"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….

Originally Published: December 15th, 2007

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. December 16, 2007

    Christian, I see a filename where you may have expected me to see a big lowercase letter. Maybe it's a Firefox problem. I take it that if the tif loaded properly I would see a big "i" and that would be the whole "novel"?
    I enjoyed your reading (once I figured out what I was supposed to see). The best case for compressed vispo of that kind is that it encourages ingenuity of the kind such readings display (ingenuity which then illuminates other kinds of experience). You've convinced me that McCaffery's vispo work includes or at least makes possible a commentary on the experience of reading novels. But you haven't convinced me that the term "novel," in the way that most competent speakers of English use "novel," ought to include McCaffery's one-letter (right?) work.

  2. December 16, 2007

    At first I didn't see that it was an "i" with an extra dot. All I saw were a rectangle and two circles. Even when I became aware that it was an "i", I still had no desire to remove the extra dot. Maybe it's just due to my passive nature that I don't want to "intervene". Or maybe I have a thing for deformed characters.
    Anyway, if this is a novel, then anything can be a novel. My elbow, for example.

  3. December 17, 2007
     Joseph Hutchison

    I continue to pity Mr. Bök's students.

  4. December 17, 2007
     Christian Bök

    Hello, Joseph:
    Please--no need to pity my students....
    I know that you regard my interventions here as nothing more than "malarkey"--but generally, almost all of my students have evaluated me well above the departmental mean for the quality of my instruction, and I have been nominated by them on many occasions for teaching awards; moreover, they have often thrown parties on my behalf, and I have received lots of mail from past students telling me that I have had a profound, positive impact upon their education. I might also add that several of my graduates from my first, senior class in creative writing have already gone on to publish books of poetry which have received literary awards and critical acclaim.
    You may dismiss my whimsical additions to this site (whatever...); nevertheless, I do not believe that my job, as an educator, means reinforcing what you already know--but rather, it means inciting you to suspend your disbelief long enough to contemplate something anomalous to your experience....

  5. December 19, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    Hi yes, it would be good-- and important-- to see the image, please. Perhaps convert to a smaller jpeg image and upload? It may be that the tif file is too large to display properly. Thanks.

  6. December 19, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    Image doesn't show up on either Firefox or Explorer...

  7. December 20, 2007

    Vivek, I think I can help you out. If you can't see it on your computer, you can draw it yourself. Just draw a circle. Below that, an identical circle. Below that, a long vertical rectangle. In other words, the letter "i" with two dots. And there's your novel.