The Gig, November, 2000
by Nate Dorward
Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2000. 107pp. $16.95 Cdn. ISBN 1-55245-076-7. An online version is available at <wwwchbooks.com>.
You Know Him, Reader
On Bloomsday 1997 Kenny Goldsmith woke at 10:00; speaking into a microphone attached to his body he described as exactly as possible his every physical movement that day until he fell asleep at about 11:00 pm. Fidget is constructed from that tape; the text, divided into sections according to the hour of the day, begins at 10:00:
Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head. Arm straightens. Counterclockwise twist thrusts elbow toward ceiling. Tongue leaves interior of mouth, passing through teeth. Tongue slides back into mouth. Palm corkscrews. Thumb stretches.
The style here-terse & neutral, scrubbed of the pronoun "I" and mostly omitting mention of external objects -suggests Beckett's prose and scrupulous stage-directions, a link the book's design (reminiscent of Calder's austere Beckett editions) seems intended to accentuate. As Fidget progresses, the strain of the exercise begins to tell: actions are further abbreviated, & the prose has by 18:00 devolved into a helpless string of single words: "Reach. Grasp. Reach. Grab. Hold. Saw. Pull. Hold. Grab. Push. Itch. Push. Push. Turn. Walk. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Turn." At 19:00 the text erupts into nonsense, first gently ("Refinger. Sneeze cross. Length of fore wipes free. Hand sad.") and then more insistently: "Body is sit. Licks wet. Whistle this time. Hey doe! Betsit. From chest: good girl! Good Girl!" What has happened-this is only clear from the book's afterword -is that Goldsmith, unnerved by his own experiment, has gone out & purchased & consumed a bottle of whiskey. Not just the alcohol-tinged nightmare & linguistic play of this portion of the text recalls Ulysses, but also its evolution of styles between chapters: though Goldsmiths tape presumably went through continuous stylistic change, the final artifact abruptly changes modes from chapter to chapter. The text's last section- 22:00 -is not a transcription of the (now unintelligible) tape but a reversed version of the 10:00 text, in which each action is mirror-imaged ("left" becomes "right," "forward" becomes (I backward") & then printed, letter by letter, in reverse.
I've named some literary antecedents for the text but in many ways the book is as much akin to conceptual art or the music of John Cage or Morton Feldman. The piece was originally commissioned by the Whitney Museum as a collaboration with the singer Theo Bleckmann; unusually for a new poetry publication, it is accompanied by a fulllength essay (by Marjorie Perloff), rather in the manner of an exhibition catalogue. As with such modes of art one of its primary concerns is about attention & attentiveness. Fidgeting is an activity that receives most exaggerated form in a person subjected to stress or to boredom; if the author here succumbed to the former in the original exercise, the text can make the reader fidget at the minimally differentiated canvas that the first two thirds of the text present, & respond almost cathartically to the linguistic implosion of the last sections. Yet if discomfort & tedium are intrinsic to the experience of reading the text, so are the unpredictable moments where they disappear in the terrible comedy of a mind & body trapped in mutual discomfort, as when the text details Goldsmith's (successful) attempt to touch his nose with his toe, or his (it seems nervously frequent) pilgrimages to the bathroom to urinate, or the impassive notation towards the conclusion of masturbation: "Blood rushes out of penis." Fidget, true to its title, is a discomforting work; if I remain uncertain of my reaction to it, I have little doubt it is one of the most distinctive & challenging books of the last few years.
[ A useful interview with Goldsmith is available online at http://www.jps.net/nada/kennyg.htm ]