Research, A Novel for Performance, by Joseph Riippi
(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2014)
Review by Linda Michel-Cassidy
Research is both a play script and traditional text, the two forms of the same story presented on opposing pages, with the scenes aligned. Riippi initially envisioned Research as a play—not exactly as a script but as a text piece to be spoken out loud, in layers, or “palimpsestically.” After that initial effort, the work was reformulated into a script, “so that the actors might like me more,” says Riippi, surely joking, but also realizing that perhaps the actors wanted more direction. Eventually, he settled on providing the play script and the prose running side by side in a book form, the version we see in Research. He, in effect, translated his own work back and forth several times. Here, the two versions work not so much in parallel but rather as if shaped like a DNA strand furling around itself. They seem similar up to a point, but by chapter/act four they shift in direction and intensity.
The story opens with adult Lucy being questioned regarding her father’s death, which she witnessed as a child. The line of inquiry seems to imply that Lucy is at fault, although she acts oblivious. In fact, she is either not at all lucid, or simply messing with the moderator.
In the play, the interrogation is watched by her brother and mother from behind a one-way mirror, further splitting the readers attention; it practically becomes a performance with three stages running simultaneously. When these observers break the fourth wall to address the audience, it feels like an off the record, between-you-and-me bit of evidence. Games are indeed being played.
By this twinning of genres, Riippi forces the reader to consider which is more effective, and therefore, closer to the truth. This tactic acknowledges that there is a state of reality to work toward in fiction. It isn’t about factual veracity so much as revealing the guts of the story with clarity and in the manner which best suits the story. To be honest, I am not sure which felt more like life. In the earlier chapters or acts, the effects are fairly similar, with the exception that I could envision the characters and setting in the play format with more specificity. When reading a play script, one thinks of a performance and actors on a stage; it does feel funnelled toward a particular experience. I will say this: as a play, I never forgot that I was reading a script, whereas with the text, I fell into the story and the characters.
The central character, Lucy, who may or may not have assisted her father’s death by her lack of action, is observed and assessed by the peripheral characters. As readers, we do the same. The two forms seek the “truth” within constructed frameworks, and in doing so prove how critical form is. Is a play less realistic because its very model is artifice, or by admitting that it is a construct, is it somehow more “honest”? I would argue that it depends—but it sure is interesting to think about.
The author’s notes tell us that neither he nor the editor were sure how to best present the work. After the initial stage performance, the author translated the work back into prose. The final form, the book, wherein the play and text are presented side by side, allows the reader to see a different aspect of process: how to best serve the concept.
Riippi merges performance and process arts, because in reading the script section of the book, the reader will experience it in its performative mode (as much as we can, given that it is on the page), and we can also experience the author’s process when we compare play versus text.
In fact, one might find the question of form more compelling than the questions posed by the story itself. It is possible that the story of Lucy exists primarily as a vehicle by which Riippi can talk about presentation. Which, as it happens, is the underlying question in Lucy’s story as well. The facts as she knows them are not based on what she witnessed, but rather on the legend of her own history offered by other people who have their own motivations and ideas of the truth.
By reading the text and the notes and viewing the two forms in tandem, the reader gets a sense of the writer’s struggle to choose the right form, a challenge similar to a conceptual artist’s decision-making process regarding choices in media, such as material, scale and presentation. Whereas other books have tackled the process of being an artist (Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?) and the process of being a human (Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick), this project shows by its binary presentation the struggle to best offer an idea.
I appreciated the author separating himself from the project, in that his personality wasn’t wrapped around the work. The two forms play off of each other, and that, along with the psychological aspects of the story, gives the reader plenty to think about.