In a letter to Charles Olson on June 5, 1950, the late Robert Creeley wrote that “form is never more than an extension of content.” In her “How To Write” published in 1931, Gertrude Stein claimed “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are.” These two exclamations of style, made in the first half of the 20th century, make problematic any contemporary so-called “experimental” fiction.
David Hoenigman’s book is manifestly “new,” anti-narrative, and anti-dialogue (Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” 1971, springs to mind). “Burn Your Belongings” presses all the right buttons to be branded experimental or modern — and that is the key word: “modern.”
The action of the “novel” takes place in a nameless city, peopled with nameless characters. However, the city is obviously Tokyo and the characters are the I, she, he of a postmodern menage a trois. This is an avant-garde autobiography, written in minimalist sentences, each page containing the space of a paragraph. If I take a passage at random, the style will become apparent:
I can see the backs of their heads. I want to sneak up behind him. whisper in his ear. it never happened. it’s never going to happen.
I’ll review this book. I’ll do it in sentences without commas. without semi-colons. and if you notice I don’t capitalize words. only “I.” not “i.” after a time it reads like a list. but you can’t stop reading. it draws you in.
For all its troubled angst, its inclusivity and exclusivity, this is manifestly a throwback to late “Modernist” techniques. For a “novel” written in the 21st century, its closest antecedents are Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy” (1955): “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week.” And Ron Silliman’s “Sunset Debris” (1978) “Can you feel it? Does it hurt? Is this too soft? Do you like it? Do you like this? Is this how you like it?”
However present the book desires to be, it feels locked in a continual past. The form — single-clause sentences, minimal punctuation, one paragraph per page — does not adhere to the content. Rewritten with added commas, semicolons, question marks and full stops, the narrative becomes a variation of a “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, older man gets girl, boy writes about it” novel — a 21st-century version of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
The narrative is minimalist, monotonous, but at times — like a ticking clock when you’re trying to sleep — it moves from annoying to soothing, the monotony becomes metronomic, rhythmic, it pulls you into its beat until you find yourself moving from page to page, zombie-like, in thrall to the simplistic prose and the accretion of emotion.
Hoenigman has worked with the techno-noise-artist and hypermodern writer Kenji Siratori. In “Burn Your Belongings,” the page creates a kind of static intensity, the words become white noise. Each word is equal in power to the next. The lack of real names, the replacement of proper nouns with common nouns and the absence of dialogue, creates a theoretical space of loss, of unhappiness, of nothingness, out of the simple memory of a relationship. Desire in the narrative is displaced by the object’s disappearance. Emotions are alien and alienated. Where once was harmony now is noise. Where once was communication now is silence. Where once was subject now is other. The I, she, he of the narrative elide and merge. The he is sometimes the desiring I. She is always and forever other.
In his “Poetics of Space” (1958), Gaston Bachelard wrote: “Thus the house is not experienced from day to day only, on the thread of a narrative, or in the telling of our own story. Through dreams, the various dwelling places in our lives copenetrate and retain the treasures of former days.” If this is so, and the house is the page and the novel, then Hoenigman’s “Burn Your Belongings” uses and fuses contemporary Tokyo with autobiography to copenetrate earlier literary experiments.
“Burn Your Belongings” — however dependent on older experimental writing — re-enacts a poetics of space: the rooms with their paper-thin walls, the train stations, the busy streets, the offices, the objects of memory — umbrellas, staircases — pitch memory against the imagination and reality against fantasy. Whether it works as a piece of fiction or not is debatable but Hoenigman’s “novel” is a brave exercise in anti-narrative, a reminder to us that there is more to writing and reading than best-sellers.