The Twofold Vibration

The Twofold Vibration by Raymond FedermanRaymond Federman
Green Integer ($11.95)

by Lance Olsen

Raymond Federman—arguably one of the most important innovative writers working (primarily) in English of the last third of the 20th century—began what he would consider his best novel, The Twofold Vibration, in 1976 and completed it in 1981. The hybrid result is, among other things, part experimental science fiction, part haunting Holocaust narrative, part expansive Rabelaisian satire, and part tragicomic Beckettian investigation into the uncertainties of language, meaning, and the existential condition. But what is extraordinary rereading Federman's narrative from our contemporary vantage point (it is set on December 31, 1999, so that Federman's fictive future has become our fictive past) is how much it prefigures what might be considered the Post-Memoir Memoir: those no-longer-innocent autobiografictions (think, for example, of David Shields's print-based Remote or Shelley Jackson's web-based My Body) which believe, along with the protagonist of The Twofold Vibration, that there exist “no facts to be accurately described, only hypotheses to be set up, no choices of words [which] will express the truth, for one has only a choice of rhetorical masks in a situation like this one.”

The Federmanian “situation like this one” is, unsurprisingly, complicated and ambiguous. An 82-year-old French-Jewish poet and novelist, whose alternative oeuvre echoes Federman's own, waits in a massive holding tank on earth for deportation with hundreds (perhaps thousands, perhaps millions) of others (social remainders, all: the sick, the abnormal, the “useless”) to the space colonies. While it is clear this New Year's Eve ritual has occurred annually since 1994, when the colonies were first established, it is unclear why. Although “informed sources” underscore repeatedly that the deportation is neither conditional upon race nor religion, and it seems evident that these people are not being punished for criminal or other socially untoward activities, the reason for this exile remains indecipherable, as does the nature of the colonies themselves. Are they neo-edens, prisons, something in-between? Is it even possible that they do not exist at all, that the deportees are simply rocketed into space and left there to die, thereby freeing up room on our overcrowded planet?

In any case, this state of affairs is further complicated by the telling. In a layout reminiscent of Beckett's How It Is, paragraph-long “sentences” are composed with few capital letters, no periods, no quotation marks, and a beautifully protracted, rhythmic string of comma splices. The voice of the protagonist, his friends Moinous and Namredef (themselves yet more alter-egos of Federman), the narrator (ditto), and perhaps the author himself circulate through these grammaticules, the linguistic and narratological membrane separating one character from another remarkably permeable, as they construct, collaborate, argue, dismember, and then reconstruct only to once again deconstruct the old man's history in an attempt to reach some understanding about why he has survived as long as he has and why he is being deported now.

Federman thereby appropriates and postmodernizes the SF genre. First, he uses it to create a philosophical parable about the infinite deferral of knowledge at the level of facts and at the level of how we organize and discuss those facts—through, that is, a continually slippery system of signifiers. Second, he uses SF both to metaphorize and interrogate his own memories as a Holocaust survivor. At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1942, as the Gestapo stormed up the stairs to the Federmans' third-floor apartment in Paris, Federman's mother shoved the 12-year-old boy into a closet on the landing, where he remained the rest of that day and most of the following night. When he finally ventured out again, his parents and two sisters had already embarked on the journey that would end in their extermination in Auschwitz. In other words, the questions that the old man and his other selves ask in The Twofold Vibration on his trip from one box (he, too, was shoved into a closet in Paris to avoid the Gestapo) to another (the huge deportation hall) are the same ones Federman has been asking himself for the past 59 years.

One might suppose the consequence of such Post-Memoir material would be somber, stoic, cerebral business indeed. Yet this is precisely where Federman distances himself from such Holocaust writers as Elie Wiesel. The Twofold Vibration, like all of Federman's books, is hugely funny, and Federman himself a one-man Laurel and Hardy of narratology and epistemology. If Wiesel's work is about the grim and necessary task of documenting the unspeakable, then Federman's is about the dynamic and equally necessary task of troubling that documentation and ultimately moving beyond the unspeakable to learn how to exist in its wake. “I am a survivor,” the old man tells June Fanon, the young Jane Fonda-like woman with whom he is having a robust affair, as he speeds his blue Alfa Romeo through the narrow, winding mountain roads on his way to gamble at Lake Como:

I'm not morbid, I'm happy, can't you see, yes happy to be here with you, but you see the fact of being a survivor, of living with one's death behind, in a way makes you free, free and irresponsible toward your own end, of course you feel a little guilty while you're surviving because there is this thing about your past, your dead past and all that, but you have to get on with things, sustain your excessiveness, so to speak . . .

And this has precisely been Federman's project for more than a third of a century: to create a Literature of Exuberance as the only response to the horrors of the contemporary, to pack the page with rich and textured discourse, to move beyond the metaphorical silence of death into a self-aware cacophony of life—part transcendence, part ebullient, iconoclastic escape. Like The Twofold Vibration's old man after a bout of tuberculosis, Federman attempts to laugh himself back to health.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001