In Felix Culpa, Jeremy Gavron picks out sentences from a hundred works of literature and rearranges them in order to craft a story of his own. The end result resembles an antithetical approach to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of a polyphonic novel: Bakhtin talked about Dostoevsky’s ability to write a multitude of different voices into a novel, while Gavron does the opposite by taking voices from the outside for the purposes of his own singular vision.
On a purely narrative level, Felix Culpa follows a writer intrigued by the death of a boy recently released from prison. Throughout his personal investigation, he has only one question in mind: why did the boy freeze to death alone in the hills in the north?
That’s Felix, isn’t it.
He was in here until not so long ago.
A hiker, the newspaper calls him, caught out in the storms. In the hills in the north.
What was he doing up there?
Most of the residents of the prison young men from the city who had hardly been out of their neighbourhoods until they were sent away.
That’s the question.
This is the premise that leads the writer on a quest to find the truth of what happened to Felix. He peruses documents pertaining to the boy from newspaper clips to inmate release reports. He interviews co-prisoners, a hotel manager, a youth worker, people from the boy’s hometown, anyone who can help him piece together the whole story: the writer has, indeed, a deep “detective instinct to tie everything that happens into one compact knot.” Ultimately, the writer ends up in the hills where Felix had died, at a point where the story, towering towards its end, takes on a new tone of survival in the wilderness, not far from the raw atmosphere of Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast.
Almost all of this is executed in Gavron’s borrowings of short sentences from other literary works, interspersed with blank lines like in the passage quoted above (a few of the sentences are purely his own invention, the author has revealed). It is quite a task for a novelist of any amount of experience and skill, but I think Gavron does a very fine job here. Felix Culpa is, after all, a good story, and the innovative idea behind its form works for the story’s benefit. It is a very quick read because of its form, and there resides one of its dangers for the reader: reading it too fast will ultimately downplay the poetic quality of the work, keeping in mind that so much time and energy must have gone into its making, pulling out phrases from a huge body of texts and arranging them successively so that they read smoothly.
This experimental style is less experimental if another similar novel of recent times is taken into account: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which was published last year and has gained a lot of attention after winning the Man Booker, is partly built around the idea of textual borrowing. While Saunders used historical documents to craft his novel, Gavron uses fiction. In a way, I think Saunders’s end result is more impressive, because he creates an intriguing narrative partially out of non-fiction. Nonetheless, together Lincoln in the Bardo and Felix Culpa exhibit an interesting take on what a novel is supposed to be, and it makes me wonder if this literary recycling is vaguely mirroring the Anthropocene, our age of natural disasters caused by humans. Furthermore, could these novels reflect the information overload so that, instead of explicitly contributing to the overload, we recycle the old? Isn’t it a liberating feeling to be able to create new art by recycling the old, less at the Earth’s expense? Yet the difference between ecological recycling and literary recycling is that a physical copy of Felix Culpa will still litter the Earth, if you don’t mind crude phrasing. But perhaps, on a metaphorical level, there’s a connection, a need to show how it’s unnecessary and wasteful to produce completely new products one after another.
Whatever the motives behind the novel’s style, Gavron’s source materials are surprisingly homogeneous if you look at the list of books provided at the back. Out of the hundred or so books that were utilized in the making of the novel, only a handful are written by women, the rest by various great men of the canon. I wonder if this was intentional, an ironic statement on “male narratives” (which essentially Felix Culpa is too, as it follows a man’s investigative quest into the wilderness), or, worse, an unconscious decision? Nonetheless, Felix Culpa is a fresh and, most importantly, captivating reading experience, no matter whether you gulp it down in one go (which is very much possible due to its brevity) or savor its poetic merits unrushed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize later this year. Ambiguous and inventive, this certainly qualifies as innovative fiction: “Storyteller’s task. / Live in the midst of the incomprehensible.”