Searching for Utopia

[i didn’t really expect to post this post – not now, not here.  it was written for another blog and another purpose.  but i think it kind of feels at home here, and i’ll tell you why.  lots of lovely readers (such as Alakananda Mookerjee, Fleur Beaupert, and Believe in Utopia) have, naturally, been asking me to recommend some good utopian fiction – and it’s a tough question because i’m still searching for an answer myself.

i’ve scheduled some essays to go out on sundays at 10.30am, which explore the utopian drive in literary fiction as i understood it when i was studying for my MA in creative and critical writing.  but it’s not necessarily the kind of fiction that people are expecting when they ask you to recommend utopian fiction.

so when i read Futures, by Ken Edwards, recently, and decided to write a kind of hybrid review-cum-mini-essay about it (which may not really hit either note cleanly) i wasn’t going to post it here, but now i think, why not?

this year i’ll be mining the small presses for experimental writing and utopian fiction – and Edwards’ Futures is a great example of a piece of literature that works in both ways.  it really does explore the idea of a future (something that most readers would expect from so-called ‘utopian’ fiction) and it also engages some of the utopian drives that Ernst Bloch identifies at the really utopian in a text.

what this post also does, is respond to my PhD research in the beginnings of a kind of live-blogging way, although it’s not so raw, or so live, as i’d like to aim for.  but i’ve been encouraged by Bajin to write and publish my responses wherever i’m at.

so if you’d like a good recommendation for a piece of utopian fiction that’s worth a read, or you’re interested in experimental writing, or you want to see how i’m responding to my PhD research right now: please read on]

Futures: Ken Edwards – Reality Street Press, 1998

‘If the past was a source of unnamed horror, then only the future offered hope.  She had to trust the future.’ (Futures: 58)

Futures tells the story of Eye, who resolves to construct her own future after her past is taken from her by trauma.  Eye’s resulting shock effectively creates a rift between her own past and her future – a rift she inhabits like a nomad, wandering through a world whose pieces no longer seem to fit together.  In this void, Eye discovers the freedom to choose her own path, as she gains the strength of presence to decide whether and how she wants those pieces to fit together for her.

Set within cities and landscapes both familiar and disturbingly de-familiarised, at an unspecified time, Futures explores a range of utopian themes in addition to the relationships between past, present and future, including the relationships between subject and object, self and other, inside and outside, consciousness and unconsciousness, presence and absence.  Its narrative is experimental in form, structure and content, and it became the first book to be published in Reality Street’s Narrative Series which has to date published 15 experimental prose texts to complement the press’s extensive range of experimental poetry books.

Edwards, co-founder of the press and author of Futures, has clearly always had a passionate interest in experimental writing and his first work of prose fiction doesn’t disappoint, either in terms of experimental literature or in terms of utopian theory, and it’s through these two lenses that I’ve approached the text.

Futures is an intelligently written exploration of the traumatic relationship between past, present and future, which brilliantly inhabits the trauma and confusion of the present moment throughout the text.  Utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch describes the ‘darkness of the immediately experienced moment’ and the utopian desire to illuminate or penetrate this darkness with full consciousness of the immediate moment and its relationship to what is ‘not-yet-conscious’ (1988: xxxi).  Taking H.G. Wells’ utopian novel The Time Machine as a source of inspiration, Edwards’ Futures could be described as a narrative exploration of that utopian quest.

As Eye contemplates the moment, she considers its elusive presence: ‘she felt it was like her brain, wiped of memory, which is asymmetrical, that is, referring only to the past, was waiting to be nudged into awareness of the whole thing.  Just an edge away.  Nudged out of its onward equilibrium’ (40).  At this point in the text, Eye seems to be directly experiencing the ‘darkness of the immediately experienced moment’, since without an awareness of the past or future her present lacks context.  It is unknowable to her.  Later, she considers that ‘Perhaps it’s the present, what’s the word, transfigured.  What transfigures it is what you can’t describe, because you can’t know it’ (91).

This idea that the future transfigures the present through its unknowability is akin to Bloch’s utopian desire.  Every moment becomes a threshold: the meeting point between the lost/traumatic past and the unknowable future.  The moment in itself cannot be apprehended or perceived, only transfigured by the awakening of its future moment.  Eye says, ‘something is always happening for the first and last time’ (19), and the novel itself is an extended exploration of that moment of presence which is unknowable to itself yet is transformed by its own unknown future.

Structurally, the novel experiments with a distorted circularity – episodes and language are repeated with shifting resonances throughout the text.  The narrative, like the wheels of Eye’s bicycle, encircles itself to move forward so that the book’s future is its past which in turn becomes its future.  To me, it’s kind of a linear circularity.  It manages to avoid becoming trapped within its own cycles, and therefore becoming obsolete through its own negation, by continuing its forward momentum.  The forward momentum itself, however, avoids the inevitability of a teleological (end-focused) narrative structure through its constant cyclical returns and shifting degrees of progress.

This structural experimentation mirrors one of the central themes of the text: at what point and by what means do we arrive at the ‘future’, and how do we know when we’ve got there?  The character John Newman describes ‘futures’ as ‘[t]he absence of an absence … The ghost of a ghost’.  Bloch suggests that utopia is both ‘in the process of being’ (15) and ‘not-yet-conscious’ (xxxi).  Edwards captures this paradox effectively in his structural experimentation, which largely comes across as seamlessly integral to the text, rather than a strained effort at experimentation extraneous to the narrative.

Early on in the text, we encounter the blurring of the boundaries between subject and object, self and other, as the third person narrative voice dips in and out of Eye’s own interior consciousness when the narrator asks, ‘Was Eye scared at losing her past?’ then swiftly answers, ‘No, not scared.’  The narrative voice speaks both of and for Eye, and of course the protagonist’s own name further complicates the boundaries between writer, narrator, reader and character with its pronunciation as ‘I’.  The eye may be a window onto the external world, a sense receptor that brings the exterior world into the interior consciousness, or perhaps even a window into the soul.  It’s a threshold between the internal and the external, but it functions to bring each into the other until the distinction isn’t clear.

This figure becomes suggestive of a hybridised subject position, a position that is emptied of specified subjectivity, occupying a space of possibility between subject and object that opens up opportunities for multiplicity and breaks down the boundaries between self and other.  Bloch suggests that, ‘[b]oth factors, the subjective as well as the objective, have to be understood in their continuous dialectical interplay, inseparable, impossible to isolate’ (109).  For Bloch, part of the utopian function of a work of art or literature is to facilitate the ‘self-encounter’ (100) between the subject and the object and to illuminate the inseparability of one from the other, of self from other.  It is the work of art or literature itself that becomes the space for this encounter in which the distance between self and other is infinitely reduced.

The lines between interiority and exteriority are often complicated in the text: dialogue is often not marked with the usual punctuation, at times making it a continuous stream with the narrative voice, yet at other times dialogue is presented in script form, making it almost entirely separate from the stream of narration.

As Peter Boxall suggests in his exploration of hybrid subjectivities in Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction (2013), ‘the collapse of the boundaries that separate one person from the next, that separate the inside from the outside, is the mark of a narrative which is seeking to move beyond itself, to exceed its own limits’ (140).  Equally, the text that collapses the boundaries between writer and reader, facilitating the self-encounter through its own open spaces, exceeds its own limits in striving for the Novum, the space of ‘startling and unpredictable new’ possibilities (Bloch: xxxvii).

There are times in the text when the authorial voice threatens to interrupt the narrative flow and pull the reader from a direct experience of the story.  But these moments are few, and when they do occur, they serve to highlight the indistinct boundaries between writer, narrator, character and reader that are explored so sensitively elsewhere throughout the novel.

And yet, as I’ve suggested, for all its formal experimentation, Futures rarely loses sight of the narrative that drives it forward.  It’s a compelling story that can be read on many levels.  At its heart, it follows Eye on her bicycle as she is ‘cycling into the future’ (70) trying to piece together the fragments of her past.

 

A note on the publisher:

Reality Street has a reputation for supporting and publishing contemporary experimental writing in the UK: beginning life as Reality Studios, a monthly newsletter, in 1978 dedicated to printing experimental literature and reviews that transcended localised boundaries which featured writing by and about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Kathy Acker, Lyn Hejinian, Ken Edwards, Robert Hampson, Maggie O’Sullivan, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk and many others.  The newsletter ran for ten years from 1978 until 1988, and every issue has been digitally collected and made available for download via Jacket2 (https://jacket2.org/reissues/reality-studios).

Bibliography:

Bloch, E. (1988).  The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenberg.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Boxall, P. (2013).  Twenty-First Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, K. (1998).  Futures.  Hastings: Reality Street.

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5 thoughts on “Searching for Utopia

    1. Yes it’s true. But utopia has a double meaning – ‘utopia’, strictly translated from the Latin, means ‘no place’ – an unobtainable landscape that is neither here nor there. The sense of utopia as perfect place would strictly be spelled ‘eutopia’. So the name utopia plays upon itself, its perfection is unobtainable, always out of reach. Ernst Bloch, utopian philosopher of the twentieth century, describes utopia as ‘not-yet-conscious’ – the hope of something we have to aim for, but the realisation that we will always fall short in our endeavour to reach it / or it will always fall short in its ability to live up to our expectations. It’s what keeps the world moving forward in its striving for something better, and it’s what ensures that we never stop striving.

      But yes, like I said, it’s difficult to pin down a genre of fiction that does exactly what everyone expects in terms of creating a perfect utopia – I’ve tried writing like that, and it ends up pretty boring without any real narrative thrust. For me, the utopian is in the drive towards perfection, rather than necessarily the arrival at it.

      There’s lots of literature that has that drive, without necessarily being set in what we might think of as a utopian world. I’m interested in trying to write my own kind of fiction that does both – being set in a recognisable utopia, but still maintaining a utopian narrative drive. But i’m just as interested in exploring the utopian narrative/poetic drive in more mundane, and even dystopian/tragic settings and conditions. In fact, it’s pretty much the dystopian/mundane setting that can allow for the utopian drive to arise.

      Films such as Avatar, though, for me, make an excellent kind of story that’s both set in a recognisably utopian setting and still maintains a utopian narrative drive for perfection.

      For me, the Time Machine has some, or most, of these qualities, even though it doesn’t end in the perfect utopia. But I think that’s the point – if it ended in the perfect utopia, perhaps there’d be nothing left to live for..?

  1. Thanks for the recommendation – Futures sounds fascinating. I wondered the same thing about The Time Machine. And made the incorrect assumption that ‘utopian’ fiction would be strictly about a perfect world. It’s eye-opening to discover that the base meaning is ‘no place’. I guess there’s also an interesting conflict in much literature considered dystopian in that the plot often involves people striving for what they consider to be a perfect world, but that seriously misses the mark and creates all sorts of injustices. It seems like with utopian fiction there is maybe a different emphasis? Anyway, I am looking forward to doing some reading and learning more.

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