Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Review

If you're reading this, what is it you're reading, really? This is the question Frank Allen explores in his latest short story, "The Review." Mr. Allen has produced a groundbreaking, jarring work of experimental fiction: a story that consists entirely of a review of the piece in question. No, your eyes don't deceive you. If you're reading this review, you are reading the work itself.

Where to begin? The story meanders somewhat in the second paragraph, as Mr. Allen searches for a foothold. Soon he finds it, paradoxically, by actually describing his peculiar literary struggle. In one particularly brilliant passage, he describes the brilliance of describing the current passage as brilliant. When in doubt, he seems to say, write about doubt. In other words: words can always, and only, be redeemed by other words.

"The Review" opens with a bang – a blunt declaration of the theme, the salient question at the heart of the work, followed by an ambitious claim to the scope and unprecedented nature of this literary exploit. One may fault Mr. Allen for immodesty – a charge that he later cleverly defuses by making of himself – but he backs up his boasts, especially in a stunningly acrobatic passage in the middle of the piece in which he effectively justifies his own immodesty by pointing out that he has just accused himself of it.

This is a story without characters – or is it? In fact, the sole protagonist is the work itself, struggling towards definition, passing through layers of meaning. It might even be said that the progress of the text from the first word to the last forms a story arc of sorts. Perhaps "arc" is the wrong word. Spiral? Moebius strip? No matter its shape, this journey is not for fainthearted readers. Do you need a reference point? Well, here it is: your reference point. And through it all, of course, there is an omniscient narrator: the reviewer. Me.

Vexing questions of "success" or "failure" tend to plague literature like "The Review." What is the author's intent? And if there is one, is it even valid? Perhaps the entire enterprise is solipsistic, tiresomely postmodern, nauseatingly self-referential. The tedious and predictable work of a pretentious – and evidently self-loathing – artist. There, it deserved to be said. But is the work any better, or worse, for candidly raising these criticisms? Mr. Allen is nothing if not fleet-footed: by posing the question that was just posed, he renders it moot; he transcends it. "The Review" is among those rare works that defy criticism; the author always seems to be a step ahead not only of the reader but of the critic. And this critic would be remiss in his duties if he did not give the author full credit for his accomplishment.