Issue 36 Friendship Winter 2009/10

Project for the Separation of Friends

Shelley Jackson

Proposed: A book is a friendship. 


A book, like a friendship, has two sides. We can call these “you” and “me,” or “author” and “reader.” It is impossible for the book the author wrote and the book the reader read to coincide in every particular. (This non-coincidence is not a defect, but a necessity; something must remain out of reach of every reader’s understanding, and beyond every writer’s ability to express. In this way desire, which seeks the impossible, keeps beating against the shore of the book.) 


Proposed: A book is a memory.


A book, like a memory, is a track both of and for time. It records the past: in it, the author’s time is drawn out into lines that are arrayed on pages that are stacked into a crystalline structure. It guides the present: running her eyes over the traces of the past, the reader reintroduces them to the time stream, not as the past returned, not as a completely new present, but as a present under the partial and ambiguous influence of the past. 


Proposed: No memory is a complete record of the past.


Proposed: If our friends coincided perfectly with ourselves, they would not be our friends, but ourselves.


Proposed: The memories of two friends will never perfectly coincide. 


Proposed: Two childhood friends may each have many vivid memories of their shared experiences and nevertheless have precisely none in common, the memories of one fitting into the other’s gaps, and vice versa. 


Project: Create two books relating to an original as these childhood friends to their shared past. 


Method: Take a book—any book, but most pleasingly one charged with the task of recovering memory (Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood...). We will call this the “friendship.” Derive from it two books (“friends”) of approximately equal length that together contain all the words in the original, but do not overlap at any point. That is, though both friends would necessarily contain many iterations of “the,” “and,” and so on, each instance could conceivably be traced back to a distinct “the” or “and” in the original, such that it would be theoretically possible (though not practicable) for a reader to reassemble the friendship by alternating between the two books. The separation of the friends could be performed mechanically by, for instance, subtracting every other word or sentence from the original, making up one book of the subtractions and another of the remainder, but ideally both new books would be coherent texts in their own right.


Some friends will retain much of the sense of their friendship but emphasize different events—A la recherche, for instance, in which Albertine does not appear at all, might be friends with Du temps perdu, in which she is prominent but the Baron de Charlus goes unmentioned. Others will share no elements of plot or character, and yet something—rhythms, turns of phrase—will betray their common history to the attentive reader. Perhaps it is possible, by reducing the source to a list of words, and from this composing two original texts (ticking off each word once it is used: a, Albertine, an, and, any...) for two friends to retain no traces of their lost friendship, while still deriving all their substance from it. Or perhaps they will always tell, not only their own stories, but another, present only in its omission. 


Proust wrote, “The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.”1 Here this object is a book.


  1. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 44–45.


Shelley Jackson is the author of the story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy, the novel Half Life, hypertexts including Patchwork Girl, and several children’s books. Her stories and essays have appeared in journals including McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, the Paris Review, and in previous issues of Cabinet, in which she also launched her 2004 project “SKIN,” a story published in tattoos on 2,095 volunteers.

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