‘When My Amputations was published in 1986, it was heralded by writers and critics as a major literary achievement. Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Charles Johnson spoke of Clarence Major’s mind and talent, his inventive use of language that drew together influences from black music, poetry, the blues, and painting. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote that My Amputations is “distinguished by a rich and imaginative prose poetry of evocative power.” Awarding it the 1986 Western States Book Award for Fiction, jurors Denise Levertov, Robert Haas, Jonathan Galassi, and Sandra Cisneros deemed the text “an explosively rich book about a man pursued by his shadow…. My Amputations is distinguished by the extraordinarily inventive rhythms of its language. A book full of laughter and rueful sadness and swift contempt, its deepest resonance is the hunger to be healed.” The critic Jerome Klinkowitz wrote that My Amputations is “living fiction, as close to a truly organic text as we are ever likely to see.”
‘Since this extraordinary reception, the study of contemporary literature has evolved dramatically, providing contemporary critics and scholars with the language, vocabulary, and theoretical concepts to re-read My Amputations, not as an “experimental” text, but as a masterpiece of postmodern fiction, as a catalyst in a new historical and epistemological development in American literature. Reflexivity, fragmented authority, indeterminacy, play, uncertainty, difference, ambiguity, and open-endedness — these post-structural and postmodern concepts challenge many of the suppositions of modern thought and modern literature. As a consequence, traditional notions of realism seem inadequate. The proposition that the writer is the “creator” of something “original” has come under serious attack. The unquestioned assumption of the text’s literariness — that is, that the text possesses certain qualities that place it above the matrices of historical conditions — has been undermined profoundly. By questioning so many naturalized conventions and assumptions about modern literature, My Amputations signifies new ways to think and live in the world. Most importantly, these advancements and developments allow critics to point out how this text radically re-describes African American subjectivity.
‘In the 1970s and 1980s, as academics and critics struggled to come up with new uses for literature, Clarence Major had already embarked upon a literary mission to re-define the novel. Indeed, so many of the postmodern tendencies highlighted by literary theorists, and so abundantly present in My Amputations, had been evident in Major’s work for years prior to that. In an interview early in his writing career, Major told John O’Brien: “the novel… takes on its own reality and is really independent of anything outside itself…. You begin with words and you end with words. The content exists in our minds. I don’t think that it has to be a reflection of anything. It is a reality that has been created inside a book. It’s put together and exists finally in your mind.” For Major, from All-Night Visitors (1969) to No (1973) to Reflex and Bone Structure (1975), to Emergency Exit (1979) and to My Amputations (1986), these texts do not reflect the social real; they are an addition to it, or are artistic objects in themselves to be admired for what they are. They have their own presence in the world, representing complex networks of ideas, images, and feeling. They refer only to themselves and to other texts. In the earlier novels All-Night Visitors and No, Major uses graphic sex to demonstrate that fiction is a linguistic invention. In later novels such as Reflex and Bone Structure, Emergency Exit, and My Amputations, Major uses personal fragmentation to explore anti-realism or the fiction-making process.
‘From the beginning, this knowledge and awareness gave Major the freedom to use his imagination to create fiction that allows the reader to have an experience, rather than an ill-conceived reflection of life. Choosing not to model his fiction on “the linear and formal notion of realism traditionally practiced by Negro and Black American writers,” Major eschews linear plot, causal logic, progress, realistic character development, and resolution. He expands the novel to incorporate other forms of speech and images such as painting, jazz and blues improvisation, techniques of detective fiction, porn movies, and cubism, as he speaks to human dimensions and possibilities that have been repressed and/or excluded in realistic texts. But in using these different forms of representation, he disturbs and even subverts their dominance, causing them to exist in this inter-textual flux.
‘In the 1970s, this must have been an arduous, difficult task for Major. He began writing his postmodern, anti-establishment fiction and achieving literary recognition in the aftermath of the turmoil of the 1960s. This was a time when individuals and artistic and literary communities drew clearly defined cultural and ideological lines. In many ways, he was marginalized. In not writing realistic fiction or catering to the New York literary establishment, he did not achieve the commercial successes of his contemporaries such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Also, in the 1970s and 1980s, Major’s brand of meta-fiction put him in direct opposition to black aesthetics and the racial uplift of African American critics, as well as in opposition to mainstream American literary critics who read African American literature in a reductive, stereotypical way. He readily responded, arguing that a black aesthetic view of literature was as stifling and repressive as a Eurocentric view. Both close down the writer and restrict him to the service of certain political ideologies. He was also accused of not writing about “real” black people, or dealing with race.
‘But Major does deal with race. Rather than choose race as his theme and racial conflict as his subject matter, Major probes beyond the merely political to find the roots that link the African American experience to all human experiences. His characters are black, but race “is not the totality of their identity.” For Major, blacks have other human identities and dimensions. In taking this approach to African American subjectivity, he obviates the “tendency to stereotype the [black] Other” and instead represents blacks as complex and varied, with the experience of race being one aspect of that complex existence.
‘Major’s My Amputations is told by an omniscient narrator who shifts from third person to first person, moving in and out of the mind of the protagonist, Mason. The text has many modes: impressionistic, visual, and meta-fictional. Minimizing representational effects, it constructs the narrative in physical blocks of diverse materials, rather than in logical paragraphs. One of its techniques includes using language to build what Major calls “visual panels,” like Cubist pictures, which are complete within themselves. But within each block, which is filled with multiple and varied poetic imagery, the narrator constantly moves forward and backward in time.
‘Another technique used in My Amputations is a jazz/blues mode of improvisation that offers different takes on key situations and events. When the narrator tells the story of Mason Ellis in a jazz/blues style, he repeats information always with variations. For example, the narrator tells us of Mason’s childhood in Chicago. But when he recounts Mason’s childhood a second time, he also tells us that Mason was born in red-dirt Georgia. In his jazz-influenced account of Painted Turtle, one of Mason’s female friends, the narrator tells us of her relationship with Mason and how it ends. Later, he does a riff on the relationship, but this time he elaborates further, recounting how the two first met.
‘This riffing on various themes and situations happens throughout the text. The narrator gives us several different versions of Mason’s stay in the Air Force. He gives different riffs on the Chemical Bank robbery, without hierarchy or privilege. In giving us this play on the various events and situations in the text, the narrator, and thus Major, demonstrates that language cannot completely master a subject, that language cannot pin down meaning. It can only give us significations of the subject or the social real.’ — W. Lawrence Hogue
Clarence Major Website
Clarence Major Resource Page
Clarence Major @ The Poetry Foundation
Clarence Major @ afropoets
Book: ‘The Art and Life of Clarence Major’
‘Conversations with Clarence Major’
‘Energy Made Visible: A Conversation With Clarence Major’
‘Walt Whitman, Clarence Major, and Changing resholds of American Wonder’
‘A Minoring of Major and Some Top Gunn’
‘Postmodernism, Traditional Cultural Forms, and African American Narratives’
‘To Define an Ultimate Dimness’, by Nathaniel Mackey
‘Six Orphans and Circuses: The Literary Experiments of Leon Forrest and Clarence Major’
‘Against Commodification: Zuni Culture in Clarence Major’s Native American Texts’
‘”I follow my eyes”: an interview with Clarence Major’
Buy ‘My Amputations’
Swallow the Lake – Clarence Major
Your fiction and your poetry seems to be chronically referred to as “experimental”…
“Chronic” is a good word for it…
…and that seems to be juxtaposed to the term “conventional,” and these two terms keep cropping up. I’m interested in finding out what those terms mean to you, and why do you feel that “experimental” is used to describe your writing in general?
For me they’re troublesome—very troublesome—but I think it’s an effort on the part of people who need to define writing in terms of genres, in terms of categories, to do just that. It seems to be the convenient way of dealing with things that are in the marketplace. It’s “black” or “experimental” or “feminist” or “historical romance” or whatever. Basically we live in a culture that requires these definitions. It’s kind of a tag. I’ve agonized over tags, and I think there’s no way around them, so I don’t fight them anymore. Those are labels that are either useful or detracting at times, depending on where you are at the moment or where the customer is at the moment, or where the researched or book reviewer is at the moment.
What’s the connection to your writing? Why do you feel it’s termed “experimental”?
Because, I guess, as the reviewer said in yesterday’s L.A. Times, it’s because there is a tradition of Afro-American fiction and poetry, and that tradition has been—in fiction, especially—realistic, or naturalistic. “Social realism” is what it’s generally called. It means that Afro-American writers have traditionally made a sociological or psychological—and it’s usually both—examination of the so-called black experience, which is another term that has no meaning whatsoever.
There is no single black experience. There are certain kinds of cultural aspects of the experience of black people generally that might be summed up in that way, but it seems to minimize the importance of diversity within the culture. That’s just one of the troublesome things about labels. The minimization.
Well, the terms are double-edged. Reviewers can employ them in an effort to valorize certain writers’ work—experimental can be avant-garde and “fresh”—or they can marginalize writers through the same labels.
Yes, and this is exactly what happens, normally. Especially with Afro-American writers, or even any so-called subcategory of writers in this culture: women, Native American, Asian-American—whatever. It’s generally considered “the other” division. There is a kind of crossover point, too, at times. It seems to me that the ethnic identity of a writer is not what causes that kind of definition to take place. We have examples of that—Frank Yerby, Willard Motley—just in looking at black writers. There’s always been a concurrent tradition of black American writers who have not at all concentrated on the elements that cause Afro-American literature to be defined as a subcategory. Yerby, as you know, every book he wrote was a bestseller, but they were poplar novels—romance novels, essentially.
I think the defining element takes place at one level of decision on part of the writer—what an individual writer chooses to write.
It’s also possible to write out of an ethnic experience and at the same time transcend those definitions, just as Ralph Ellison has done. Toni Morrison has done that. Also Alice Walker. That happens because the writer has tapped into some elements of the human experience that transcend the merely cultural. Now, when a writer does that, it doesn’t necessarily follow that society is going to pick up on that and bring the writer into the mainstream; that doesn’t necessarily happen. A writer such as Charles Chestnut, for example, was never really brought into the mainstream as a celebrated American writer.
You dedicated your novel Emergency Exit, published in 1979, “to the people whose stories do not hold together,” from a quote from Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises in which he writes, “I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together.” What did that dedication means for you in 1979, and further, what does it mean when a story doesn’t hold together?
I was trying to justify the structure of that book, which was a system of fragmentation, but a system nonetheless. In other words, a fragmented form that was essentially a unified, coherent entity. I do believe art has to have form. As William Carlos Williams said, “There is no such thing as free verse.” There is really no such thing as a free novel, it’s not like life. Life is kind of formless and pointless at times, but a novel really can’t be that way, just as a poem can’t be that way.
There’s an organizing intelligence? A structuring…
Yes. It has a kind of internal integrity. It’s like a leaf or a tree or a rock, or anything that can be seen to have its own intelligent system. In using that dedication I wanted to justify my form in that novel. I think it was probably the most radical novel I’ve written in terms of form, and therefore the least accessible, and commercially the least successful. But I don’t know whether the novel itself is a success or a failure; I don’t know that about any of my books. I haven’t felt the need to write that kind of novel again. Once I’ve been down a river, I just like to travel another way.
You’ve talked a lot in interviews about process. How, for you, the pleasure’s in the process. So, so you ever have one of those poems that’s just (snaps fingers) there?
Yes, yes. That’s a great pleasure. That’s a gift. Everything falls into place just beautifully. But sometimes, with poetry, I have to see the shape of it on the page. Over and over and over, before I find the poem that’s in there somewhere, somehow, trying to emerge. I do a lot of drafts.
How do you feel about the difference between the way a poem is on the page and the way it might be at a reading? The trade-off between someone alone, silently reading one of your poems, able to take her time and think about it in diferent ways, or that same someone hearing you read it, hearing the rhythms and the intonations as you intended them?
Most of my poetry lends itself to the voice and is meant for the ear. I hate to think of the page as solely a blueprint. I think a lot of visually interesting things are going on on the page. But reading the poem to an audience is a different experience. Poetry is a verbal art. It’s music made with words.
And those words have a certain shape and relationship to each other. A certain kind of cadence and a certain kind of sequence, the rising and falling of the voice, the line.
I teach poetry. I teach a very large class (about 125) called “Close Reading of Poetry.” I try to get the students to understand these issues and to enjoy the poetry first, because if you go at ’em right away with “you gotta learn all these technical terms,” you lose 99% of the class. I’ve had some successes, I think, with students because I take just the opposite approach. I think the difference is that a person who writes poetry understands poetry in a different way than an academic, a scholar.
You said in one of your interviews that you like to try new things and that the most challenging thing about writing fiction is selecting the right voice and developing and understanding that voice.
It’s really hard. In poetry, we try to say what cannot be said.We are after things that speak to us on a much deeper level. That represent something so innate, we know it but we can’t really say what it means. We know it when we see it.
And that’s never been the objective of fiction. Fiction has always had more of a relationship with history. By that I mean: it represents, through the device of historical consensus, the truth of collective human experience. People go to Dickens, say, because he gives us a picture that validates that consensus.
I want to end with a quick question about small-press publishing. You mentioned to me that you would much rather publish with smaller presses, and I was hoping you’d elaborate on this.
Well, it doesn’t always happen, but when it does, the experience can be very satisfying in that there is one-to-one, personal, caring contact with the editor. With Fun & Games, the editor, Jim Perlman, was in touch with me nearly every day by phone. The chances of that happening with a large press are almost zero. With the larger presses, of course, you have advantages: distribution is better, the book can be found in bookstores—though not always. I mean, just because Random House publishes it doesn’t mean it’s going to appear in a bookstore. But in general, publishing with smaller presses is usually satisfying on the personal level.
Clarence Major My Amputations
Fiction Collective 2
‘In My Amputations, Clarence Major goes Ralph Ellison one better…’ [this is a] ‘picaresque parody of the literary hustle…Major writes with one of black letters’ most experimental fictive voices (as well as its most lyrically unhinged), and the pleasures of this novel come more from the fluid sophistication of the text than from its venting of authorial ire…Major deftly adapts his improvisatory voice to the exigencies of the narrative moment…My Amputations should easily win Major renown as a prose prestidigitator of the first rank. He handles an encyclopedic range of voices, sensibilities, and zeitgeists (Afro American, American Jewish, African, Italian, German, English, French) so skillfully that they seem authentic rather than satirical…In flight from the black writer pigeonhole, Major has become the mythographer of a host of imaginary selves. Yet the confident byplay of folkloric and literary citations in My Amputations suggests that major’s alienation from the social fictions about black writers hasn’t alienated him from his roots…Taking his inspiration from all five senses, a multicultural intellectual curiosity, and a polymorphous tongue, Clarence Major has given American fiction its Hopscotch, a cosmopolitan Third World man’s guide to ruminating tongues.’ — Greg Tate
‘My Amputations is a dense and complex work, as readers familiar with Clarence Major’s four previous novels…might expect. A book in which the question of identity throbs like an infected tooth, My Amputations is a picaresque wailing out of the blues tradition; it is ironic, irreverent, sexy, on a first-name basis with the human condition, and defined in part by exaggeration and laughter…My Amputations is distinguished by a rich and imaginative prose poetry of evocative power…the effect is spectacular, like the eruption of fireworks against a dark, featureless sky…Street-smart, versed in the blues, jazz, literature, art, European classical music and philosophy, this narrator is familiar with the cultural signposts of Western civilization.’ — Richard Perry, The New York Times Book Review
‘Mere description cannot convey the wild humor and audacity to be found here, nor the anxiety and cunning. The virtues of My Amputations are all active ones, best summarized, perhaps, as jumpiness…[Major] has fashioned a novel that is simultaneously a deception and one great, roaring self-revelation…It’s tone should be recognizable to anybody who’s ever gotten nervous looking into the mirror.” — The Nation
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Mm, no, I don’t believe I know that Paul Vecchiali film. I’ll hunt it. I know the Visconti, of course. Thanks! ** Jamie, Ha. Hey, pal. Thank you, sir, re: the post. On the ARTE thing, Gisele and Zac (both of whom are out of Paris) and I will have a Skype meeting on Thursday to make a game plan and then we’ll jump back into the work. The Business of Film course: huh. Interesting, obviously. Share some wisdom if it gives you some. Film funding, or the seeking of it, is now back on Zac’s and my immediate agenda, unfortunately. Yesterday kind of sucked. Well, I saw my friend Torbjorn before he split town, and that was good. Otherwise, Zac and I had a meeting with our producer. It was productive and had good aspects — we finalised a distributor for the film in France — but also involved some bits of discouraging news that left me down in the dumps. When I first started publishing novels, my work had to fight through all these publishers, critics, and other self-styled taste arbiters in positions of power who were severely conventionally minded and so entrenched in their limited viewpoints that they wouldn’t question their conservatism. I was so relieved when my work proved itself and those people finally backed off. Now with film and being new to the field, Zac’s and my work is facing some of these same kinds of small-minded gate-keepers who knee-jerk decide that if a film doesn’t do everything by the usual book, it must be mistaken and naive and flawed or something. It’s very disappointing to be back to making work that has to fight through the opinions of those types who think their own lazy thinking and fear of the new constitutes some kind of higher standard. It’s familiar, and I know the obstacles they’re putting in the way of our film’s progress will pass and become unimportant in time, but it’s very frustrating to have our work’s birth hampered by the transparently clueless judgements of myopic cretins, basically. So, yeah. I hope your Tuesday is a googolplex better than my Monday was. Halloween in July love, Dennis. ** Bill, Ha ha, I must admit that I had a stinking suspicion you might like the post. Cool. I need to read ‘Paradise Park’. I adore Milhauser, obviously. I hope perkiness has found you. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. How weird: I put together a Gerard Blain blog post just the day before yesterday. Something’s in the air. Blain’s work is quite Bressonian, but not anywhere as radical. It’s quite interesting work, uneven, but very beautiful at most times. Blain acted in at least a couple of Assayas’ films, so I assume that’s why he came up. Mm, I think those program notes are really overstating the amount of younger guy/older guy hooking up, etc. to say it runs though his work. His first film has something sort of like that, and another one too in a different way. No, Blain was not gay. He was pretty famously straight. Anyway, that Blain post will up here, uh, next week, I think. Thank you about the post. ** Sypha, You’re such a delicate creature, James. Uh, not across the board. I mean re: your question about long books. But then it’s the very, very rare long book I actually read to the end. I usually read to books to figure out how they’re written and then I start losing interest whether the books are long or short. ** Dominik, Hi! Thank you for becoming who you’re most comfortable being here. Of course that’s great! And thank you getting so into the post. Huh, I think I’ve seen that doll you linked to. I mean seen it online somewhere. Yeah, it’s amazing. Maybe you should drop some Xmas gift hints to potential gift-givers. Yeah, the ARTE notes are very daunting, but I’m determined that we’ll figure out a way to satisfy them interestingly. The other option, i.e. giving up, is too gruesome after three years of working on this project. Fingers crossed. Thank you about my week ahead. I need a good week, and it’ll be scorching hot here, so I especially need one. And you too! Make the week ahead into your pliable slave! Take care, and see you on Friday! ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, I’ll spin that fleshy track in a bit, thanks. Well, I’m excited to hear what that great mind of your finds suitable for your writing. Good luck with the heatwave escape. I need some of that too. And with getting some non-Tour de France background noise asap. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. Oh, that’s okay. The response you gave to the post was quite, quite interesting. Oh, hm, interesting question too about what was going on in the curators’ heads. Which would include me, I guess, since I curated the post. And I don’t know what was going on in my head, but then I guess my written work shows that things like that are not foreigners to my head. I don’t get a visceral reaction to that work really. I just look and think about how successfully and oddly I think the work has been realised. Maybe curators are like me. Probably not. I don’t know. Yes, I read about the 3D guns thing, Jesus. Cocteau: I don’t have the feeling that anyone here really thinks much about his stuff these days. Apart from maybe his films. I think maybe he’s mostly a thing that the French know tourists have heard of and are interested in? No one in my circles is interested in him at all, as far as I can tell. Why do you ask? ** JM, Nice, you comparing that to the Benning thing. That was cool and sharp. Yeah, ask around. ‘Cos now I’m kind of curious how that dress alike project ended up. No, the Godard hasn’t opened here. I don’t know why. It’s weird and maddening. I’ll check again. I’m almost literally dying, like for real, to see it. I will at the very least skim and hopefully much more that Wolgamot thing on Ubu. Thank you very much! I’m sort of well. My flesh is well. Yeah, the flesh is well. The rest … time will tell. Dig into almost everything. ** Misanthrope, But if the dialogue is about’s said and not said, then it’s interesting, isn’t it? You mean it’s not pretty/literary? Paul Russell’s thing is not my thing, as you can already guess. I like that line you wrote. The ass/face one. It’s like the beginning of a detective novel, but the good kind like … what’s his name … James Cain. Use it wisely. ** Okay. Today features a really excellent novel that hasn’t gotten its due, if you ask me, so I’m passing it along. See you tomorrow.