Raymond Federman’s experimental novel Double or Nothing is subtitled a “real fictitious discourse.” An example of what Federman calls “surfiction” (a fiction on the fictions of life), Double or Nothing uses typographical experimentation and metafictional play to work through autobiographical trauma. The novel’s non-beginning outlines a complexly stratified literary discourse. By locking himself up in a room for a year, an “inventor” plans on writing a novel about the arrival of a Jewish immigrant “protagonist” in America. A “recorder” takes note of everything the inventor does and thinks while making preparations on the day before moving into the room, while a “supervisor” stands over and beyond the entire text. As the novel progresses, these four discursive levels/characters - protagonist, inventor, recorder, supervisor - begin to “converge or merge,” to collapse into one another, often within a single sentence as it shifts point of view from “I” to “he” to “we.” The inventor spends most of his time obsessively calculating the cost of a year’s worth of different basic goods – noodles, toothpaste, cigarettes, toilet paper – while the recorder faithfully keeps track of “everything [the inventor] was doing, saying, thinking, planning, calculating, organizing, inventing, composing, anticipating, projecting, writing, etc., even though much of it appeared totally incoherent, illogical, gratuitous, fragmented, all loused up, messed up, zero, irrational, unreadable, irresponsible, unpublishable, full of errors, bad, etc.” This noise is presented to the reader through the unique typographical format that Federman creates for each page, so that the work is ultimately what Brian McHale terms “concrete prose.” With a nod to jazz, Federman blasts open the walls of his prose, creating an improvised performance that underscores the materiality and technicity of the text.
Later sections of the novel offer a more explicit critique of traditional fiction, and especially plot, and serve as a justification for this experimentation. Rejecting any simple mimetic function for literature, Federman writes, “the essence of a literary discourse . . . is to find its own point of reference, its own rules of organization in itself, and not in the real or imaginary experience, on which it rests. Through all the detours that one wishes, the subject who writes will never seize himself in the novel: he will only seize the novel which, by definition, excludes him.” But less literary-critical, more autobiographical motives for the novel’s typographical and formal experimentation can be found in the fragments of the protagonist’s life that the inventor does manage to relate. The protagonist, whose name keeps changing, “has really no voice” and goes through a “mute period” while trying to learn English. Although the inventor deliberately refuses to discuss the protagonist’s life before America, it is revealed that the protagonist (just like Federman) lost his parents and siblings in the Holocaust. The novel’s seemingly superficial typographical play – that is, its experimentation with placing words on the surface of the page – therefore works through this traumatic rupture in the protagonist’s existence, his exile from his origins and even his language. Double or Nothing should be read alongside Federman’s later The Voice in the Closet (1979), a brutal yet important text that addresses Federman’s memories of being locked in a closet while the rest of his family was taken from his home and shipped off to a concentration camp. Lacking page numbers and punctuation, The Voice in the Closet offers a “verbal delirium,” intense “wordshit,” so as to “invent you federman,” “to invent an origin for myself.” Faced with unrepresentable horror and aware of the accidental nature of his existence, Federman states, “yes the whole story crossed out my whole family parenthetically xxxx into typographic symbols while I endure my survival from its implausible beginning to its unthinkable end.” However, Federman does seem to reflect in this haunting text on the different tone of Double or Nothing when he writes, “my survival a mistake he cannot accept forces him to begin conditionally by another form of sequestration pretends to lock himself in a room with the if of my existence the story told in laughter but it resists and recites first the displacement of its displacement.”