Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Itch

By Steven Seidenberg

Reviewed By Evan Lavender-Smith

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The story of the novel—beginning, middle, and end—is this: someone has an itch.

Early in the book, Seidenberg’s narrator—the I—makes a gambit, inserting in the place of text a couple-few pages of solid black blocks, inviting the reader—the you—to either flip forward and skim around, in order to assure herself that no further story is impending—“to uncover the point that there’s no point to what’s essentially beside the point”—and then return to reading with an awareness that those conventionally proffered “good parts,” as the I terms them, aren’t coming; or to simply bail out and stop reading altogether. I insists to you that there will be no characters, no setting, no plot. The intimation here is that solid black blocks, contra narration, will, in the world of Itch, prove equally useful at guiding the reader toward the novel’s narrative ends, such as they are. What can only vaguely be understood as narrative conflict will consist in the I’s projection of the you’s anxiety as it concerns her choice of alternatives: you either musters the courage and patience to continue reading a novel that concerns, by way of story, no more than someone’s perception of being itchy; or she gives up on I and closes the book, silencing her mind to his itchiness.

Being compelled to do something doesn’t make one’s doing it any less an act of kindness, even courage. No option but continuance isn’t proof one wouldn’t have continued otherwise, and having been accorded such a personal dispensation, the attitude one takes in doing what one must do is all that differentiates fulfillment of one’s duty from the same act against interest absent secondary prod. One may have been impressed into the battle as it rages, but one still chooses one’s comportment in responding to the call . . .

If one chooses to read the novel, what attitude does one take in “doing what one must do”? The reader enters into a contract with an author whose narrator admits to the novel’s lack of “good parts”—why? Because the reader is eager to revisit and reconsider her old judgments, because she is eager to develop new judgments about the novel. The reader comports herself, in the absence of narratological comfort, as one whose eagerness is only increasing. She reads with openness, with innocence. She grows eager to relearn to read. But how can such a book, without character, setting and plot, even be considered a novel? Insofar as it is new, it is novel. The true novel throws down the gauntlet: Reader, can you deal with not-knowing, with the novel-yet-to-be, with your not-yet-knowing-what-is-novel? And the eager reader responds: she slowly turns over the page.

Seidenberg’s I has an itch:

I itch, I thought, all over, but at points upon my surface—it seemed I could discern each discrete apogee in turn. I was instantly aware that I had more than one sensation, even as I recognized no more than one at once. If only I could … But I’m not there yet. Or I wasn’t. I wasn’t at that moment, and so I’m not within this surging chronicle of my plight—the plight to which that posture stands as prefatory index, the dreamed conceit of sublimating cause . . .

What is this itch? I recalls waking one day with no awareness of a past existence, no foothold with which he might attempt to gain a perception or definition of the extensive world in relation to his intensive self. He is a tabula rasa. All that he perceives is an itchiness, a sensation that would, maybe, delimit a boundary between self and world—and it is this potential boundary that primarily concerns Itch’s digressive neo-Cartesian epistemology. Another boundary, that between self and other—author and reader, master and slave, I and you—is of fundamental concern to the book’s narratology, to the I’s anxiety concerning the possibility or impossibility of narrative, of communication—of “manumission,” perhaps, a word that crops up here and there. As the you continues reading, she comes to perceive a strange and surprising conflation of these seemingly discrete boundaries: the I literally itches—his skin itches, he is aware of a border between self and world—but he also itches, yearns, for something like companionship, philosophical friendship, for the solicitous alterity of a reader who is also itchy.

What attitude does one take in “doing what one must do,” if one chooses to write a novel? How does the I comport himself in “responding to the call”? Writing and living, for the novelist, become one act: trying. Trying to discern or dispel borders between self and world, self and other. Trying not to scratch the itch, trying to suspend the itchiness—epistemological doubt, authorial anxiety—across the whole of the novel’s duration, extending an invitation to the reader and the world: itch with me.

And to me, as you’ve gathered from my musings hitherto, you can only seem a corollary selfdom, which is to say a singular disguised by some new desiccant or interest at each bar. Each of you is only as the one to whom I’m speaking . . . for the sake of whose attention I remain, sincerely yours . . .

A series of false starts in first philosophy, a compendium of a desirous thinker–writer’s self-styled “many failed attempts,” the novel possesses no “greater point,” no epiphany, no transcendence. It is, one might say, narratologically and epistemologically sadistic. For all of Stein’s repetition, she still provides us with progress, with some answers—no answers in Seidenberg. And in Beckett, who often writes with a similar narratological austerity, we still have the pleasure of language that makes us laugh, makes us cry, makes us feel. Much of the language in Itch will make the reader wince—and yet this seems to be the point: the narrator refers to his writing as “dithering abstraction,” as “hoo-hah and deflection,” as an “alluvium of boredom.” The I would suggest that you surrender herself to a self-conscious performance of tedium, pain and error, lulled along by prosody and the promise of absent insight, to finally emerge enlivened, in the company of a new friend.

While it’s doubtful that Seidenberg’s wager will pay off for most readers, there’s no doubt that Itch will forever reside among the more intensive, audacious and obstinate first novels ever written. The true novel isn’t—never was, never will be—meant to please. Steven Seidenberg offers readers a vision of the novel’s future, and its history.

Evan Lavender-Smith is the author of From Old Notebooks and Avatar. His writing has recently appeared in BOMB, White Review, Court Green, Eleven Eleven, and the Collagist. Evan teaches creative writing in the MFA program at New Mexico State University and serves at an editor at Noemi Press.