“It is said that books have no life. But who has ever proved the insensibility of the inorganic world? Who knows if a book doesn’t also aspire, in a strange way we cannot apprehend, to the company of other books in the society of which it has lived for a long time? We call them dead matter. But what is dead has lived. Books are more important than animals, more important than human beings.”– Christine Brooke-Rose, Textermination
This is a fantastic book once you know what’s going on. I would best describe it as literary criticism dressed up as fiction. Fictional characters from both literature and film interact in present-day California at a conference where the book characters meet to pray for their continued existence in the reader’s mind. There are real life journalists sent to cover the event but, obviously to us, they are also fictional. It’s quite an adventurous undertaking but one carried out very well.
We know these characters, at least some of them, we know their stories but we see them in an unfamiliar setting. Questions arise as we see characters from different books and eras interacting with each other:
“Who talks to who? And all the dropouts of today, can they meet any but each other, Holden Caulfield and Lazarillo and Lucky Jim?”
It’s satire and it does have several truly funny exchanges. Beneath the satire lies the true fear of classics eventually sitting unread; how many forgotten books are out there?
“But what is survival? Derrida or someone said survival is a quality that starts at the beginning of life, sounds damn deterministic, a character or an author has it long before he actually dies and survives. So why are there so many false reputations, great names, great books hailed as modern classics that sink into oblivion after a generation, a decade even? And those ignored that are then later discovered to have had that survival quality? Perhaps they had it all the time, merely, it wasn’t felt.”
A lot of literary characters and events are mentioned in the book, and there are so many I didn’t recognize so I think this just reiterates Brooke-Rose’s point that characters are dead because we aren’t reading them. I get the impression that the more of the classics one has read, the more enjoyable the read will be as it will be easier to get the references.
This wasn’t a quick read but it was a wonderful reading experience. It’s thought-provoking. It’s a fun read. Questions asked that I never would have considered. The state of a fictional character: are they alive only in a reader’s mind? Is the reader God, and does the character need them to stay alive?
I appreciated the philosophical discussions in particular the one about deconstructivism, and also the criticism about the literary canon (little ethnic diversity, too few female authors, see the #weneeddiversebook hashtag on Twitter). This book will encourage you to read more widely and that’s definitely a good thing.
The only way to save the text and therefore the characters is by reading it. I’m encouraged to revive some of the old classics from my shelves, maybe the characters will thank me.
One minor criticism: I wasn’t a fan of the large sections of untranslated German, Spanish etc. Still, I am giving the book full marks for creativity, great writing, for making me think, and for managing to include my favourite televison detective, Columbo!