Book review by Nafkote Tamirat
The Ark Codex project’s greatest strength might simultaneously be the greatest stumbling block it poses for the reader, that is, the way in which it proposes to use language. By its own account, the Ark Codex project is “an authorless book object of art & text” that acts as “a self-organizing & self-contained archeological archive of language for the sake of language”. That is to say, this undertaking unrelentingly challenges the traditional purpose of words, which it sees as “for telling stories or writing ‘poetry’”. (I enjoy the snideness of those quotation marks.)
In other words, many readers will find this so frigging annoying.
Essentially, the Ark Codex project is a radical and extremely loose account of Noah and the Ark. The words have been placed on pre-existing book pages, which in turn, depict a variety of images, often set against a background of other texts, all looking somewhat like what I imagine to be ancient parchment. The form mimics the format of a ship’s log, with each entry beginning with a time stamp.
However, what I really want to discuss is the language, the language, oh for Christ’s sake, the language.
The Ark Codex project follows one of the main pieces of advice given to new writers, namely that the author should always be on the side of the reader and should refrain from tricking the audience. The first two sentences state: “Exponential sensitivity to the initial conditions of flooding systems is established by first negating the existence of an apocalyptic flood, nor even beings to cull. The variable of mobility is then introduced to bifurcate «sense» detectors from the otherwise barnacle-crusted bedrock (if only as an escape mechanism).” Clearly, this can be interpreted in many ways, but allow me to suggest that this might be a way to encounter the entirety of the work: the minute one decides that none of this makes sense, one abandons any chance of being able to meet this on its own terms. One must be willing to be flooded, overwhelmed, and imminently confused, as one is shoved into a realm where language is stretched out and upwards into places and meanings and ideas that perhaps it wasn’t initially conceived to encompass. Once one releases all preconceived expectations, one discovers a linguistic rollercoaster ride, which leaves one breathless, confounded, but never in the same place as where one started. Indeed, this might be one of the more literal examples of transporting literature.
If one can do this, each word becomes liberated to lead down paths towards other words and ideas. For example, is “dicebat” a reference to the Latin for speaking, or is it a mythical creature? Is the usage of H.E. supposed to guide one from Homo Erectus to the pronoun “he” to the collective “we” so that one moves from man the species, to man the sex, to man as in humankind? Is Jacques Londres just weird or is there a reason why Jack London’s French alter ego appears? Are the bird bytes the two birds that Noah sent out to ascertain that the flood was over? Everything here refuses to let one coast: by taking away what we would normally refer to as plot, this project compels us to stay with each unit of language, without once giving us the satisfaction of definite knowledge.
At the end of the day, this is not for everybody: for some, it might be infuriating to follow words that appear to lead nowhere but more words. Spoiler alert: I have read this three times, and while I can tell you my version of the story, I cannot say with any certainty that this is definitively the story meant to be relayed here. One would be making the gravest of errors to read this for traditional narrative or meaning. Instead, I would advise that one allow each sentence to take one exactly where it wants, see what lies at that period, and then start the process again. And again. And again.