by Jan Ramjerdi
RE.LA.VIR, as you might suspect from its title, mimics computer technology and new media: Its pages, which comprise a rape narrative, look like data and hypertext unscrolling on a computer screen.
I've been working at appreciating Re.La.Vir since it was published last year by FC2, a press devoted to innovative fiction, with terrific work on its list (Cris Mazza's Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?) alongside other works that have the self-indulgent residue of college workshops all over them (Mark Amerika's Sexual Blood). But while Re.La.Vir's form may be exciting for some folks in the twisted, defiant little world some of us call experimental writing, and while it raises some good issues amid its pages of feverishly scrolling computer lexicon, the value of its experiment mostly escapes me.
Written by a Cal State-Northridge English professor, the book (whose title comes from its patterns of wordplay) is reminiscent, for me, of looking at the artist Sue Coe's work, but its pitch is even more uncomfortable. The rape/torture incident and its aftermath, from the woman's point of view, contains some of the strongest, most difficult lines I've read, and the narrative's presentation in fragmented, fractured pieces makes its intensity even greater.
With the horrific, unflinching tones of someone writing from the absolute bottom of hell, Ramjerdi builds the book's first segment upon insomnia-producing phrases from the speaker's memory of a rape, such as "Die, you little red cunt," and "No one can hear you, make all the noise you want, bitch," and also a sentence that's repeated and reworked into a plethora of nightmarish anagrams and spelling fragments: "I don't know the woman I am until I am raped."
That said, these pages are difficult to wend through because of their computer-mimicking form; and the reader would get the gist in half the book's length. Since the rape material sounds traumatized and genuine, it must be read with discomfort and horror and cannot be dismissed. So, like many books about illness or catastrophe, the subject matter here automatically ensures the reader's sympathy, and this makes a negative critique look mean-spirited. Like a slick tarp, Re.La.Vir and its savage subject matter work to repel criticism like sour rainwater.
One has to ask, however, when faced with Re.La.Vir's experimental typography, "Why this form? How does it work to abet the subject matter?" You might read the author's choice as a suggestion that human experience is at odds with technology's purported aloof, nonhuman qualities, or that a woman's rape is like the new technology's sudden domination of the globe--but that would be a gross over-reading. It's more likely that Ramjerdi feels that the language of terminals is ably suited to express human woe, or that rapid-fire computer talk is similar to thoughts in a traumatized psyche. She may also be suggesting, as has theorist Donna Haraway, that women now are in an especially interesting, ripe position to merge with technology.
Still, none of these ideas is made clear enough in Re.La.Vir to justify the book as a readable or feasible narrative. Instead, like works by Kenneth Goldsmith, who's written books in which each sentence in a chapter might have a preordained number of syllables, Re.La.Vir works as a book to think about: a disturbing art object, even if its ideas fall short. Ramjerdi's fragmenting language, meant to mimic the explosion of trauma, is not that innovative; some readers might like the expulsion of words rendering the narrator's experience, though to me they ring with cliché: "The woman was NARRaped," "ALT.REAL::REAL.E.PISTOL::."
At moments, it's true, the pretend computer-screen form renders this text eerily airless, and the book's speaker is as ghostly a nonentity as real-life rape victims are made, resulting in some worthwhile textual moments. And yes, technology has changed our minds and purportedly our bodies, blah blah. But Ramjerdi's language play (e.g., "No. No. [Novel not to die," etc.) at last suggests that she sees language as essential and definitive rather than a tool we've invented--the final sour realization in an ambitious but not very engaging experiment.