Johnson's Notes from 2017 Fiction Workshop: Short Fiction by Albe Harlow

Johnson’s Notes from 2017 Fiction Workshop

by Albe Harlow

Person loves person falls deeply for
Person loves her own person falls deeply
All love stories are about death
All stories are about death
Which is about how to die
Which is about…unstetted: illegible scribbles

1: I think this story is spectacular, really. Full of mists and melancholy. I love that. Love. But what about the third person, the person in the middle? The other other person? We as readers need access to this character. She cannot pretend neutrality through all of what happens. She has an angle and some opinions of her own, no doubt. We need to approach this character with some of the steadfastness she herself, the third person, exhibits in detailing the romance between her two friends. 

An expression of discontent about the state of contemporary literature:

“Lester just gestured with a neck-turn toward the lectern. He had left his phone in its cubby.”

Person wants to discover secret
Person discovers secret but cannot interpret secret
Person hires cryptologist to help interpret secret
Person falls deeply in love with cryptologist
Cryptologist is a professional and resists romantic overtures
Cryptologist succumbs to her own deep secret love for first person
Person and cryptologist move in together and adopt a parrot

2: We are entreated to a story about two deeply depressed people who fall in love. This is great stuff, really. My only concern is that we have no idea who is writing the narrative. Sometimes it feels like the first person, sometimes the second person. Alternatively, we are often led to thinking it is the third person who is telling the tale. Yet still, in other places, it feels like there is no person narrating whatsoever, which is you, Johnson.

I refuse apophasis.

Realism is what is real is what is is…?

Realism is atoms is bombs is in your face like a photograph of a hamburger. Like a seitan burger that is predicated on a photograph of a burger.

(Note: these notes constitute mimicry of notes constitute mimicry of notes constitute mimicry of workshop conversation and notes.)

Realism (social) is a profitable word and a bankrupt meaning.

Realism is what trauma does to markets does to literature does to realism.

On fragments in 2017 (after Howe slashed, Rauschenberg barfed, B.S. Johnson set sail, blah blah blah):

Fragments is a word used by artists

Fragmentation—the artistically regulated occurrence of fragments—no longer understands the voids it once reported on

Fragments—whatever that may be said to be—are defunct and often say little more than I am a lazy person

Peter Eisenman understands more about literature than novelists do

And he resents the vulgar phenomena of the fragmentist who would readily and without qualification use the word fragment

But, recall, he strangely morphs into an essentialist when talking about Proust or Woolf

Fragments have lost their edge (Can cryptologist say this in dialogue?)

No—fragments have lost their wonderment about the edge

No no—fragment is a word whose variable contexts have ceased to render compelling meanings


3: I really truly love this story. It is everything one hopes for in literature: love, death, mystery, empathy, sex inside museums, you name it! We really just didn’t get enough of the friend in the middle though. In fact, we have no idea who she is. Is she a tall hairdresser with dementia or a cloud of toxic gas spurting off from the storms of Saturn? Does she buy whole grain mustard, broken grain mustard? Or just smooth mustard? What skin does she have in this game? Also, I love the parrot. What a great idea. So funny. It helped lighten up this story. We really just want to see more of that sort of thing. We know you can do it all, we just want to see it on the page. Also, I suggest you nix paragraph twelve. I really don’t think we need to know about how the cryptologist came to her interpretation—just give it to us!

Fiction is about bodies against bodies
Someone said: fiction is about what is real
One hundred years ago: fiction is about itself

I refuse apophasis.

Testing new fountain pen: Professor drinks diet soda and enjoys what he does. Professor smokes cigarettes and enjoys what he does. Professor holds student conferences and enjoys what he does. Professor seeks awards for his works of fiction and enjoys what he does. Professor acts congenially with most sociable people and enjoys this. Professor plays league softball and enjoys what he does. Professor attends readings and sometimes enjoys. Professor shoots the breeze with students while eating free cookie and enjoys what he does. Professor reminds students about attending the evening’s event and enjoys the idea of maybe enjoying what he does. Professor talks about literature and enjoys what he does. Professor senses workshop discussion is changing course in an unpredicted manner and maybe still enjoys what he does. Professor is punctual and enjoys being a reliable beacon of temporal reference for students. Professor remarks about pop culture and enjoys what he does. Professor enjoys seeming common and a touch vulgar. As such, professor can be candid and vapid and enjoys what he does. Professor talks about the weather. Professor senses workshop discussion is shifting toward remote questions about the is-ness of literature and may be growing impatient. Professor wonders how some of his students will even get published if they keep trying to write weirdly. Professor can usually tell what will and will not get published and enjoys this. Professor himself writes with just the right quantity of weird and enjoys what he does. Professor is a published author and enjoys what he does. Professor eats free bagel with cream cheese with students and enjoys what he does.

Person against person
Person against self
Person against narrative
Person against writing
Person against self
Person against person

Craft is about not asking questions, just <<doing>>

It is about the thoughtless and rote enactment of literary instinct as inculcated by the writings of, aiw, Aristotle and his flock

Literature is an intrinsically conservative enterprise

Sense-making is an intrinsically conservative enterprise

Existence is an intrinsically conservative enterprise

Walking from A to B is a process of reformism and requires putting one foot in front of the other

If one sprints to B with revolutionary fervor, he plants his hands on his knees after arriving and pants hotly like an invalid


4: Johnson, in his impressionistic work of much delight and fascination, has built us a world to remember. Unforgettable characters and a truly magical story. I would like to (and I think we would all like to) read more about the narrator. We need some clarity there. Or maybe it is not about the narrator but about what happens in between everything that is happening….clarity…clarity...Stellar work and cheers.


Narrative is about tricking out lived continuity from the textures and materials of language

But continuity is a stale word, as are, btw, surely all words when they sit alone presuming their own superiority

(A Divine Right of Clichés begirds most attempts at something called brevity, something called simplicity, not to mention every early-Wittgensteinian truth)

Continuity be would be extra-spacialized if it could hold itself together

But there it sits

Continuity infers that something about something—namely, oneself—remains, aiw, hermetically isolated from the radically general (i.e. mushy and usually incomprehensible) properties and valences of change, flux, mutability, suspended knowledge, etc. The refuse of a suppositiously originary laziness

I refuse apophasis.

Choose your favorite literary sentence:

This is a coffee stain      (A)

This is realism               (B)

This is real                    (C)

This is                          (D)

This                              (E)

Is                                  (F)


On espacement: Space is not as much contained in objects as it comes to stabilize an aporia that objects already possess about themselves, namely, Do I exist? Objects do not humanly think Do I exist? (gunky) but they certainly must objectively think Do I exist? which is for objects to persist in an indefinite matrix of objectified speculation and propositionalism of the object, insofar as object remains coronated as unchallenged dictator of this quite vulnerable realm of definition and species.


Character has problem
Character needs to solve problem
Character needs help from others to solve problem
Character finds help to solve problem but help turns out to be its own set of problems
Help is an expert at solving problems but cannot solve all problems
Character begins to deeply like help, even though help invokes new problems
Character and help must work together to solve as many problems as they can

Love occurs (deep)



5. There is something really very playful about this piece. And impressionistic. So expressive. It feels very modern. [Due to headaches, the following is, as ever, an interpolation (some voiciness persists):] It is as though the characters know that they are characters in a short story, and knowing this provokes them to madness. But this madness is experienced in union. The first lovelorn character does not understand anything until he meets the second lovelorn character, who helps him name his problem, a problem of love. However, and this is where the story really gets good, love is what enables the first character to understand that he is a character. This introduces a totally new set of problems. We could say that they become characters once they realize they are trapped in someone else’s story, which doesn’t happen until they meet one another. But this is where the track begins to lose me. They suddenly realize that they exist, which is sort of like saying that they no longer don’t realize that they don’t *not* exist [sic]. But who is narrating this story? What is the character of the narration? Is there a third character here, hiding behind these beings? Is some intentional version of you, Johnson, hovering above the mystical union of these two characters? Can we get a better idea about the new problems faced by the characters and how this relates to the way things go down? Like, *really* go down [sic]? 

On Levinas: If one can write the second, he can write the first, the hither side; the third manifests inevitably from this initial accomplishment. Said accomplishment may also be conceived as a stupendously misguided waste of space.


6. What a wild ride. You are a rollicking SOB, Johnson. But can we get some names here? Dates? I believe in the possibility of this world as about as far as I can throw a grand piano. The setting needs work. See you on Saturday. BYOB in extenso.

Roses are blue
Violets are red
Humpty Hegel tipped over the wall
And he’s ̶d̶e̶a̶d̶ ̶ still alive

 One way of coming to comprehend the thought of objects, at least heuristically, is to understand the rivetedness of an object to its relational matrix (comprised of other objects) as a riff on narrative continuity, the latter being the phenomenal but certainly rigorous apperception and consolidation of meaning (though wormy), to the extent that a substance or an identity can be said to sustain through space (but not through time—just forget time!). Alors, space is what objects think of themselves when they think being. Of course, objects don’t know they are thinking space because space is the readable dimension into which objects are, as by a quantum accident, thrown. Objects can scarcely come to terms with space. As such, space is usually a general word, which is to say that its vast contexts render its meaning almost superfluous, provisional. Space is a mostly titular dictator. Perhaps it is akin to asking whether or not a story—insofar as a story persists as an object, which it must that it be identified as anything at all (forget time! unlike delirious Heidegger)—understands that it exists on paper, that it is inked on a page or a board or even the electronic and insuperably dazzling palimpsest of the human mind.


Journey to problem
Problem of problem…
Journey through and about problems
Something uncanny and synthetic


Untoward Narrative
By Johnson

Unnotes Toward Narrative
By Johnson

Desolating Narrative
By Johnson


Modernism: It has been done. What has been done? This has been done? What is this? And what is more and first: how is the who here giving what this is? Understand, modernism was a parched desert creature who slaked away its maddening thirst at the intellectual oasis of war. The imminence of terror and death uniformed that mutant adolescent and brought it forthwith to dotage, wrinkling its formerly pliable face into the predictable expressions of puppets in a melodrama.

 I refuse apophasis.

 Epoch met Episteme and they moved in together and, after thirty years of partnership, separated over the unveiling of unforeseen but irreconcilable differences. Joyce remains friendly with both, while also disavowing any claim to matchmaking.


Joyce and Eisenman, 2017—a beginning:

JJ: particles complexity syn Greek-Jew Jew-Greek tax home as an accretion of differences broken cycles urine

PE: Complexity is no longer a mode of resistance to power. Thank the algorithm.

JJ: Whatever you’re talking about, joy while it lasts. Do they still sell kidneys at the mark? I’m hungry.


7. Dear Johnson, I have read the story three times and have concluded that the cryptologist is really the narrator. What I mean is the only way this thing holds together is if the relations between the characters and the conflicts allude to a more flexible narrative container. We may call this the author. Which is kind of like calling out your name, Johnson.

Albe Harlow is a writer and MFA-graduate of Columbia University in New York City. He is editing his novel while writing fictions and essays, one of which is recently published in Princeton University's Inventory.


The following has been provided by the author

An excerpt from the submission letter: "...this work of literature (if we may venture to begin here), bears many frustrating shapes and styles and combinations etc. That is, it is a piece, if we are to be frank, likely to be rejected by many publications for its not evidencing an immediate relation to any of the categories here hazarded....much told, the piece retains the traces of typical containment and constraint, primarily by the graces of its title. "Johnson's Notes...," as a title, alludes to the possibility of a clôture beyond the would-be realm of notes as such, and establishes a boundary between me, Albe, the author, and a note-taking character named Johnson. I merely cite this here detail by way of proviso and in endorsement of a convention that may render my submission more manageable and publishable....however, are the marginal and, in some ways,...pass from the eye of Johnson's pen,...the ridiculous...grudging annotations..."