James Chapman's STET

Joshua Cohen
Book Review

Fugue State Press, January 2006, 336 pages, $16

Stet is the story of a Soviet filmmaker who might really be-at least to Authority, and to the imposed and imposing tastes of the lumpenproles-no filmmaker at all. For reasons perhaps only slightly more official than personal, this Stet has made more movies in his own head than he has on celluloid, for the censorious delectation of the Party and its State. He's born late in the book, suffers at the hands of children, grows up, suffers at the hands of adults, then falls afoul of the Nomenklatur until finally, he's exiled out to a workcamp, to be joined by his wife, Lilya, where they less die than fade to black. This, however, is surface only: an "official" reading would have you parsing Stet as a typical novel of experiment, rootless and rangy, formalist in its manic formlessness, and as emotionally tough as concrete.

But under the Work, is the Life. And ultimately, Stet is art about why James Chapman makes art, and an argument for why we lesser lights should make art, too. Stet is the Life and Times of every artist to ever make something "wrong" in the face of everything "right," which might be symbolized by the Order of Lenin, or the New York Times Bestseller List. Otherworldly success, at the end of the book, isnothing less than the gulag. A grave in Murmansk. All that, with your work destroyed, too. Which is not to say that Stet is merely reactionary. It's more like a proofreader's, or copyeditor's, "stet"-an editing mark designed to retain the original version of something, scrapping later efforts at change. This idea is somewhere between the Beat-Zen first-thought-best-thought and the slow acceptance of the self for who and what it is, "becoming comfortable in your own skin."

Six novels in, it seems that Chapman has made a career out of this becoming. Glass (Pray the Electrons Back to Sand) (1995) was a Gulf War novel, condemning American imperialism in the most intimate terms possible. In Candyland It's Cool to Feed on Your Friends (1998) was a painful airing of an urbis semioticized, hermeneutered, totally fucked: life as performance art, the private as a pretext to matinee angst. Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! (2000) was quietly madder than anything else that had come before-an undomesticated transcript of smalltime, small-town nowhere as lived by a woman almost incapable of being a "herself."

Stet reprises the responses to the Official Lie, which is universal: the lie that says creators can become free of the societies they create and that create them, the lie that says art is made sacred with time as the test, the lie that says criticism in the voice of loose change-in a manner that damn near reaches summation on American soil. It is a book written by a mystic in sneakers, and is among the most outraged and sad we've had from our own-lesser-gulag Downtown. It tells us that if we don't represent our own damage in art, then all the Job-comforters and their mini-biographers, the squinty presidents and their multinational kitschmeisters will do it for us. They have their red pens to keep their books in the black. We have Stet.

James Chapman is the author of six novels, including Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! and In Candyland It's Cool to Feed on Your Friends. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the novelist Randie Lipkin.


Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen was born in southern New Jersey, in 1980. A literary critic for The Forward he lives in Brooklyn, NY. His books include a collection of stories, The Quorum (2005), and a novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (2007). Another novel, A Heaven of Others, is forthcoming in 2008.

You've found the

KGB Bar Archives

- a compilation of over 12 years of literary, musical and other content.

Since 2016, KGB Bar Lit has been our home for literary content, but feel free to peruse the archives while you're here.

And, of course, don't forget check out KGB Bar for the latest goings-on at both KGB Bar and The Red Room, New York City's best-kept secret!



Each article in these archives was reconstituted from old data whose integrity varied. In many cases, some images and/or formatting may have been lost in the process.

If you're an author who would like to update an article, please send us a message via the site contact form and we'll see what we can do. Thank you!