The Future Tense

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It was only after I had finished reading Christine Brooke-Rose’s short experimental novel Amalgamemnon that I noted its original year of publication: 1984, shorthand for dystopia. While George Orwell’s 1949 book of that name is often referred to nowadays to describe not some imagined future but aspects of the present, proof of that writer’s ‘prescience’, I wondered to what extent writers creating fiction in 1984 reflected on Orwell’s vision, and whether they sought to confirm or challenge it.

Despite the inclusion of Orwellian phrases in everyday English, I’m reluctant to grant Orwell the all-encompassing foresight that he is sometimes credited with, especially since Nineteen Eighty-Four was concerned with criticisms of the ideologies of his own time, transposed to a fictionalised future. Nevertheless I found myself reacting to Amalgamemnon with a shock of recognition. Its fictional world seems to catch something of the texture of the contemporary era – and it is entirely distinct from Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. The game of Which Author Can Best Foresee The Future falters.

Amalgamemnon’s predictive quality is the necessary result of a stylistic constraint on the part of the author, a constraint grounded in what Brooke-Rose saw as a specific  characteristic of public and private communication in 1984.

As the author explained in an interview with Ellen G Friedman and Miriam Fuchs,

“in Amalgamemnon I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.” [1]

Brooke-Rose continues:

“The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense the more I realized that we’re all living in the future. I don’t mean an actual event that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of speculation like, ‘Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of . . . and they will probably discuss . . .’ By the time they’ve met and discussed it, it’s gone, and they’re speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We’re always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it’s always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse in private situations.”

Amalgamemnon, then, has much to say about how language is used, how it changes and what it is possible to do with it. The ‘predictability’ Brooke-Rose identifies might even go some way to explaining the endless comparisons of the tense present to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Brooke-Rose does not simply use the present as a basis from which to project forward, away from the past. A deeper sense of historical disorientation is created by drawing on Greek myths in Amalgamemnon, as indicated by the novel’s title.

Brooke-Rose’s tense future is conveyed in writing that is by turns puzzling, playful and caustic. Deeply allusive, surreal and given to puns, its 144 pages are amalgams of parable, bureaucratese, media rhetoric, conspiracy and (un)romantic drama, all interleaved across multiple narratives that leave open to the reader how many characters are but aspects or alter egos of the novel’s protagonist, Mira Enketei. Mira is a classical scholar and college professor who foretells the time when there will be no call, no social utility, for her specialist knowledge.

‘I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.’

This, Brooke-Rose’s opening line, immediately gives the reader a sense of the multivalent effects of a single sentence. Ordinarily one might read ‘despite’ or ‘in spite of’. ‘Despite of’ seems, well, redundant. An internet language forum cites several examples from Shakespeare. One in particular resonates with Brooke-Rose’s anticipation of an authority out of the job:

‘Deposed he shall be, in despite of all.’ (William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III)

Then there’s Brooke-Rose’s first pun, ‘you after queue’. Not only does the author confirm her attention to the linguistic features that have developed within the English language, with which she can experiment even as she questions their use function; she is also giving us the sense of Mira’s character, a teacher steeped in Greek and Latin. The same words also point towards a narrative episode that will soon be described, involving Mira in the queue at the Job Centre, where she is to first encounter the figure known variously throughout the novel as Wally and Amalgamemnon. The fact that the identity of ‘you’ cannot be limited to Mira, the reader or the soon-to-appear Wally also establishes the  possibilities for figural gameplay that Brooke-Rose revels in.

As Mira predicts her coming redundancy, ‘information-content zero’, Brooke-Rose compresses such allusion, wordplay, narrative foreshadowing and characterisation into one opening line as if in resistance to that fate. There is much that is waiting for the reader in this line.

The book proceeds by following Mira’s anticipation of a fraudulent relationship, of feigned love for an overweight administrator of the new technological age – a relationship not only lacking sexual passion but also intellectual communion. As Mira carries this line of thought, Cassandra like, to its almost misandrist endpoint, Brooke-Rose develops, until Amalgamemnon’s last pages, a scathing commentary on the failure of relations between men and women in a society that still will not grant women the joys of their own intelligence and self-sufficiency. One of Brooke-Rose’s memorable phrases comes as she describes the consolation that Mira finds in her solitude and reverie, and the ‘utterly other discourse’ that is to be found there – a discourse unconstrained by the mores and hang-ups of wider society.

Interpolated between these extrapolations of Mira’s coming loveless life on a smallholding are imagined chat show discussions about Third World poverty, radio call-ins, a rock singer contriving his latest hit in the studio, scenes from the political frontline as beamed in via television, with accompanying rumours denied, spokesmen obfuscating. There is a also a lengthy tale of the efforts of gallants attempting to liberate a princess from the clutches of a dragon, a kidnap plot involving Mira and a band of subversives led by a German called Gisela, and the love story of an English officer and a Somali woman in wartime. The reader is left to fathom the echoes, linkages, mirrorings and transformations that hold these images, characters, voices and myths together, if there is any holding on to them at all in the electronic age to come:

‘When the magic cycle of genuine shit will have been replaced by the chemicycle of pure electronic thought ever expanding, more and more unbiodegradable, the heart of the earth will stop, shrivel to a curled up foetus to be ejected lifeless and wither to a moon without even the attracting planet to encircle except the distant sungod dead because unseen unfelt by anyone.’

I do not claim to be familiar with all of the classical allusions that run through Amalgamemnon, from the title onwards. There is evidently far more going on here than even two readings would yield up to an attentive reader, even one steeped in Greek myth, linguistics and post-structuralism. Still, the dizzying, breathless passages often have a phantasmagorical power that captivates and baffles, and the most trenchant lines are not in the slightest undermined by playful puns: ‘fidgetal’, ‘direlogue’ and ‘daytaunt’ among them, that again one cannot help associating with habits of social media and failures of political diplomacy today.

Shortly after I had finished reading Amalgamemnon I turned to the writings of visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl, who maps the uneven contours of the current digital era with marvellous perception and whose style blends technical insight and wit, with an awareness of the myriad forces behind the disruption of artistic, political and technological paradigms. Reading Amalgamemnon alongside Steyerl’s recent essay collection Duty Free Art reveals curious overlaps,

‘Spam’s takeover transforms a pseudo-scientific account of history (and its “progress”) into a performative chaos in which actors, consumers, spam and service workers become indistinguishable. The linear and teleological progression of history, complete with its narration by academic administrators, is discontinued. The unity created by the frontal address of class is gone. The mood shifts from education to celebration.’ (Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art)

Steyerl’s predictions being similarly dispiriting:

‘But you too might get trapped in your own singular hell of a future repeating invented pasts, with one part of the population hell-bent on getting rid of another. People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos.’

Does Steyerl here indicate a clairvoyance on the part of Brooke-Rose? Has the contemporary world of communications, media, economy and politics modulated in ways that now make the inscrutable, the anachronistic and the disruptive – qualities of much experimental writing – a more faithful ‘mirror’ of daily experience than Orwell’s Oceania? In Amalgamemnon a teacher is harangued by a student. Terrorists conspire. Men patronise women. Europe is in trouble. The media spew rumours that spokespersons deny. This all sounds familiar. But then a cold reading can always give us what we want, confirm what we always suspected would be the case.

Brooke-Rose will need a more astute reader, one willing to read back and forth, to pay witness to all the sonic, graphic and allusive aspects of Amalgamemnon, which is foremost a work of literary experiment. Whether there will soon be any enthusiastic, capable readers left qualified for that undertaking, whether there will be any place left for them, is another matter. As Brooke-Rose has it,

‘[W]e shall all become oracular computers, Draculas sucking endless information from the napetrough of a wavelength…’

The future still sucks. But literature need not face redundancy just yet.

 

Notes:

[1] A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose By Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1989, Vol. 9.3. Published online at http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-christine-brooke-rose-by-ellen-g-friedman-and-miriam-fuchs/

 

 

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