[Sic], by Davis Schneiderman. Seattle, Washington: Jaded Ibis Productions. 154 pages. $16.00, paper.
Davis Schneiderman’s writing is typically propelled by a kind of palpable kinetic energy—an explosive proliferation of images, concepts, ideas, and well … words that collide and intersect in the strangest of ways. This is most evident in his 2010 novel Drain, set in the desiccated basin of what used to be Lake Michigan, amidst a nightmarish post-America future, which races through a complex series of juxtapositions and linguistic contortions like a million dollar Rube Goldberg device set up by a bombastic Hollywood stunt team. But in [Sic] Schneiderman undertakes a vastly different project—a call for a reexamination of authorship, a polemic on plagiarism and the collaboration at the basis of all writing, a recipe for Victory Cake (perfect for any VE party)—yet, perhaps the greatest achievement in [Sic] is the indelible mark of Davis Schneiderman it bears. Now, crafting a distinctive, inimitable voice is a laudable achievement in any context, but one far more impressive in [Sic] considering Schneiderman didn’t write any of it.
[Sic] is the second of Schneiderman’s Dead/Books Trilogy—the follow up to Blank (which houses all the accoutrement of a novel—an author, a title, chapters, a copyright page, an ISBN number … just not any of those superfluous words, sentences, and paragraphs that comprise the actual text). Like Blank, [Sic] is more conceptual art than conventional page turner—nearly everything in it is appropriated, ranging from Hamlet and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to a spam email and an excerpt from The Emergency Broadcast test, all appearing as “by Davis Schneiderman.” Meanwhile, the only ‘original’ part of [Sic] are the ninety-nine short preparatory notes in the introduction … penned by Oulipian writer Daniel Levin Baker. However there’s more at work here than the playful but pointed critique of plagiarism, copyright law, and the belief that words can be owned.
[Sic] is partitioned into three sections, “From (Pre-1923),” “The Borges Transformation (1939-present),” and “@ (Post-1923).” The reason 1923 bears such prominence is that it’s the year that demarcates what falls in the public domain (everything published before 1923) versus work protected by copyright law (everything published after 1923—unless the copyright isn’t renewed, or there’s a fair use exemption, or a number of other loopholes … but you get the idea). The first section offers excerpts from a breadth of canonical texts (who knew Schneiderman was so prolific, writing The Canterbury Tales, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and The Red-Headed League?)—most of which are oddly fun to read through (I say most because I struggled with “Caedomon’s Hymn” and the Beowulf excerpt, as either I’ve forgotten Old English or I never knew it); while the second section runs the opening of Borges’ brilliant and exceedingly relevant story “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote ” through a dense knot of auto-translations, winding through Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Estonian, Greek, Portuguese—all to avoid copyright infringement, and to transform sentences like “I am aware that it is quite easy to challenge my slight authority” (Borges’ version) into gems such as “I know this is a simple matter of whether I am the light of the government” ([Sic]). Interspersed throughout the book are Andi Olsen’s desaturated photographs of Schneiderman sheathed in a head to toe white Lycra body suit traipsing about Paris and often (and hilariously) traumatizing the locals.
However, it’s the bizarrely enthralling third section where the madcap brilliance of Schneiderman’s vision really crystallizes. Here, the impact of copyright laws is felt the most—as the public domain from which Schneiderman can borrow, steal, appropriate, use, recontextualize, and imitate changes radically. Instead of T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare, we get the opening cut-scene of a twenty-five year old arcade game (Zero Wing, from “all your bases are belong to us” meme fame), a portion of Eisenhower’s farewell speech, and an excerpt from Wikipedia’s entry on plagiarism (sourced, of course, as “by Davis Schneiderman”). But there’s also a strange alternate, or at least untold, history of our digitized age lurking beneath this gleeful postmodern subversion. This is particularly evident in “Me at the Zoo,” a transcription of the first video uploaded to YouTube, and “First 30 Tweets,” the very first Twitter posts. The beginnings of both social media giants prove humble—the inaugural words of YouTube are no more interesting than “alright, here we are in front of the…uh…elephants,” and who would have guessed the visionaries behind Twitter wanted posterity to note “just setting up my twttr” as the first tweet?—and hint at a precarious, uncertain future that seems almost quaint in hindsight.
Like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, [Sic] is a readymade—art conceived, and perhaps discovered, but not “created” by the artist. Of course, all art—and maybe most especially writing—is a readymade at heart. Language is communal and writers, however adventurous, innovative, or transgressive they may be, are ultimately boxed-in, able only to select from already existent words and syntactic structures (which fortunately still leaves plenty of options). In the highfalutin terms of literary theory this is Derrida’s bricoleur versus the myth of the engineer. The bricoleur is a scavenger, assembling all things from the parts of other things; while the engineer is the fabled true originator, the alchemist who alchemizes something from nothing. Blank demonstrates this by appropriating nothing—yielding a vast, barren, stretch of empty pages. [Sic] does the opposite, it appropriates everything, and so the pages swell, brimming with words—words written centuries apart, by a wide array of writers, bound only by the connective tissue of space and authorship. This is a tenuous bond, but as [Sic] argues, still the firmest and only real bond words can share.
Paul Albano is a PhD candidate in fiction writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in Fractured West, Monday Night Lit, and Cream City Review, among other places.