Monday, November 20, 2006

Double Helix Revealed!

The following is a nonlecture delivered by Jay MillAr at This Is Not A Reading Series, 20 November 2006 in Toronto, to launch the publication of Double Helix, a collaboartive "novel" by Jay MillAr and Stephen Cain.

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Good evening. Originally I was asked to talk on the subject of molecular fiction. However, after much consideration, I decided that like the form itself there isn’t much for me to say except that molecular fictions are very small. And you need a lot of them to make up a book that anyone would consider publishing. I also had never considered Double Helix as a novel until after it had been accepted for publication, and I believe that the main reasons for doing so is that a novel is more marketable than a collection of poems, and also the press can get better funding for the project. This is not to say that I mind people thinking of Double Helix in this way – it doesn’t bother me in the least – it’s just that as a book that I have written, I never thought of it as such until all was said and done. So to escape the brevity of my knowledge on the subject of molecular fiction, and to escape being thought of as a poor-man’s John Gould, I decided to speak about something else.

At first I thought I would claim there had been a typo and talk about molecular friction. Or that I had miss-read the email inviting me to talk on the subject of molecular fiction (since I am a hallucinatory reader) and just talk about molecular friction as though this had been the idea all along. This seemed like a funny idea – get up in front of a crowd of literary types and start droning on endlessly about some topic that has nothing to do with the book at all. But after a little research I discovered that molecular friction doesn’t really exist and what literature I could find on the subject was dull as anything. Even for me. So that put an end to that. The idea of speaking on the subject of DNA crossed my mind, but to tell you the truth I don’t really know very much about DNA aside from the basic structure of it – which was used to create the structure of the book. And that scientists, when they write about DNA, they like to refer to is as a “code” or a “language” unto itself (the most interesting aspect of scientific thought is that they must reduce everything they study to metaphor in order for people to understand what they’re talking about – it is a wide open field for a writer such as myself). For scientists to speak about our basic genetic make-up as a “language” is of course fascinating to me, and probably it’s why I starting thinking about writing Double Helix in the first place. But I don’t really remember anything else about DNA or genetics – I was mostly interested in using the metaphor of DNA – the structure of it and the fact that it is considered for all intents and purposes a foreign language – to create the book called Double Helix. A few other things came to mind; at one point I even considered putting on a slide show about me – to raid my father’s slide collection. But the subject really is dull as anything.

So to make a long story short I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about until just the other day. You see there is a secret to this book that no one knows about. I didn’t want to tell anyone about it – in my mind I kept thinking why would I want to talk about that? That’s what people can find out about after I’m dead. And it’ll freak their gobbles, won’t it! No, I didn’t really want to say anything – why would I want to reveal the very thing that makes Double Helix really really interesting? Well, to sell the thing, of course. So here, at the launch of this very attractive volume just published by The Mercury Press, <the author holds air as though it were a book> I would like to talk about my use of the heteronym.

For anyone familiar with my work you already know that I used a series of pennames in my first book The Ghosts of Jay MillAr. At the time I wasn’t aware of the idea of heteronyms – which is of course the creation of an identity wholly separate from the author. I was using my pennames, which are Conwenna Stokes, Alex Cayce, H. Azel, James Llar, and John Elliott, in that sense certainly. But being the ignoramus that I am I was using them more or less to organize an overwhelmingly large manuscript into five distinct sections, (which upon reading now nearly 10 years later, aren’t really so distinct at all). John Barlow and I had been doing a lot of playing around with various pennames – that’s where the whole idea came from.

Also, names fascinate me. Chris Dewdney once told me that names are the most useless of all words because they only mean one thing. Maybe so, in a certain literal sense, but to me names are pretty slippery entities. Having grown up as “Jay Millar” I have endlessly had to deal with the fact that my real name is really John – John Elliott Millar in fact. It’s a tradition in my family is to name the first-born son John and never call him that. My cousin’s name is John but we call him Mike. At the beginning of each school year when they called out the names in my class – they got to me I’d say “call me Jay.” Everyone sitting around me (and sometimes the teacher) would look at me like “huh?” And I would have to explain to them exactly what I have just explained to you. In my last year of high school I moved and at the new school there were some other Millers in my grade so as a joke they started calling me Mill-ar, to make the distinction. In a way it made sense to say it that way because that’s how you spell it – I was always correcting the spelling of my name (which is only spelled the way it is because my great grandfather spelled it wrong on half of his kid’s birth certificates). Often on the telephone when ordering a pizza or booking a reservation even I would say MillAr. And eventually it stuck.

It became kind of fun and funny to capitalize that A, which is essentially a mnemonic device. Jay Millar is not a terribly memorable name. Neither is John Millar for that matter. I didn’t really think the capital A would make people pronounce the name MillAr, but it does. One time I was introduced by a clever personality for a reading with him pointing out the capital A and offering a prize to anyone who could give him a good reason why I should capitalize it. When I got up to read I explained that it was so that the weak-minded could wonder why it was there, thereby remembering my name due to their own lack of imagination. So I won the prize.

When I did my MA I decided I’d had enough of correcting people and let everyone call me John. The first few weeks of the term people would be calling out to me from out there somewhere and I wouldn’t respond until they banged me on the back of the head and ask me if I was deaf. In a way I was – I had to relearn my name. And later, after I had graduated, I had a strange experience. I had just found a new job and of course my employers knew my name from the application as John Millar. I actually did tell them to call me Jay but they didn’t hear me or ignored me or whatever and they kept calling me John. People would call and ask for Jay and they’d tell them there was no Jay working there. It was kind of funny. Even funnier was the first time my wife and I got into an argument. "Jason!" she said to me, exasperatedly, and I started to laugh, since that wasn't my name at all. (And until the day of our wedding she actually thought my name was Mill-Ar, causing her new mother-in-law to mutter something about pronouncing her name wrong when Hazel introduced her to someone.) So names are a bizarre linguistic space for me and they always have been.

So I decided to play around with names in The Ghosts of Jay MillAr. My favourite is James Llar. Sometimes when people say Jay Millar it comes out as “JAY-MEE-LAR” (Jamie Lar) and well, James Llar is some kind of translation of that. Some of the other names are more obvious – John Elliott for example, which is what my name would be if my mother hadn’t changed her name to Millar. In fact, my father did our family tree and discovered that back in the late 1700s there was a woman who never married who had three sons. Had she married her name wouldn’t be Miller and neither would mine. Alex Cayce was a name given to me by John Barlow. H. Azel is my wife’s name. And Conwenna Stokes is a name taken from Blake (sister of Gwendolyn) combined with the last name of a beautiful girl I had a crush on in high school. Each of them I gave sections of the book that dealt with different themes as organized by Victor Coleman: Alex Cayce wrote about birds, Conwenna Stokes about trees, James Llar about dreams, and so on. Later, after The Ghosts of Jay MillAr had been printed and people (all 10 of them) had read the book, more than a few of them referred to it as homage to Pessoa. Which kind of made me wonder: what’s a pessoa? Thinking it might be a poetic form of some sort.

Pessoa of course turned out to be the Portuguese writer who was little known during his own lifetime, who published a single volume of poetry under his own name titled Message. After his death, however, it was discovered that he had written and published a lot more than that – he had invented several heteronyms, all of whom had distinct personalities, philosophies, writing styles and, well, lives. The names of Pessoa’s main heteronyms are Charles Robert Anon, Alexander Search, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares who was closest to Pessoa in personality, and wrote Book of Disquiet. The most familiar of these to Canadian readers is Alberto Caeiro, who’s The Keeper of Sheep Eirin Moure tansElated into Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, which is such a terrific book you should all read it immediately if you haven’t already. All of these heteronyms wrote to one another, argued about aesthetics, published independent work, and for all intents and purposes LIVED. Which is where The Ghosts of Jay MillAr fails – the writing in each of the sections is so obviously written by me, Jay MillAr, it’s kind of funny that I ever attempted to suggest otherwise.

There are only two instances in which the characters in the book became real. The first was when I saw the limited edition of the book that was published by Coach House in 20 copies – each of the sections was bound as a separate book and housed in a handmade box. My name appeared nowhere except on a copyright page buried somewhere in one of the books. More recently I was invited to a high school in Woodstock where a teacher had been working with my book as an anthology I had edited. I discovered this at lunch, after I had already presented on my work to two classes wondering why they kept looking at me like I was a lunatic: they all thought the poems were by other people. It turned out that none of them had seen the book; instead the teacher had illegally photocopied poems, put one of the names on them and asked the students to think about them. After lunch I went into another classroom and began an off the cuff lecture on the different poets in my anthology, reading their poems, and talking about how I had met them I why I liked their poems. The students were confused as to why the poets had not come with me, so I provided various excuses. This went on until the end of the day when some kid whose name was R.Y.A.N. (he insisted that one spell his name to him) suggested that I had written all these poems. Which meant he was the one kid in that whole school who would be (was) a poet.

Since discovering the work of Pessoa through the back door of my own writing I have always wanted to create a real heteronym. So I did for Double Helix. The structure of the book is that of a ‘speak and response’ dialogue, so I needed another author with which to correspond. I figured that it would be useful if I used the same name as an existing author. William S. Burroughs wrote in an essay about how he would go out into the world to find his characters for stories and novels with a camera. He’d stalk and photograph people and use the photographs to build a character out of them. He would clip newspapers articles and other things he felt related to the character, and essentially created a scrapbook that gave him a four dimensional picture of who he was going to write about. This however, would take a lot of work, and in the end it likely wouldn’t be very convincing. So I decided to use the name of a real living author.

Many of you have probably heard of Stephen Cain. Perhaps you have even read his books. He is the author of three books of poetry: dyslexicon, Torontology, and American Standard/Canada Dry. I met Stephen when he was doing his PhD at York University (I was working on my MA) in the mid 90s. Well, actually we had met prior to that, but we got to know each other in the summer of 1997. I was working in the York University Library archives, and Stephen would occasionally tap on the door and we’d go outside and smoke cigarettes and chat about things. We discovered that we had very similar interests – Stephen was working on a thesis concerning a comparison between The Coach House Press and House of Anansi Press – I was fascinated with Canadian smallpress in general. When I finished my MA and went back to work at exactly the same job that I’d try to escape to do the MA (thereby becoming an instant failure) I would sometimes stop at Stephen’s apartment on Delaware at College on my way home from work and we’d chat about things, life, poetry, writing, reading, etc., among the piles of books he seemed to have the time and patience to read while I didn't. At some point Stephen moved to Kingston for a while, and suddenly there was no one to talk to.

So I wouldn’t go insane at my stupid job, which consisted of making photocopies in a shop downtown that seemed to have virtually no customers (and the customers they had were jackoffs) I would read books about natural history and evolution. One of the books I read was Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, which is about the Burgess Shale. If you don’t know about The Burgess Shale, it is sediment they discovered in Alberta that contains the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals that bear no resemblance to any of the modern phyla. The variation among these creatures suggested to Gould that evolution didn’t occur in the way that we generally think about it – from a single point that branches out to a huge range of variations – but the other way around. There was once a cornucopia of variation that have all been decimated to leave a handful of species – what we know today in the world around us. What it suggested to Gould, among other things, was that there was, like in the movie It’s A Wonderful Life from which his book takes its title, an infinite number of possibilities that could have been, yet only one possibility has actually occurred to lead us to the present.

This notion of possibility, which is infinite, intrigued me. <The author pauses to drink from a glass of water> Stephen and I had talked about possibly writing a book together, but the pressures of finishing his dissertation and trying to find work weighed heavily on him and he decided he didn’t have time. So I asked him if he would mind if I wrote the book myself, but left his name on it as one of the authors – I would invent a version of Stephen Cain for the purpose of writing a book called Double Helix. Stephen agreed. And so I wondered what a book by Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr would be like. What would we talk about? How would it be written? If Stephen had anything to do with it this book would have to have some sort of constraint. Thanks to my readings about DNA I was able to come up with one.

The structure of Double Helix the book is based on the Double Helix of DNA, which is a strand consisting of four molecules that are always paired. The molecules are adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Adenine is always paired with Guanine, and Cytosine with Thymine. Because the stands of DNA are so long, and because the mechanics of sexual reproduction are what they are, the possibilities of genetic variation are infinite, yet the results are always specific. I created a similar structure for the book Double Helix: A is paired with Z, B with Y, and so on through the alphabet. I would write something titled with a word beginning with the letter A and “Stephen” would respond with something titled with a word beginning with the letter Z. At the same time “Stephen” would compose something starting with A and I would respond with something beginning with Z. In the end I would have two strands of 52 pieces, and as you can see <The author again holds the air as though it were a book> they have been bound so that the book can be read from either end and you will always end up in the same place: the middle of nowhere. <The author again holds the air as though it were a book> Stephen’s pieces were originally composed using heavy constraints: each consisted of an acrostic using the first letter of each paragraph, and was exactly 250 words. I also had to do a lot of research to be able to write like Stephen, whose literary knowledge is vast indeed, and I had to make sure to insert a lot of oblique references to this considerable knowledge throughout his entries. It was kind of like Borges’ idea about a contemporary author who wanted to write Don Quixote – not just copy it out word for word but actually write Don Quixote – but in order to do so this author would essentially have to BE Cervantes. To be able to write Double Helix I had to BE Stephen Cain.

The point of the book Double Helix is a kind of genetic splicing – I had to invent a space the lies somewhere between Stephen’s work and my own and occupy it to the best of my ability. His pieces would have to reflect his own writing a little more, and mine my own style a little more, but there would have to be some influence on either side. So after I had written Stephen’s pieces I edited them a little to make them feel as though I had actually influenced his writing. In some of the pieces you can’t even tell that they complied with the original constraints. And some of my pieces I had to make more constrained. And I had to throw in some literary references, theory, that sort of thing, which is why there is a lot of influence of Deluze and Guittari in there. Or maybe those were Stephen’s, I can’t remember.

At any rate, my experiment concerning Double Helix was to see if I could create something that was literary and convincing out of all the possibility in the world. Did I know Stephen Cain – the real Stephen Cain – well enough to reproduce him – to create, essentially, a clone of him, in a work of “fiction?” Not only that but could I invent myself, as though I were writing a book with Stephen? For in a sense, through my creation of “Stephen Cain” I was forced to clone myself as though I were actually writing a book with Stephen Cain. Only time will tell if I have succeeded and I invite you to read the book and decide for yourself. But please be aware that you will have to buy and read all of the other books by Stephen Cain and Jay MillAr in order to decide.

The truth is that the book Double Helix is not a book of fiction. The book is very much real. It exists in the realm of the possible. A heteronym, such as “Stephen Cain” or “Jay MillAr” for that matter, is all about possibility, about refining all those possibilities into the realm of what is possible. It is very similar to what Gould suggests about evolution: originally an infinite possibility of variation that is reduced by decimation to what we know. Or what we know about genetic reproduction itself: an infinite number of possibilities with specific results.

To close, I would actually like to read from the book.

8 comments:

  1. you're fun. i have been wondering about your last name for always. quite the millArs tale. thanks.

    ReplyDelete