from Dennis Duncan
Unfurled across five tables, Kabe Wilson’s astonishing Of One Woman or So is the result of a painstaking process of cutting up books. The novella, which tells the story of a young Cambridge student who becomes politicized and burns down the University Library, was created by re-arranging all 37,971 words of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. At once a tour de force of wit and wordplay and a serious consideration of what Woolf’s essay has to offer us today, Wilson’s work often dramatizes its own method of construction, as in the following passage.
In front of an audience in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre at the Weston Library, Wilson described how creating the piece involved a mixture of old and new technologies: spreadsheets and macros to keep track of each word has he typed; scissors and glue – and two copies of Woolf’s book – to turn the digital document into a physical piece. ‘I see myself as an artist rather than a writer,’ he told us, ‘so it was important that at the end of the process there should be something that could be exhibited.’
For Wilson, one of the major reasons for doing this work was to see how the language of Woolf’s time has been reoriented or reenergized in the intervening years. Woolf’s fictitious author, Mary Carmichael, provides a means for Wilson’s protagonist to become radicalized by the writings of Stokely Carmichael; a mention of the writer Vernon Lee in A Room of One’s Own allows Wilson to drop in a reference to Woolf’s biographer Hermione Lee. bell hooks and Edward Said appear courtesy of the simple terms bell, hooks and said. Meanwhile there are dozens of playful allusions to the culture of the early twenty-first century, from reading Harry Potter to supporting Manchester United; from watching Friends to drinking vodka jellies. Wilson described how the word sex features prominently in Woolf’s essay, but how, in recent feminist discourse, the sense in which Woolf uses it has been largely supplanted by the term gender. In order to avoid the clang of anachronism, then, Wilson’s tale involves rather more sex scenes than Woolf’s, with the narrator at one point voicing Wilson’s own concerns here: ‘True, I should think of women, women, women, women. And not of sex, sex, sex.’
During the Question and Answer session Wilson discussed how he envisaged publication of the work, and the importance of retaining the look of the art piece with the signs of its physical construction: the shadows of the cut-up paper and Wilson’s handwritten punctuation. We also got to consider the mind-boggling, Borgesian potentiality of the exercise – the infinite, unwritten texts contained in all the other possible arrangements of the same words – and the one extant but secret rearrangement hidden on the reverse sides of Wilson’s gummed-down words.