Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Book-Eating Book: Tom Phillips's A Humument (1966-) *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Book-Eating Book: Tom Phillips's A Humument (1966-) *

Article excerpt

The history of the world, my sweet- [...] -is who gets eaten and who get to eat. (Sondheim 105)

In Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel (2001), Christian Gutleben notes that it was "in the 1980s and 1990s that many British novelists [...] unearthed and resuscitated the great Victorian tradition" (5-6). Gutleben's quote speaks to the rapid rise of the neo-Victorian genre which occurred in the last two decades of the twentieth century. With the publication of Peter Carey's and A. S. Byatt's bestselling and Booker Prize-winning Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and Possession (1990) respectively, the genre entered the literary mainstream and has remained there ever since. The neoVictorian phenomenon has also been evident in other forms of entertainment and in scholarly research. Production companies regularly offer television and film adaptations and modernisations of Victorian classics; the Booker Prize shortlist has featured novels with at least some nineteenth-century elements almost every year for the past fifteen years; the study of neo-Victorian fiction has become an established academic discipline, manifested in the founding of the journal of Neo-Victorian Studies in 2008 as well as in the publication of an increasing number of articles and book-length studies (see Stetz 345).1

Despite its growth in the late twentieth century, many scholars trace the birth of the neo-Victorian genre back to 1966. Academics choose this date as the starting point for the genre as it was in this year that Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, a part revision and part prequel to Charlotte Brontë's canonical Jane Eyre (1847). In Rhys's work, some of the tropes and genre elements that make up the neo-Victorian were established, such as re-appropriating a Victorian story for revisionist perspectives and imagining an embodied existence for historically marginalised characters, and as a result, Wide Sargasso Sea has become for many the foundational text of the neo-Victorian genre.

1966 proves a fitting start date for the neo-Victorian genre for another reason: it was the year Tom Phillips began his long-running literary and artistic project A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel.2 In this work, which Phillips is still continuing (the fifth and latest edition was published in 2012),3 he treats every page of W. H. Mallock's relatively unknown novel A Human Document (1892) by hand, through cutting, painting, pasting, circling, pencilling, collaging, typing and covering over, so that only a handful of words from the source text remain on each page. For example, Phillips crosses "an Doc" out of the original A Human Document to form the new title A Humument (Figure 1, fourth edition). His texts may seem ran- . dom, and indeed occasionally the words have been selected by chance, through such procedures as tossing coins ("Notes on A Humument," hereafter Notes 2005), but for the most part, they are deliberately chosen and the result is that A Humument tells the adventure of a modern-day protagonist called Bill Toge. That the new story entirely derives from material and words used in the Victorian novel and is changing with each new edition not only calls to mind Frankenstein's patchwork creature but also suggests the malleability of texts and postmodernist deconstruction- Phillips is literally deconstructing and reconstructing the Victorian source novel.

At first glance, some may consider A Humument an "unlikely" neoVictorian novel. To begin with, it is in many ways not a novel at all but a piece of visual art. It is also constantly being revised by Phillips, which puts it at odds with the typical notion of a novel, a form that is largely set when published. Also, even at its most novelistic, A Humument does not demonstrate the purposeful return to the Victorian which characterises other texts in the genre. Neo-Victorian novels, according to Dana Shiller,

adopt a postmodern approach to history and [. …

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