December 2011

A-J Aronstein

fiction

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

The unnamed protagonist of Renee Gladman's novel Event Factory arrives in the city of Ravicka. This self-described "language tourist" has come to observe Ravickian customs and culture, only to find its inhabitants fleeing a menacing yellow fog. Despite fluency with the native tongue, life in the metropolis evades her as the fog advances. Things happen: she gets a salsa lesson. She meets friends. She dines with strangers, gets drunk, has sex, and visits the Old City. But she can't assign significance to any of it. Meanings escape her, and as she gets closer to departure, she worries she will not have experienced a single event before she leaves.

As readers, we stand in for Gladman's protagonist, caught in our own search for meaning and frustrated by our unfulfilled desire for more than language can provide us. The tourist's impatience mirrors our own readerly efforts to penetrate this difficult novel, asking us to consider what it means to depend upon language to experience events in the first place. Gladman suggests that reading itself constitutes a kind of tourism, but moreover argues that language does not convey meaning in instants of feeling, emotion, or insight -- that is, as events of understanding -- but rather through the deliberate process of moving through a narrative from beginning to end.

Gladman's traveler at first believes that fluency with language will make it possible for her to experience events as Ravickians do. She views language as the currency of ordinary interaction, and defines an event as whatever happens in the space that language opens up for understanding. But she fails to master the way people actually communicate in Ravicka, a place where verbal expression depends upon expert performance of complex gestures that she cannot replicate. She laments: "If only traveling were about showing off your language, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing -- I think I would be absolutely global by now. In Ravicka, I was barely urban."

Her failure as a tourist stems from a failure to master the local gestural idiom, but also points to the inability of words to produce understanding on their own. In Ravicka, where "the simplest negotiations demanded some aspect of performance," Gladman makes literal an implicit truth of language. An event of communication requires something more complex and yet more elemental than words: dependent upon one's ability to feel in tune with others (their bodies, movements, gestures, etc.) as on a capacity to speak. The tourist's frustration rests in her inability to determine exactly how this works in Ravicka.

For advice, she turns to the city's most famous novel Matlatli Doc, believing it holds the key to experiencing events in the city. But her misreading of the book leads her further astray, reinforcing the incorrect notion that written language can produce events of understanding. That the novel bears a resemblance to Gladman's own work calls our attention to the fact that we too read in a misguided effort to experience discrete moments of insight -- to visit a kind of foreign country in hopes of gaining perspective on our own ordinary life. The tourist explains:

This novel, most popularly translated as Waiting, is composed of a series of portraits in which urban people -- often trapped in crowds or between buses -- must shout something in order to get themselves free. The work is famous for its pace: nothing happens, nothing happens, then everything is "said" to happen though nothing happens around that saying, then the book ends, and throughout it all there is this shouting.

For the characters of the imagined Matlatli Doc, yelling a particular word or phrase (or perhaps just a sound) can be liberating. But readers of the book don't know how this event of liberation transpires and the novel performs language's failure to describe events. The tourist mistakenly focuses on the fact that the characters free themselves with language, and ignores the underlying truth that language itself does not (and maybe cannot) describe what this event of liberation looks like.

Though the tourist spends much of her time lamenting the incapacities of spoken and written language, the key insight about events -- and to Event Factory itself -- appears early in the novel's first act. When the tourist meets a salsa performer on her first day in town, she gets an impromptu dance lesson. The teacher gives her a recommendation initially mistaken as dance advice: "You can't do this without movement." The tourist considers her words several times, but only much later wonders "if she was referring to life in this city." This thought fades in and out of her (and our) attention. We watch the tourist fail to speak and misread Matlati Doc, and it is only as she sits on the plane preparing to take off from Ravicka that she realizes the import of the salsa dancer's words: "To move through this city was the only way to depart from it, which is what I had been doing all along. While arrival, if ever achieved, is one of the most minimalist of experiences, departure is long, luxuriating torture."

Events are not occasioned by specific meanings conveyed by language, but rather the space for language to exist. The same seems true for reading. Language creates the illusion of movement through a narrative, and the only way to depart from a text is to move through it.

Like tourism, the "long, luxuriating torture" of narrative demands motion, endurance, and comfort with the idea that the experience might fail to live up to our expectations. What matters is the effort to use the imperfect medium of language to gain what understanding is available, not the sensation that definite meaning has been conveyed. This itself might be an unsatisfying conclusion, but it seems Gladman's contention that this is the best we can get.

Event Factory by Renee Gladman
Dorothy
ISBN: 978-0984469307
136 pages