This Ain't Yer Mama's CyberSex
Within the hallowed halls of the experimental fiction juggernaut, there are very few writers who can pull off truly postmodern blendings of genre and form, of process and product, and do it gracefully. Indeed, the almost obsessive need to appear innovative and compelling often takes precedence over actually doing something innovative and compelling. It’s Courtney Love Syndrome, literary style, and while it often garners a certain amount of press and notoriety, it rarely succeeds artistically. Jan Ramjerdi is clearly a welcome exception to this rule, and RE>LA>VIR is as stunning as it is disturbing, a bold nightmare that meticulously dots every I and crosses every T.
RE>LA>VIR is about rape. It’s about violent violations of the female body. But it’s filtered through the computer screen, filled with enough techno-jargon to please even the most hard-core of computer geeks while never letting go of the book’s repeated and harrowing claim: “I do not know the woman I am until I am raped.” Pages move swiftly from first-person narratives, both of the raped woman and the rapist, into computerized instructions, hypertext programming, and, significantly, the frequent reminder, “TO STOP: Press ESC Key.” RE>LA>VIR moves far beyond Kate Bornstein and Caitlin Sullivan’s 1996 attempt to blend computer communication patterns with traditional narrative structures in Nearly Roadkill, for example, partially because much of RE>LA>VIR is closer to poetry than it is prose narrative. Ramjerdi’s words are deliberate, calculated, and richly pulled from the most horrific of crimes, and her gift at stringing them together in inventive and deeply troubling patterns is considerable.
This is, really, only as it should be; a text about rape should be disturbing, and it makes perfect sense that the form should mirror the content. Ramjerdi has created chaotic pages (both visually and ideologically) that reinforce the narrative of sexual violence, and that insist on a constant and almost debilitating anxiety. Perhaps it is because I am only one slippery and threatening step away from total computer-illiteracy, but my one complaint of this book is that I periodically found myself distracted from the narrative, trying to reason through what my own strategy would be if I ever saw these complicated and foreign computer symbols dotting the screen of my own computer the way they dot the pages of this book. But if the reader can temporarily hold off her own anxiety about the messenger, the message itself is frighteningly intense and unfortunately tangible. I had chills for hours.
Ramjerdi makes one other move in RE>LA>VIR that begs comment: she makes some of her rapists women. Within a discourse that constantly assumes that the rape victim is a woman and the perpetrator is a man (many states actually define rape in their criminal codes as some kind of forced sex by a man against a woman, thereby precluding the possibility of a male victim or a female attacker), this is a bold and refreshing move that speaks volumes to Ramjerdi’s literary and intellectual stamina. By including passages such as “Basically I rape her up the ass with the barrel of my gun, handle shoved up my cunt so I can come too. Again and again and again and again,” Ramjerdi allows the reader to visualize all the horrific potential of her subject, and opens up a discourse that is sometimes necessarily, but all too summarily, closed to more infrequent possibility.
Filled with gorgeously terrifying accounts of rapes and sexual mutilations, predatory sexual violence, and multi-gendered torture, RE>LA>VIR is not for the faint of heart. What it is is a stunning contribution to the ever-shallow pool of experimental fiction that not only has something to say but goes about saying it with breathtaking and refreshing creativity. And Jan Ramjerdi, who makes her fiction debut with RE>LA>VIR, possesses a talent and insight that the Courtney Loves of the world can only imagine. While the computerized form of the book may be a bit intimidating to technophobes like me, it’s certainly worth a slow, careful read. And it is certainly among the very best in contemporary experimental fiction.