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The Astonished Vowel and the Number of Wonder: On Andrew Joron’s O0

By Brian Strang

 

I have been an avid reader and fan of Andrew Joron’s poetry and essays for over two decades now. Among many other things, he brings scientific understanding and rigor to contemporary poetry and poetics, where it is sometimes sadly lacking. In a 2002 essay called “The Emergency of Poetry,” Joron brings the study of complex systems to bear on language itself to show how the Novum, a central concept in science fiction, can emerge from a system unexpectedly:

Investigations have shown that systems comprised of a large number of elements far from equilibrium are prone to beautiful convulsions called “phase transitions.”  In this process, chance associations within the system, after reaching a critical point, undergo spontaneous self-organization.  At this point, the Novum—an unexpected, unprecedented superaddition to reality—emerges.

This essay was subsequently included in The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose, a volume of selected writings, where Joron highlights the emergence of the Novum and its potentials in the complex system of language (where the “cry” is O, “the grieving vowel”). The ideas in that book, of the unprecedented appearing in complex systems, even the title of that book, were precedents for O0, his new novel.

It is an extraordinary book. Reading it, I was stunned, not into silence, but into active thought, my brain whirling with ideas. Language is a system we use to create meaning and thought and O0 is bursting with “superadditions” to that system.

Comprising two novellas, O0 is dedicated to “the early Space Age,” but while it has numerous references to the ideas and people of that now retro-futurist time, the book is absolutely new and astonishing. Brimming with references to people, O0 will continue to reward with further readings.

But O0 is not a difficult or puzzling work; this book is no dense piece of theory. It is fiction filled with warmth, beauty, humor, and meaning. There are complex structures underlying the writing, but it is not a byzantine puzzle for the reader to decode, like the works of Modernists such as Joyce. No study guide is necessary. Like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, O0 is expansive and free-flowing, full of poetic language, and resistant to categorization, even as it is structured around a central device, the dialectical method, and even as it falls clearly into the genre of science fiction.

The cover features an example of Brian Lucas’s amoebic and amorphous art, where two orbital/circular forms merge and another seems to be growing at the collision point. This is essentially all the roadmap you need for this book. O0 is composed of two novellas: “The Given Earth” and “Ocean Zero.” The linked stories are unique but not entirely separate or unrelated as parts of one show up in the other; and the juxtaposition creates resonances that grow and ultimately supersede their duality, just as within each story there are interdependent and constantly changing characters and subplots.

“The Given Earth” begins with two old men, Mike and Ike, twins that were once a single entity, in a candlelit cave playing a game that attempts to complete the iteration of the number Pi (called poe here). By doing this, they set off a destructive force and bring to life a monstrous event endangering a city called Oopolis, where the Mind of O rules. A not-quite human and somewhat dull astronaut named Pann, a fluttering mindful presence named Tink, and a floating and wispy figure named Windy try to set things right.

“Ocean Zero” is centered around the quest of a “space whale,” a sentient space vessel named L’Orca, a pipe-smoking astronaut chimp named Grissom, and two “Delfins,” Moo and Voo, who live in the planetoid Ocean One “in violation of the laws of physics,” which is “a single drop of water orbiting the sun” and where, tellingly, “Only the violation of symmetry was a crime.” Moo commits this crime and spends time both intentionally and not, in the wreckage/bones of a space whale that is L’Orca’s double. Probe One and Probe Two, Dr. Own and Dr. One, are transformative “double agents.”

Characters and objects morph into different states and change identities in O0—even the Earth and moon change names. The characters are also evocative of other sources: the cave from Plato; the Orwellian Mind of O; the Pann, Tink, and Windy from Peter Pan; L’Orca, the Spanish poet; and Gus Grissom, the pioneering astronaut who was part of the Gemini project and who died tragically in the Apollo I mission. There are also allusions to The Wizard of OZ (note the initials of “Ocean Zero”).  Other sources and allusions float throughout the space of the stories. Joron is playful with these resonances and references, not cryptic, and there is a humorous wink in much of it.

Joron’s singular poetic sensibilities are evident throughout O0. And then there are the book’s many metafictional moments: at points, the characters are dictated by the story, animated by their own readings of their own story; at other points, “numbers march like soldiers into the real world”; and at other points, characters appear as text and they are released to write their own stories. These characters, all of them post-human, aren’t always what they seem, often transforming, their names often evoking other things, some coming alive with the act of reading. Again, there is a real sense of play at work here, as Joron throws the symmetrical systems of language out of phase with themselves.

As he does in his poetry, Joron constantly defamiliarizes language in these novellas, often through juxtaposing phrases: “Amorous! Our-anemonies,” “O mystery, to be the twin of between,” “I put the own in known,” and  Dr. Own–once well known, now so alone.”  The book is full of these delights: I kept wanting to pronounce Oopolis as “oomph-o-lis” instead of “Oh-opolis,” which has an absurdist comical effect. And the first time I read “Nasaism” I did a double-take, thought, wait, “Nazism?” and then “Nay-sayer-sim?” or something like that. Finally getting it—“NASA-ism!”—I laughed. This is part of what makes O0 so inviting: constantly in flux with multiple meanings, characters, phrases, its many concepts resonate on many levels.

Doubles abound in the book, emanating different versions of themselves. This doubling/mirroring/dialectical aspect of O0 (which is itself two stories) radiates interesting and interconnected surprises, Joron creating a material sense of fiction.

The experience of reading a novel is often posited as escapist absorption, into a “flow experience,” one of the most satisfying psychological states, etc. But with Joron, you are absorbed and flung back out again constantly. It draws you in only to pop you back out again into the metacognitive level of being aware that you’re reading text. That is, you’re absorbed into the seduction of narrative, but then reminded, like a Matisse painting, for example, of the material nature of the art, that characters, setting, etc., are representations in language. The effect is mind-bending, rewarding, fun, and profound: you’re thrown in and out of the story, made aware of yourself as a reader (with awareness of you reading), and thrown back deeper into your own evolution of reading.

In “The Given Earth” there is The Story, The Epics, and a kind of antediluvian Noolith. These elements of the story make the evolutionary levels of storytelling—Jungian mythology, various folktales, etc.— manifest. Joron offers an iteration of a story and then the mythological layers from which it derives, followed by deepest authorless archetypes, manifesting philosophical ideas about storytelling. For example, there’s Pann, obviously evocative of Peter Pan but also Pan the satyr, maybe Achilles, or even the fallen angel Satan. Delve deeper, into the etymology of “pan,” and you find “all,” that is, everything. Foregrounding its own making, re-making, and unmaking, O0 comes alive in your mind.

Defying just about every expectation, O0 is nevertheless set in the familiar world of the early Space Race, a time full of possibility but also a time that seemed to teeter on the brink of apocalypse as the nuclei of atoms were split and fused, a setting that adds further resonance throughout the experience of reading. In “The Given Earth,” when the Noolith begins drifting “out of phase with itself” and affects the Story, Joron writes, “Apparently matter resists being arranged into a narrative structure.” This is a tectonic movement, or, considering the Space Age origins of the book, perhaps I should say explosively subatomic experience. Violations of the laws of physics, double worlds, the impossible and possible, machine and living organisms, the past and future all exist improbably in these stories.

The visual disequilibrium of “O” and “0” in the title, the difference between them, accounts for the force that produces so many beautiful surprises. The double is just slightly out of synch, enough to produce “beautiful convulsions” and “an unexpected, unprecedented superaddition to reality.” This is what fills the pages of O0: superadditions to reality, ideas that ripple off the page into one another and outward into space. Taking you on a wonderful sometimes familiar and often engagingly disorienting trip, O0 not only trips you into reading it but into reading the universe itself.

 

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Brian Strang is the author of Are You Afraid?, Dark Adapt, Machinations, and Incretion, and several chapbooks. His poems, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in many journals, including Seedings, New American Writing, The Denver Quarterly, Caliban, and (translated) in the Portuguese journal DiVersos. He has had several solo exhibits of his paintings, which reside in many private collections. From 2011 to 2021, he played guitar in the instrumental trio Crow Crash Radio. He teaches writing at SFSU and lives in Oakland, CA.

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