Blake Butler, Christopher Higgs, and Vanessa Place, One, Roof Books, 2012

Reviewed by Janis Butler Holm

[Review Guidelines]

One, written by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place and assembled by Christopher Higgs, is a notable contribution to the growing body of prose experimentation. Although, as Higgs has acknowledged, the book shares some affinities with Oulipian constraint work, William Burroughs's cut-ups, and the Surrealists' exquisite corpse, the project was intended as an exploration of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of identity in A Thousand Plateaus: "the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities." The "I" of this work is an indeterminate entity, a partially corporeal form in flux. This "one" speaks from within a continuously symbiotic relationship with all that surrounds it. And what surrounds it is likewise unstable, perpetually in motion, such that other "ones" appear and disappear and reappear or metamorphose into still other indeterminate entities.

The person way on up there becomes a cow becomes a day becomes a doorbell, becomes something with seven hands and seven eyes, becomes a house again like mine way up there so that between the sky and it there is a whir, there is a sound of ill condition in duplication that whips the skin up on my hands, welts like where babies bite you when they're hungry and make the blood pour for days then too.

In this world of continual transition, the boundaries of matter, time, and place dissolve and then reform in both new and apparently repeating combinations.

It must be getting on a quarter of there. Or somewhere. Surely we can submeasure in minutes, if we can grasp the hours.
I cough up needles. Cough up more bodies. Cough up a pool in which I swim. I am again walking up the stairwell and then still stays by my side.

     In his foreword to the book, Higgs compares the textual body of One to "Frankenstein's creation" and himself to the unorthodox scientist. Could he, he wondered, stitch together two decidedly disparate texts, created independently but with an understanding of their purpose, their  eventual merging into "a functioning whole"? Butler and Place agreed to do the writing, and Higgs provided a set of guidelines. The work was to be in first person in the present tense, between forty and sixty pages. The authors were not to discuss their writing with each other. The work was to address, in some way, three general movements: discovery, secrecy, escape. While Butler was to focus on exteriority, those things outside the body, Place was to focus on interiority—thoughts, memories, emotions, etc. And Higgs devised a constraint for himself: he could not add anything to the original texts; he could only copy and paste.
     In the process of hybridizing the two manuscripts (even at the sentence level), Higgs abandoned the discovery-secrecy-escape rubric and opted to partition the new work in three "utterances," or chapters. Through much of the book, passages of spasming permutation alternate with prosaic statements about the history of jurisprudence. 

I turn and run right back where I came from and I am laughing. I am the laughing. Then I am on the stairs again and I am forty and I have purple snow all in my teeth. The Statute of Westminster I (1275) had fifty-one chapters. Any one of which might be in German.

While we can't determine which parts of the hybrid text were authored by which collaborator, it is helpful to know that Place, a criminal appellate attorney, is a well-known conceptual writer who has mastered the art of appropriation.
     The ever-changing "I"/"one" that is the source of the utterances in One can be seen as an "assemblage," which in A Thousand Plateaus is presented as a provisional coming together of diverse elements whose effects may be mapped even as they are in motion. In contrast to the fiction of a fixed, linear, singular self, this "I" is a medley of productive forces in the process of becoming. As an assemblage, the source of the utterances in One is not limited to a human body; the "I"/"one" is rather a moving constellation of parts (animate, inanimate, material, immaterial, actual, virtual) in specific relations to one another and to their environment. This plurality poses a significant challenge to traditional reading habits and cognitive conventions, accultured preferences for category, consistency, and overarching schema. Like the creators of A Thousand Plateaus, the creators of this book have devised a provocation. If existence is the ceaseless flow of a dynamic cosmos, why sustain the illusions of static hierarchies and discrete identities?

It was doing the same every day. There was doing the same every motion you could make. You kept doing the same things and the days kept frying and you knew to understand. You knew every inch of what was missing doing the same or what you had right there doing the same and you kept walking room to room doing the same with your whole mouth full and the terror in your mind doing the same. This is your way. This is money. Every inch of ours doing the same.

     The illusion of the discrete human body, in particular, is targeted again and again in this text. What we might call the corporeal assemblage within the vocalizing assemblage of One is a polysexual humanoid that both incorporates and perfuses much of its milieu. It inhales and ingests more than air and food, taking into itself, among other items, paper, whips, panties, laughter of the bee, bunny pellets, crash dots, Little Sunday, perfect sneeze frame. It is awash in its own fluids, including sperm, milk, sweat, pus, vomit, mucus, urine, excrement, saliva, vaginal secretions. It is awash in blood—lots and lots of blood. Repeatedly bleeding into what is supposedly outside itself, this body moves through "interiors" and "exteriors" made strange by their organic elements.

The blood pours on the carpet, spreads to soak it. Through the helmet I watch it make a map—a little trail leading from me to the front door to whatever shit aligns the lane. My front stoop made of blue bones. My grassyard high as me. Good, the blood a little conduit etching a way out of my house.

These bloodscapes, these minglings of matter that are typically associated with violent death, can be seen as having propadeutic value. (According to Deleuze, we "think rarely, and more often under the impulse of a shock than in the excitement of a taste for thinking" [Difference and Repetition].) In abandoning conventional mimesis, the repetition of what we assume we already know, we open ourselves to something other than doing the same.
     Though the "story" of One proceeds primarily by accumulation—and constitutes not so much a story as an incitement to thought—readers may detect (impose?) a narrative arc of sorts. Wearing an imaginary helmet, the "I" attempts to escape from its house. Once outside the house, the "I" joins forces with a demolition crew to destroy the house. Then the "I" enters what is termed "the final house." In the course of its movements, it encounters various doppelgangers and parental figures, as well as pigs, dogs, cats, and horses, to say nothing of inanimate objects that acquire lives of their own (a guitar, a printer, a poster of a bear). Readers who long for narrative, however, will fare much better with the scatterings of legal history in this book, most of which unfold sequentially as though in textbook form. Yet this tracking of historical change also serves as a reminder of a world in flux, as it signals that notions of law and order have varied over time and in differing contexts.
     Typically, a book review offers a consensus model of a text, a general sense of how (many) readers will apprehend the book and what they can expect upon reading. This review, however, acknowledges that One is a profoundly open work with countless means of entry; the reader's active participation is invited but not prescribed. As a single choice among untold possibilities, the approach offered here is not offered as a template. Instead of A Thousand Plateaus, for example, one could read this text against Callon, Latour, and Law's actor-network theory or Kristeva's concept of the semiotic—or, as another reviewer has suggested, against the work of Robbe-Grillet and Beckett. Authorial intention, while a matter of interest, need not be a part of the reading assemblage. But whatever the approach, those who take on this disquieting book can expect to read differently. Motility, rather than mastery, is a reasonable goal.