Everybody knows everybody.… But not everybody knows everybody.John Upham, Chelsea, Vermont
What about the mess, the chaos, of murder? In the summer of 1933 Mme. Pernollet, the wife of the hotel keeper in the little town of Belley (near Gertrude Stein's country house), fell from a window onto the courtyard below. She died five days later. Stein was fascinated by this event and even went to the funeral. (She and Toklas had stayed in the Pernollet hotel during the summers of 1924–28.) The whole town was gossiping; the cause of the death would never become clear. Stein made a series of attempts to turn an account of this death into a manageable story, but in the way of all mysteries of ordinary life it resisted neat packaging to the very degree that it was closely inspected. It was in fact the merest glimpse of an enormous entanglement, and Stein was quite familiar with the intricacies of the town gossip. As Stein scholar Ulla Dydoputs it, "Notes and revisions in the manuscript of Blood show how many family stories seethe behind the details.… Stein … saw her chance to use the death and her knowledge of town and crime in a detective story."
Stein loved detective novels and wanted very much to write one. By early fall she was trying to put the circumstances of Mme. Pernollet's death into a generic detective form. Unsatisfied with the way things were going, she repeatedly tried to tell the story in other ways. By the end of the year the account had entered three short prose pieces.
The fact is that Stein could never bring herself to reduce this material to the conventional form of the detective novel. As much as she desired another popular publication to follow the success of The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas(1932), she wouldn't (couldn't) take the advice of her American agent, William A. Bradley, to fix the transitions. As anyone who has ever taken a high school English class knows, "fix the transitions" is shorthand for "this makes no sense." Blood is indeed not a story at all but a strangely fragmented, intricately incoherent, humorously tonic meditation on the genre of the murder mystery itself, on the probable act of an improbable murder, on the murderous microclimates often found in seemingly innocuous small-town ecosystems. In the midst of what Stein believed was a failed project, her sense of Mme. Pernollet's death would remain full of powerfully oblique implications intersected by ominous and poignant elements of small-town life. The
The genre that supersedes the detective novel in Gertrude Stein's use of the events of Mme. Pernollet's death is a complex-realist text that can play out contradictory and coincidental and unsettling implications in experiments with form—the form of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, as well as what Stein humorously referred to as the "novel of real life." The promise of a "real life" novel is heralded in the subtitle of "Fred Anneday" (written some six months later, in the winter of 1934), where a "real life" ambition at first appears to be a passing joke but is actually the object of analysis in a hybrid story-essay about the impossibility of telling stories. The permutative-analytic poetics of Blood's antinarrative logic enacts this kind of analysis. It begins with the very first sentences in chapter 1: "They had a country house. A house in the country is not the same as a country house. This was a country house. They had had one servant, a woman. They had changed to two servants, a man and a woman that is to say husband and wife" (Blood, 11).
So the reader at the very outset must either put the book aside in disgust or become complicit in the dual crime that is the fall of the story as story of a fall: the Pernollet clinamen reveals itself in a medley of long-since fallen generic suspects: small-town life, family life, public and household scenes of the sinister life of husband and wife:
Who remembers a door. Any one who remembers a door can remember a war. He went to the war to be killed in the war because his wife was crazy. She behaved strangely when she went to church. She even behaved strangely when she did not. She played the piano and at the same time put cement between the keys so that they would not sound. You see how easy it is to have cement around. (Blood, 47)
The book concludes with this parting gesture toward the detective genre:
|Do you understand anything.|
|How do we do.|
|Do you remember. It made its impression. Not only which they sew.|
|Thank you for anxiously.|
|No one is amiss after servants are changed.|
Yes, of course. Everything always turns out as it should in the world of that particular detective genre where the servant problem remains the
|Lizzie do you understand.|
|Of course she does.|
|Of course you do.|
|You could if you wanted to but you always want something else but not that but not that yes. (Blood, 79)|
That last sentence can be read in as many ways as there can of course be no "of course" at all and yet "of course." Of course it's all a matter of course given the shadow geometries of small-town and family life. But mostly, of course, one can ask all the questions one likes; one can cast them in any direction and address them to whomever one chooses, and of course there can be no reply but one that is entirely empty of information and portent. These are matters to be treated finally as matters in the course of a literary logic that enacts a language game of indisputably warranted nonconclusion. One can quite easily read Blood On The Dining Room Floor as simultaneous matter-of-fact deconstruction of the detective genre—beginning with the counter-informative title (there is no blood on the dining room floor in the text)—and demonstration of the experimental novel as play of and on forms. This play is enacted in a number of spatiotemporal ways—for example, the occasional one- or two-sentence chapter that, like Laurence Sterne's comic brevity in Tristram Shandy, is just one more destabilizing blow to a reader's generic expectations.
But, someone will protest, couldn't this be just a coincidence of accidents in the making of a poesis? Yes, of course, that's how it always is in our contingent world. But I think I know what they might mean. Something like: Are not Gertrude Stein and Mme. Pernollet sleepwalking toward the precipice hand in hand? Is it perhaps a double suicide?
Of course, with Oulipean thoroughness all these pairs could be recombined. Whatever answers one might posit or reject it is undeniably clear that Stein makes of the textual world of Blood just what a confirmed mystery addict doesn't want—unresolved ambiguities, a proliferation of questions whose very forms, rhetorical and not, are ways of saying, See? We never will understand the why of it; this is how things happen. In fact, Stein's fascination with the psychodrama of husbands and wives, as well as other material in Blood, persists well beyond the immediate events of 1933. The Mother Of Us All, completed in 1946, the year Stein died, will revisit the role of the wife with psychological queries and conjectures and humor and startling wisdom.
Meanwhile Stein's geometry of attention in Blood, rather than being plotted in an intriguing, reassuring Euclidean zigzag route from A to Z, creates a fractal coastline of repetitive/permutative linguistic forms whose semantic shape (following the permeable, fluid dynamic of any coastline) is constantly shifting in the emotional, social, intellectual weather of interpretive space.  The novel is a small but complex system that cannot by its own constituting rules arrive at a logical terminus. The directionalities here are about expansion, permutation, change … not reductive stasis. In fact Blood can be seen as a radiant ecosystem of unstable grammars, indeterminacy, uncertainty, surprise. The thoroughly embedded crimes of valuing coincidence over strategic plotting, a generic failure, the ruin of closure, no question of answers. Knowing how badly Stein wanted to write a popular detective novel, I cannot see Blood as the result of Stein's insufficiency as a storyteller. Certainly not after the indisputable counterexample of The Autobiography! And self-sabotage just doesn't ring true. Rather, I want to conjecture that her characteristic practice, the ethos of an investigative poetics, propels her into this culpably poethical position. That she herself later proclaimed her effort a
The poetics of any writing that can and must go on without answers, despite the urgency of its subjects, will always be regarded as a failure if systematic narratives of completion are desired. This is the nature of the story that must bypass questions of its own generic entropy to follow its conventionally prescribed schedule. The first requirement of a plot-driven narrative is that it run on time—story time. The detective story may be the most paradigmatic case in point because all of its mechanisms are in the foreground. It operates with the principles of assured closure present in any assembly-line best-seller. If the writer becomes self-conscious about the DOA starting point s/he might well balk. A narrative will fail to meet its generic conditions if the writer is incompetent, yes, but also to the precise extent that it becomes poethical in its vitality. That is, to the extent that it is a truly investigative form of life, it might override its own moment of inertia; it might not be condemned to go in perfect circles. I associate Stein's "failure" to fulfill the conditions of the detective form with other fortunate generic failures: the "failure" of Walter Benjamin's Arcades project to come together as a systematic whole, Pound's "failure" to fix the fragmentation of the Cantos, and Wittgenstein's (ambivalently) self-proclaimed failure in his introduction to Philosophical Investigations:
It was my intention at first … that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks. After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.——And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.… I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.
It's interesting to note how Wittgenstein seems to confuse forms of logic(that must always fail to contain life) and forms of life (that must always exceed logics). He is after what is "natural"; but of course the logics of genres, philosophical or literary, although they may become habitual enough to be "naturalized," are constructed. The means of their artifice is always open to revision. Pace Gertrude and Wittgen, remarks can be philosophy can be literature.
In all these cases the authors' sense of failure comes in the wake of generic expectations that cannot be achieved for what I see as poethical reasons: the writing engages difficult, unprecedented forms and questions of one's times and therefore must move out of familiar containment into what—at least for a while—will be experienced, by writer and reader alike, as hopelessly fragmented and—to one degree or another—unintelligible. (It's hard to imagine now, and yet true, that Wittgenstein's work was widely considered unintelligible for decades after its publication.) Such work leaves the reader with the question of what s/he's to do. This is where thinking in terms of a fractal poetics may help.
Fractal models (with their scalar self-similarities and unpredictable variations) bring into the foreground of our attention the large patterns and erratic details, the dynamic equilibrium of order and disorder in complex life systems like weather and coastlines. This is a geometry of nature that has helped us attend more productively to the chaotic processes of complex turbulent phenomena that static and idealized Euclidean models cannot begin to accommodate. I have begun to think of certain forms of art (for example, the post-1940s music of John Cage) as having a fractal relation to the rest of life. They are complex constructions that, among other things, present their material presence as a dynamically indeterminate "coastline" for audiences to explore via their own complex cultural and psychological dispositions. If one acknowledges language itself as a complex life system, the linguistic tensions and instabilities, semantic ruptures, and self-similar variations in a work like Blood invite comparison to fractal forms. Can one in fact view Blood as fractal model of small-town and family turbulence rather than confused detective novel?
The closer you look at fractal models, or the natural phenomena they describe, the more (self-similar) details you see, the more complex things become. (In Euclidean figures the closer you look, the simpler things get.) I wonder whether the kind of "positive feedback loop" that generates fractal self-similarities and variations—data reentering the system again and again, each time undergoing slight modifications—might be an illuminating way to think about Stein's writing process. Might in fact give some intuitions about how the mind (that is, the fractal neural networks of the brain) produces complex linguistic forms based on repetition and variation. We know that in the case of Blood, as with most of her other writing, the product and the process are
And then there's the particular way the form of any coastline structures an exploration of it. The reader can tramp up and down the shifting coastline of Stein's words looking for the lost object (the victim, the culprit) in vain, day after day not finding it, finding instead a strange constancy in the scene of the absent object, the coastline itself as a pattern-bounded indeterminacy in flux. Even if something as reassuring as a body were to turn up with an explanation tagged to its toe, it could hardly become the focal point of this tidal windblown beach or page. Ocean beach and Steinian page are equally contingent and dynamic zones whose life principle is change. The beach changes in its conversation with the vagaries and variabilities of meteorological elements; the page changes in its conversation with variable epistemologies, grammars, and genres, as well as with the associative elements of a reader's mind as that mind lives within multiple intersecting forms whose rules are neither simple nor readily apparent. All this occurs of course within another strange constancy—the changing cultural climate of the developing contemporary. Luckily, coincidentally, both beach and page are locations of aesthetic wonder. Aesthetic wonder is a source of energy even as one hesitates in the face of unforeseen difficulties.
But, you may be quite legitimately asking, this beach stuff—isn't this (metaphorically speaking) building sand castles on an extended conceit? Surely one knows that language is not really a coastline. Well I'm not so sure it's not. Or rather I sense that languages and coastlines operate with similar kinds of principles. If one thinks of a coastline as just one site of mutually transformative exchange between different kinds of complex dynamical systems, then language as it exists in the active mediation between neural network and world ecosystems is surely such a site. There are specific things one gains in thinking of language in this way, particularly when confronted by literature that won't resolve into simple mimesis or tidy containments and conclusions.
It saves a certain amount of frustration to remember that you will never solve a coastline. You can explore, analyze, describe it, visit it as often as you like for the pleasure of it, picnic on it, swim along it, embark from it. It is of course gloriously noncompressible. Its best description can only be coterminous with itself, with its horizons and skies and weather, with the complex, infinite series of possible encounters anyone might have with it. You cannot sum up or paraphrase a coastline, although you can experience topographical limits. Geographers
As location of conventional murder mystery, where all must resolve into a single gory punctum—vanishing point of "the body"—Stein's coastal prose is entirely revelatory in its surprising variations. The more you can't find the object you're looking for, the more you're learning about the language coastline itself. "The more you see how the country is the more you do not wonder why they shut the door" ("A Water-fall And A Piano," 31–32). This experience includes that of one's own imaginative cognition, since the system that I am calling fractal is always composed of text in interaction with reader's mind.) To make a "novel of real life"—as distinct from stylistic naturalism—it was necessary to pursue language, with its internal tensions between grammatical logics and radical unintelligibilities, as an active intersection that resists one-to-one correspondence with anything other than its own traffic patterns. Stein was acutely aware, as was John Cage, of the incommensurability of the multiple logics we experience and employ in different parts of our lives. Hence the cluster of questions that will always exist concerning the connection of connections within a work of art to the connections between persons and events and things in daily life. These passages from "The Superstitions Of Fred Anneday, Annday, Anday a Novel of Real Life" examine precisely the same puzzle of poetics that Aristotle and countless others since have worked on—the relation between the unfolding logic of a lived day and the logic of time in literature. Notice the self-similar patterns, the noise, the perturbations as this linguistic system enacts what it's saying about everyday life:
It is not at all confusing to live every day and to meet everyone not at all confusing but to tell any one yes it is confusing even if only telling it to any one how you lived any one day and met everybody all of that day. And now what more can one do than that. And doing more than that is this …
Now I need no reason to wonder if he went to say farewell. But he never did. Fred Anday never said farewell to any one in a day no one ever does― 156 ―because every one sees every one every day which is a natural way for a day to be.… Of course no dream is like that because after all there has to be all day to be like that. And all day is like that. And there cannot be a novel like that because it is too confusing written down if it is like that so a novel is like a dream when it is not like that.
But what is this yes what is this. It is this.
What then is this text one finds in Blood On The Dining Room Floor? It is this. Stein's complex dynamic system enacts on the page her contemporary mix of Euro-American, lesbian feminine-masculine, sexual-intellectual, visual-linguistic … compound sensibilities. Refusing to arrest her gaze in the way of detective fiction she keeps it and us in motion. She must go on, even after the success of The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas, with her role of prime suspect in the crime of being a foreigner in the familiar world that most readers demand. She is, in other words, the foreigner that every contemporary artist must be. ("Oh dear a foreigner. They did not listen to him be a foreigner"[Blood, 49].) It is this ethos of contemporaneity (most decidedly not that of the conventional detective novel) that Stein articulates in the extraordinary essay she wrote in 1935, "How Writing Is Written": "Everybody is contemporary with his [sic] period … and the whole business of writing is the question of living in that contemporariness.… The thing that is important is that nobody knows what the contemporariness is. In other words, they don't know where they are going, but they are on their way."