HEADLESS WORLD, November, 2022 McPherson.
Ascher/Straus' final novel, HEADLESS WORLD, was just published (November 10, 2022)! It can be ordered from any bookseller in the usual way or directly from McPherson & Co. Please also request it at your local library so those who can't afford to own it will be able to read it.
The first serious review of HEADLESS WORLD is in the Spring issue of the literary-critical journal RAIN TAXI. We don't know if it can be read online, but to get a copy those interested can find it via Google: RAIN TAXI PRINT EDITION SPRING 2023. That will take you to Rain Taxi 's website where the listing for VOLUME 28 NO. 1 SPRING 2023 (#109)
can be found along with ordering information. The review is by Alvin Lu, himself a distinguished author of innovative fiction.
On June 20, 2023 HEADLESS WORLD was listed as a finalist for the 2022 BIG OTHER Book Award for Fiction.
We just learned (May 11, 2023) from the publisher that HEADLESS WORLD was awarded the bronze IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) prize, specifically the bronze award in VISIONARY/NEW AGE LITERARY FICTION.
HEADLESS WORLD is a finalist for the FOREWORD REVIEWS LITERARY FICTION award for "Books that emphasize the quality of the prose . . . excellent writing, originality of thought and style that raise it above the level of ordinary written works." https://www.forewordreviews.com/awards/finalists/2022/literary/
To read the Authors Guild "Member Spotlight" for HEADLESS WORLD go to https://authorsguild.org/member-spotlights/member-spotlight-sheila-ascher-dennis-straus-ascher-straus/
A brief feature about HEADLESS WORLD can be found on Columbia University's "Columbia Alumni Bookshelf" [https://www.alumni.columbia.edu/content/headless-world).
The 30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION of THE OTHER PLANET was published in softcover by McPherson in September, 2018. It has a foreword by Stephen Beachy that's an intelligent introduction to the book and a thoughtful overview of our work.
A dual literary/autobiographical essay by Sheila and Dennis was published in Exile (Vol. 43 No. 4). Please read at https://www.exilequarterly.com/product/volume-43-4/
Red Moon/Red Lake was just published (its fourth time in print), the week of 2-21-22, as part of a retrospective re-printing in one massive two volume boxed set of the original 1980's TOP STORIES series by Primary Information, Brooklyn NY.
Sheila Ascher and I never wanted to write (or weren't capable of writing) a traditional autobiographical note so originally wrote this:
"ASCHER/STRAUS=Sheila Ascher & Dennis Straus. We don't write together in the literal sense, but do in every other sense. We edit each other's writing (allow no other editing) and we publish jointly without saying who initiated what. To distinguish 'who wrote what' is to bow to someone else's idea of authorship, no more acceptable than bowing to a narrow idea of what fiction can be.
We've pursued an unusual degree of personal invisibility and there would be no web site if we thought that would end here (we hope to hide here in plain sight). One way or another what matters in our biographies is in our work: by chronicling what's not in the mirror but is the life we live or by finding narrative codes for the self.
A long, invisible history of creating narrative outside traditional boundaries (of form, of publication, even of binding) is present in the four novels (Hank Forest's Party, ABC Street, The Menaced Assassin, The Other Planet) and the volume of related stories (Red Moon/Red Lake) that are traditionally published. (There is an entire history of publication, documented event/performance and so on attached to our earlier work).
In the late 70's/early 80's, largely in an art context, we created a series of novels we called SPACE NOVELS that used a variety of public spaces (from galleries to air fields) as bindings or structuring principles. (Funding came from Poets & Writers, the National Parks Service, the American Crafts Council and so on.) Our idea was to create a new kind of un-bound novel, transparent and porous between writer and reader.
Our early thinking about fiction, and art in general, particularly about its position between writer and reader and the ways in which the life of writer and reader (down to the ambient, intrusive event while reading or writing) can or cannot be included or suggested, has mutated over the years but never left us entirely. (ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party are its direct descendants.) That thinking and our love of the kind of philosophical narrative not thought to be 'American' has probably driven us out of the mainstream. (We have a talent for making decisions that place us on the outside of any given inside, even ones that would seem to be in tune with us.)"
The closest we've come to sharing our autobiographies before now is in our essay "My (Our) Five" for Exile magazine (43.4).
But now that Sheila died (in December of 2020) I feel compelled to share more about our life together and about Sheila and myself. Not to write again what we and I (after December 2020) have already written the simplest thing to do is to share the Bio Note our publisher, McPherson & Co., asked us to write for possible use in promoting Headless World.
Here's a tinfoil packet of instant, powdered autobiography. Just add red wine or coffee ice cream soda to bring us back to life.
Love of being together and love of reading and of writing were what sustained us for sixty-plus years, with a shared awareness that we couldn't be happy living or writing according to conventional ideas of living and writing or by following common, logical paths dictated to those of us without money but with the ambition to accomplish something of significance. Our shared need for personal freedom and lifelong romantic idealism (where did it come from in both of us with such different, but working class childhoods?) about writing as art and art as a calling not a career fueled our love of being together from the beginning till now: the romantic, idealistic and impractical view that the need for safety and comfort is fatal for art and freedom. We saw the common, almost automatic choice of life as a writer/professor as a way to live securely and in an appealing world of mutual respect and affirmation, but with a flavor we found alien and against our grain. We shared a need to live out in the randomness of "the floating world", with the magnified difficulty of finding ways to make art out of what's chaotic, fleeting, overheard and observed through self-made discipline and dedication.
We also lived a rich, complex life — many lives in one — as if we had money, an enduring mystery I can give some true and logical explanations for, but not entirely. I can say this simply: in the first place we consciously promised ourselves not to be a "La Boheme"-type story, with the melancholy or tragic ending society always seems to have enjoyed as the price for tolerating the artist's perceived freedom from the pleasure-killing limitations of convention, the artist's happiness in love and work.
Sheila and I both come from working class families (Sheila's a good and supportive one, mine an awful, perfectly unsupportive one) and we left graduate school after the Master's degrees we were determined to get because no one in our families had ever dreamed of such a thing and because we were interested in what we were studying and writing about (Dostoyevsky for Sheila, William Blake for me).
We had no money, but after a while found ways to live as if we did.
Whenever we've been asked to write autobiographically we've written mostly about our work. "Because we're writers and our writing is our most important autobiographical fact with a great deal of autobiography coded in it" is the simplest answer, but of course not a complete or completely honest one. I can say this about our reluctance to talk personally: there are other good and important reasons. At this moment the most important obviously is that Sheila isn't here to tell her own story. Talking about meeting Sheila in college as the far more important of the two life-determining events in my life is not the same as Sheila telling her own story. I wish that readers who're interested in hearing from Sheila directly would read Monica's Chronicle, where Sheila's consciousness is present and alive, the best we can do until the vast body of her daily chronicling can be preserved and made available, my deepest wish and hardest task.
I've always been and still am reluctant to talk about my childhood and early life, but readers may find relevance to Headless World — in the aspect of it that's a nightmare vision of childhood — and that makes it unavoidable.
The second most important event of my life was my death and resurrection at the age of 2 ½. Because of neglect I was given a massive dose of an adult drug to cure a minor ailment. It cured the ailment, but destroyed my kidneys. I was hospitalized with Bright's Disease. There was no cure then. I was expected to die and was abandoned in the hospital by my parents (they never visited). After six months or so I was released so I could die at home, but miraculously didn't. I have clear memories of life before the hospital and of my life in the hospital, but will only tell this much: among several unusual psychic states in my time there I had visions of a beautiful girl I felt myself travelling toward: if I could reach her I knew that that would be my salvation. I sometimes flew toward the tall, ancient windows because I saw her there.
This too: my illness left me with strange, heightened states of consciousness and what would probably be called "paranormal" faculties that I kept secret. I rarely talk about them even now. Some of these strange states resembled what are known as "teleportation" and "telekinesis", but not exactly. They were not dream states and were or seemed real.
I kept my heightened states of consciousness and strange faculties secret. No one knew about them until I met Sheila.
When I first saw Sheila (in college, in Russian class) I knew two things immediately and they remained true forever: I knew that I would never encounter anyone more brilliant or more beautiful and that she was the girl I'd been travelling toward. I wasn't wrong: she was my salvation then and every day of my life. Finding her there also explained why I'd decided impulsively to study Russian for no good reason (bad at languages in general and with no particular fascination with Russian). Sheila was there so she could read Dostoyevsky in his own language and she accomplished that very quickly, just as she taught herself Ancient Greek while working in a camp near Lake Saint Catherine in Vermont and rowing on the lake over a summer or two so she could read The Iliad and The Odyssey as they originally sounded. The story of how she helped wean me away from the English epic poetry I was addicted to and the epic poem I'd been writing all my life, steering me toward the modern European novel, is a significant one, but too long to tell. Many stories to tell that won't get told, including the reasons why the Orpheus/Eurydice myth meant so much to us, from opera (standing room for students at the old Met) to Rilke, the times we saved each other (until the final time the universe betrayed us and I couldn't), why we both loved the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann when we were in college and were moved by his idea of the "astral self". Still traveling toward her, but I no longer have the ability to fly under the ceiling and all the way to the window.
Sheila took a leave of absence from college. She'd worked all through high school and college and saved for her plan to travel alone in France and Italy and live for a while in the region where Cezanne painted and then continue travelling until she reached Florence, where Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot. I dropped out of college to look for her when I found out that she was deathly ill after eating raw clams from a street vendor in Naples.
That's how life together began and we were never able to settle down and live in a regular way after that.
The closest we've come to sharing our autobiographies before now is in our essay "My (Our) Five" for Exile magazine (43.4).
We've been asked many times to solve the mystery of our survival or more-than-survival while avoiding the writer/professor path or harnessing ourselves to writing as a money-earning profession.
I can try to answer that question at least:
AN INCOMPLETE CATALOGUE OF INCOMPLETE ANSWERS TO NON-WRITING/NON-TEACHING WAYS WE FOUND TO LIVE AS IF WE HAD MORE MONEY THAN WE DID
The best way for a reader to know an unprecedented amount of daily detail about how and where we lived will unfortunately only be possible if and when I can find a way to preserve Sheila's decades-long practice of chronicling her/our life every day. It's not at all a diary, it's an artist's record of experience and the true flavor of our life together is there. An interesting and substantial fraction of the whole can already be found in Monica's Chronicle and in the two Green Integer volumes, ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party.
LABELS ON SHEILA'S CHRONICLE IN NOTEBOOKS, STENO PADS AND MICROCASSETTES
"FLORIDA" notebooks. (Mostly "CAPTIVA": by chance, while we were traveling, a young woman with a dream of writing, saw us writing on a beach or by a pool and struck up a conversation. Her affluent parents owned a villa in a resort on Captiva Island, a barrier island off the west coast of Florida, that they rented occasionally at very low rates to close friends only. Because of the daughter and because they oddly enough took a liking to us despite our extreme differences they rented to us and also took us on trips in their boat to distant islands in the Gulf, in Pine Island Sound, etc. Over the years our stays on Captiva Island grew longer and longer and the rates grew lower and lower as we became closer friends. A great deal of writing was done there.)
"TRAIN" steno pads and microcassettes. (A detailed record of the day-and-overnight train journeys and the instant, fleeting relationships formed in dining car and lounge car that Sheila and I enjoyed tremendously, as well as a wealth of visual event and overheard speech, from New York to Florida and then on the journeys back. It was because of the difficulty of writing by hand with the bouncing, rolling and pitching of the train that Sheila discovered that she could be comfortable dictating her daily chronicling into a small tape recorder, while I persisted in writing by hand no matter. After a time Sheila had a few of these small tape recorders dedicated to different purposes and couldn't be without them, even keeping two with her in bed at night so she could record her dreams.)
"ATLANTIC CITY" pads and cassettes. (Only Sheila could have the discipline — or more than discipline, the love of chronicling itself — to be able in the middle of so much pleasure and distraction to record the extraordinary details not only of casino life, but life in a luxury hotel, a whole other universe of people and experience different from any other. Over the years we became friends with and/or knew the intimate stories of casino hosts, fellow gamblers, housekeeping staff (made a truly close friend there), chefs and restaurant workers, middle-of-the-night cleaning crew, dealers, mechanics, etc. We found a way to use the computer-generated programs of modern gambling to our advantage in reducing the house's automatic "edge" to the extent that we were considered "high rollers", comped for everything, and did it all without losing (that is, we had more wins than losses). There were times when we were able to live in a suite in a casino hotel, gamble, eat good food and drink good wine for a week at a time, occasionally longer. Aside from Sheila's chronicling we were able to do some editing of novels already in a first or second draft there, but it was mainly a great way to stop thinking for a while and re-charge. There were periods of time when we were able to win large sums of money before the casino figured out what we'd figured out and changed their system. There's a book about our casino/hotel life that could have been written, but won't be. Our gambling continued later on cruise ships, which started because a cruise was given to us a "reward" for being high rollers.)
"NAMES OF VARIOUS CRUISE SHIPS" on cassettes. Sheila loved the ocean from childhood until the end. When I met her she lived near the ocean (as we have together for 40-50 years) and we first got to know each other with Sheila walking and splashing through the ocean's edge no matter what she was wearing, with me walking parallel on dry sand. She worked all through school because she had a plan and saved to travel by ocean liner to France when she was in college. She went with two friends but split from them and travelled alone because they cared too much about buying clothing in Paris. Later we crossed the Atlantic together many times by ocean liner and freighter. When transatlantic ship travel was replaced by "cruise" ships we weren't sure what to do: desire to be on the ocean vs. disgust with regimented fun and everything that could cancel out the experience of being in the middle of the ocean.
We were given a cruise as a gift by a casino where we gambled and it didn't take long to figure out that a cruise ship is so big it's easy to hide from all the unwanted stuff and convert the experience into a relatively private, traditional sea voyage with food, drink and gambling added. We cruised many times and, as always, Sheila chronicled the people we met and the few friends we made (rarely other travelers, mostly waitresses, musicians, etc.). Sheila liked to record ship sounds the way she recorded bird calls in our back yard. There are dozens of microcassettes with detailed observations of the ocean, of arrivals and departures from ports, of other ships, stories told to us by passengers over drinks, etc. etc. Our ocean travels were cut off when I had a near-fatal brain bleed and then by COVID.
"CANAAN" (NY) notebooks, pads, cassettes. A vast amount of writing (by both of us) and recording (by Sheila) was done in the small farmhouse we bought there with a friend. It was surrounded by acres of woodland. We were able to buy it at a low price from a Long Island couple who couldn't stop fighting with neighbors they had contempt for, so felt compelled to leave. The wife held a perpetual garage sale to get rid of their things and that's how we met.
For over thirty years Sheila and I drove the back roads of Columbia, Rensselaer and Berkshire counties and spent as many months living and writing there as we did in what we thought of as our home in Rockaway Park. Most of our late novels were written there. It's impossible to summarize our life in Canaan because we really lived there. I'm still there with Sheila many 6 a.m.'s when I'm half awake. Yesterday morning we were in Mario's in New Lebanon where we used to have dinner at our table by the front window facing Route 20. I remember what we ate and who we talked to and hung out with later in the bar. Other mornings I'm in Shuji's or in other restaurants or driving with Sheila to Ooms Pond on Rock City Road beyond Old Chatham where we'd share sandwiches we'd picked up at The Cottage or Jackson's or we're driving along the beautiful Housatonic to Berkshire Mountain Bakery and Taft's Farm. On the way home there was a spot by the river where we could park and have some cider donuts and warm blueberry pie. And there are dozens of other places where we loved spending an afternoon together that I can easily summon up and travel to in my half-awake mind's endless search for what went away so suddenly.
Back at the house Sheila often used the car (Sheila drove, I never have) as an outdoor studio, parking near or facing the woods as the sun went down and staying late, listening to an owl or to the tree frogs singing at the beaver pond mostly choked with weeds and wildflowers. I was in my bedroom/studio wrestling with some draft of a novel with a view of Sheila writing or recording in the car against the woods. Generally I'd have a meal ready for us by the time she came in and we'd watch a movie or a baseball game while we ate.
There's a fair amount of what it was like to live in Canaan surrounded by forest, transparent and disguised in Headless World.
There are no other labeled notebooks or cassettes, because we thought of our house in Rockaway Park as our home base and not one of our "other" lives in other places that kept life from ever feeling settled inside one frame. Life in New York is of course more impossible to sum up than life in Canaan. It's the sixty-plus-year core of our existence together, from college until the universe betrayed us and separated us: sixty-plus years of creating a complete universe for each other: love and writing and making it possible for each other to be free to pursue our great ambitions, immune to the tastes and prejudices of others. We edited and criticized each other's writing so honestly and severely that we were always able to feel comfortable fending off tone deaf editing by anyone else.
We were tenants from the 1960's through the 80's, living in all sorts of small apartments in Rockaway's 19th century seaside mansions converted to multiple dwellings with wonderful attics and odd spaces with great perspectives and light, before we were able to buy our own C. 1900 Victorian house subdivided into ugly rental units.
We were tenants with good and bad landlords, then we inherited tenants, waited patiently for them to go their own ways and then lived and worked together in the big old house we loved/love and that I'm still in alone after forty plus years playing like children together here.
Pointless to summarize life here between bay and ocean or our other life in Manhattan: too many films, too many restaurants and cafes, too many jazz clubs and Beethoven concerts. I can't calculate all the writing that's been done here and that I'm still looking for ways to preserve. At this moment it looks as if Columbia University will archive some of our papers in its Rare Book and Manuscript Library, but far from everything. I worry every day about how to protect Sheila's microcassettes and pads, both our notebooks with notes for projects there's no time to write.
Gambling is one answer to how we more-than-survived without teaching or writing for money. There were times when we were running low and said to each other "we need to go to Atlantic City".
For most of our lives Sheila and I have had a small but profitable antique-and-collectible business. I have a good visual memory, did a lot of reading and looking at old auction catalogues and thumbing through books and that served us well at country auctions and at estate sales. Sheila was a serious and knowledgeable postcard collector, though she was interested in them for unusual reasons: she often interpolated the narratives and fragments of diaristic writing she found on cards into the fabric of her Chronicle. We were able to buy many beautiful and/or interesting things at low prices over the years and I'm still selling them, though I no longer buy anything.
Our other sources of income will stay a mystery. When we were young Sheila's parents helped her. Mine gave nothing. Sheila did a few clever things without me later on and together we earned enough to maintain our detachment from money.
BIOGRPAHY: PART II (LITERARY BIOGRAPHY)
I'm still struggling with the process that I find arduous of pre-archiving and boxing papers for Columbia's RBML (Rare Book & Manuscript Library). There's been a fair amount of correspondence back and forth with the archivist(s) and, at some point (before HW was published), in response to a sweeping question about our writing, I forced myself to articulate in one essay our perspective on, our idea of what we'd accomplished in a writing lifetime of inventing new forms for fiction. Our antidote to all that's wrong in our literary culture and beyond was our love of what we were doing, our belief in its significance, our happiness in sharing it and in playing at life together like children for over sixty years. We helped each other write to the limit of what we were capable of and sharing it was a cure for the loneliness that a real commitment to writing — as a calling, not a career — has brought for many.
I'm publishing the essay I wrote for the RBML archivist without making the effort to edit it for a different purpose, so forgive whatever's inappropriate or outdated.
To begin with: I think that there's a literary canon waiting to be created of American literature that bridges the 20th and 21st centuries, writing that divines the hidden essence of the late 20th century as it evolves into the 21st century. I'm attaching a few articles that, though they don't qualify as a deep dive into either individual works or the evolving core of our literary concerns, give a fairly accurate overview of our writing from its roots in what could be called the downtown New York City literary/art matrix of the '70's to The Other Planet and Headless World (due out in 2022), our final novels that can be looked at broadly in a World Literature context or more narrowly as advancing "speculative" science fiction.
These overviews clearly need to be fleshed out to give a close-up, internal sense of what Sheila Ascher and I have been after and what we accomplished together. There are a daunting number of ways to approach that task and truly too much that needs to be said (and the nagging sense that it's exactly the point that what needs to be said should be said by others, not by us!). My decision is to begin with The Other Planet (30th Anniversary Edition 2018) and Headless World (publication only awaiting the artist to show sketches for the book's jacket), so as not to delay talking about the late novels by getting lost in the many interesting things that can be said about our earlier work. In other words, my plan is to work backward from the present and then along the sixty year spine of our writing insofar as I'm able.
Even more than in The Other Planet, we believe that the importance of Headless World is not just in its deep understanding of/its novel perspective on the scientific/technological roots of the 20th/21st century mutation of the definition of what it means to be human, but in making that mutation integral to the reading experience with the creation of a fresh language that expresses it. The fabric of the sentences of Headless World in itself carries the fluid and constant exchange of realities that defines our new universe.
More generally, it needs to be kept in mind that fundamental shifts toward a future reality are always hidden in the present long before they leak out into popular consciousness, except for the divinations of fiction, particularly as it shades toward speculative/science fiction. The culture is always hiding its true face and it's the false face that the culture presents, relentlessly advertising itself as the one-and-only real reality, that literary fiction can't help seeing through from the penetrating point of view of the outsider. The history of literature is practically built on this fact. In this context, any future study of the place of Ascher/Straus fiction in the arc of 20th/21st century speculative/science fiction will inevitably trace the revelations that are unavoidable in Headless World and The Other Planet (principally the rapid mutation of identity and the intersection/interpenetration of the human and the technological/scientific) back through their disguised presence and evolution in most of our fiction.
SOME NOTES TOWARD A VIEW OF ASCHER/STRAUS FICTION FROM HEADLESS WORLD BACKWARD
1. The sentences of Headless World can be seen wriggling toward almost-impossible-to-express truths about the nature of identity, how we experience our own identity in the physical world and, further, how we experience the physical world at its most fundamental level.
What constitutes identity?
How does the physical world translate through vision into its existence in the mind?
These are potentially scientific questions, but we ask them in the language of fiction, not science — in all our writing, but most centrally in our final novels — and we believe that that creates a unique texture of language that can be read as science fiction or in a different way as innovative 20th/21st century fiction, radically new in either case.
For readers open to this uncommon aspect of fiction (particularly American fiction), Headless World and The Other Planet even more than earlier Ascher/Straus fiction offer a new reading experience — a different sort of excursion through language and storytelling as well as through the hidden life of the 21st century that already exists, too intimate and familiar to be visible.
If read as both science fiction and as innovative narrative, readers will hopefully be engaged by both novels' other layers as darkest possible comedies tuned to/tuned by their times and as coded, veiled autobiography colored by childhood experience, premature knowledge of the nature of time and, therefore, of loss and grief.
2. An idea worth exploring is that our late fiction has more in common with what's sometimes called "futurist" non-fiction science and technology writing than with science fiction. It's not that Sheila and I were particularly well-read in such writing, but our need to educate ourselves about particle physics and astro-physics because Valeria, the central character in The Other Planet, is a scientist interested in these areas, led us to read extensively about relativity, string theory, black holes, theories of the nature of Time, optics, quantum physics, particle physics and so on — in writing by Einstein, Eddington, Feynman, Dirac and Hawking, but also by many others (if needed, book titles can be named by me with a visit to our bookshelves!). And that education in these areas of science for The Other Planet led to a continued interest in science and technology, with the shift in focus to the areas affecting the nature and mutation of human identity, as I've discussed. We paid attention to and found resonance in earlier 20th century writers like Raymond Kurzweil and a string of others leading to contemporaries like Harari, who, at the end of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, begins to talk about, and explores deeply in subsequent work, the science and technology that are going to change our future definition of what it means to be "human". To be clear: Sheila and I were not steeped in such non-fiction writing, but believe that our antennae were/are tuned to the same tremors in the culture and we read such writing — which is essentially investigative journalism, descriptive of under-reported science and technology that already exists — as "speculative", borderline "science fiction".
The tremor of what already exists but seems like science fiction animates both The Other Planet and Headless World, though, as I've tried to suggest, they're novels that are profoundly "about" other aspects and layers of existence as well.
3. Study of Ascher/Straus writing, from our early work to the present, would inevitably open the door to serious thinking about the relationship between 20th/21st century literary fiction and the great innovative film narratives of the same period. Scholarship needs to be fully alive to its own time and, to our knowledge, this is an under-examined, important relationship. Sheila and I believe/believed strongly (and I think wrote about it more than once) that 20th century adventurousness in recasting the nature of what narrative can be and the limits of what it can include were significantly siphoned away from literature by the magnetism of the parallel narrative medium of film. Narrative intelligence/innovation and energy were siphoned from literature to film is the most direct way to put it.
For example: the science fiction writer whose writing our own work — our later novels in particular — was compared to is Stanislaw Lem, but the truth is that we knew his philosophical science fiction novel, Solaris, largely through Andre Tarkovsky's even more philosophical science fiction film, Solaris, obviously based on the Lem novel.
To carry the point further, if I'm asked to name the authors who had an impact on Sheila's and my writing it would be far more honest and accurate to begin to list the important boundary-altering narratives of Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Kieslowski, Zanussi, Angelopoulus, Ozu, Godard, Resnais, Hou and far too many other European, Japanese, Taiwanese, South American and other directors/authors (even a few Americans!) for me to catalogue accurately. Sheila and I saw just about every film not just of importance, but of storytelling interest, and I don't believe that we were "influenced" by anyone in particular, but cumulatively and collectively supported and affirmed in our own thinking and practice more by these narratives than by most literary fiction. We expanded on this fact about our literary history in our dual literary/autobiographical essay My (Our)Five in Exile magazine (Vol. 43 No. 4).
"The Age of Film's great reimagining of narrative shape, structure and content in the 20th century was/is seminal for us: it constitutes an infinity of influences that are important as they come and don't come to mind: Tarkovsky, Sokurov, Antonioni, Angelopoulos, Bergman, Zanussi, Godard, Ozu, Bresson, Resnais, Kieslowski, Naruse, Dreyer (and many less significant) that flowed into and supported our own ambitions and our certainty there are endless other ways to tell a story, to find meaning in fresh ways of creating order.
"Our love of and belief in storytelling has always been there. We believe that some form of narrative is fundamentally human, but we don't believe in diluted versions of 19th century narrative and don't believe that storytelling, no matter how radical the reimagining of form, has a right to be boring.
"Avant-garde or 'underground' or 'independent' cinema has also been important to us and we encountered it along that porous boundary between art and literature where we found ourselves, largely because of our Space Novels and our interest in art that was transient or that explored the exchange between writer and reader or issues of perception and the nature of experience. Unfortunately, the only example of that kind of film from that era — that mattered to us, that either of us can think of right now — is Michael Snow's Wavelength. Remember loving that and the idea of narrowing the focus of what a writer/artist can pay attention to over a long duration. (Other experiments along similar lines were unmistakably boring, that unforgivable sin.)"
And Stephen Beachy, in his "Afterword" to The Other Planet, says: "Their first, enigmatic chapbook, Letter to an Unknown Woman, bears an oblique relationship to the Max Ophul's film of almost the same title (in turn based on the Stefan Zwieg novel, Letter from an Unknown Woman) and announces what will be a continuing interest in the intersections of identity and popular media, especially old films." And later in his "Afterword" Beachy observes: "Throughout Ascher/Straus' work it sometimes feels like you are walking in and out of theaters at a multiplex where each is showing fragments of the same dream, yours or somebody else's." And again later: "It is a journey through Ascher/Straus world, a world where film, TV, dreams, and brief conversations collide to create a hyperreal and moody landscape."
4. If it's useful I can list literary antecedents (writers we admired/still admire in most cases), but whose work our own writing doesn't resemble. Again, even less so than the adventurous filmmakers we admire, the literary works we love are not "influences", but affirmations of our own vision. We've read with admiration, for example: Musil, Broch, von Doderer (for Sheila, the idea of a narrator as "chronicler"/historian), Kawabata, Pavese, Butor (his essays about art as much as his fiction), Ponge (painterly attention to objects), Frisch ("Notebooks" only), Cannetti (autobiographical volumes, not fiction), Pasternak (poetry and autobiographical prose), Mayakovsky, Pinget, Zukovsky, Whitman, Pessoa (poetry and prose), Apollinaire and untold others.
For the sake of economy of time and energy (both obviously diminishing daily) I need to say in a general way that no literary antecedent is more important in informing our own ideas than the innumerable aesthetic streams flowing from music and art. This is not the place for a discussion of our belief that Cubism and all its many offshoots and ramifications is the single most consequential aesthetic principle of the 20th century, from the most obvious examples in painting to Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Cendrars, both Delaunays (the principle of simultaneity in art), etc.. The fractured visual plane of Cubism never stopped being interesting and fertile for us. After that, Duchamp and everything flowing from the Swiss "Fluxus" movement (attention to the ephemeral, the non-commercial, inclusion of the chance occurrence and of "found" material).
5. It would be an oversight not to spend at least a little time on Red Moon/Red Lake and our other narrative fiction. It's McPherson's intention, for example, to publish (after Headless World is published) a volume of Ascher/Straus' Uncollected Stories (most of which appeared in larger and smaller literary journals from Paris Review, Chicago Review, Exile, Epoch and so on to lower circulation, more fleeting publications like Asylum Annual or Chouteau Review.
The McPherson volume, Red Moon/Red Lake, I think will be the subject of deeper study. The title story is about to be published for the fourth time:
Originally published in 1984 as a chapbook (#21) in Anne Turyn's Top Stories series of twenty-nine volumes.
Published in 1988 as the title story of our novel-in-stories (seven related stories) with McPherson.
Collected in 1991 in the City Lights anthology of selected "Top Stories" volumes, Top Top Stories, edited by Anne Turyn.
Now, in 2022, it's scheduled to be published by the Brooklyn Literary-historical publisher, Primary Information, in a multi-volume set of Top Stories volumes.
As I've suggested, Red Moon will, I think, attract attention and study as time goes on. So far, aside from brief reviews, Stephen Beachy is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one to discuss it at any length. In his "Afterword" he returns to his thesis about the intersection of our fiction with film narrative:
"In Red Moon/Red Lake, a collection of stories published around the same time, we follow a constellation of characters whose sense of coherence and plot is tied to monster movies, movies in which alien pods blow their seeds across suburban lawns, movies in which dark figures who hunger for living flesh haunt the dark spaces in between the shoddy houses of suburbs that seem to have been designed for nightmares to take place in."
And, a little later, Beachy says:
"Ascher/Straus-world is haunted by the belief that one's own story is composed of all the stories others tell us, especially those we'd rather avoid. As the most sinister possibilities eclipse the willful banality of these lives, Red Moon/Red Lake crests in the strange and complicated title story, as emotionally satisfying and dreadful as anything in contemporary fiction."
I should point out that Beachy is also of the opinion that "the tone of The Other Planet and Red Moon/Red Lake is most comparable to the works of Joy Williams and Don DeLillo", but I have no opinion about the accuracy of that because neither Sheila nor I is familiar with either writer's work. And I think that elsewhere he compares at least some aspect of our fiction to Kathy Acker's (again, I leave it to better-informed others to decide).
6. If and when there is a volume of our Uncollected Stories there are several stories I would dwell on because they should be of particular value to anyone interested in studying our body of work.
"Television", published in 1995 in the well-edited little magazine Asylum Annual (therefore till this moment read by few), is a significant "bridge" story because it prefigures (or is a fragment detached from) the principal concerns/obsessions of Headless World and The Other Planet while at the same time being very much of a piece with the Red Moon/Red Lake stories — tonally and in having the narrative activated by some of the same characters.
Of at least equal significance for different reasons is "Snow", originally published in 1978 (!) in Exile magazine, Toronto (5.3/5.4), then again in the McPherson anthology Likely Stories ('83) and re-printed in Exile's 1992 retrospective anthology 15 Years in Exile (vol. 16). While putting together this review of our writing history with an eye toward underscoring the reasons why our work should be made available for study and re-discovery at RBML, I read "Snow" again for the first time in many years and was myself reminded of and taken aback by its radical innovation and its intrinsic value as a fresh reading experience. Sheila and I always looked back at "Snow" as a significant work, a demonstration of a new idea we had for a way to construct a narrative — another way of saying an unconventional way to tell a story — that was also more than the demonstration of an interesting idea. We thought it was (and, on re-reading, I'm happy that I still think it is) a significant literary work for more than one reason. It deserves both more readership and more critical attention.
The principal of unconventional story-telling we hoped to demonstrate is a narrative that sustains coherence and interest without relying on conventions of plot and character "development" dictated by thinking of narrative as a sequential process of beginning/middle/end leading to something like a dramatic conclusion in action or psychology. Our own ideas were akin to, but not exactly the same as, Jean-Luc Godard's aphorism to the effect that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.
The narrative of "Snow" is made up of units each numbered "1" — like the singular snowflakes in a snow fall — suggesting that each element is of equal weight and value. Of course some "units" (we also used suggestive intertitles) may be weightier than others, but that will be a conclusion for the reader, not because of the ballast of a pre-determined "meaning" or dramatic development. As in Godard's serious joke, the order doesn't matter. What matters is coherence and unity created by authorial tone and — most important as a fresh narrative principle — unity created by a governing idea. Obliviously, in the case of "Snow" each narrative unit had to in some way involve snow as the landscape/background of a tale or as a matter of what's paid attention to in visual and other ways.
Not to spend an undue amount of time on this principle, while it was an important one to both of us and the effect of the concept in many of our works (though not so obvious as in "Snow") it would be interesting to look for both backward and forward from "Snow": in the narrative sections of our 1975 SPACE NOVEL The Blue Hangar, for example, and then in the Green Integer Chronicle-based volumes, ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party and in our last novels The Other Planet (the multiple possibilities of what "the other planet" is or means, for example) and Headless World (the governing idea of beheading and its possible meanings), etc. etc.
7. There are other, earlier stories, adventurous explorations of narrative possibilities, that are likely to attract interest over time and that we always believed deserved critical study. For example, "Between Two Walls", published in Paris Review (1975 #64 vol. 16), never anthologized or reprinted (therefore likely to be in the planned McPherson collection), but the subject in 2008 of close philosophical/aesthetic analysis in the Brazilian literary journal Ilha do Desterro A Journal of English Language Literatures in English and Cultural Studies 2(6)by Sandra Sirangelo Maggio under the title "Kant, Ascher/Straus And A Step Further In The Search For Artistic Creation".
"In The American Adam, R. B. Lewis refers to Whitman as the apostle of a freedom which was a "climax as well as a beginning, or rather, the climax of a long effort to begin". He is compared to the first man and the first poet, at one time creator and creation. What Ascher/Straus present, in "Between Two Walls" (1) is their own contribution to this American Genesis, where the reader is summoned to come along and help break the "pane of glass" which separates real life from Artistic Creation.
"In the five opening propositions (2) the reader is confronted with a concrete wall and learns that emotions can be projected into it, which is old newspaper or faded hopes-and-longings". And as we couple these symbols of inner and outer reality we get two walls, one existing independently of our will ("a guide to nothing but itself"), and the other, product of individual imagination ("a guide to another universe or anti-universe"1. We could add here the notion of complexity by comparing these two walls with two mirrors, one facing the other and image-ricocheting an infinity of symmetrical projections. Between these walls stands the prophet and priest of the newest truth, the AUTHOR, who lies 'approximately half-way between detective fiction and the durable ugliness of yellowed walls'.
"(1)Paris Review, Number 64.
"(2) "Between Two Walls" is divided into three parts: Five Propositions, A Walk on the Open Moors, and Five Anti-Propositions.
"We are left, therefore, with plenty of options: we can examine the actual anatomy of the wall (wall for wall's sake); we can project sensations into it or also ignore it, while reading a book (where we can find either a detective story or the wall itself).
"How are we to define Reality or Art, now that these concepts become questionable and we can slide freely from one to the other and back again (as the five closing anti-propositions state)?
"Are Ascher/Straus somehow tangential on a central idea in the work of Borges, proposed in "Caminata" as:
"Yo soy el Unico espectador de esta calle;
Si dejara de verla se morriria.
"Or, according to Ascher/Straus:
"Life until now = fiction until now. One has only to topple life to topple fiction. Or to topple fiction to topple life. Or: Fiction, if it's anything, is a methodical technique of bumping into oneself by accident.
"In the Robbe-Grilletesque section 'A Walk on the Open Moors' (3), we are confronting the detective's realization of how pathetic his quest is. The impression he experiences is familiar to any human being who has faced crucial moments: the floor dematerializes under his feet; the very notions of time and space grow dim inside a mist which carries him into another dimension:
"One instant ago things were like a pane of glass. You looked straight through actual life... into a vacuous other world. Now you or circumstances have struck the glass with a hammer and a million forking paths, sharp fragments, webs of logic, appear where there was nothing.
"(3) cf. Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes.
"What I want to analyse, now, is the part of the above quotation where the stratified order of reality is broken into a million forking paths, in order to get to the usage Ascher/Straus make of Kantian 'a priori' notions of SPACE and TIME.
"As the detective decides to search for the suspect in the subway, he automatically gives up going to any other of the x places in the city. We could present a scheme of the quest that goes like this:
/ \ ANY OTHER PLACE
PLATFORM I PLATFORM II
TRAIN X TRAIN Y
follow follow the
who left passengers
give up go on searching
"No matter which way he chooses, he can't escape the single truth that "The simplest action is capable of division into endless alternatives". He tries hard to break the postulate, distorts all chains of Logic and Probabilities, missaplies syllogisms:
"Since he's searching for the suspect, the suspect must be on the train. The logic of this apparently paradoxical statement is unasailable in the light of the alternatives that have led to this point.
"Yet, he fails. Each step he advances in the quest represents an advance in time and a direction in space. As he walks through the open moors of yesterday – the city of New York today - who knows what tomorrow – he gradually creates his own story. He is not able to predict what is going to happen next moment, what he will be doing or saying. And this incertitude is present in the very structure of the story. New concepts start to exist, a further step towards a greater freedom. We have now what can be called the 'NEW NARRATOR' who, instead of telling a story, presents a fan of "forking paths" and gives the reader the liberty of choice brought by the 'MOULDABLE PLOT'. The old notion of "Stream of Consciousness" is given other dimensions: now we can follow the train of thought of the characters, or of the narrator, or the authors themselves at the moment of creation and, in a way, our own thoughts. In "A Walk on the Open Moors", while the character sits in the train, it is the reader who chooses whether he is (1) reading a newspaper; (2) reading a Marxist tract on Criminology; (3) reading a chapter on the "Nature of Things"; (4) or one on "Space, Time and Gravity"; (5) examining a bank advertisement; (6) chewing BAZOOKA bubble gum; (7) scrutinizing his thumb; (8) scrutinizing the thumb of a suspect, etc. The story ceases to be flat and becomes a geometric figure; now it can be touched and analysed under different, and maybe even opposite lights.
"EVERYTHING, from now on, can he questioned and restructured:
"How is it that the detective is able to read this hidden text...unless he's succeeded in slipping into the man's overcoat, hat, suit, shoes, mask, and so on.
"And how is it that we're able to see through the detective's eyes unless...
". . . Unless we are the witnesses of something new, a radical revolution, a daring innovation which promises a lot."
"Double/Profile", published in Chelsea (1977 #36), explores related possibilities for non-traditional narrative form. It was re-published in 1984 in the Chelsea retrospective anthology, Chelsea Retrospective 1958-1983. And there are other related explorations ("Winter / / Winter", for example, published in Exile (vol. 4 no. 1 1976), all of which are likely to be re-visited over time and it would be of benefit to have housed together and made available for future reading and study.
8. Of all our narrative explorations I think/we thought that two stand out as having the unusual possibility of drifting on currents into the unpredictable future and establishing their own mangrove islands there, with impossibly tangled roots and above-water forms that may bear no obvious resemblance to their origins: the "chronicling" principle, which I plan to discuss in #9. as one of the two major branches of our writing and our very early SPACE NOVEL re-thinking of the nature of both the novel and of what constitutes publishing itself, in other words the fundamental ground of being of all the conventions of narrative writing and the antithesis of 20th/21st century writing-as-career, writing programs, degrees, publicity strategies, grants, conferences, awards etc. etc..
I'd prefer not to spend too much time discussing the SPACE NOVEL, so I'll rely on several thumbnail summaries and one lengthy essay that have been written since our first SPACE NOVEL, THE BLUE HANGAR in 1975 and I'm unlikely to add anything new.
Stephen Beachy wrote in his "Afterword" to the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Other Planet:
"They began in the late 1970s by creating 'space novels,' which were reminiscent of the happenings of the 1960s and 1970s. These 'novels' were interactive performative text events structured by the spaces in which they occurred, galleries or air field hangars, and designed to
disappear once they were over, an attempt to release the book from its binding."
In our own "My (Our) Five" dual literary/autobiographical essay in Exile (vol. 43 no. 4) we talked about:
". . . our radical ideas for liberating the book from its binding, which is what we attempted to do with our Space Novels series of books (among them, Blue Hangar, 1975). We used a variety of public spaces (from galleries to air fields) as 'bindings' or 'structuring principles', our idea being to create a new kind of unbound novel, to create a transparent and porous relationship between writer and reader, intending to 'Cut a literal hole in the text for the world to flow through/Cut a conceptual hole in the world so the world frames the narrative.'"
On our website we summarize the SPACE NOVEL principle this way:
"In the late 70's/early 80's, largely in an art context, we created a series of novels we called SPACE NOVELS that used a variety of public spaces (from galleries to air fields) as bindings or structuring principles. (Funding came from Poets & Writers, the National Parks Service, the American Crafts Council and so on.) Our idea was to create a new kind of un-bound novel, transparent and porous between writer and reader."
"THE BLUE HANGAR" was discussed at length, again in a Brazilian literary journal (Ilha do Desterro A Journal of English Language Literatures in English and Cultural Studies 2(6)), subjected to close philosophical/aesthetic analysis by a writer named Maria do Socorro Reis Amorim. Please forgive my inclusion of her entire article, but I find it impossible to summarize it.
"The Blue Hangar portrays American Reality. It is comfortable 'poetry' of American upper middle class Neurosis, Its Plot is about middle class women and their aimless frustrated lives. Two elusive female women appear and disappear throughout the work. They may be sisters or merely friends, who are going to meet again after two years of separation. Their 'fictions' are about their experiences during these past two years:
"When in one of the airport restaurants or coffee shops, she begins to tell you everything, without resorting to her familiar oblique style of discourse...
"Besides portraying The American Neurotic Reality, the story is mainly an epistemological and phenomenological map of the airport. 'It is a conceptual naming-piece novel'. Reality is the surface inside of things. The truth and secrets of things are in things themselves. Things have an aura of mysticism about them in Reality.
"The airport is phenomenologically considered the most important character in the novel. Things are more important than people. The 'role' the characters play in the story is to serve merely as 'figures' in the airport. They are 'used up' as merely 'compositional resource'.
"The novel is characteriscally Post Modern in that it creates an open. poly-perspective structure for the novel and radically alters the book as a linguistic or intermedia phenomenon - a text that moves out of the Frame.
"Several interesting 'features' found in the novel can be pointed out:
"I - Spacing (space) - The authors consider 'Blue Hangar' a space novel – 'a fiction language art event that involves the creation of complex printed notation systems for particular large exterior or interior sites'. The text is inscribed in space - language into phenomenal space.
"The novel is written considering the geometrical Space both of the airport and of the novel itself. Time and space are mixed - there is no border line:
"Space Surrounding the time of the Blue Hangar The time surrounding the space of the Blue Hangar.
"The authors also ask the readers to indicate size and quadrants of all openings of the novel: 'The Blue Hangar is to be measured.' It is indeed a geometrical writing novel and also a geometrical reading process.
"II - Time - Time and space are intermingled. The authors consider the passing of time while readers are reading each page, how much time has passed since story began and also the time of the existence of the Hangar:
"How long has The Blue Hangar existed?
"How long does The Blue Hangar exist?
"How long will The Blue Hangar exist?
"III - Movement - The novel is to be read 'while walking'. The authors write about 'the act of Writing Process' - The novel is a Process itself - a writing process to be read while walking. The phenomenological role of walking is focused by the authors - Walking as a fiction - Making process'.
"IV - Sound - Sound is an important characteristic because the novel is an 'appeal' to the reader's perception of the world and his reactions to the text - The novel is to be read aloud because the tone of voice while reading affects listeners or readers. Sound is a 'concrete' thing -the noise and sounds the auditor may or may have not heard in the 'Blue Hangar' contributed to the development of the novel as a Sounding Process.
"V - Site - The phenomenological role of the site is focused in a great extent. 'It has existed and it will exist without human presence'. As Ascher Straus quoted: 'The novel is a potential limitless observation phenomena at a fixed site'. They wanted to explore the potential reading experience of the readers:
"Each reader becomes an exponent of the novel's mobility - Each reader a mobile bearer of a single fiction unit with no necessary relation to the other: relations among narrative elements are possible but only through chance or they will operate through each reader herself or himself as a mobile fiction site.
"VI - Happenings - The relevant happenings the novel were not the happenings of the story, but the readers' happenings - that is their participating in the novel:
"They were invited while they walked about through the actual space, reading fictions to themselves or aloud to one another, to perform various perceptual and verbal activities that brought them into contact with the author, with one another and with the nature of the Space.
"In 'The Blue Hangar' there is an 'appeal' to the readers' memory (memory as replay/redigestion feedback). This memory is to be used by the readers to remember and describe the objects, sensory phenomena, physical units and volumes of the 'Blue Hangar'.
"The authors want the readers to be conscious of the importance of the Process of Reading: 'Reading is a process of systematic or random displacement, forgetfulness, antecipation, acquisition...'
"Reading is an attempt to redefine the idea of 'reader' - to create a new field for author <—> text <—> reader. The readers' reactions towards the text, the authors and the hangar are important in all their possible permutations.
"One of the authors' principal aims was to make the readers perceive the reality of the world more astringely. They show their perception of the world and they want us to replicate and share their private quest of the world:
"The architecture of the Blue Hangar enclosure with its maplike or graphlike grid structures and its apertures or frames for the flow of repetitive variable and chance phenomena served as a structuring principle for The Blue Hangar as a model for the possibility of a total perception a simultaneous reading of the extraordinarily complex multiple existence of a place. It is all a phenomenological approach.
"The authors suggest the continuation of the composition of the novel beyond the events' formal time/space boundaries and for transforming the private reading activity into an envolving conceptual piece (take-home activity) by transporting the words The Blue Hangar into the life of the readers as a sign whose referent has to be invented indefinitely as a perfect depthless 'Ikon'."
There are other principal SPACE NOVELS, AS IT RETURNS and 12 Simultaneous Sundays, and they were excerpted from fairly widely, or their texts were reproduced in full:
AS IT RETURNS: installation of two flat volumes (40 square feet and 33 square feet) of corresponding "pages," a book derived from the planes of the gallery space: Contemporary Arts Gallery, NYU
12 SIMULTANEOUS SUNDAYS: a novel written publicly over 12 Sundays, with installation and performance elements: Gegenschein Vaudeville Placenter
AS IT RETURNS: "Beyond the Page" exhibition, Y Poetry Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
AS IT RETURNS: models, photographs and related prose: University of Nevada
AS IT RETURNS: "TELIC" exhibition, Art Research Center, Kansas City, Missouri
AS IT RETURNS: diagrams and partial text, Seventh Assembling
AS IT RETURNS: complete text, New American Writing
12 SIMULTANEOUS SUNDAYS, partial text, Zone (#7)
12 SIMULTANEOUS SUNDAYS, partial text, Benzene (volume 1 #4)
I don't think it serves any useful purpose for me to expand further here on the history or philosophy of the SPACE NOVEL. I'd only emphasize again my/our belief that it's an idea that seems likely to find a rebirth in the future, in the hands of others who're likely to re-imagine what we started in forms there's no way for us to anticipate.
9. The Chronicle, and the principle of chronicling as an approach to narrative writing, is not just the second major branch of Ascher/Straus writing, it's half the tree. Or it would be fair to see it as the entire trunk of the tree, if that makes it clearer that the Chronicle in all its manifestations is the spine of all Ascher/Straus writing. It will of course be up to others to find evidence of the chronicling principle in most if not all our works, no matter how this or that narrative doesn't seem to resemble the Chronicle in its pure form.
It should go without saying but can't that our two Green Integer volumes, ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party, need to be considered together with our long and ongoing online narrative, Monica's Chronicle (published as a free reading experience on our website (www.ascher-straus.com/bio.htm)) as one integrated/interactive work. It seems to me that in and of itself the dynamic relationship between two traditionally published books and an online work should invite study and commentary. I'm not aware of another serious literary interactive traditionally published/online narrative, but someone else will have to determine whether this potentially limitless narrative is in fact unique in 20th/21st century literature.
I'm always at pains to insist that it's understood that every word written by either of us belongs to both of us entirely, but feel the need in the case of the Chronicle to say clearly that all Ascher/Straus Chronicle-related writing is unequivocally based on Sheila's vision — not only of a radically new aesthetic basis for narrative fiction, but of a way for a writer to choose to spend her/his life storytelling — against the overwhelming tide of careerism — as a natural extension of living one's life in an observant, dedicated way, finding a way to make art out of that daily practice.
I still love Sheila's original (2008) introduction to Monica's Chronicle when we and the website were ready to begin publishing it there.
"SOME NOTES ON MONICA'S CHRONICLE
"(A SORT OF INTRODUCTION)
"Technology has, thankfully, caught up with me: now there's a way to 'publish' the raw, unfiltered Monica's Chronicle directly, without the shaping ideas of 'book' or 'publisher' intervening. I believe that the Chronicle is meant for this medium — and may be at least one artist's revenge on the triumph of the democracy of chatter and commerce over what I take to be the original impulses of the 'web'. Certainly not undertaken with the 'web' or the 'internet' in mind (I began it, in some form, in the mid '70's), it needed a medium that didn't exist.
"Monica's Chronicle is absolutely a daily activity that did not begin on purpose. I have some ideas about its roots and about some novels, notebooks, journals and so on that don't at all resemble it yet may have set me on this path, but I'm not interested in talking about that here.
"The Monica's Chronicle that will begin here and that will be added to whenever pages of the original, single-spaced typewritten Chronicle from 1976, cramped and hard-to-read, have been reformatted so that we can edit them (lightly, to make them more intelligible and to untie some knots and tangles) will be rough and unfiltered. New pages will appear with no particular regularity (website will have to be checked to see if something fresh is there). This is the Chronicle as it was (and is still) written: rough and unfiltered in the sense that it is different from every published or gallery-displayed form derived from it, when editing was allowed to go so far as reshaping and re-organizing the Chronicle's record of the flow of events over time for artistic purposes, but also in order to make what we believe is a necessary aesthetic argument for a radically different basis for fiction, even more so than in the sense that every work of art is an argument for itself and against everything else.
"The two volumes of ABC STREET (Vol. 1, published by Green Integer in 2002, and HANK FOREST'S PARTY, forthcoming from Green Integer) are meant to explicitly raise questions about fiction and present themselves as models of something else.
"The title of one of Pasternak's early works translates as My Sister — Life and of course that could be the title of any writer's or artist's record of life, no matter how far away it is from ordinary journal, diary, memoir and the like.
"My own lifework is, I think, more extreme and is more of an actual second life, a life lived again, a double, a twin to my life, than other records I know of.
"My art has never been concerned with being artful. For me to stop on the path of chronicling to make compositions would be, of necessity, to interrupt the process that is ecstatically demanding in its own way.
"I've never trusted memory, so I think I've written instead of remembering.
"The two volumes of ABC STREET take place in 1977. I've elected to start this potentially endless process (chronicling is endless and now editing and publishing it here will be endless another time) in 1976. Obviously, some of the same 'cast of characters' appear, some of the same locations, all encountered raw, before stepping onto a stage where all sorts of aesthetic and compositional issues come into play in terms of organizing what here, in its natural state, is a record that follows events as they occur, interruptions and digressions that are events in themselves, persistent returns to the interrupted event, new interruptions, returns and so on.
"I love this process for itself and I wonder how many others find that the outer world is (always has been) their inner life."
I think it's worth reproducing most of Mary Burger's 2014 review of Hank Forest's Party in Your Impossible Voice:
"Hank Forest's Party is the latest volume of a collaborative project, part novel, part memoir, part philosophy, written by Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus and published under the name Ascher/Straus. The ongoing project Monica's Chronicle, begun in the 1970s, is a narrative of the process of narration. Narrator Monica records experiences of everyday life in a neighborhood in Rockaway Park, Queens, and weaves her notes through reflections and reinterpretations about the connections between experience, memory, and writing.
"The framing event in Hank Forest's Party is the birthday of a little boy on Monica's block. The party overlaps with Monica's efforts to remember and write about it:
"Monica enters Grete and Andy's new apartment, looks around memorizing. Carries this overly-fresh memory like a bright basin of water that's going to slosh and spill with every step. Keeps spilling throughout the day, till she gets home. Already in Grete and Andy's apartment she's wondering if there will be anything left to pour out at her desk, where writing replaces memory.
"The question of how experiences become stories is a constant through line:
"Thinking at the party (as if already not at the party) or at home later (as if still at the party) Monica wonders why one story chooses us and not another. Many-many-too-many stories are always buzzing about, but only one buzzes up and bites us.
"The time and space of the story spill far beyond the party into the extended lives of the block's residents. Monica relays intimate back stories and day-to-day details that stack and overlap like the close-quartered living spaces of the block itself. She knows her neighbors' private hopes and disappointments, as if privy to their inner monologues:
"Marriage to Andy Forest changed nothing. Very disappointing to Grete. Had assumed, without thinking much about it, that marriage to Andy Forest would change the balance of life in this house, but it didn't.
"Other neighbors literally walk into Monica's narrative as she records the day's events from her front porch:
"Pat Corcoran steps out of her front door through Monica's writing and says that Philip passed his exam and is already working: an apprentice splicer, on his way toward becoming a full-time splicer and hopefully even a master splicer like his father, John.
"But that's not what she wants to talk about, she says. Something is bothering her and she has to talk about it.
"Despite the story's inquisitive and intimate tone, we never learn much about Monica herself. She explores her ideas through the material of others' lives—a filmmaker who never comes out from behind the camera. Some of the detachment comes through the accumulation of time—Hank Forest's Party was written 25 years after the framing events. Periodically the story is preoccupied with what was left out or lost from the first notes:
"Monica's notes say: 'at her desk in the red room': but now, twenty-five years later, she doesn't remember (and doesn't see how there could have been space for) a desk in the red room.
"Events circle back to Hank's party, even as years pass, couples split up or move away, and Hank himself is no longer a little boy. By the end, Monica seems no more certain about the nature of storytelling, though no less energized to keep interrogating it:
"True or false: what's remembered is an impediment in the stream of what-doesn't-want-to-be-remembered. What-doesn't-want-to-be-remembered seeks forgetfulness by flowing as rapidly as it can around and through memory's rusting chassis where, twenty-plus years ago, it tore up railing and embankment and landed in the river just where it makes a beautiful bend out of town."
In 2008 Douglas Messerli wrote about ABC Street in an article on his blog called On the Other Side of the Page.
"Accordingly, although Monica can see Manhattan's Empire State Tower from her window, ABC Street is a tale of small-town living, a world in which everybody is somehow interrelated and involved in each other's lives.
"Yet unlike, say Winesburg, Ohio or any of Sinclair Lewis's tales, ABC Street does not comment on or evaluate—and only seldom satirizes— its characters. Rather, they become somewhat flattened reporters of their own destinies without an audience to coherently receive their messages. As Monica describes her own conversation with one of the most memorable figures of the book, Nancy St. Cloud:
"It was windy and Nancy's navy blue wraparound skirt kept
blowing open in the middle of sentences. Every time she
reached down words got irretrievably whisked away across
the flat, dazzling surface littered all the way to the horizon
with sparkling bits of green, blue and amber bottle glass, so
Monica remembered the story as incoherent, though it may
not have been.
"Unlike the utter falsity of normalized fictions, accordingly, Ascher/Straus's collaborative work is not just a collaboration between authors, but a collaboration between characters and readers. As in our everyday experiences, what we receive from one another is not always what has been communicated—or even what each of us attempted to communicate. People make their own conclusions and impact one another much as in the old game of 'Telephone,' through incredibly garbled readings of one another's lives by people they have never met.
"Although the members of the 'constellation' have all had regular encounters with Dr. DaVinci, a psychiatrist influenced by Wilhelm Reich, their psychological interpretations of one another are most often mistaken and motives are regularly confused or, as in Monica's encounter with Nancy's handsome and charming husband, Andre, are represented in multiple possibilities:
"(1) Real, husbandly concern. (2) Enlisting the aid of a trust-
worthy friend who happens to be intruding in any case. (3)
Aligning himself with Monica's involuntary look of distress...
(4) Distancing himself (and not only in the eyes of others) from any
accusation of complicity.
"In short, in Monica's chronicles of the world around her there are no answers and relationships between people and events are at best tentative.
"While normative fiction carefully constructs a set of interrelated histories that ultimately work together to present a vision of an individual or community, Ascher/Straus' work, like the characters and events of real life, keep their histories secret—even while attempting to reveal them. Like the streets and lawns of this primarily wintertime landscape, history is buried under an avalanche of information: readings and misreadings, interpretations and interventions. As Monica writes: 'Our lost history is a daily panorama though not necessarily a panorama of the everyday.'
"Despite the enormous joy of encountering this canvas of colorful characters, accordingly, the reader realizes that in Monica's chronicle there is no way to imaginatively reach out and touch these figures, nor any way to interweave their actions into a coherent or even consistent pattern. Writing is ink on paper, and any narrative, as much as it may seek mimesis, is as absolutely flat as unprimed canvas. At the end of Ascher/Straus's book, Monica closes her winter night's tale with the words:
"February turns its sharp edge, black winter on the other side of
"Not only is the tale over, but the human beings it has mentioned have yet to appear, as they stand in wait on the 'other side of the page.'"
In his "Afterword" to his 30th Anniversary Edition of The Other Planet Stephen Beachy says:
"Their most recent books are the two volumes of ABC Street (ABC Street and Hank Forest's Party), released by Green Integer and placing Ascher/Straus where they belong, alongside Stein, Wilde, Poe, Celine, and Michaux . . . . . ABC Street combines the journal with the novel, a chronicle that isn't about the self that produces it but about the context that surrounds that self and about the act of chronicling itself. Its author, 'Monica,' is re-creating conversations that happen among constellations of characters who surround her, strictly realistic New Yorkers who seem only slightly less surreal than the characters of the previous books. Their dark sense of humor is familiar. Yvonne, herself the mother of a baby who's sucking up her life energy, confronts her destiny with words that say life stinks, a voice that says it doesn't matter: 'Yvonne wants to know if Monica can figure Janey Hedges out. Janey's little one Jo Andy's not even a year old but she's got another one due in June! Janey's not stupid so why'd she need two nooses to kill herself?' Simultaneously, ABC Street sends out ripples that change our reading of the other Ascher/Straus books, blurring lines of memory and realism and imagination, while it forces us to confront the way writing itself, and the sorts of perception that drive writing, is a medium conducive only to very particular ways of understanding. Monica discovers that 'what interests her as a chronicler has as little to do with what's ordinarily meant by realism as it does with what's called imagination.' Chronicling is a form of editing, creating order and meaning out of disorderly experience. 'But another path eludes both reader and editor, arriving in every text as if of its own free will.' The chronicler's intentions go awry. Thinking and intending to write about one family, she ends up starting a book about people she hadn't thought about at all—a collection of stories titled Red Moon/Red Lake. As much as the chronicles are about writing, however, they are even more about remembering, remembering through writing or at the edges of writing, and about the vast sea of unremembered, unchronicled, unknown events or non-events that surround the thin little streams of meaning we create with language. The two volumes of ABC Street explicitly raise questions about the function and intent of fiction and present themselves as models of something else: 'a necessary aesthetic argument for a radically different basis for fiction, even more so than in the sense that every work of art is an argument for itself and against everything else.'"
The last paragraphs of Mary Burger's review shift focus from the two Green Integer volumes to an overview of our body of work.
"Ascher/Straus' partnership is unique as far as I'm aware, both in its scope and its hybrid story-interrogation form. An earlier volume, ABC Street (2002) also derives from Monica's Chronicle. Thousands of words of the original notes for the Chronicle are posted on the writers' website, http://www.ascher-straus.com/. Their work also includes a series of 'space novels,' interactive public events in the 1970s and 1980s that created temporary, spatially-bound narratives.
"Their project in its entirety is an invitation and a challenge to anyone setting out to redefine narrative writing. I recommend Hank Forest's Party, and all of Ascher/Straus' long collaboration, as a primer on the elusive pursuit of memory and words."
I would only add that, for myself, the Chronicle is the world observed, documented, edited by Sheila Ascher (with myself contributing editing only when requested). Forests, trees, leaves, people, films, conversations, what's written on old postcards (which Sheila collected for the fragments of stories told on them), birds (a backyard population she knew well), meals shared (in restaurants or cooked by me for the two of us), what the eye sees from a car or the deck of a ship or the terrace of a restaurant on a busy avenue, what's overheard on purpose or by accident, a nature documentary on television, lives of friends in fragments of story-telling, light on/color of the surface of any object: a unique consciousness I can't do without and frankly don't think the universe should have to either. Nothing swallowed whole or documented just by leaving a camera running: edited by Sheila Ascher in the act of recording and then edited again and again. It's the universe as she finds it but it's also Sheila Ascher.
As a child Sheila would doodle her name over and over the way someone else doodles faces or abstractions. Chronicling is of course much more than the assertion of Sheila Ascher's existence but it is that too. The brilliant, observant little girl who grew up to be a chronicler, making it known that she's completely alive in the world presented to her. And she's letting younger writers know that documenting life daily as a kind of narrative fiction is a demanding, ecstatic way to live.
10. There is a set of other works — explorations of the use of the design, pattern and placement of typed language on the page to convey ideas about writing/reading/time and other concepts — that taken together may constitute still one more proposal for an alternative form of narrative that deserves and may very well invite study. I think that all I can do here is list some of the principal titles of this group of works and leave it for the future to care or not.
TIME TABLE (Tamarisk Vol. III No. 2 1980)
Discovery of the World (Ghost Dance #22)
Green Inventory (Ghost Dance #26/The Living Underground: A Prose Anthology 1989/Sun & Moon #6-11 1979/Several issues of Assembling magazine)
AS IT RETURNS (complete text, New American Writing 1994 No. 12)
DISCOVERY OF THE WORLD (Ghost Dance #22) was the subject of an analytical article in a Brazilian journal, but I see no point to quoting that here. It's simply time to stop, except that I'd add only that, having a reason to reread ABC Street recently, I find that on pp.203-204 there are passages about television that are utterly consistent with the vision of television's place in our daily existence in The Other Planet, Headless World and in Red Moon/Red Lake as well, and likely in other work. I point this out in closing as a way of talking about the hidden harmony and internal resonances in all our long body of work in different forms.
11. Because you suggested that it might be useful, I'm adding a list of names of those who seem likely to have something meaningfully supportive to say about our work, some with a broad view and some interested in one or two aspects of our writing:
Stephen Beachy (University of San Francisco)
Renata Wasserman (Wayne State University)
P.O. Box 176
Rockaway Park, NY 11694
For a review of Hank Forest’s Party that also gives an intelligent overview of its place in our writing history see Mary Burger's review in Your Impossible Voice, April 25, 2014.
For an alternative overview of our writing history read Stephen Beachy’s article ”ESCAPE FROM THE PRESENT” in the March '05 San Francisco Bay Guardian Literary Supplement, “WHERE DOES FICTION COME FROM” (Feb. 23 — March 1, 2005. Volume 39, No. 21).
Because MONICA’S CHRONICLE is now being published on the website we’ve scanned an earlier view of that project, “WRITING WITH SHEILA ASCHER”, which was published in Zone #7 Spring/Summer ’81 as an introduction to the section of "SHEILA ASCHER’S CHRONICLE/SEPTEMBER 1976" that served as the text for the Space Novel “12 SIMULTANEOUS SUNDAYS”.