A Look Back to DB10’s Conceptual Fiction Folio w/ “Stranded” by Marcos Mataratas
The 15th issue of Drunken Boat is coming together – every word, each letter being arranged just where it should be – but it’s always good to take the time to remember what came before. In our current age, there are many uncertainties about the transition from physically printed, immovable words into a landscape where digital text is the norm. There are those who have their doubts about the permanence of electronic literature, but right now I’m enjoying how great it is to be able to access Drunken Boat’s entire back catalogue with only a few clicks.
An issue that caught my attention is DB10, the 10th anniversary issue, which is packed with 10 folios and over 300 contributors. The Conceptual Fiction folio puts an unexpected twist on the writing, many taking a form much different from what readers typically find in fiction. In the folio’s introduction, Sina Queyras, who edited the conceptual fiction with Vanessa Place, writes, “Conceptual fiction reveals to us something about the structures of language and writing as much about human consciousness and contemporary culture. It often does this by creating texts that illustrate concepts rather than ‘tell stories.’” These thoughts were in my mind as I explored the folio, and I became fascinated by the interplay between concept and story in “Stranded” by Marcos Mataratas.
“Stranded” tells the story of X, a protagonist who has recently “run out of memories.” Even though it reads like a story, does it fit your definition of a story, or is it something more abstract? Are memories required to construct what we think of as a story? Like most of my favorite stories, “Stranded” left me with a lot of questions to contemplate.
Since it is clear that the piece is interested in linguistics – in the use of language and the meaning or lack of meaning that can be taken from it – I find it no coincidence that the protagonist is merely named with the algebraic unknown, “X.” It is reminiscent of Kafka, who knew of the debris that clings to names, and of the – perhaps unwanted – storied histories that go along with them. Like the surveyor known only as, “K.” who enters the village at the start of Kafka’s The Castle, Mataratas’ protagonist “X” offers scant clues to his past or identity: “X calls himself a secret, a puzzle, he will tell no intimate details and will share no sadnesses.”
When X misreads a quote from Roberto Bolaño (mistaking “comers” for “comets”), he “is amazed by his misunderstanding but then he remembers that post–modernism is dead.” It raises fascinating questions about a writer’s use of similarly spelled words. Should the writer be careful to select words that would not be mistaken for similar sounding words with entirely different meanings? Is it even possible for a writer to anticipate this?
X’s memory has been called into question, and his recollection of post–modernism’s death seems dubious, as he had previously referred to a Derridean character he described as a “bad linguist, with a generally pessimistic outlook on meaning.” The message this linguist left to X: “A word is like a marionette strung to a billion unintentions (and one or two conscious intentions).” Ironically, X reports, “The rest of the message is unintelligible,” implying that perhaps the linguist’s theory has some traction.
At the end of it all, I’m left with an uncanny feeling of plot, even though after X met the girl with the eyelashes, it largely became the epistolary story of her suitor, a Utopian writer who drafted “treatises on the soul of the universe where never again another puppy was kicked, another kitten discarded, another Arab water–boarded, another baby shaken.” Mataratas manages to stuff the short piece full of clever turns of phrase, vivid imagery, and enough fascinating concepts to leave you ruminating on it long after you’ve finished reading.
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