on Coma by Pierre Guyotat, translated from the French by Noura Wedell (Semiotext[e]/MIT Press)

Although Pierre Guyotat’s Coma comes packaged between two fiery anti-memoir statements -- by Gary Indiana in his introduction and by translator Noura Wedell in an afterword – it is nevertheless a personal narrative. But conscience compels it to question and reemploy the genre’s conventions. On one level, Coma follows Guyotat’s life in the late 1970s and early 80s during which he darted around France, living in a minibus and writing in a literal fever – in between stays at sanitariums. GuyotatComa.jpgBut the narrative’s purpose, as a recollection of experience, is to draw an other (I/you) into a conspiracy where we may finally recognize each other. Agonized, desolate and free, Coma is an exquisite overflow of desire for the improbable – and both a dramatization and example of the search for renewed language.

As Coma begins, Guyotat is excited by a millennium-ending performance in Paris of dancers from Bali. He writes:

“With whom can I carnally partake of this ‘joy’ – nothing compared to what I, as a Christian child, imagine for my life: to be torn apart by the lions, disemboweled by the bull, struck by the lightning of God; then adolescent, to be torn apart by brothels! – with whom can I share, now, so as to dissolve its fixity, this beginning of a beginning of a desired destiny, in the very neighborhood of the city where I have confronted it with a reality outside myself?”

In this passage, he tells us that not only will his narrative deal with his life’s departures from convention (and his inability to follow such standards even if he had wanted to), but he also indirectly solicits the reader to be the one with whom he may “partake” the barely communicable. Deprived of reality, a writer may simply find it necessary to shed techniques that he/she believes are infected by narrow, over-determined motives. Can one devise a language more capable of indicating how to enact a primal, more humane existence? When the writer surrenders his/her street behavior to evoke this language, what must I disavow in order to hear it?

He also suggests that we “carnally partake” in language, a thing unto itself, another body, an embodiment – which in turn may trigger reconsiderations of the sort of “I” that addresses that other.

A step back: Who is Pierre Guyotat?

GuyotatColor.jpegGuyotat was born in 1940 in Bourg-Argental, a village located 60 kilometers southwest of Lyon in the Loire departement. His father, a doctor, was pursued with his family by the Nazis for aiding local partisans. In 1960, Guyotat was drafted into military service and shipped to Algeria during the final violent years of French occupation and local counter-insurgency. (That same year his first novel, Sur Un Cheval, was published.) Two years later, MPs arrested him for assaulting a superior officer and interrogated him for 10 days. A military court found him guilty of desertion and inciting dissent. On sentencing, he was flung into an earthen pit beneath his regiment’s kitchen where he remained for three months in near total darkness.

In 1971, he published his third novel, Éden, Éden, Éden. Drawing from his Algerian experiences, the text comprises one continuous sentence (scored with backslashes, brackets, semicolons and commas), an intoned catalog of military atrocities, communal humiliations, unsated lust, and miscellanea running 192 pages. Roland Barthes contributed the introduction. After French censors prohibited booksellers from selling the novel to anyone under 18, a petition of support was signed by luminaries such as Pierre Boulez, Nathalie Sarraute, Italo Calvino, Max Ernst, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and even François Mitterand and Georges Pompidou.

GuyotatBW.jpgGuyotat had developed an early reputation for brawling with authorities, and he taunted the censors. “Pornography is certainly more beautiful than eroticism," he shot back. "Eroticism is an ugly, manipulative ideology. There is nothing more boring than eroticism, it's even worse than poetry. I say hooray for pornography." The censors had no idea what he was talking about, and while they charged him with standard obscenity crimes, in fact they were objecting to his ripping the mask of dignity off the face of French colonialism – and exhuming the still-living bodies. And then there was the slashing of novelistic form and its vocal cords. “This is no longer ‘writing,’ it’s the process of working with a material that is common to all art,” he explained.

Coma gives each of us a chance to step apart from the censors – meaning those who don’t know how to read. And it is, after all, a personal narrative, it does employ an “I” who through its own exuberance tries with utmost determination to undo itself:

“What little I am becoming – and that little, ingested here – feeds my need – reason now leads my heart – to enter, above all else, into the self of he or she to whom speech is predominantly directed, perhaps touching a secret of his or her life, the dread, then, here and everywhere, that the other might be hurt, even minutely, pulls my soul, from soul at last, from pure will … That late summer [in 1975] masks the end of my emotional self, the disappearance of all wounds of self-esteem, of all that builds the torment, the pleasure of so-called private life. The other, whomsoever he or she may be, becomes my sole concern.”

GuyotatDrawn.jpegWe could be listening here to Simone Weil. It appears to be difficult for most writers, and even more so for most readers, to understand how and why the first-person generates such mistrust and antipathy in some quarters. Why does Guyotat find “a stay of life in the death of technique” when he subverts the traditional narrative? Coma answers without explaining – but he says, “What is ideal theater but the moment when the creator disappears in favor of his creature, when those creatures speak, answer one another beyond his control? When I think of such a scene, I hear the most beautiful language of desire.”

And so Guyotat tells his story, failing to disappear entirely, but transforming himself, his idea of who he was in those times, into a disintegrating display. He suffers from cardiac erethimia and depression. He starves himself. He visits friends, sees this and that, gets into arguments, drives elsewhere, writes in his van, flips out and checks into a clinic. His novel-in-progress aims for “undifferentiated momentum and result” – just like the memoir itself. He persists in his own habits. Brief episodes proceed quickly, such as this entry:

GuyotatPhone.jpeg“At the end of December 1980, I meet with my brothers and sisters in the village where we were born. Despite the bitter cold, I refuse to spend the night inside the house. I want to live in my camper loaded with the presents I am going to distribute. Instead of parking the van near my father’s last house, on the river, away from the village center. Where his second wife still lives, and where everyone is gathered, I park in the center of the village, in front of the old building where all of us were born, and where our mother died in August 25, 1958.”

Guyotat’s otherness may be idiosyncratic, but he assumes (respects the fact that) the reader’s otherness is just as eccentric (otherwise how could we “read” him)? But he recalls how arduous it has been for him to accomplish the most ordinary transactions with those who may not quite “get” him:

“When I am in a store, at the cashier, I must prepare inside my throat the sentence of inquiry that I will make, anticipate the short commentary, and what and how to answer it, choose the words to anchor the beginning, middle and ending of my sentence, repeat those lines several times, place my hand in such a way on the counter as so stress the issue of the sentence; place my foot on the ground so that I may exist, appear as something other than a ghost.”

GuyotatNon.jpgComa is an anti-memoir insofar as it has no use for the easy coherency of the genre, the requirement that the motion of a life story must add up. In the afterword, Wedell advocates for “the shattering of narcissistic author positions that the institutions of discipline or control and the producers of symbolic capital wield above us as positions of unattainable truth toward oneself. We are then nothing but the ersatz of our relation to ourselves, mediated by images, and products. We want that product, truth, destiny.”

In the introduction, Indiana assails the conventional memoir as “a bundle of lies, crafted to market a particularized self in a world of commodities … behind its costume of authenticity lies the mercantile understanding that a manufactured self is another dead object of consumption.” A severe indictment – but no more severe, I suppose, than my disappointment with most memoirs and their pretensions (such as the exceptional denial of exceptionalism).

Coma fulfills the wishes for uncompromising personal narrative– but it is so much more than an example of some polemical bias. At times it may seem forcibly fragmentary, willful while claiming to be striving for selflessness. But Coma expresses the feeling of a life – disorderly, desperate, unfinished, unappeased. It is a book for those deeply interested in life-writing – and essential for any writer wishing to extend his/her project.

[Published July 2, 2010. 228 pages, $17.95 paperback]