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Visual Poetics 03
“William Tell: A Novel”
by Steve McCaffery
“William Tell: A Novel” constitutes one of the limit-cases of narrative. When I teach poetics to my students, I often ask them what minimum quantity of text might qualify as a novel, and usually they cite a number above 8,000 words, with a precocious respondent going on to suggest that a novel might even consist of a very long sentence, but no one has ever said that a novel might consist of a single letter—after which, I show my class this example of visual poetry, explaining that we might easily peruse it as we might any lengthier chronicle.
“William Tell: A Novel” obviously alludes to the famed story of the Germanic marksman, who refuses to bow to the standard of his Austrian overlord, and thus, as a punishment for his insolence, the marksman must use a crossbow to shoot an apple from the head of his son Walter. The protagonist passes this trial, but suffers imprisonment after acknowledging that he has come to the test with two shots in his quiver, reserving one for the overlord in case the child dies after the first arrow. The hero eventually escapes and obtains his revenge.
Students often express dismay when I suggest that, in fact, the poem constitutes a kind of autobiography—a narrative recounted in the first person from the perspective of Walter, a lowercase “character” who occupies the position of the double-dotted letter on the page. We, the readers, play the role of the father, and thus we contribute to the rising action of the story, since our gaze, when we read, becomes the arrow that we use mentally to knock the added apple—the dot—from the top of the “i,” thereby reinstating the normality of the letter.
McCaffery seems to have composed a humorous allegory about the death of the author, insofar as the author in this case might resemble a poetic despot, who has forced a cruel trial of comprehension upon his readership, vandalizing the appearance of the “i” by adding an extraneous supplement to its meaning—but by closely reading the poem and then by subsequently interpreting it, we pass his vile test and, in turn, gain an advantage by returning this disrupted character to its status as the official, literary standard for the lyrical subject.
McCaffery implies that, just as the despot replaces the urchin as a target for the crossbow, so also does the author replace the letter as the object of our scrutiny. Just as William Tell eventually kills his captor, so also does the reader retake “authority” over the poem, commiting a kind of murder by calling into question the authorial intention of McCaffery himself. (We might even detect a literary allusion here to the life of William S. Burroughs, who becomes a novelist only after shooting his wife dead, while playing a game of “William Tell.”)
McCaffery parodies the generic quality of such autobiography—and he sustains the wry wit of his attack by showcasing the tension that always exists between authorial intentionality and authorial expressiveness—between the “willing” of the story and the “telling” of the story (so to speak). The writer calls upon the reader to intervene in the production of this novel, transforming the single letter into an epic tale of pataphysical hermeneutics—and having offered only one of many possible readings of this work, I likewise await your potshots….