to their negative. Zooming out, O’Brien also questions the novel’s very construction, as running parallel to the story is a meta-anthology of the crackpot musings of the fictional thinker de Selby, and then parallel to that, the considerations of de Selby’s commentators. These are asides to asides, and they serve to flip the pages over at right-angles, to realign the roles of the characters as leading, secondary, and supplementary.

There are further divisions: on a philosophical level, as characters’ bodies interact with their souls, and flesh interacts with prostheses; and on the narrative level, in the “second policeman” Sergeant MacCruiskeen’s sense-defying inventions: a point so thin it can imperceptibly pass through the body; a machine which transfigures sound into light; a music box which only plays in so high a pitch as to be inaudible, and a chest which contains copies of itself in progressively smaller sizes until invisible (which serves as a material counterpoint to the narrator’s metaphysical musing that souls might have souls of their own, and onward ad infinitum).

In many cases the most memorable instances of the material/immaterial cataract are the inventions, as they are fast to a sound grasp of physics—as it takes light a certain time to pass between reflections, de Selby’s invention allows one, by looking into a series of mirrors, to see oneself in the past. But in much the same way as these inventions are absurdist technologies, O’Brien ensures that the technology of language itself is subject to this same treatment of tautening and engorging, of exploding and castrating, and repeating, and repeating.

Words have their own firmness wrote Susan Sontag, suggesting that thoughts receive an imprint of validity when on the page. So O’Brien’s critique of legal jargon and cliché is well-conceived, because it almost slips by unnoticed, disguised in the clothes it seeks to tear off. Vice versa contrarily, says Sergeant Pluck in self-fellating tautology; circumambiency, equiponderance and equitableness, and negative nullity neutralised, in much the same way. In Hell, the meat of the sentence—the force or intention of its utterance—is strung up and forced to rot, or cannibalise itself. The remaining words, which engender the obsessions of the policemen, sit like half-eaten vegetables and smears of dried gravy on a plate. Bicycles, teeth, pancakes—in whatever combination they arrive, the accoutrements are always strangers to one another.

Hell, we learn in conclusion, is the passing of a sentence.


When the French dandy author Raymond Roussel who so inspired Marcel Duchamp’s pun-baked readymades was asked to name the characters in his stories, he often returned the manuscript with place-holding initials, sometimes even asking the typesetters to fill in the blanks themselves. Later he would amend the suggestions, but the process is similar to returning a moving ball—as the added spin reacts to the revolutions of the ball received.

King Tombola, Captain Compass and Messrs. Volcano, Waistcoat, Urban, Cigar, and Balance are paired with Soup, Embroidery, Horsehair, and Gully. These are an array of names arrived at by Roussel, and they can be described as a bid to demarcate the genders by a lazy procession of symbolic motifs. But there are more fascinating name-games in Roussel’s oeuvre. In his novel Impressions d’Afrique (1910), we are introduced to Bob Boucharessas, whose name, as elucidated in the Translator’s Notes of another of Roussel’s books, is probably derived from the child’s ability to imitate musical instruments, animals, and vehicles: bouche in French means mouth, and à ressasse: repeats.[4] Roussel’s choices exhibit a degree of self-mockery—Captain Compass is a shorthand straight out of children’s literature; King Tombola sounds like a swipe at the pot-luck of the monarchy — but his choices are also rebuses, hiding within them the characteristics of his actors, or, in his simplistic mirroring of gendered symbols, a clue to his special method of writing itself. His method, named procédé, was laid out posthumously in the book from which the aforementioned Translator’s Notes appear, which he called How I Wrote Certain of My Books, and in which he laid out his secret.

That the Surrealists adored Roussel is fitting. His writing is dreamlike: a supernova, compressing disks of incongruous matter into something hot and dense, which in turn folds in everything else that surrounds it as it becomes enduringly massive—an all-encompassing monolith of embattled images:

Over quite an extensive area human teeth were placed at intervals in all directions, displaying a great variety of shapes and colours […] the teeth were densely grouped so as to form a veritable picture […] The whole represented a warrior drowsing in a dark crypt, suprawled out on the bank of a subterranean pool. A tenuous puff of smoke begotten by the sleeper’s brain showed, as if in a dream, eleven young men half-crouching, stricken with terror inspired by an almost-transparent aerial globe… [5]

The Surrealists attributed Roussel’s almost unassailable banks of description to the work of the unconscious, but in a sense, his blinding inspiration was beholden to the strictures of the minute mechanics of language, and so is far more conscious, more disciplined, and inevitable, than it might appear. Roussel, used procéde in many of his works to locate rimes de faits, or, rhymes for events. This could take several forms, but one of the main tributaries was the technique of taking a phrase containing two words, each with a double meaning, and using the most unconventional combination as the genus of a story: thus maison à espagnolettes [house with window latches] became the basis for a royal family (or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twins. Another was simply to draw out near-rhyming words: thus singulier [singular] and pluriel [plural] became Saint Julius and pelure [peel]. And still another was shaping sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to adhere to a sort of palindromic shape—so they would be almost symmetrical, with first lines similar in sound and construction to final lines.

Roussel’s masterpiece Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932) uses quite another generative and degenerative technique. It is a poem in four cantos, split over a labyrinth of nested parentheses. Like a chain reaction, one word instigates another parallel derailment into the hermetic capsule of brackets, to the extent that a reader can find oneself lost in a thicket five sets-deep ((((())))) before a long and flummoxing return to the outermost and sparsest reaches of the stanza. Absolute poise and balance with Roussel might take the most seemingly chaotic appearance.

There is a theory of the philologist Max Müller that myths are the result of the disease of language—that the strangeness and silliness of myths is a sort of defect born from the misconfiguration of their constituent code. Roussel managed to mutate this: the threat of mistranslation becomes a thread of mistranslation—(as Roland Barthes wrote of quotation) a tissue or texture or fabric. And in the disentanglement of this fabric, Roussel pulled a singular thread with which he formed a picture on the floor in spirals and circles—of the art of writing, and imagination itself. It was imagination imagining itself imagine.

After all, only the noises of string, I am.


[1] J. A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Fifth Edition, (UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 43.

[2] https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3576/william-gass-the-art-of-fiction-no-65-william-gass

[3] As long as I grin at you, spit on you, piss on you, continue to hate […] then I’ve got you deep inside me like they say in the songs, fast as a ship in antarctic ice.

[4] Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, trans. Rupert Copeland Cuningham, (London: Alma Classics, 2008), p. 165.

[5] Roussel, Locus Solus, p. 19.


Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer based in Manchester, UK, and an editor at iiii Magazine.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 20th, 2018.