The Short Version: Bhanu Kapil’s exploration of the absence of a novel she had planned to write – the spaces around the edges of story, the place where performance cannot be captured in text, the research and preparation for a story not told here… except also told in outline, a negative of a story.
The Review: The wonderful thing about the Tournament of Books is that it puts literature in front of me that I might never otherwise encounter or experience. Having spent the last year or so expanding my conception of poetry and discovering a better sense of the way a poetic collection might actually challenge what I previously understood the constraints of the format to be (see: US(a.), Citizen: An American Lyric), I was immensely intrigued when this cracked not only the longlist but the shortlist. Even before picking it up, I was ready for the inevitable arguments (both in my head and, I’m sure, during the ToB itself) about whether or not this counts as… well, anything. Is it fiction? Can poetry also be fiction? Is this even actually a book – or just scraps, fragments, notes left unconnected?
My best sense, after having grappled with it for a little while now, is that this is the outline of a novel – not in the sense of “notes on how the story will go” but in the sense that a chalk outline can also be a body. This is the anti-novel; the absence of novel that is, by its own strange alchemy, a kind of novel too. But what does that mean, exactly?
Kapil seems to understand what it is she’s doing here, the potentially aggravating postmodern bait-and-switch she’s pulled on the reader. Near the end of this slim volume, she writes: “I feel bad for you, having read this far into the nothing that these notes are.” And in the first section of the book (or second, if you count the exploded table of contents as a section unto itself), she writes that she is “a poet engaging in a novel-shaped space” and that “it is [sic] more accurate to say I wrote a book that failed.” She is aware, throughout the writing – or should it more accurately be called the presentation? – that she has not written a novel, even if that’s what she set out to do. Or, at least, under her own considerations, she has failed to write a novel.
The line that puts all of this in perspective for me as a reader comes in the epigraphs: “One thing next to another doesn’t mean they touch.” We are used to a sense of sequence, even in the most exploded of texts: there is an idea that the reader can, even if its at the end of all things, put together some feeling of order regarding what came before. How, then, to engage with something that purposefully remains scattered? Where there is no actual sense of sequence or structure to be found except in the sense of what is not there?
Ostensibly there is a level of story here: Kapil is writing about a moment in 1979, a race riot that broke out in a suburb of London that resulted in the death of Blair Peach. Her character, Ban, dies(?) or at least attempts an auto-sacrifice during said riot. There are moments in the book where the reader comes right up against the edge of where the body of the story would begin – I can think of two fragments in particular that present setting and begin to paint the more concrete picture of place, time, and person – but they are few and far between. Instead, we see Kapil attempting to consider Ban and ways to present her story. We’re also given the knowledge late in the book, in the second-to-last section (which takes the form of paragraph-long “thank you”s to those who helped her write “this” book (but, actually, I think it’s those who helped her write the not-book that this book is the outline/negative of): this book is actually a work of “intense autobiography” and Kapil’s nickname as a child was Ban.
But what, then, does that mean for the rest of this text? How do we then interpret what’s come before, scattered and fragmented as it is?
Can we interpret it? Or, in the absence of the actual novel, is there in fact nothing to interpret but the ethereal outline of something that might not ever have been or ever be?
I find myself disinterested in discovering the answers.
Rating: 3 out of 5. “If I see this, this, and this, then even though I cannot see it, there must be a novel at the center of it.” – a scientific hypothesis about the negative novel found here. I want to dislike this book more, but I actually find that I have a solid level of respect for it. I don’t know if I would consider it a work of fiction, let alone a novel – and there will be some angry ToBers, I’m sure, who will rant about how this was included as opposed to X, Y, or Z – but at the same time, it achieves an incredible feat by presenting to us literally everything but the novel. It is the dark matter that surrounds a novel that is not once actually presented to us, but that we can still somehow see (or at least see an approximation of it) because we’ve been able to piece together the outline of it from everything else that surrounds it. It is intriguing but its hollowness is, in the end, overwhelmingly hindering to that same thought-provocation.