First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
The distinction between literary and genre fiction has been the topic of much debate in recent years. How the distinction ought to be made and whether the distinction is ultimately useful at all are questions with which many people interested in contemporary fiction are deeply engaged. Although a consensus on the answers certainly does not exist, one significant result of the questions having been posed is a reluctance to dismiss universally so-called genre writers as peddlers of formulaic fictions designed for quick consumption and simple, mass appeal. Science-fiction, for example, is now more than ever taken seriously as literary art. Its potential for imagining alternative realities, for conceiving of other possibilities for organizing a world, makes it a genre with the capacity for profound philosophic investigation. Writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Thomas Disch, and Joanna Russ are increasingly accepted as towering figures of English-language letters. Victor Fernando Ocampo, author of The Infinite Library and Other Stories, has written a book that puts him among their rank.
“You realize you cannot tell where her shawl ends and her cat begins,” writes Ocampo in his story “The Old Blue Notebook.” This ostensibly simple sentence about an easily understood visual effect distills the philosophic core of the book. Indeed, being unable to tell where one thing ends and another begins is an apposite description of the feeling of reading these stories—where one genre, one story, one idea ends and another begins is never clear. Boundaries are fuzzy in Ocampo’s world. A clear conception of what’s what is conspicuously absent from the experience of reading this book which, rather than being maddening, produces a kind of pleasurable frustration that pervades the act of reading each story.
Though the stories in the collection are heady, written with intellectual rigor and bravery of thought, they are not merely cerebral—they bristle with feeling. In “Mene, Thecel, Phares,” for instance, the collage technique the author employs is not simply an exercise in erudition, however erudite it is. The story’s curatorial form, rather, is inextricably connected to the protagonist’s emotional state. “Joseph was between two lives,” Ocampo writes, in yet another instance of boundary bending. Too, the feeling of being between two lives is echoed by the feeling of being between two texts, which one always is when reading this story. One encounters, set off in italics, quotations of all kinds, from texts both internal and external to the world of the story. Quotes from Spinoza and Borges appear alongside a quote from Mr. Strabo, proprietor of the map shop Here Be Dragons, which makes appearances in several of the stories and is the title of one. Strabo’s quote reminds us of the project of Ocampo’s book: “The lines that separate people are always artificial, as unnatural to men and women as they are to the birds overhead. As an author, what kind of country will you create?” The story’s three possible endings, like its use of collage, do not feel like a gimmick—they, rather, are explorations of the limits of literature and the possibilities beyond those limits. Possibilities beyond limits comprise yet another philosophic point of this book.
As its Borgesian title suggests, this collection is undoubtedly indebted to the author of “The Library of Babel” and “The Aleph,” and yet, it is not a derivative work. Ocampo’s voice is totally his own. So too are his imaginings. Both his formal (extensive use of footnotes that is not at all imitative of David Foster Wallace in “An Excerpt from the Philippine Journal of Archaeology, 4 October, 1916”) and narrative imaginations draw richly on their predecessors, but filter their findings through Ocampo’s own peculiar slant. The chilling opening scene of “A Secret Map of Shanghai,” in which GG and Mrs. Plimm, “the sweet-tongued annihilator of History,” engage in a deeply strange and harrowing “lesson,” involving visceral carnality and displays of power. The remainder of the story, about GG’s encounters with his “strange teacher” are no less disturbing, but not gratuitously so. The story disturbs as a consequence of the fearlessness of its investigation, the subject of which is itself disturbing: the nature of power, specifically with respect to the “porcelain girl of mixed-heritage—American, Russian, French and British.” Ocampo’s slant on the inherited ideas and plots is never predictable, but always strange. He writes from no particular perspective. Or, more precisely, he is bound by no particular perspective. The library of his imagination lives up to the collection’s title.
Amid formal experimentation and big ideas, Ocampo excels with respect to more conventional elements of fiction as well. Sharp dialogue, for instance, runs throughout the book. In no story is this truer than in “Synchronicity,” in which statements from characters are rich with thematic resonance, while also sounding convincingly like something someone might say:
“He hadn’t gone on a road trip in a long while, not since he’d lost his wife in the nightmare of the previous year. Now his foolhardy journey had almost cost him his life. ‘You’re not the type to travel by yourself,’ she’d once warned him. ‘We’re so used to being together. It would be hell to be on the road alone.’”
What Felix’s wife says in this passage cleverly doubles what it means to “travel by yourself” and “be on the road alone,” without ever compromising the believability of human speech. It is in this way that Victor Fernando Ocampo’s stories transcend their speculative genre—by any standard, they’re just well-written.
Another of the themes that are centrally operative in The Infinite Library is the restorative power of literature. In “Brother to Space, Sister to Time,” the narrator offers up this thematic question ironically, stating its antithesis to reveal its truth:
“In an age where we were connected to the universe and to each other by techno-organic notochords, synapse to synapse in a gigantic swarming of minds, I found simple personal communication at best a necessary evil, one that was anachronistic, limited and, frankly, difficult. How could context be conveyed with just simple words, without references, without multi-sensory media, without relation to the Mother Network’s collective memory?”
Words, for this narrator, cannot be truly communicative, for they are “so easily misunderstood.” And yet it is the multiplicity of possible understandings (perhaps even infinity of possible understandings) that is the thematic heart of this story and the larger book, making this passage a grand ironic gesture of dazzling exactitude and profundity.
Amid technological excess and structural experiment, the feeling human being lies at the center of each of these stories. Ocampo’s Filipino identity factors strongly into his conception of the human experience and colors the fictions that appear in this book. But this is true only obliquely, as these stories strive at once for specificity and broad recognition. The stories deal recursively with death, in relation to the themes I have already elaborated—perhaps the only truly universal human experience. Death, in these stories, is a philosophical death. We are asked what it means to die. In “Synchronicity,” we see death as a journey, a bus ride, and a sign that reads “please wait for the return of the bus” haunts us with its symbolic resonance. In the same story, we encounter “the finality of oblivion” that, for some mysterious reason, we are told, is not death, and we must wonder what it is. In “Entanglement,” we see death’s relationship with love: “With every heartbeat the nanobots replicated a mother’s unconditional and infinite love – a love big enough to contain Death and the entire universe itself.” “I m d 1 in 10” tackles death as a political question, taking the weaponized death of state violence to its logical extreme. With each of these treatments of the question of death, Ocampo brings to it an elasticity of thought that makes for an unnervingly stimulating reading experience.
Fundamentally, The Infinite Library and Other Stories is a book about possibility, limitation, and the boundary between them. In imagining alternative possibilities and stretching them to the point of snapping, Victor Fernando Ocampo engages in an act of profound political importance, aesthetic significance, and philosophical rigor that is a serious pleasure to ingest. An apt metaphor for reading this book is being lost in a great labyrinth—at first, one desperately tries to find one’s way out, grasping frantically for whatever one can find that might reveal the secret to discerning the right path. Only when this proves futile can one revel in the beauty of the labyrinth, the poetry of its complexity, the immensity of its walls. And it is when one gives oneself over to these pleasures that one finds the way out and observes the labyrinth from a totally new perspective. In Ocampo’s labyrinth, a reader searches for an answer to the questions the book poses, and although The Infinite Library neither offers one nor pretends to, its wild imaginings, impressive erudition, moral seriousness, and unexpected humor comprise an experience to which one needs to give oneself over, and only after which, can one gaze back at where one has been and find a kind of clarity—not the myopic clarity of a single answer to a given question, but the kind of clarity one might find by reading through an infinite library.
by Deven Philbrick
Deven Philbrick is a writer of fiction, essays, and poetry, originally from Massachusetts. Deven holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington - Seattle and is currently pursuing a doctorate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor. He has served as the prose editor of the Seattle Review. Deven is also a literary translator, working primarily on contemporary French fiction and poetry.