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Tom Jenks - The Tome of Commencement

The Tome of Commencement -- Tom Jenks

(Leeds, Stranger Press, 2015, 206pp)
 
Reviewed by Stephen Emmerson
 
 
 
Tom Jenks' The Tome of Commencement (a Rogetification of the Book of Genesis) is a Synonymical translation of the first book of the Old Testament. Jenks is interested in Oulipian mathematical/aleatory experiments and uses current technologies to create his texts. In his previous work An Anatomy of Melancholy Jenks created an assemblage of every tweet mentioning the word "melancholy" during the calendar month of January, commonly agreed to be the most depressing month of the year. The Tome of Commencement is created using spreadsheets containing the original text and a list of synonyms, or as Jenks explains in the book: 
 
'This book is a human-machine collaboration and implements a procedure known as Rogetification, where a source text is transformed using a thesaurus. In this case, an electronic copy of Roget’s thesaurus was put into spreadsheet form alongside a copy of The Book of Genesis, also in spreadsheet form. Formulae generating random numbers and look up tables were then used to swap words in The Book of Genesis for synonyms found in Roget’s thesaurus. Certain words integral to the basic sense of the original, such as personal pronouns, were excluded from this process. This machine produced text was then edited manually, with some synonyms being swapped for others, and other changes made for grammatical and syntactical reasons. The final text can be thought of as a translation.' 
 
  Other works that comes to mind when thinking about The Tome are Marcel Benabou's antonymic translations, and Jackson Mac Low's computer generated poems, but Jenks'  is more acutely aware of his place in time, of a cultural history based around tweets and facebook posts, and ultra-fast news and social media apps where information travels at terminal velocity.  The Tome of Commencement always feels absurdly modern, occasionally reading like a street bible written by a steampunked Willow the Whisp on holiday in Cuckoo Land:
 
'7:13: In the identical same Green Flash booked Noah, and Shem, and 
Movie, and Japheth, the striplings of Noah, and Noah's missus, and the 
three doxies of his striplings with it, into the basket;'
 
        And sometimes like the John Lewis Christmas advert that never was:
 
'22.3: And Abraham buttoned up sharpish in the cock crow, and charged 
his buffoon, and took duplicate of his immature dudes with him, and Isaac 
his stripling, and clave the lancewood for the burnt Christmas present, and 
buttoned up, and went unto the apartment of which Loki had told him.' 
 
         So, as you can see, this book is funny, very funny. The names of the characters and places remain true to the original whilst all else morphs into strange parallel worlds showing our hero's delivering well known speeches and actions in a different context and setting. For all it's humour, The Tomb of Commencement is an extremely complex text that scratches at the surface of this ancient work and allows us to peer through it into a world in which it has been just been written. What if the bible, or any other religious text had been created today? What if the language and culture of a holy book was created with present concerns. How would it differ? How would it be perceived? How does The Tomb of Commencement assist us in understanding our various histories? This book certainly throws up a lot of questions. I believe it also highlights the inconsistencies inherent in language, and how, when language is used to catalogue human histories it is only as accurate as the translation, as the memory, as the systems available to store such information. I wonder what the Tomb of Commencement will say about the Western society in the early 21st century -  to the people of the 22nd century?
 
Oulipian in its concept, and totally Tom Jenks in its execution, this book is one heavy Mutha.
 
Or should I say:
 
Oulipian in its formulation, and  unreservedly Tom Jenks in its progression this manual is a singular chunky Momma.
 
4 February 2015