A review of Spare Parts Plus Two by Gail Scott
Published on October 1, 2002
Spare Parts Plus Two
Coach House Books
Initially published in 1981, Gail Scott’s first book, Spare Parts, underwent stereotypographic cryopreservation during the temporary suspension of The Coach House Press. Now reincarnated as Coach House Books, the laboratory of Canadian experimental writing has reanimated the original five Spare Parts by fusing them with two new illuminating supernumerary pieces on narrative. There exists absolutely no aesthetic reason as to why Spare Parts should ever have gone out of print. This exploding linguistic kaleidoscope of instantaneous, vertiginous prose ought to have been the constant talisman of a generation who had known the suspension of their civil rights. Furthermore, there should be no need for a reviewer in the 21st century to declare that Surrealism – a collaborative, feminist Surrealism sometimes informed by critical theory, Kristeva and/or semiotics, and meeting in the absence of André Breton’s approving nose – did indeed reach English-speaking Canada, and that is has manifested itself under the signature of Gail Scott. The fact that such an introduction seems nedessary, despite the book’s strenuous extension of the Canadian imaginative range, suggests that the reasons for the eclipse of Spare Parts are political, economic and cultural. The present invisibility in Canada of similarly liberating experimental prose in English calls for a full analysis of the current situation without bitterness. Nonetheless, the return of Spare Parts presents the English-reading Canadian public with the choice again: whether to pursue its (now increasingly exclusive) support of naturalistic novels reproducing with minimal formal innovation the current unjust social reality, or whether to recognize prose’s “utopian function”; its wishful, anticipatory quality that unlocks the stockpiled potentialities of the real. Gail Scott is a superb stylist who draws on dreams and automatic writing, which is to say that the forces of the conscious and unconscious are in constant play. She eschews pictorial continuity in favour of montage, folds and unfolds immense landscapes like origami and conducts all to the beat of a crazy metronome sliding on the dashboard of an unstoppable vehicle. The most enthralled “spare part,” “Withdrawal,” is spliced together ecstatically. Amidst car crashes, the moaning of a violin, a menacing chess game, temper tantrums from a disturbingly doll-like child, and reproachful hauntings by a fondue-coated mother, the singular image of luscious raspberries ripening in the snow returns at intervals, taking on different emotional hues according to the context. The effect is uncanny. In the new essays, “The Virgin Denotes Or the Unreliability of Adverbs To Do with Time” and “Bottoms Up,” Gail Scott revisits the original writing grounds of Spare Parts while executing a critique of nostalgia. Collaborative aleatory experiments, cross-linguistic exchange, and poetic resistance following the invocation of The War Measures Act contributed mightily to these early writings. The unique richness of the situation then tempts a comparison with the emptiness of now. However, a radical rethinking of time, short-circuiting sentimentality, she implies, may be at the heart of any future avant-garde: “It is the artist’s task, Ernst Bloch states in Utopia, to bring now-time into line or focus with like historical moments when thought’s not emptied out, a turning point.” Experimental writing, then, cannot be characterized by novelty alone; “new” writing would in that case assume the ideology of unlimited progress appropriate to post-scarcity capitalism. By contrast, art that aligns historically sensitive moments with the present is continuously beyond its epoch. The montage technique, youthfully employed in Spare Parts, has this potential. This potential still exists, and Spare Parts Plus Two is the most hopeful sign for the upcoming generation of radical Canadian writers who may incorrectly consider themselves born too late. mRb
X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.