Bartleby by Chris Scott

About Chris Scott: Scott was born in Hull, England in 1945. He studied at the University of Hull (B.A., 1966) and Manchester University (M.A., 1967), and was a Fulbright Scholar at Pennsylvania State University (1968-1969). After teaching at York University in Toronto and Toronto Three Schools, he settled in Lanark County, near Perth in eastern Ontario. His literary activities include teaching creative writing, freelance broadcasting for the CBC (Ideas and The Arts in Review), and book-reviewing for Books in CanadaThe Toronto StarThe Globe & MailThe Ottawa Citizen, and The Montreal Gazette. Scott is best known as a writer of experimental fiction. He has written thriller, spy, and crime novels. His first novel, Bartleby (1971), was followed by To Catch a Spy (1978), Antichthon (1982), Hitler’s Bomb (1983), and Jack (1988), a novel about Jack the Ripper that won the 1988 Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award. Bartleby was reissued by Verbivoracious Press in Glasgow in 2016. Scott was writer-in-residence at Montreal’s Concordia University (1988-89) and at Cumberland Township Public Library, Ottawa (1990-91). He was an associate professor of English at Lake Superior State University, Michigan (1997-99), where he taught undergraduate and continuing education creative writing courses. Since 1996, he has lived on St. Joseph Island, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He is currently working on a novel, The White Wendigo, and a nonfiction book, Afterthoughts: A Skeptic’s View of Philosophy, Religion, Science, History, Politics, Writers, Writing, and Almost Everything Else.

I interviewed the author here.

“For now all things are writ large and apocalyptically, and the world outside the poor writer’s playroom falls into little pieces, what does he have at hand but an abacus of sorts, whereon to spell out—as best he can—the words Alpha and Omega? Let other bards plagiarize life; I have plagiarized a book.”

This meta-feast-ional anti-novel by a Canadianized Brit came out in 1971, predating Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew by almost a whole decade, each a paradigm of schizophrenic manuscripts on the fritz. However, Scott throws a few more Rabelaisian bones into his stew, and when he went to add a dash of Sternean salt, the shaker’s top fell off! As one furious and censorious character in Bartleby puts it, “‘Jesus, since when are characters supposed to look after their fucking authors, anyway? […] there’s nothing here but a stinking stew, a rancid, vile, putrid stew with a few spicy episodes thrown in to fool the taste.’”

What plot is in this pot? Not a whole lot and yet it manages to eke out a whopping 458 pages by diverting the narrative train, not to mention subverting and converting and extroverting it too, until the entire loco locomotive goes off the rails and into a purgatorial limbo game of back-snaps and knee-cracks. In a word, that is, two: autistic acrobatics.

The antihero of this anti-novel is a boy whose name was purloined from Melville’s scrivener for no other reason than because the writer of Bartley can do it because Scott can do it. You see, the book Bartleby exists within the book Bartleby, but before we get too ahead or behind ourselves (and, yes, there’s buggery to be found here), let’s focus on the young boy. He’s something of a diminutive Don Juan. After unhealthily learning the ways of sex with his guardian, Auntie Alice, he seeks ‘guardianship’ with essentially any and every woman.

[In an interview with Grant Loewen, Scott addresses the allusional homage and explains how he “loved Melville as a writer and often wondered if Kafka read him (he read Dickens). Even the early novels Omoo and Typee had a symbolic freight. (How stupid of Brigid Brophy to list Moby Dick as one the most overrated books of all time. In Bartleby, it got her transmogrified to Frigid Trophy—sophomoric maybe, but….”]

The not-plot ignites when Bartleby and his naughty Auntie lose each other and eventually go on separate quests to reunite (yet not before he continues his lascivious ways in the orphanage he’s put in by the government). Would that it were so simple…as mentioned, like Melville’s own antihero, the plot trajectory would rather not. It’s a story about not being able to tell a story, a book about an unfinished book, a plot that’s rot, “which, though moving, is stationary.” Mind you, the author is attempting to piece it together, to perform defib but the characters are too riotous and disoriented, recalling Sorrentino’s sore characters, not to mention Luigi Pirandello’s mislaid sextet. All the while, the author’s critical frenemy Damon Gottesgabe tries to have his way with the text, further complicating matters: “‘…I take your unwritten chapters to be the best, the most accurate, the truest representation of your dead and sleeping hero’s state of mind. They are without a doubt infinitely more powerful than anything you have so far written.’”

The characters in question are people who Bartleby and Auntie meet while trying to find each other amid this suspended picaresque, one of the first being Bartleby’s encounter with a hermit named De’Ath who loves digging up and buggering corpses, and he’s more or less as helpful as an unanswerable riddle. To balance this mildewy milieu out, as it were, or at least represent a wider spectrum, Auntie comes across a woman of the cloth, among others. And just as Sorrentino’s characters are kidnapped from extant sources, so are some of Scott’s, kidnapped and carved up too, including Waldemar and Estrogen who are waiting for Dogot and speak in the entirety of a play, enunciating their names and stage directions, something they’ll later try to disabuse themselves of, although not without significant struggle.

In the latter half of this anti-novel, an older Don Juan named Bercilak de Belamoris emerges from the lingual stew, along with his amanuensis Lungs who possesses a “musical proboscis.” Despite having conquered Helen of Troy, Bercilak is intimidated by the adolescent Bartleby, challenging this “puny sapling braggadocio, this beardless infant babeling” to a duel, yet even this relatively simple subplot is upended and rear-ended with various digressions and aggressions.

And but so the lack of personality clarity soon becomes clear when we realize that a character doesn’t always equal a character. For instance, one entity might simultaneously be a dwarf god devil jester and Me, me being him but possibly the author. Such mixing and melting ends up reaching beyond even all that, at least hypothetically: “‘Do you think […] that we could be aware of the reader in the same way that he is aware of us?”

The narrator, who is also the author, decides to enter the text about halfway through the book, attempting to wrangle in his characters and bring the stuttering story to a close. This involves trying to convince them that he’s an author even though he has also become a character. At some point, the book does manage to end, but then it begins again on the next page, ending several more times before ending concussively if not conclusively. Anyhow, David Foster Wallace at one time had an idea for a story in which a bird flies in ever-decreasing circles until it goes up its own ass and disappears. I believe that’s the best analogy for this book’s ejaculatory trajectory, its self-destructing structure.

There are also plenty of typographical flourishes throughout, including a chapter that’s vertically split in half in Solomon fashion, loop-de-looping letter Es, an avalanche of footnotes, a title page on page 175, a dedication on page 454 (“To Anyone Who Wants It/ And Especially To Those Who Do Not;/ This Book,/ Conceived in Mirth,/ And Undertaken/ In a Like Spirit.”), and an outline of the anti-plot that makes Tristram Shandy’s look as straight as a hard-on. Despite being an admitted attempt at writing a 20th-century version of that latter novel, and it is for the most part, Bartleby curiously lacks the famous death page, something that’s been replicated in numerous other novels almost to the point of cliché, so perhaps it’s for the best.

Aside from a healthy dose of literary lists, such as one relating to constellations and another that acts as a penile paean to the female form’s dozen decadent parts, there’s an admirable amount of polyphony, including biblical lingo, yokel talk, Latin incantations, philosophical and mathematical debate, lascivious playfulness, some purpereal prose, growly German, speech impediments, a version of Old English, Morse code, one-dimensional braille, and a long masque. The vocabulary range is occasionally delightful as well, and you’ll find yourself coming across such gems as tergiversation, ugsome, agaricaceous, inamorata, paresis, margent, and precipitevolissimevolmente, among others. And if you haven’t noticed by now, the humor in this book is irreverent and ballsy (in both meanings of the word). Did I mention someone accidentally swallows and promptly chokes on a Dutch cap contraceptive?

In one review of Bartleby from around the time it was first published, this in Canadian Literature (no. 53, summer, 1972), the critic W. H. New calls Scott the “finest parodist Canadian literature has for a long time seen.” In that spirit, I should invoke another Canadianized parodist, this one originally American: Leon Rooke, whose Shakespeare’s Dog is also a noteworthy work even though it’s less ambitious than Bartleby, less of a “comic monsterpiece” as the backmatter puts it, although Rooke’s novel is certainly a “shaggy-dog” story.

At the bottom of the Bartleby backmatter, a quote from Dr. Johnson: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” Although he was wrong about Sterne, it turns out he was posthumously right about Scott’s debut, which had only a single reprint almost 50 years after the fact by the defunct Verbivoracious Press and has never been published in the United States. For anyone who is interested in the evolution of the novel, and by evolution I do mean mutations most emphatically, Bartleby is worth hunting down.

“‘If I have made something tangible from nothing; if I have created ex nihilo and forged a little reality from this MS’s great unreality […] then in this text I have gained a life I did not have before, nor ever expected, and that is the life of a narrator. In so doing, have I not helped the other characters into being; isn’t that all you can expect from a writer, would-be or actual?’”

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media. For early access to literary content like this and other awesome benefits, consider supporting The Collidescope on Patreon.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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