The Local Voice

Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: “Insignificance” by James Clammer


James Clammer
Coach House Books ($16.95) – Available at Square Books
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The writing device termed “stream-of-consciousness” evolved out of late 19th century developments in psychology. William James (teacher to Gertrude Stein, brother of Henry James) brought it over into the writing world, where the whole sick crew of Modernists (Woolf, Joyce et al.) turned it out for novel tricks, and the rest is, as they say, literary history.

            However, just because stream-of-consciousness is codified and acknowledged, that does not mean that it is a dead artistic end. James Clammer’s novel Insignificance is a testament to the huge expanse left in this mode of expression left to be mapped out. Until scientists fully understand consciousness, writers will never exhaust its potential.

            Insignificance follows a day in the life of Joseph Forbes: a British plumber, a faithful husband, and an estranged father. It is his first day back after a prolonged illness, and his first job is a pity assignment from a family friend. Joseph guiltily daydreams about infidelity; he waxes technical about the difficulty of the day’s work; he ranges over the mundane specific and outer meaning of his life. It is Ulysses for the proletariat, The Mezzanine for natural realism.

            But more than that, Clammer pushes the boundary regions of this kind of writing into uncharted territory. Perspective seamlessly transitions from Joseph, to his wife, to his friend, and between exterior narration to interior thought. There is even the hint of a narrator’s voice in places, but all of this is so natural and unobtrusive that it takes a close reading to notice the rivets in this intelligent machinery.

            Another rare and welcome aspect of Insignificance (for experimental literature, anyway) is that things happen. There is a plot with stakes and tensions and more than one surprise. Trying to keep the cat in the bag, I will say that Joseph has a son in prison, and that he sees his son midway through the novel. The circumstances behind the imprisonment are incrementally revealed, not with the spring-trap “Aha!” of the Whodunit mystery, but with a medley of Beckettian paragraphs and dramatic leaps of perspective.

            In an interview that bookends Insignificance, Clammer says that the origin of the novel came from a wish to write a detailed account of a plumbing job; he used to be a plumber, and wondered why a realistic depiction of that work had never been seen in a novel. After the scene (which is still in the book, and is strangely engrossing), he “knew I had to get it into a book,” and the rest came out of it. This makes sense as the starting point for Joseph’s story; instead of telescoping a “postage stamp of soil” into the universal à la Faulkner, Clammer warps in between the particular and the Platonic over and over again in a million ways. Insignificance is a marvel of a book, an original work of genius.

Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: "Bass 1998" by Karen Marron
Book Reviews by Conor Hultman: "Scattered All Over the Earth" by Yoko Tawada
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