Monstrous Language: Janice Lee's Daughter
Janice Lee’s second novel is first and foremost an object of no small beauty. Full-color square photos in rich arrays of greens and greys are interspersed with the text, which also unfolds in greys on greyscale pages. Alignment is deliberate and unconventional. The text itself varies in typeface and size, too, creating an otherworldly and absorbing readerly environment.
Daughter is a proudly non-narrative text. Its statements do and undo themselves, reminding one of Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, in a kind of thoughtful unreality. This is an x, this is a y; but this is not an x, not a y. “This might be something, then again, it might be something else,” Lee warns us early on (14). Her concepts are weighty, and at times they threaten, like many small anchors, to pull the book under. More often, however, she coaxes them into becoming intriguing, messy, fertile.
Guy Davenport wrote of a “ghost octopus/ with legs of smoke, the dozen-crotched-/ and-eyed Medusa Cyanea” (“The Medusa”). Lee’s novel, too, presents a corpse of an octopus discovered in the desert, its face terrifying, illuminating. Later Lee claims that “this is not a Medusa myth,” but if the myth is not present, the Medusa still persists (124). A fractured myth, after all, cannot truly be a myth, and Daughter is accomplished bricolage. Mythology is a pure narrative, a development, a presence. Medusa alone, though, remains as a figure for seeing, even—frightfully and fruitfully—recognizing.
Daughter is a process, a becoming of structure and of language: not development, but dissection. The narrator aligns herself with the octopus, or sees herself through it in a Lacanian experience; she cuts it open, cutting herself open through identification. What is inside and what is outside has not yet been determined. We arrive in the moment prior to creation and stabilization. Lee’s obsession with boundaries is also her obsession with naming. “If she calls it an octopus,” she writes, “I call it an octopus” (22). And: “In order to discover your own contents you have to investigate the inside of someone else” (27).
Salman Rushdie once asked whether there could be newness in the world. In Lee’s context, newness is not a question posed to theology, but the idea of origins persists. Here the text does not proclaim newness in itself but makes space for it in the shape(s) of a monster. Lee works in an unstable language, repeating words and phrases, letting syntax disrupt itself. “An allegory,” we read, “is a paraphrase of a conscious event, whereas a symbol is the best possible expression for an unconscious content whose nature can only be guessed because it is still unknown” (40). We are reading a Freudian allegory: daughter for conscious, octopus for unconscious. We are reading a symbolic investigation: “autopsy” means seeing with one’s own eyes as well as treating a dead body. Lee notes both definitions.
The monster is also a possibility space, what exists before boundaries encircle the meaning of daughter and mother, octopus and god, man and woman, description of image and “[image]” supposedly suppressed on the page. Lee presents a landscape prior to settling, asking questions as daughter and then as mother, writing a man and then a woman. “Every possibility is welcome,” she states (66). I am a monster, I am not a monster. “If I were a monster.”
The novel is a collage of source texts: itself a kind of monster. To ask whether it has a mother (only a few letters, after all, from “mother” to “monster”) is to ask who its author is, the author(-function) who is also the book’s subject. If this is a novel about the development of consciousness, it is also a novel about the instability of language, its tendency towards multiplicity. What kind of consciousness produced this text? engenders the question, What kind of consciousness is produced by this text?
Roughly the middle third of the novel performs such linguistic-conscious development, a text in a monstrous language. An unstable syntax breaks down further, taking words with it: “The fin. He inder becomes the who world. The ing thation, a nestural dural he writess the world” (58). Repetition is never repetition but always iteration, because it occurs in shifting (amorphous) contexts. Words split open—here halved and bisected, like octopi, and elsewhere through doubling—to reveal shades of meaning, of potentialities. Lee’s landscape has no i.e., only e.g.; no equations but parallels.
“If every cause has a cause and behavior repeats itself…what is developed in these different generations? What contradictions incarnate might lie in the sun, the moon, the stars, all of which lie inside you too,” Lee writes (94). There is newness, but never for long. Iteration demands a language of beginnings and endings, but for Lee these are short, temporary. They go nowhere, or nowhere they haven’t been before. They are unmythical.
The novel ends in a flood of “perhaps," a “becoming but never being” (133). Its structure, a spread sea creature, is still soft. Daughter is not interested in closing the structure. Instead it dares to leave open a space for monsters.