Review: James Tadd Adcox, Repetition James Tadd Adcox, Repetition

Repetition Final CoverJames Tadd Adcox’s new novella is available in paperback and ebook on Cobalt Press. He will be reading at the Sunday Salon at the Riverview Tavern (1958 W Roscoe) on Sunday January 29th at 7 PM. Adcox is reading with Aleksandar Hemon, Abby Geni, and Renee Rosen.

Kierkegaard’s last words were “Sweep me up.”

I learned this from the movie Waking Life, and that’s all that I know about the 19th century philosopher. And perhaps that’s not even true. I’ve never read Either/Or, although I have listened to the Elliott Smith album of the same name many times. And I’ve never read Repetition although I have read the novella of the same name by Chicago-based writer James Tadd Adcox. This Repetition is a short retelling of Kierkegaard’s Repetition (stay with me) which was was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Constantin Constantius.

For my fellow amateur-philosophers, Adcox offers a page-long footnote that describes the basic outline of Constatnin’s Repetition, which just like the contemporary rewriting, can be briefly (although not completely) described as “a love affair that ends in tragedy.” The characters in Adcox’s novella are participating in the second annual conference of the Constantin Constantius Society. Although the book takes place in academia, its setting provides a foundation to mock these “scholars,” so wrapped up in theory that even one’s wife uncharacteristically cooking her husband eggs becomes a source of contempt.

I finished this book with plenty to consider about repetition. And I have a lot to consider about silence. And I have a lot to consider about naming and about love and about truth and facts. Who is the nameless he/I of the narrator? Is it Adcox himself? Is this book a work of fiction or based on true accounts? Is it a combination of both? Who is the mysterious deconstructionist? I found myself asking as many questions as the 65 pages of the book before, during, and after reading.

The poor naive Adcox/narrator had the misfortune of writing this in a pre-“alternative facts” world, where evidence such as video footage and audio recordings, what used to be called objective truth, is anything but. Even with the aid of objective recordings, actions and events are often recollected or interpreted improperly. So if an action isn’t recorded, did it actually happen? And are the digital facsimiles we create online, the mirrors that contribute to our “constant double life,” are they any more or less real than our non-digital actions?

Personally, I find myself thinking of the Dostoevsky quote (or was it Bartol? Or was it Jim Carroll?): “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The narrator asks: “I wonder, reader, if you, like the present author, have ever been tempted to stand in a setting that has a clearly defined set of rules for what is and isn’t permissible – such as during a church service, or at a funeral – and do precisely that which is not permitted. I have had this impulse quite often,” he admits.

I realize that this all sounds quite serious, but there are some comical moments peppered throughout the short book; Adcox even squeaks in the word ‘nincompoop.’ These days you gotta take a laugh when you can get it. Those that have read Adcox’s previous novel Does Not Love know that even a story about an evil pharmaceutical company, miscarriages, and infidelity isn’t without a few laughs along the way.

But back to Repetition. One of the scholars dissecting the work of Constantin argues that writers that repeat, through allusion or quotations, are attempting to achieve silence, and in a sense, true objectivity: “The only way for the author to realize his own silence is to offer the surface of the page up to other voices: the dead, the absent, all those who can have no direct power over the text as it is composed.”

In the beginning of the book, we are given one of Constantin’s quotes: “The interesting can never be repeated.” Considering the state of the union, with government agencies being silenced by the executive branch, immigration laws being targeted and threats to the well-being of our city, I feel safe in editorializing that many reading this website would agree that we would prefer these interesting times to be 1) less interesting and 2) never repeated.

To which I can think of only one quote that walked through my head repeatedly while reading Repetition: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

Andrew Hertzberg
Andrew Hertzberg