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Narration in Kosuth's 'Purloined'

08 Sep 2001 (extended 13 Oct 2002)

The book is white, has a white glossy jacket with the title (and a small scissor) embossed, while the author's name, the qualifier ("A Novel"), and the publisher are printed in black. A note at the beginning tells us that this is "A project from 1966 completed in 2000". I like the thought that it takes that long (including interruptions) to finish a piece of work. The 750 copies of the print run are numbered with a rubber stamp - why? The first fifty are "signed and numbered in a deluxe edition". So simplifying, this must be for the collectors, the rest for the readers. 1-50 = art, 51-750 = literature? Of course the point is moot whether it is one or the other or both. Empirically, it matters in terms of distribution channels and expectations, and insofar as these are purposefully shaped as an aspect of the work itself, they will have to be considered by the artist/author.

What is peculiar about Kosuth's 'Purloined' is that it engages the reader on each new page in a particular instance of the conventional microcosm of the detective novel - a few names, a setting, a way of talking, a certain craft of managing dialogue, a characteristic situational tension - an engagement that merges into, and is subverted by, the next page fragment from another conventional novel. The page breaks do not appear disruptive, at first, so the engaging reader projects some assumptions onto the next page, where they are sooner or later undermined by the appearance of some different situation or setting, leading to the abrupt shift caused by the appearance of a new name taking over as signifying a character that seemed defined by a partiular situational characteristics, and now must be recognised as someone else, somewhere else. The main character of narrator or detective hero migrates from I to he or she and back to I. So there is a constant play with the reader's engagement and disillusion.

In a sense it is up to the reader to project as much coherence and consequence into the text as he or she likes; the desire for the text to make sense on the level of plot is shuffled into a new position with each new page. The commonalities of the genre facilitate ascriptions of identity across the text, clinging against better knowledge to certain facts or deeds that seem to resonate. This desire operates undeterred by name shifts or changes of auctorial perspective. Someone admits to be a killer, has killed (p1); someone gets into a shooting and flees (p2); someone else is called in because of ghastly work (p3); someone is still wounded (p5), someone is told by a woman (who took over from a man the page before) he should have spared Michael (p8) - the reader may construct a narrative in which Michael is the person killed at the beginning, by someone whose wounds have been caused by the shooting that followed. The narration is spurious, but it is there; it is at the level where the suite of pages must be less than mere coincidence. Each text fragment begins to erect around it the totality of the text from which it was purloined, a totality which slowly drowns in the totality of the next fragment. Some subtle changes of text seem to have been made on some pages, dialogue lines have moved up or down. It would be interesting to compare the original page to the edited page - but this would be the job of a student of literature or an art historian. The re-ordered page still reads fluently, the reordering may go unnoticed. There is something odd especially in the way some lines of dialogue fail to meet up (just as they often fail to meet up in real life, while the dialogues in novels often seem crafted too neatly, too well chosen, too much to the point).

At some distance of reading, it becomes feasible that 'Purloined' makes no attempt whatsoever to use 'narrative' as a topic to be shaped in a particular way. Maybe the sequence of pages is simply a result of the concatenation operation - as soon as a page meets the concatenation conditions, it slots into place, until an uninterrupted string has been built. The strain and disillusion of the reader trying to read intention into the sequence may be (a somewhat old-fashioned) aspect of the work. Pages are no just from mystery novels, also from Kafka and Joyce, for example. The Joyce page sticks out like a sore thumb. Is there a reason for it to be there? Asking such questions may be futile but they condition a certain restlessness in the process of reading.

In another reading, the collection of pages is also a collection of ways to construct a world and its inflections by some author or in some actor's perspective - a set of varied samples which direct the attention towards the way its parts are bolted or glued together, its cliches of plot, character and phrase are used, rejected, remodeled, or seemingly rejuvenated. It's a bit like the free CDs handed out by record companies that contain snippets from every new release and form a more or less accidental medley.

See also my Synopsis of Kosuth's novel 'Purloined', continued as I proceed to trace the remnants of narration.

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