Gaps and Asterisks

July 1, 2021   •   By Louisa Hall

THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE TRENDING ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO. 30.

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TWO RECENTLY PUBLISHED novels about life in the age of the internet — Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This — address the question of what they see as a recent surge in broken prose: books written in essayistic bits, separated by gaps or asterisks. The style, both books claim, is particularly contemporary. Oyler’s narrator dislikes it; Lockwood’s narrator — who writes in that style — remains more ambivalent.


In Fake Accounts:


Having read several [of these fragmented books] because they were easy to finish, I couldn’t help but object: this trendy style was melodramatic, insinuating utmost meaning where there was only hollow prose, and in its attempts to reflect the world as a sequence of distinct and clearly formed ideas, it ran counter to how reality actually worked. Especially, I had to assume, if you had a baby, which is a purposeful experience (don’t let it die) but also chaotic (it might die). Since the interviewer and the author agreed there was something distinctly feminine about this style, I felt guilty admitting it, but I saw no other choice: I did not like the style.


In No One Is Talking About This:


Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.


In Fake Accounts, it is a (bad) form often chosen by women. In No One Is Talking About This, it is a form chosen by millennials whose prose has been influenced by the alienation of the internet age and an adulthood steeped in the language of tweets. In both, it is definitely/probably a regrettable development.


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Prose broken to bits by gaps and/or asterisks is not, of course, a new development. In 2010, David Shields wrote a manifesto broken with many gaps and asterisks and demanding that all prose henceforth be broken by gaps and asterisks. 2010 is a long time ago in the internet age, but the examples Shields gives of exemplary literature broken by gaps and asterisks date back very much further: the lists and accounts that were the earliest forms of writing in 3200 BCE; the Iliad and the Odyssey, 800 BCE; Sumerian anthologies of aphorism; Plutarch’s essays; Anne Bradstreet’s letters; Emerson’s essays; Kafka’s notebooks; Speedboat (1976) and Sleepless Nights (1979), both novels composed out of fragments.


It wasn’t uncommon, in the 20th century, for novels to be broken by gaps and/or asterisks: Cane, the 1923 novel by Jean Toomer, is a novel broken by frequent gaps. Margery Kempe (1994), by Robert Glück, is a novel broken by gaps. The Savage Detectives and 2666 are both novels broken by frequent gaps and asterisks. Twentieth-century nonfiction was also very commonly broken by gaps and asterisks: The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany; many essays by Annie Dillard; Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano; The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano.


One small way of thinking about poetry in any century is that it is prose broken by gaps and asterisks. Novels-in-verse are broken by gaps and asterisks; diaries are broken by gaps and asterisks; novels in the form of diaries are broken by gaps and asterisks; epistolary novels are broken by gaps and asterisks. Commonplace books — from E. M. Forster’s to Ross Gay’s recent The Book of Delights — have always been broken by gaps and asterisks.


And so on. It seems likely to me that a writer now who chooses to break their books with gaps and asterisks would be likely to be as influenced by any of these ancient traditions as they would be by Twitter or the internet or even recent exemplary books (Citizen, Motherhood, The Argonauts) broken by gaps and/or asterisks.


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Given such a long and storied tradition, what to make of Lockwood’s narrator’s anxiety, and Oyler’s narrator’s disdain?


Oyler’s narrator’s disdain is easier to investigate because it is allied with Oyler’s own, as expressed in a review of Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, which she describes as a book “composed of anecdotes, miniature histories and cultural criticism that make up essays a page or two long.”


One of her complaints about the form is that it is vague: “[T]here is a sense that Biss is after something specific, even if she doesn’t know what it is. Metaphors are tested, ironies pressed upon. Etymologies abound.”


Another one of her complaints is that the form borrows — inexpertly — from the real experts:


[S]ome sections seem almost entirely composed of quotations and paraphrases; the contemporary scholars Lewis Hyde, Alison Light and David Graeber, among others, are cited so often that it seems part of Biss’s plan to buy time had to involve stealing it from other writers. Curated nonfiction is popular now for the way it seems to fit with collectivist politics; while reading it I always reach a point at which I wish I were reading the books being extensively quoted.


Another complaint has to do with all the white space: a rip-off for the reader who has purchased it.


So: Trendy, melodramatic, and counter-to-reality, and also vague, plagiaristic, and inflated. But are epistolary novels — which are also broken by gaps, and often composed of jostling and essayistic fragments — trendy, melodramatic, counter-to-reality, etc.? Are novels in verse, are commonplace books, is poetry? These, it seems to me, are questions of how the form is used, and perhaps how the form is received (what was expected of it, and what was missed as a result), not flaws inherent in the form itself.


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Another one of Oyler’s complaints in her review of Biss’s book has to do with the feeling that Biss has promised a book about class and instead delivered one about herself: “What she’s serious about, it slowly comes to seem, is her own life and how to live it.”


This anger at an author who has promised to write about a subject and has instead written about her own shifting relationship to that subject reminds me of a series of scathing reviews I recently read about Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, another book composed of small, jostling fragments.


In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote:


The title of Ann Beattie’s new book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, suggests that the author might be trying to channel Pat Nixon, or conjure up her life with Dick, much the way Curtis Sittenfeld channeled a Laura Bush-like first lady in her 2008 novel, “American Wife.”


It turns out, however, that Ms. Beattie isn’t really much interested in Mrs. Nixon or her life at the White House or her more-than-five-decade-long marriage. Rather, she’s interested in deconstructing this famously opaque former-first-lady as a sort of literary exercise — to test her own skills as a writer and to find an excuse to blather on (and on and on) about her own ideas about fiction writing, about women, and about the interface between life and art.


The Washington Post’s review, entitled “Self-absorbed Mrs. Nixon: It’s All About Ann Beattie,” complains that, “Mrs. Nixon is ostensibly a novel about the first lady, and yet it hardly engages Pat Nixon at all.”


But did these reviewers open Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life and think they were opening a biography? Did they want to open a biography? Did they think a novel is and should be a biography?


If you expected a book by Ann Beattie called Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life to be a biography of Pat Nixon, I can imagine you would feel disappointed when you read it (though even that disappointment, I think, would be misguided: even that ur-biography, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, is — as the title makes clear — as much about Boswell as it is about Samuel Johnson).


But if you don’t expect a novel to be a biography (or a work of creative nonfiction to be a lecture delivered on a particular subject), and instead expect a novel (or a work of creative nonfiction) to be about the mind of the author in relationship to its subject, then you would read its form (in these cases shifting, impermanent, relational, plagiaristic) as an expression of the states of mind of the author, and not a statement about a particular subject. And in that case, all the little parts, broken by spaces, would be the form the author chose to represent how her mind moved around the particular subject.


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Why would a writer choose to write a book full of gaps and asterisks? Oyler suggests that it permits the author to lean on (and steal from) sharper minds; her narrator in Fake Accounts suggests that it lends profundity where there is none. Lockwood’s narrator fears it isn’t the writer who chooses the form, but rather the internet, expressing itself through the writer. The woman Oyler’s narrator mocks suggests that she chose the form because she is a busy mother.


These all seem like believable enough reasons why a writer might choose a form. Conditions of production are important — Grace Paley famously said that she wrote short stories (and not long novels) because she was a mother and an activist and “art is long and life is short.” It isn’t only mothers (or parents, or caregivers of any kind) who are too busy to write endless novels: anyone with a difficult job is too busy to write endless novels without taking breaks, as is anyone with a difficult life.


A lot of exposure to tweets also seems like an interesting reason to try a novel broken up into bits; so does a fear that one’s mind isn’t sharp enough or profound enough on its own, and the desire to incorporate sharper and more profound bits into one’s consciousness.


Writerly pleasure also seems like a good reason, to me. It’s pleasing, when you come to the end of an idea, to congratulate yourself with two brisk hits to the space bar, a resounding shift-eight, and then another two hits on the space bar.


In “The Changing View of Man in the Portrait,” John Berger suggests a slew of more interesting and more important reasons:


We hear a lot about the crisis of the modern novel. What this involves, fundamentally, is a change in the mode of narration. It is scarcely any longer possible to tell a straight story sequentially unfolding in time. And this is because we are too aware of what is continually traversing the story line laterally. That is to say, instead of being aware of a point as an infinitely small part of a straight line, we are aware of it as an infinitely small part of an infinite number of lines, as the centre of a star of lines. Such awareness is the result of our constantly having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities. 


There are many reasons why this should be so: the range of modern means of communication: the scale of modern power: the degree of personal political responsibility that must be accepted for events all over the world: the fact that the world has become indivisible: the unevenness of economic development within that world: the scale of the exploitation.


He talks about Cubism as an attempt to paint a portrait with an awareness of “having to take into account the simultaneity and extension of events and possibilities.” A prose broken by gaps and asterisks, in which the perspective shifts slightly with every break, seems like another approach to the same problem.


In Reality Hunger, David Shields gives other reasons for choosing the form. He quotes (or specifically does not quote, theft of bits and pieces from other minds being an important part of the art for which he advocates) Alain Robbe-Grillet, who describes the form as a choice that stands against old-fashioned narrative, which — he says — is a relic of 19th-century aristocracy (“The world’s destiny has ceased, for us, to be identified with the rise and fall of certain men, of certain families”).


Elsewhere he describes it as more representative of actual psychology (“While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic and opaque. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances”) and also more representative of the actual world (“Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though — standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night — flies at us in bright splinters”).


I can imagine a manifesto that describes a prose form full of gaps in a way that is similar to Denise Levertov’s description of “exploratory poetry”: “What I mean by that word is that such poetry, more than most poetry of the past, incorporates and reveals the process of thinking/feeling, feeling/thinking, rather than focusing more exclusively on its results.” The most crucial tool for this, she says, is the line break, which records the hesitations between words that cannot be recorded by normal punctuation, a hesitation which — she suggests — marks the moment when the mind has questioned the line it has just uttered, or slightly adjusted its stance. Perhaps a prose full of gaps is a prose full of such pauses that exist outside of and in addition to punctuation.


Or one that imagines a prose form full of gaps along the lines that Harryette Mullen describes in the preface to her collection Urban Tumbleweed, a book of episodic verses broken by gaps that she describes as a tanka diary:


[T]he brevity and clarity of tanka make it suitable for capturing in concise form the ephemera of everyday life. With refined awareness of seasonal changes and a classical repertoire of fleeting impressions, Japanese traditional poetry contemplates, among other things, the human being’s place in the natural world, an idea I wanted to explore in my own nontraditional way.


Perhaps a prose style full of white space is also well suited for showing the ways in which ephemera break upon us and then pass, the fleeting way the natural world intersects with consciousness.


Or one that describes a prose form full of gaps in a way that is similar to Helen Vendler’s description of poetry that features a break in the poet’s style:


When a poet puts off an old style (to speak for a moment as though this were a deliberate undertaking), he or she perpetrates an act of violence, so to speak, on the self. It is not too much to say that the old body must be dematerialized if the poet is to assume a new one. […] The fears and regrets attending the act of permanent stylistic change can be understood by analogy with divorce, expatriation, and other such painful spiritual or imaginative departures. It is hoped, of course, that the new body — like the new spouse or the new country — will be more satisfactory than the old, but it is a hope, not a certainty.


Perhaps a prose style full of gaps and asterisks is a style that enacts all the small (and large) violences we do against ourselves in daily life, all the ways we wrench ourselves from one thought, or one marriage, or one home, or one country, into the next.


Or one that imagines a prose form full of gaps as a strategy for foregrounding the daily, cumulative process of writing, the way the practice of a form not only represents the mind, but changes the mind that has chosen to use it — something along the lines of what Ross Gay describes in his preface to The Book of Delights:


I came up with a handful of rules: write a delight every day for a year; begin and end on my birthday, August 1; draft them quickly; and write them by hand. The rules made it a discipline for me. A practice. Spend time thinking and writing about delight every day. […] It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.


Or I can imagine a manifesto that describes a prose form full of gaps in a way that is similar to Jim Ferris’s “The Enjambed Body: A Step Toward a Crippled Poetics,” an essay itself full of gaps and asterisks that calls us to eschew our love of evenness and regularity and value, instead, a limping poetics. Perhaps a prose style full of gaps and asterisks is just that: a limping prose style, composed of irregular parts, parts irregular enough to represent our irregular bodies and lives.


There are a lot of interesting reasons I can imagine to break up prose with gaps and asterisks, and a lot I haven’t managed to imagine yet. It’s probably impossible to come up with a single, unifying aesthetic theory for a form that has been with us since the beginning of writing, and that basically consists of alternating white space with black space, except to say that it is not a new form, not a form that can be claimed by the internet, not a form that can be claimed by anyone, not a form that is either good or bad. It is only a form that only promises to have many different beginnings and many different endings, to contain many different attempts at expression, and so seems like a good form for representing the ceaseless movement of a mind coming into contact with a subject it knows it hasn’t mastered yet.


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Louisa Hall is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Her novels include Speak (Ecco, 2015) and Trinity (Ecco, 2018).