Radical media, politics and culture.

Joseph Dewey, <I>Negativeland's</i> Negativity A Plus

Negativeland's Negativity A Plus

Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Doug Nufer, Negativeland

Autonomedia, 2004. 186 pp. Paper: $9.95.

Ken Honochick is both character and experiment. The winner of two gold medals in backstroke swimming at the cursed Munich Games, Honochick spends the next decade trying to cash in on his fragile celebrity (his medal count overshadowed by the Spitz glitz). Married off to a Tournament of Roses Queen, he gets involved in a health spa franchise that pitches spiritual as well as physical rejuvenation but that eventually folds amid a flurry of lawsuits.

By 1988, Honochick, bankrupt financially and morally, drives cross-country, seeking healing by returning to his Florida roots (the narrative is told backward, backstroked as it were). Once there, he confronts in a local tourist trap his own wax figure, a belt of ammo around its shoulder while rescuing a buxom gymnast — an outlandish invention that serves as Nufer’s savagely funny critique of America’s empty cult of celebrity.

But Ken Honochick is also part of a playfully ingenious narrative experiment, a novel executed within an entirely arbitrary constraint: every sentence, every sentence, uses a negative construction. As a Gen-X practitioner of the Oulipo school of self-validating process-texts, the midcentury Dadaist-inspired avant-garde movement that audaciously argued that creativity required not freedom but rather form, specifically rules — precise and entirely arbitrary — for its fullest expression, Nufer works with elegant virtuosity within the self-imposed discipline.

Surely the text threatens to be gimmicky, like watching a Scrabble tournament. But Nufer’s novel is a most satisfying read, an engrossing revelation of a character struggling within a vacuous American culture that is itself Negativeland: a culture defined by hype and hyperbole, celebrity and surface, relentlessly driven to embrace the image, thus perpetuating the cannibalism of expectation and disappointment. That Nufer ultimately resists this heavy negativity is the achievement: Honochick stumbles inelegantly toward the simple solace of another lonely soul. Two negatives, Nufer reminds us, equal a positive.