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Signifying Nothing

Signposts and Outposts: Essays on Herbert Drain
Edited by Nathaniel Greenwood

Editor’s Introduction

This book is intended to shed light on that most mysterious of contemporary authors, Herbert Drain. Much interesting commentary has been written on Drain’s only published novel, Signifying Nothing, but never before now has the collective wisdom of our literary scholars been on display in a common forum. It is hoped that gathering these essays in a single volume will contribute to a broader, more informed understanding of Drain's great novel, and encourage a reevaluation of its author by the reading public.

To be sure, little is really known about Herbert Drain. Signifying Nothing was published in 1973 and was a minor cause celebre of that literary season. The author’s own feelings about his book’s reception could never be determined because the author was nowhere to be found. No interview, no telephone conversation, no written communication (other than his book) with or by Herbert Drain has ever taken place, as far as can be ascertained, and even his agent reports that the manuscript we know as Signifying Nothing simply appeared on his desk one day with a note requesting that a publisher be found and that if this could not be done the manuscript be burned. (The agent will not discuss any further contact he may have had with his phantasmic client.) Such reclusiveness has, of course, occasioned speculation as to the actual existence of Herbert Drain. Perhaps it is a pen name adopted by another writer to avoid publicity; perhaps, as some have suggested, the book was computer-generated; perhaps it is all an elaborate hoax, the ravings of some madman foisted upon innocent readers. Perhaps we will never know.

The current editor chooses to believe that Drain does exist, at least through his remarkable novel. What is ultimately valuable about a writer is, of course, his work, and it is Drain’s work we are most concerned with, that residue of language that is the legacy of all great poets.

For indeed Herbert Drain is in all meaningful senses of this term a “poet,” even if we call his great book “fiction” and even if there were those upon its publication who refused to countenance it at all as a work of “literature.” Over the course of the next dozen years or so this latter view would no longer be expressed in respectable organs of literary opinion, as the novel’s growing reputation among the most perceptive critics made such a clearly retrograde and reactionary judgment seem laughable indeed. Yet the reader of this volume will surely note that some of the essays here included, primarily those written within the last decade, do not focus on Herbert Drain's artistry or his book’s aesthetic pleasures so much as they “interrogate” the embedded assumptions (some of them, if we are to accept the analysis of these essayists, not very appealing) to be found in Signifying Nothing, or, in the words of one such essay, “examine the cultural conditions that make possible the semantic and discursive features otherwise identified as the distinctive ‘style’ of the Drain-text.”1

While it is the ultimate goal of this volume to pay critical tribute to the achievement of Signifying Nothing and to thus solidify its place in American literary history, essays such as these have been included if for no other reason that to give the reader a sense of the direction taken by recent literary scholarship. If Signifying Nothing is to acquire the readership it deserves in future generations it will need the sustained attention of scholars and critics, and thus I have decided not to ignore current critical fashion but instead to allow the reader to judge whether the methods represented are helpful in deepening our understanding of the novel, which is, or should be, after all, the measure we apply to the practice of literary criticism.2

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that at the time of its publication, Signifying Nothing was itself considered by all too many as merely the latest in literary fashion—and, according to one prominent critic, at least, not very high fashion at that: it was the most blatant example to date of “synthetic fiction,” wrote Clinton Duval, a well-established novelist in his own right, who went on to lament the passing of the good old-fashioned “social novel” (of the sort, of course, that Mr. Duval himself was known to write) that acknowledged the existence of a natural world outside the artificial one created by the likes of Herbert Drain. Mr. Duval predicted that readers would eventually become dissatisfied with synthetic fictions and turn again to narratives that unfolded in the recognizable space of actual experience.3 Obviously this is not the place to dispute the widely-held notion that it is the novelist’s job to accurately represent “actual experience” (after all there is no “space” of any kind to be found in works of fiction, merely words on a page.)4 However, if this volume of essays were to convince even a significant minority of readers that works of fiction need not slavishly imitate “reality” but can through a paradoxical dedication to the possibilities of verbal artifice provide a clarifying vision of that reality, it would fulfill its editor’s ambitions in assembling it.

It is hard to know how much Duval’s hostile review is to be blamed for the novel’s admittedly poor commercial performance. (While it certainly would have been something of a minor miracle had an experimental work such as Signifying Nothing made it to the best-seller list, a better showing than the first-year figure of 100 copies sold might have been expected.5) Since The New Monthly Commentator, where Duval’s review appeared, was a periodical with some influence in the literary world (as small as that world has unfortunately become), it is conceivable that it had a trickle-down, word-of-mouth sort of effect that the positive reviews in those journals with more modest circulations could not counteract. To be acknowledged for one’s gifts by one’s peers in that small band dedicated to the dissemination of literary art is surely immensely gratifying, but it cannot adequately compensate for a wider recognition with its attendant material rewards—or at least one can imagine Herbert Drain so thinking as he attempted to come to terms with the failure of his novel to bring him the success all writers believe they deserve. One can also imagine that he did not keenly anticipate the effort that would be required to produce a follow-up worthy of Signifying Nothing, and that this explains the long silence he has sustained through the intervening decades.6

What is known about Herbert Drain’s life both before and after the publication of Signifying Nothing is chronicled in the first essay in this collection, “On Not Being There: The Withheld Life of Herbert Drain.” The few established and uncontrovertible facts about Herbert Drain are here related: birth in Belleville, Illinois; grade school attendance in that city, interrupted when his father, an accountant, moved his family to Medford, Oregon, where very few of his classmates are later able to remember him at all, beyond a faint recollection of a scrawny and withdrawn youth who was not so much shunned as contemptuous of anyone who tried to befriend him; college in Kansas7, followed immediately by two years as a fledgling newspaper reporter in Des Moines, Iowa;8 relocation to northern Maine to write novels, the first, and so far the last, of which was Signifying Nothing. The author of this essay surmises that Drain still resides in Micmac County, Maine, although no one there will admit to an acquaintance with him, and no confirmable sighting of him has been made since the late 1960s.9

Given the paucity of concrete information about Herbert Drain, the temptation is to speculate beyond what would ordinarily be prudent, both about the significance of what is known and about why so much else isn’t. This temptation has been resisted in Signposts and Outposts, aside, that is, from the carefully restrained Freudian analysis I have included in the book’s second essay. Written by Oliver Ladue, a literary scholarly also trained as a psychoanalyst, the essay interprets Signifying Nothing in a way that not only illuminates the novel itself but also gives us a picture of the author that perhaps helps bring into clearer view those features of the artistic personality that would account for the headlong challenge to convention we find in this novel. Ladue presents us with a Herbert Drain engaged in an Oedipal struggle not with the biological father who, after all, was by all accounts a passive and nonthreatening household god (whose household the son abandoned at the earliest possible moment), but with the very begetter of human expression, the Logos itself, the dream of Reason that philosophy has long endeavored to make real but which Signifying Nothing shows to be a nightmarish source of delusion and a barely repressed urge to outright nihilation.10

The next three essays discuss various formal elements of Signifying Nothing but are united in their emphasis on the challenge this novel poses to the very idea of form in the conventional critical sense of the term. That they could come to such wildly divergent conclusions—that Signifying Nothing is ultimately a novel without discernible form, that it is the most intensely formalized work in all of American literature, that it hides a fundamentally traditional narrative in the appearance of formal discontinuity and thematic incoherence—should not distract us from their shared insight: that this a novel that seeks to redefine the reading experience by forcing us to keep “form” in the foreground as we learn to disregard “story” or “character” or “theme” as mere background details.11The first of these essays, “Chaos Reigned: Formal ‘Beauty’ in Signifying Nothing,” by Merrill Bobbs,12 maintains that unlike the great modernists, whose work also emphasized form over content, Herbert Drain is interested neither in finding new ways of registering the flow of consciousness nor in achieving the formal perfection of a realized design. On the contrary, he is, according to Bobbs, at great pains to render the human thought process as scattered and indistinct and to thwart any movement toward finished form, to keep all loose ends untied and fluttering in the discursive breeze.13 Harper A. Rowe, author of the second of these essays, “Something From Nothing,” believes that this incoherence is only apparent, and that any failure on the reader’s part to perceive the novel’s deeper structure (modeled, in Rowe’s analysis on the principles of quantum mechanics) is only Herbert Drain’s implicit repudiation of the naive view that would make formal beauty dependent on intelligibility. The creation of form out of formlessness, the transformation of the latter into the former, declares Rowe, is the greatest achievement of Signifying Nothing.14

The third of the essays I have referred to, “Signifying Everything: Herbert Drain and the Art of Superfluity,” has not been placed at the center of this volume by accident. Written by Professor Pomeroy Roche, it occupies this pivotal position in the book for a number of reasons. First, Professor Roche’s analysis of Signifying Nothing is the closest in its conclusions to those the editor himself has reached, namely that at its heart is a thoroughly familiar type of story, the bildungsroman, the novel of education, in which a young protagonist comes to learn the ways of the world and, in the classic examples of the type at least, to find his own place in that world. Frequently in such a story the hero comes to be explicitly disillusioned by what he learns, but this disillusionment, we are led to believe, will only make him a stronger and wiser person, and may even help him do his part to make the world a somewhat better place. As Professor Roche demonstrates, Signifying Nothing portrays the education of its unnamed central character, although instead of representing this process externally and dramatically, this novel embodies the stages in the process textually,15 its increasingly disjointed and disintegrative narrative manner a reflection of the protagonist’s sense of uncertainty about his own assumptions and inherited values, its extreme self-consciousness about its own status as writing a sign of that protagonist’s discovery of writing itself as his chosen vocation.

Second, Roche’s essay comes closer than any other published commentary to satisfactorily describing the “plot” of Signifying Nothing, insofar as such a term is even applicable to so thoroughly unique a work. The main character, ultimately the only character in any conventional sense and identified only as “he” or “him,” has come to the University from a sheltered and uncultivated background and is confronted with people, beliefs, and possibilities of the sort of which he has never even dreamed. His experience of all of these challenges to his naive understanding of things is rendered not directly but in assorted reveries, disquisitions, dramatic monologues, bits of doggerel, apparently fictional narratives begun and abandoned, pornographic film scripts, invented newspaper articles, passages of what might be called “automatic writing” that deliberately veer into ostensible gibberish, and numerous other insertions, documents, and compositions. Although this plot comes to no obvious resolution, Roche believes we can take this as the kind of open-ended conclusion that suggests a future of multifarious possibilities for the newly-initiated writer-hero.16

Finally, Professor Roche successfully places Signifying Nothing in an identifiable tradition of “literary overabundance” that includes such books as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew17and that helps to make it seem less anomalous, more clearly in keeping with past works of literature that seek to extend the boundaries of what can be accepted as literature. If I were to take issue with Professor Roche, however, it would be in regard to his further contention that whereas these previous texts—“epics of creativity,” Professor Roche calls them—did indeed redefine what counts as “literary,” Signifying Nothing has not done so, perhaps, or at least Roche thus speculates, because in this case Herbert Drain has gone too far in his attempt to break with convention. Unlike Sterne or Joyce, who continue to hold out the possibility that their eccentric narratives will at some point resolve themselves into stories that carry meaning of a familiar sort, even while subverting the reader’s expectations about how stories convey meaning in the first place, Drain makes it unmistakably clear from the very first page that his novel will not make recognizable “sense” and sticks to this project, courageously if rather improvidently, to the final incomplete sentence. Such resolute experimentation may be intriguing in theory, concludes Professor Roche, but has not proven itself capable of attracting a sizable readership and unfortunately is not likely to do so in the immediate future.18

Before commenting further on Professor Roche’s rather questionable conjectures,19 I will complete my survey of the essays included in Signposts and Outposts. Although I do not agree with the notion that Signifying Nothing all but prevents its potential readers from actually reading it, James Fredricson is perhaps somewhat closer to identifying a possible factor in its lack of success in attracting new readers in the years following on its publication in 1970. In “Structures and Strictures: Signifying Nothing and the Revolt Against Authority,” Fredricson argues that the novel should be seen as a product of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, a rebellion against the authority of literary tradition so thorough that it constitutes a rejection of the very principle of communication itself as a tool of “Western cerebrative hegemony.” Only the development of a revolutionary consciousness commensurate with such a radical move as this, Fredricson tells us, will make Signifying Nothing available to a new readership.20 Since he does not expect such a transformation of the body politic to occur any time soon, Fredricson assumes that the novel will continue to be neglected for the foreseeable future.

Given Herbert Drain’s relative isolation from the “upheavals” alluded to, it is finally difficult to fully credit this thesis, but Professor Fredricson does perform valuable service in pointing toward the cultural context in which Herbert Drain wrote and published such an innovative book as Signifying Nothing. In the essay following, “Something in the Air,” Crystal Woodburn21situates Signifying Nothing specifically in its proper place in American cultural history, comparing it to other avant-garde literary works of the period and claiming them all for a tradition of “numinous” writing going back at least as far as the transcendentalists of the 19th century. Like the transcendentalists, according to Ms. Woodburn, these works, Signifying Nothing foremost among them, turn away from the external busyness of the quotidian world and seek to discover that reality beneath the surface of things that corresponds to our own core sense of an inner being not perceptible to the world at large.22 A work like Signifying Nothing, in Ms. Woodburn’s view, attempts to make a version of this reality available to its readers, although Ms. Woodburn, like Professor Fredricson, believes that readers attuned to the “spirit of the sixties” are more likely to appreciate such a gift.

The remaining essays in the volume are of the “cutting edge” variety on which I have already commented. I will only add that it is an encouraging sign that scholars of the current generation have turned their attention to Signifying Nothing.23 As long as those most devoted to the scrutiny of the written word find this novel worthy of their efforts, the possibility of its rediscovery by a broader reading public remains alive. In the meantime, the concerted efforts of these same scholars to introduce their own students to this singular text will be required to at least preserve its reputation among a potential coterie of cognoscenti.24 Fortunately, literary history provides us with a sufficient number of now recognized “classics” consigned almost permanently to obscurity before their true value was recognized that we can perhaps rest content that Signifying Nothing will eventually come to occupy the place in this history it so clearly warrants.25

To complete this introduction to Signposts and Outposts, I will return to the argument made by Pomeroy Roche that Signifying Nothing represents the extreme limits of what is possible in “experimental” literature.26 While one’s judgment of this matter unavoidably involves an element of taste, it does seem to me that Professor Roche has elevated his own preference for the “experiment within convention”—if not, at times, for the blatantly conventional—has led him to overemphasize the importance of the familiar, the established, the proportional, the well-regarded, the authoritative, the finalized, the well-made, the focused, the preordained, and the formulaic,27whether in literature or in life. (Professor Roche maintains that the former can stray from the latter only so far before readers legitimately judge it to be pointless verbal extravagance.) Despite his professed admiration for the audacity of Herbert Drain’s “anarchic imagination,” Professor Roche seems intent on forcing Signifying Nothing to “make sense” in the comfortable, transparent way too many readers expect of works of literature—as if authors were obliged merely to reassure their readers that the world is indeed an agreeable place that always makes sense in the end, a fantasy that Roche seems to think all serious writers entertain even when they might appear to be debunking it. In this Rochean view,28 the very act of writing fiction commits one to some notion that things finally do hang together, even if it is the conviction that they must eventually fall apart. But because one is never confident that Herbert Drain accepts such a notion, Herr Roche concludes that Signifying Nothing should not properly be categorized as fiction at all but instead as an exercise in pure nihilism to which the label “novel” was affixed for want of a more accurate designation (Comrade Roche suggests “mock discourse”) that would not alienate readers by signaling too plainly that this work’s content is entirely captured in its title.29

1The reader should be aware that this sort of language—“jargon,” as it is commonly called—is not at all typical of most of the essays in this book. I have quoted it in this instance merely as a way of indicating the kinds of analysis a novel as provocative as Drain’s will almost inevitably inspire.

2 See I.R.F. Meadows, The Well-Tempered Critic (Hopwood-Grace, 1952). Meadows’s book served as a model for at least two generations of American literary criticism and was characterized by what came to be called “strict analysis.” This method encourages us to regard works of literature as complex wholes the various parts of which exist in harmonious balance yet require the closest scrutiny in order to be adequately appreciated. While such an approach can be faulted as somewhat over-scrupulous in the demands it makes of the reader, the challenge it offered was taken up by a sizable flock of would-be critics (including, it must be said, yours truly) seeking to illuminate the hidden intricacies of any worthy text that came their way. Readers coming to Signifying Nothing for the first time may perhaps be unable to apprehend how thoroughly made to order this novel seemed to be to many strict analysts. However, based on my own experiences in the classroom teaching both Herbert Drain’s novel and the reading strategies of strict analysis, I am prepared to concede that the vigorous examination called for by each can to some seem too “literary” for its own good.

3 Whether Mr. Duval would consider his prophecy to have been fulfilled is unfortunately impossible to determine. While the author of Conflagration of Pride is still alive, he has not published a word in over a decade and at last report was in the throes of advanced senility.

4 For further elaboration on this point, turn to Elias Ebenezer’s “The Opaque Text: Denying ‘Depth’ in Signifying Nothing.” Ebenezer argues that the primary ambition of Signifying Nothing is to restore the integrity of the literary medium—language—by exposing as illusion the notion that fiction exists to reveal such things as “character” or “setting,” that it accomplishes anything, in short, other than putting on display certain pleasing arrangement of words. Although I would not necessarily endorse all aspects of Ebenezer’s analysis, it is included here as a useful corrective to the purely utilitarian view of literature, which assigns value only to books with the most immediate practical applications—a view unfortunately expressed most insistently by college students so thoroughly steeped in our cultural bias toward the “useful” and the “relevant.” In this ethos, all works of the imagination—much less one as challenging as Signifying Nothing—are likely to meet with a hostile reception.

5 Reliable figures for subsequent years’ sales are difficult to come by, since the publisher, Swimming Birds Press, went out of business in 1975. The book was reprinted in paperback by Watt, Molloy, and Murphy in the early 1980s, but this press was soon after absorbed into Visigoth Publications, and Signifying Nothing was almost immediately dropped from its list. Regrettably, the novel has since then remained out of print in the United States, despite my own efforts to interest a university press, at the least, in bringing out a new edition. (Not the least forbidding obstacle to which has been my lack of success heretofore in contacting Herbert Drain. For more about this, read on.) One could hope that Signposts and Outposts would play its role in attracting the attention of a far-sighted publisher willing to make a long-term investment in such an important work.

6 In looking back at literary history while compiling this book, I have found no case quite comparable to Herbert Drain’s. Other writers have died young, faded into obscurity despite their continuing to scribble away furiously, encountered great difficulty in equaling past greatness, but my researches have identified no important writer who created an initial masterpiece and then voluntarily retireda from the field, so to speak.b

7 Why Drain would choose to go so far from home is open to conjecture, but it is not so hard to imagine a young man of sensitivity and incipient artistic talent in a place where such qualities are not likely to be appreciated who wishes to leave that place as far behind as possible in order to construct an adult life on his own terms.c

8 See Herbert Drain, Collected Journalism. Edited by Nathaniel Greenwood (Tractor Press, 19__).

9 The reader should know that I myself have visited this area and can report that it is entirely conceivable that someone who wanted to, as it were, lose himself to the extent he might never be located—at least by those he wishes to elude—would be able to do so in such a place. Much of it is literally a wilderness, inaccessible to even experienced hikers, much less an otherwise sedentary professor ostensibly doing “research.”d I probably do not need here to point out that the themes of concealment and evanition are at the heart of those episodes in Signifying Nothing depicting the protagonist’s efforts to perfect a literary art so thoroughly purged of autobiographical impurities that all attempts to move outside the text thus created to the corporeal experiences that allegedly inspired it would inevitably prove unavailing.

10 At least this seems to me the upshot of Mr. Ladue’s essay. Readers trained more thoroughly in psychoanalytic theory than the editor will doubtless benefit the most from this particular piece.e

11 Easier said than done, of course. The inability of some readers to perform this task no doubt has contributed in part to the situation described in note 5. Whether Mr. Drain needs more adventurous readers or the American reading public needs to be more thoroughly re-educated by writers like Mr. Drain is perhaps an inescapable dilemmaf, one that a single volume of commentary such as Signposts and Outposts can hardly be expected to resolve.g

12In the interests of full disclosure I should reveal that Professor Bobbs was once an instructor of mine. The director of my master’s thesis, as a matter of fact. In the interests of good taste, I should reveal nothing further.

13A nice phrase, that. It’s too bad Professor Bobbs could not express himself so colorfully, leaving it up to yours truly to wrestle his lumbering sentences to the ground.h

14Better to lie low for now. Let him prattle on in this way for a while longer and reveal himself as the complete fool he really is.

15You can take my word for it: he doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.

16Is it just me, or does this sound like a major snooze-fest? No wonder it’s always been such a chore to plow through this convoluted opus!

17None of which this Greenwood character has ever read, by the way.

18I rather like this Roche fellow, come to think of it. He seems to have quite a head on his shoulders. (In a manner of speaking.)

19Oh, no!

20Now this guy, on the other hand, seems like a real schmuck. Wouldn’t you love to shoot the breeze over cocktails with him?

21You should know that he tried to get a date with this woman. She was the only female contributor he could find, and of course he couldn’t resist hitting on her, at least in epistolary fashion. Rest assured he was firmly rebuffed, for which response his past experience had given him ample precedent, to say the least.

22I don’t think I even need to comment on that one.

23And now the real story: These “scholars” are a couple of graduate students from the state university he managed to convince to read this book and write up some gobbledygook that would sound like the sort of babble they had heard their professors use. He promised them that publication in this essay collection of his would give them a leg up when it came to getting jobs as professors themselves, but of course they had no way of knowing he was an exceedingly poor authority on such matters, having never finished his own doctoral degree, never found the time to do scholarship himself, never, to be frank, much gave a shit about “literature” or “literary study” or “critical theory” or any other damn thing until it became clear he might lose his job unless he pretended to regard it all as indispensable to his very fucking existence. We won’t go into what his students think of him, although you couldn’t go wrong by assuming the worst—another reality he’s conveniently avoided, of course.

24It should come as no surprise that he kept a thesaurus nearby while he was composing this wretched piece. Even so, you’d think he might have some shame.

25Believe it or not, he wrote this with a straight face. (Straight hand?)

26Writing novel novels!

27Not to mention the orthodox, the official, the restrained, the controlled, the regular, the harmonious, the customary, the consonant, the conjoint, the routine, the standard, the conclusive, the definite, the explicit, the fixed, the settled, the entrenched, the fully realized, the rounded off, the carefully crafted, the minutely detailed, the exquisitely measured, the wonderfully clever, the marvelously acute, the thoroughly developed, the utterly beautiful, the amply portrayed, the stylishly written, the briskly narrated, the slowly building, the grimly appropriate, the appropriately uncertain, the certainly felicitous, the felicitously ambiguous, the right and the good, the tried and the true, the best and the brightest, the hale and the hearty, the neat and the trim, the prim and the proper, the calm and the collected, the slow and the steady, the cool and the deliberate, the mild and the meek, the heartfelt and the sincere, the honest and the trustworthy, the implied author, the narrative voice, the ostensible subject, the symbolic object, the verbal icon, the real story, the rising action, the fallen hero, the forward movement, the backward glance, the saga, the fable, the teller, the tale, the topic, the theme, the setting, the scene, the meaning, the message, the manners, the morals, the twists, the turns, the insights, the outcomes, the upscale, the downtrodden, the uplifting, the downfalling, the updated, the downgraded, the side view, the high view, the shortsighted, the long-lasting, the highlights, the lowdown, the poetic, the prosaic, the dramatized, the schematized, the lyrical, the political, the elegized, and the satirized. Among others.

28Go for it, boy!

29This was as far as he could get. But you’ve probably deduced by now that this was never about “Herbert Drain” or some novel published decades ago and long since forgotten by everyone except a few professors who equally long ago gave up on ever finding themselves a life. I could, at this point, tell you what he might have on gone to say—about himself, of course—had he not at last decided that enough was enough. I could also tell you about the consequences of this decision (though you have already witnessed the most obvious of those), about the hostage to fortune who so easily secured his release when he declined once and for all to accept the premise on which his captivity depended. But such tidiness is so patently impermissible I can’t believe that anyone who has stuck around this far would actually expect I might undertake to provide it. However, one unavoidable element of symmetry has settled upon this otherwise bedraggled story. Like the elusive author Mr. Drain, our own has made off for parts unknown, and for what may have been reasons shared by that worthy exemplar. Having in the one case attempted to render in his novel the theme of futility—not just as an abstract idea but the very experience of futility—and clearly sensing he had failed, Herbert Drain went on to embody that theme in his own life, signaling by his self-exile the additional futility of writing anything else, or even of affirming his continued existence. In the case most immediately confronting us, this erstwhile scholar, seeking desperately to avoid acknowledging the nullity at the core of his own endeavor but finally giving up on the attempt to make something out of nothing, also chose transportation to a Siberia commensurate with his personal sense of transgression. Thus the ghostly echo still faintly sounding here to those of you who for reasons of your own still find it worth your time to bother heeding it (and that now must unavoidably fade into deserved oblivion) is what remains of the unwholesome noise of what can only be called a pathetic plea for attention. I am only too glad to perform the one task remaining to one in my position and declare the whole thing done.

aWe assume Drain’s withdrawal from the literary scene to have been voluntary. Drain aficionados will no double be aware of the persistent rumors that sometime not long after the publication of Signifying Nothing Herbert Drain became the victim of foul play—i.e., that he was murdered. The most incendiary of these rumors has it that the killer was a fellow writer unable to accept a rival of so clearly superior talent—or, alternately, who felt that Drain had stolen his own ideas and had doomed him to be regarded as merely a Drain imitator—while the most mundane holds that Drain was the victim of a random street crime. (The latter, of course, is especially appealing for its irony, Signifying Nothing being notorious for its emphasis on the accidental and the arbitrary.) Because no record of any crime involving Herbert Drain has ever been uncovered, such speculation can play no role in a scholarly work such as this.

bThe editor apologizes for creating this second level of annotation. Information such as that included above has no proper place in a consideration of Herbert Drain’s literary art, but it would be disingenuous to ignore the swirl of conjecture that many readers of this book are aware has gathered around both the man and his work. The diligent reader will no doubt decide for him/herself whether commentary of this sort advances or impedes this volume’s overall goal of enhancing critical appreciation of Signifying Nothing and the approach to writing it represents.

cThe reader will surely agree that one needn’t be a budding novelist (even if one might aspire to that condition) to act on this strategy. The protagonist of Signifying Nothing, of course, is also a young, would-be writer seeking to escape an oppressively provincial environment, but we should all recognize by now the fallacy of equating the situations portrayed in fiction with specific experiences from the writer’s own life.

dI hope the reader takes this as the self-deprecatory remark it is intended to be. Perhaps the tone is rather unscholarly, but as I am all too certain this book will find little favor in the “mainstream” scholarly community, I can see no harm in dropping the pedant’s mask in this instance. Certainly I did not feel at all genteel while I was driving aimlessly along those unpaved mountain roads futilely looking for I knew not what.

eWho am I kidding? I can’t make heads or tails of what this guy is saying, although I’m willing to believe the problem is with me and not with the author. Writing this introductory essay is beginning to reveal to me just how shaky my own grasp of all this “theory” really is. Of course, I denied this strenuously to the chairman of my department when my bid for tenure was denied on the grounds of insufficient publication, but I’m afraid my own contribution to this volume may be inadequate to convince the tenure committee to reconsider.aa

fThe one time I attempted to teach Signifying Nothing, my students did not see it as a dilemma at all. They felt unanimously that Drain himself needed some re-education in how to write novels. Predictably, my efforts to convince them otherwise went nowhere.

gOn the other hand, it might be able to convince its editor that this problem is not after all something one needs to devote much of one’s time to fretting about.

hThis thirteenth note, far from bringing bad luck to this ongoing commentary, has served, I think, a most useful purpose. Like Herbert Drain, I have freed myself once and for all from the conventions that tell me I must not write in such a way. A scholarly work that undermines both itself and the subject it is expected to take oh-so-seriously! My academic career may be over, but the notoriety of the avant-garde beckons!

aaThis note and those following should be preserved if this manuscript is ever published. Although they clearly undermine the essay’s tone of scholarly detachment, they also introduce a dramatic contrast—between the aesthetic purity of SN and the clearly mixed motives behind Greenwood’s efforts in compiling his own book—that both shores up one’s interest in the former while also making the latter a potentially enlightening instance of a more general inability to truly come to terms with the demands exacted by serious art.—HD

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