Pulling out these two seventies titles by Raymond Federman is almost like reviewing old Beefheart albums--it's not as if they haven't been in print (at least off and on) over the years, but they haven't been given credit for the amazing (and funny) things they are.
Federman is a French-born writer of Jewish descent who's mother and father hid him in a closet when the Nazis came to take them and his two sisters away. Not a lot there to build a comic career. He left France after the war, moved to the U.S. and dragged himself through a series of cities and mishaps that have, after being thoroughly remixed, distorted, retold, contradicted, and denied, become a good part of these two novels. You could see him as the pre-Eggers Eggers, a guy who uses his writing about those awful times like a crowbar to jimmy what freedom he can from them. Double or Nothing, the earlier of the two, is the story of an almost non-existent "stubborn and determined middle aged man" telling the story of a paranoid author who plans to lock himself in a room for a year with only noodles to live on so he can write the story of a shy, young frenchman just arrived in New York after the war. The book looks harder to read than it is--lines of text run backwards and forwards, build up in pyramids and cut with jagged sawteeth across the page, words are sometimes sprinkled or spiraled in large empty spaces. Almost every page of the book is built according to a different design, like some type-setter gone mad. But despite the dadaist randomness, if you just read along word by word there's hardly a damn thing difficult about moving ahead. There is the page of mirror text, that's not easy reading, but if you've got that far you're not going to let it stop you; there are some bits in French, most translated, but skipping them would hardly matter. After all, what you're reading are endless (but somehow funny, over and over) lists and worryings of what the paranoid writer can afford for his year locked away: precisely how many boxes of noodles, whether tomato sauce once a week for flavor might bust the bank, how he's going to store his 104 rolls of t.p. so he can count the horses on his wallpaper, and always interrupting these pointless turns of frenetic ordering with the hapless encounters of the young French guy fixated by the crotch of a woman on the subway, screwing his friend's mother, trying not to sound pathetic about his awful past.
Take It or Leave It eases the typographical turmoil, but torments his narrators --this time someone is standing in front of an unruly audience telling the story told to him by by a young french guy ("Frenchy"), now somewhat older, making his way out of his military barracks in North Carolina to his planned great American adventure. He wants to hitch across the country to meet up with a ship in San Francisco that'll take him off to the Korean War, but first he's got to get his check from Vermont. Like DON, the stories here fall back on themselves, are reworked, and criticized by the crowd. A pious voice asks why Frenchy didn't feel exploited as a foreigner by the "structures of Capitalism" for being drafted into a war against a country with which he had no complaint. "Do I understand correctly? UNBELIEVABLE! You guys are really a bunch of perverts! The stuff you can come up with! And now I'm asked if I understand THE QUESTION? ... Yes his story you find it amusing. You think that perhaps it is tellable recitable since you stand there listening to it with gaping mouths. And why not? Interesting even (even a bit obscene). Don't you think so? Nonetheless you guys would have liked to have had his experiences his adventures and his avatars. His bitchy existence! N'est-ce pas? ... But for you guys there is always a solution as it was once suggested: You simply contrive a little kingdom in the midst of the universal muck and then shit on it." Sending-up Kerouac and drawing on his love of Beckett, Federman can't help but get caught up in his machinations, canceling his story as he goes. He knows full well that "in fact, however, there can always be more words."
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