But, she adds -- this is still Gertrude Stein -- everybody has their own way of working out the "kinds of men and women", and then there is the lifelong effort of watching people to discover how they fit into your system, and then, trying to describe her own system, she sounds so doubtful and vague -- going backwards and forwards, and defining and redefining -- using the word "complicated" -- describing the effort she had to exert to work out just one person, "this one then was baffling" -- that you start to suspect (or I did, so join me in this if you like) that she is discovering that her system is impossible to complete unless you are immortal, which you aren't. You don't have the time to pay that much attention to every one. So this leads her to the subject of death, or "being a dead one."
I am not knowing what way each one is experiencing in being living and about some I am knowing in a general way and I could be knowing in a more complete way if I could be living more with that one and I never will live more with every one. ... I am needing to have it in me as a complete thing of each one ever living and I I know I will not, and I am one knowing being a dead one and not being a living one.
She is self-conscious about her own grief and she hams gravely: "I am in desolation and my eyes are large from needing weeping and I have a flush from feverish feeling." If she had not discovered that her system is impossibly complicated before she started writing about it then she has done so now: she has discovered the impossibility of a detailed human taxonomy.
This is the way you do it, she says at the start, it will be done she says, "There will then sometime be a history of every one who ever is or was or will be living," "a history will be written of men and women" -- repeating this point over and over -- but by the sheer length of the book she lets you know that it is unamanageable -- because she has not managed it, in all these pages -- she dissects smaller and smaller, ending up with not more precision but with vagueness or dissolute mist. The book is an uncompletable project, and life too, she says is an uncompletable project. The last few pages are so minutely incremental that they are almost gibberish; it's as though the narrator's thoughts are trying to vanish in refinement. By the final page, which is page nine hundred and twenty-five in the 1999 Dalkey edition I was reading, she is writing like this:
Family living can go on existing. Very many are remembering this thing are remembering that family living living can go on existing. Very many are quite certain that that family living can go on existing. Very many are remembering that they are quite certain that family living can go on existing.
Like that, each change taking place on a constricted scale; the literary atom is a particle used by the mad, as on the photocopied sheets they give you on the street (or have given me at least, maybe not you) of diagrams and phrases crammed together in a meaning. And staring at those final pages is like staring at a mass of things so tiny you can't understand them; you can't see the whole, the whole is actually invisible, and your perspective, your viewing position, might change very strangely. The opening of the book established you at a certain size and proportion, now your proportions are being altered, you reduce, you are placed inside a tiny rocket ship and fired into the bloodstream of a human being who is too huge for you to see, only bits you see, only meaningless pieces.
In the beginning of the book she is writing in a way only slightly altered from a nineteenth century novelistic language -- Americans was published for the first time in 1925 --
Yes Mrs Dehning was a woman whose rasping insensibility to gentle courtesy deserved the prejudice one cherished against her, but she was a woman, to do her justice, generous and honest, one whom one might like better the more one saw her less.
This is the large body that we lose sight of by the end (the body of writerly language itself, and conventional contemporary signalled intelligence): the narrator at the beginning assuming we will understand her wit, we will fill the gaps, we have the kind of experience with language that will encourage us to be amused at the positive word cherish associated so intimately with the negative word prejudice, we will recognise a known stereotype in this description of a fictional woman, "one whom one might like better the more one saw her less" -- wit, comfortable wit, insulting someone else -- and we will feel close to the author, who recognises us and is a member of our gang even if we're muttering because she didn't include the comma we think we should see after "Yes," and even if there is something about the delivery that seems so faintly stiff and off -- still, it is familiar enough; it is one of the kinds we know.
By the end of the book the narrator has decided that she will stop assuming, she will fill the gaps with written explanations in place of invisible assumptions, she will look into those gaps that she was skipping over when she rested in that bed of a shared gang, and what she sees she finds she cannot describe: I cannot look with my language, the prose can't see for me any more: blindness, blindness, blindness, and death, a novel that tries to explain itself in the author's way not the community's way and therefore can't sustain itself as a novel, and has to fall apart; or you could say that the author, by trying to dissolve herself in a myriad of facts, is in fact attempting to remove herself from the book, books not being able to exist without authors -- I will destroy my own critical faculties, she says, I will say everything, I will not choose -- and as an author, she dies.