Book review: Failure, A Writer’s Life, by Joe Milutis

Share this article
Have your say

TOWARDS the beginning of this book full of intellectual pirouettes and cerebral dazzle, Joe Milutis discusses an obscure essay by Marguerite Duras, One Out Of A Hundred Novels Makes It To Publication, which sets out his field of concern.

Failure, A Writer’s Life

Joe Milutis

Zero Books, £14.99

Duras writes: “Published literature represents only one percent of what is written in the world. It seems worthwhile to talk about the rest, an abyss, a black night out of which comes that ‘bizarre thing’, literature, and into which almost all of it disappears again without a trace.”

I can imagine the whoop of joy Milutis must have hollered when he read the term Duras uses for this Gehenna of ­Letters: “virtual literature”. Failure, A Writer’s Life is a pere­grination through the unpub­lishable, the unreadable, the abandoned, the abortive, the illegible and the indecipherable. He takes in both the esoteric (Charles Fort, HP Lovecraft, the brilliant Christian Bök, who has “written” a poem into the genetic code of a virus) and the canonical (Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, John Ashbery), as well as digressing to cover photography, film, spam, archives and the nature of the digital text more generally. ­Duras may have imagined her “virtual literature” as a sealed, silent place of the utterly lost; we, nowadays, have her abyss in perpetual, blaring, online Technicolor.

One chapter must be the most daring piece of critical bravado I’ve read in a long time. Dr Bruce Ivins was responsible for the anthrax attacks which happened in the wake of 9/11; Milutis reads the entire report on what was the FBI’s most expensive case and pronounces that “The Amerithrax Investigative Summary may in fact be the most significant document of literary criticism in the history of American letters”. This is, in part, a piece of cheekiness; but as he discovers “found poems” in the text, analyses the analysis of Ivins’ poems, tracks the FBI wondering over the significance of a copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach and eventually “interpreting” the envelope rather than the letter, he does make it seem like the subject of a Pynchon-esque postmodernist novel.

Miletus resurrects some notable autodidacts, most notably Abraham Lincoln Gillespie, a school teacher from Philadelphia who, after a car accident, became an unwelcome disciple of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. He took their linguistic experiments to a kind of reductio ad absurdum. Here’s a blast: “What’s been dough-clogging the sieve-process of the Speak-Mind…? Grammar’d communications. GRAYMAR. Academic Bugaboo” and so on. He is, strictly speaking, a “failure”, but I would wager that most graduate students would be hard-pressed to distinguish between a piece of Gillsepie and some of the later of Pound’s Cantos.

There is an outsider art quality to some of the projects described, such as the Digital Landfill website – you send your unwanted documents and images there, to be “composted” into Burroughs-style cut-ups – or Henry Darger’s The Book Of Weather Reports – a ten-year collation of the day’s weather. There’s also Joe Gould, known as Professor Seagull, a homeless man who claimed to be the author of the world’s longest book, The Oral History Of The World, memorably described by Joseph Mitchell as “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle and malarkey... the addled opinions of scores of park-bench oracles and gin-mill savants”. Unfortunately for those interested in such literary curios, it never actually existed.

Failure, A Writer’s Life is an oddity: but what a glorious, weird, challenging oddity. You won’t look at literature the same way afterwards. «