78 or Zero Endings

I just got back from ‘The End?’, an interdisciplinary Humanities graduate student conference at Indiana University. As I am basically an inter-disciplinarian, I presented on my book, 78 Stories, and on the theoretical context through which I understand that work. I read excerpts from the book, answered questions from the audience, and delivered a brief talk.

Below is an abbreviated version of the talk that I gave:

This is a panel on constraint, and yet, as the tradition of constraint writing is most heavily associated with the Oulipo group and their successors, it is also secretly a panel on potentiality…. {section on Oulipo, which I’ve basically posted on this site in other forms so am excising from this post}

… This project, 78 Stories, specifically grew out of my interest in Oulipian writing practices and the Derridian notion of iteration. (I am about to butcher Derrida here, but the general idea or inspiration should come across.) Derrida proposes that a grapheme- that is, any unit of text, can always be repeated such that each repetition means differently (because of context) and yet bears the trace (because of the larger context of that grapheme’s history in the world) of each previous usage.

I wanted to devise a constraint that would be a kind of iteration engine, that would force every block of text to mean in multiple directions. I eventually thought of the crossword puzzle, as in the crossword each white square is filled with its own grapheme, in this case a single letter, and every letter forms part of two different answers- one across and one down. In the standard American crossword puzzle- the form I chose for my project, the grid used measures 15 by 15 squares, is parallel along the diagonal axis, and every square must cross. That is, there are no letters that do not form part of two different answers.

For ’78 Stories’, I chose to use the unit of the paragraph as that which would repeat. Now, when you read the text, you can read either across or down until you reach a black square, as if you were reading the answers to a filled in crossword puzzle. This created an interesting problem with regards to the topic of ends and endings. What serves as an ending must also serve as a beginning, as a middle, as a totally different ending altogether. Characters with the same names perform the same actions over and over in radically different contexts across the surface of the stories, bearing the markings of each other, even the described-bodily and emotional characteristics, while never fully coinciding. A valid reading is that the same characters repeat but are subjected to different fates, but I much prefer to think of the characters as iterations, each one singular but haunted by the others that bear their name. I don’t want to get too far into speculation about subjectivity, and I want to actually read you some of the text of my book, but I will note that this seems to me to be more or less how names tend to function, even as they might name the same person in different stages of life.

Before I begin, I should also note that endings and finality are major themes of this work’s content, as the stories swirl around many many deaths, romantic failures, and apocalyptic events, each one of course doubled, none of them the proper ending for the work as a whole. I am interested by what this doubling of death, doubling of doomsday, does to the finality of the final. In a text that does not properly begin or end, although, I suppose, it can be exhausted, (sidenote: the non-finality of death is also highlighted by my frequent recourse to ghosts) I would like to think of this non-stable doubling as performing death’s function on death– that is, as death is of course the guarantor of the fragility of life and the end is the guarantor of the finitude of narrative, to disrupt every ending is to cast that single point of certainty itself into uncertainty, which is either a liberating or dreadful gesture, or, as befits this strategy of doubling, it is both.


The conference, by the way, was great. I’m bummed that I missed that party though. Sorry W. Philly people.


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