Shuffle Literature and the Hand of Fate


Card from A Shufflebook, by Richard Hefter and Martin Stephen Moskof, 1970

by Zuzana Husárová and Nick Montfort


The paper formulates the category “shuffle literature” to help reveal important qualities of certain intriguing works of fiction and poetry. We show how unusual formal and material aspects of these literary works interact with one another, revealing new things about aspects of literature that have been gaining scholarly interest and have increasingly attracted readers. Given the many new concerns about changing ways of reading, it seems particularly relevant to have a closer look into the form of literary expression that invites the reader to choose her own way of progressing the story while still belonging to the traditions of paper-based formats and print publishing.

Through a close material, formal, and textual analysis of “books” that are meant to be shuffled and read entire, we develop some insights about the sparsely-populated but remarkable category of shuffle literature. Works of shuffle literature are not simply anti-books, nor are they exemplars of or homages to codex books. As they unbind the pages of the stereotypical book, allowing for their rearrangement, they also copy and evoke many of the aspects of the traditional book in a complicated relationship with it. Furthermore, although it is a cliché to imagine shuffling the cards, stacking the deck, or being dealt a certain hand as effecting a fundamental alteration in fate – and the authors of shuffle literature sometimes explicitly reinforce this idea of re-ordering changing the nature of the world or the future – what shuffling actually does in the cases we consider is mainly to rearrange the discourse and model processes of memory, random association, and cognition.

We discuss several shuffle literature works, focusing on five of them. These, formally, consist of text segments that may be read in any order. Materially, they consist of separate sheets, cards, or in one case pamphlets that are presented in some container but are not bound together. Shuffle literature of this sort does not challenge the idea of text that can be read completely; a reader is still supposed to read every word of text, as with a typical book. (This may not happen in either case, but it is the supposition.) These works do, however, either explicitly ask or implicitly invite the reader to shuffle the segments of text into an arbitrary order.

These formal and material criteria allow the consideration of poetry alongside prose, all-text works alongside some with aspects of visual art, and writing in English, French, and German. That is, using shuffle literature as a criterion shuffles across the usual categories imposed by genre, art and literary contexts, and nationality and language. The concept of shuffling does seem to be in vogue in contemporary culture – for instance, the “shuffle” function of sound devices is highlighted in the name of Apple’s iPod Shuffle. Nevertheless, there are relatively few examples of literary pieces that incorporate shuffling.

The works we focus on are:

1. Composition no. 1 by Marc Saporta (translated by Richard Howard)

2. “Heart Suit” by Robert Coove

3. Sentences by Robert Grenier

4. The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson

5. Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm by Herta Müller

In the final section, we also discuss, at some length, two works of shuffle literature that are not intended to be read exhaustively: A Shufflebook by Richard Moskof and Martin Stephen Moskof and Life in the Garden by Eric Zimmerman and Nancy Nowacek. These are not exactly in the same formal category as the five main examples, but are quite similar in many ways and are particularly interesting to compare in narrative terms.

Given the diversity of this collection, it should come as no surprise that there are significant differences in terms of theme, tone, and even the degree to which these works mimic the appearance of a book. What is more surprising is that there is a commonality to what reordering does, and what it doesn’t do, in all five cases. Although “to shuffle the cards” has long been an idiom for manipulating situations, changing the outcome by influencing what events will happen, shuffling the texts in these five works changes the underlying events only in the most provisional of ways. Changing the order of the texts does mean that events are narrated and characters are introduced differently, but the reordering is almost entirely limited to the discourse level, engaging with recollections and the world of the mind rather than with the external world.

In certain ways, shuffling Composition no. 1 and “Heart Suit” in particular can seem to influence underlying events – that is, the basic story or content as opposed to the discourse or expression – but Saporta and Coover both cut against this, or, one might say, they have stacked the deck so as to diminish the importance of changes in story. This reordering of events ends up seeming to be the shifting of memory (in the case of Composition no. 1) or more of a joke (in “Heart Suit”). In the other three pieces, it is even more explicit that what is being reordered is a particular narration or recollection, not the things that happened.

Material Aspects, Unfamiliar and Familiar

The Unfortunates and Composition No. 1 are very book-like in their external appearance. Their overall dimensions could easily be those of a standard book: Both are close to 8″ tall x 5.25″ wide x 1″ thick. Both feature the title and author’s name on the front of the box, which corresponds to the front cover; The Unfortunates also has these, and the name of the publisher, on the side of the box that corresponds to a book’s spine. Both boxes open the way a bound book does, but the design of the box for The Unfortunates has the three recessed sides corresponding to the edges of pages; these are of a different color (brown) which accentuates the box’s relationship to a hardback book. As delivered, the unbound pages inside are, in both of these works, held together by a band, a transitory paratext typical of French books and discussed by Genette (27). The band around the sheets and pamphlets that constitute the text of The Unfortunates has a short biography of Johnson. The band around Composition No. 1‘s sheets slightly rephrases the instructions on the inside of the box: “The pages of this book may be read in any order. The reader is requested to shuffle them like a deck of cards.” The edition of Composition No. 1 by Visual Editions from 2011 does not contain this band, nor the instructions. The rest of our discussion pertains to the first edition of the English translation.

B.S. Johnson, The Unfortunates, 1999 and Marc Saporta, Composition No. 1 2011, 1963, both editions of the English translation

Neither “Heart Suit” nor Sentences evokes the book in the same way that the first two titles do. “Heart Suit” has not been published by itself; it was first included in the elaborately boxed literary serial McSweeney’s 16, which, perhaps in an act of homage to Duchamp, also includes a comb. It was published again in A Child Again, a collection of short fiction by Coover published by McSweeney’s. “Heart Suit” was included in a sleeve on the book’s back cover, so that A Child Again literally wears its heart on (or at least in) its sleeve. When a person takes the cards out to prepare to read them, they will observe many of the hallmarks of playing cards – from the illustrated backs (each different, a notable deviation from a usual deck of cards) to the rounded corners, the thickness of the cards, and their finish. The title and Coover’s name do appear on the back of the first, special card, but if the suit is stacked for reading according to the instructions (“The thirteen heart cards may be shuffled and read in any order, with this card first and the joker last.”) it is the back of the joker, not of this special card, that will appear on the “outside.” Except for these instructions and the title and author, the rank of the cards and the text of the story constitute the only numbers and letters.

Photo of “Heart Suit” cards showing the backs of some and the fronts of some, with a standard playing card for scale

The external appearance of Sentences is even less easily classified. Its text appears on 5″ x 8″ index cards which are contained in a simple-looking but elaborately jointed box, covered in mute blue cloth. The publisher’s imprint and the signature of the publisher appears on the inside of this box, stamped onto the white paper that lines it. The sides of the opened box fall into a large, elaborate shape which readers have imagined to be a bird and a pangolin. Whatever animal the shape may suggest, opening the box occupies a great deal of horizontal space and makes the process of accessing the text of Sentences somewhat involved. With the box laid open, one might as well read the whole thing rather than pack it up and open it again. Additionally, the cards are stacked horizontally, inviting a reader to encounter them in sequence rather than pulling out a few to sample them. Sentences was typeset on an IBM Selectric typewriter and printed on cards that were commonly used in offices. The 500 cards of the poetic text would have just fit into a typical, standard index card holder. (The other seven cards contain typical paratextual information, but neither they nor the box contain any explicit instructions about how to read this work.) While the stock used for printing and the method of typesetting suggest some connection to the commercial and industrial world, where typewriters and index cards were common, the unusual box and the orientation of the cards signal that office supplies are being turned to different purposes.

Photo of Sentences, the box open

The work Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm (The Guard Takes His Comb) by Herta Müller belongs among her collage pieces. The cards are about 4 x 6 inches and are kept in a blue box (just a little bigger than the cards) that consists of two parts, a bottom and a top; a blue ribbon glued to the bottom holds the cards loosely. The box does not remediate the book format – it looks like a typical box, and its two parts are not connected. It contains 94 cards, whose layouts consist of text and visual imagery.

There are no titles on the cards and the first words of poems often begin with lower-case letters. In some cases the cards begin with a hyphen; on some, the last word ends with a comma. Generally, the poems seem to invite the reader to connect the thoughts from one card to the other and continue reading. The collaged visual art presents black, distorted human figures, bringing together images (usually cut or torn) from photographs, newspaper material, and other sources, sometimes juxtaposed with text. Numbers appear on the back, so the reader knows their original order – but the reading does not require turning the cards and the reader might read the whole piece without ever learning about the order.

Photo of one card from The Guard Takes His Comb

Lyn Marven mentions that “the boxed format clearly allows for random reordering, as well as the fact that the collection might be broken up and the cards posted.” (411). We agree with the statement that the cards can be read in any order – despite the numbering – but the idea that the cards could be posted does not seem very relevant to the way they would typically be read; they are much more likely to be kept in the box, together, than transformed into mail art. Although it is possible to break the collection up (just as one could distribute different volumes of a multi-volume novel), the boxed presentation of a literary work on sets of cards suggests to the reader that the whole set of texts should be kept together. Breaking the work into separate “postcards” would destroy the narrative and poetic integrity of the piece.

The edition we focus on is the one created by Polish publishing house Korporacja Ha!art. This version copies the layout of the original cards, but Polish translations of the text are added on the back of the card (where in the original only a number appeared). The original box was not blue but maroon; it had, however, the same style and overall appearance. While the first edition doesn’t contain an introduction, the Ha!art edition contains 2 cards with text provided by the new publisher – one text in German, one in Polish. Both versions contain the title card with the colophon. The original has another blank card with what looks like the publisher’s logo. The Polish edition, instead, has a card with author’s short biography and, on the other side, a list of titles in the series Liberatura, edited by Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer.

While these five examples of shuffle literature do not all strongly evoke the book, they do all evoke or use familiar surfaces for inscription. The boxes that hold The Unfortunates and Composition No. 1 are reasonably book-like and the text segments inside are printed on what are immediately recognizable as pamphlets and loose sheets. While Composition No. 1 consists solely of the single sheets without numbers, The Unfortunates consists of the combination of single sheets and the sheets fastened together. All the pages are numbered – and always start with the number one, regardless of whether there are more pages with other numbers or are simply single sheets, printed on one side. The other works consist of oversided playing cards, index cards, and postcards. Of these, perhaps the loose sheets of Composition No. 1, which seem to have escaped from a book rather than being found at a stationery store, are the most unprecedented. As these works diverge from the bound book, though, their innovative and radical format is tempered by particular references within the texts to or the direct use of familiar materials for writing and printing.

Subjects, Themes, Styles: Dealing with Memory

In several of these works, fragmented memory, the reconstruction of the past, and painful and sometimes traumatic experiences are the subject matter – this is the case more clearly in Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm, Composition No. 1, and The Unfortunates. Sentences engages memory and the reconstruction of experience in way that is not connected to trauma (relying instead on references to the playfulness of language, domestic life, and pleasant aspects of everyday experience) and “Heart Suit” more playfully engages with these issues by having the King try to uncover the truth behind a past event, a tart theft.

In both The Unfortunates and Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm, the ability to shuffle texts contributes to the disintegration of the coherent telling of a personal story – an “autofictional” story, as Müller calls it. But while Müller’s work is politically oriented and the narrative presents the theme of repression of the ethnic German communities in Romania, which the author calls “die erste Diktatur, die ich kannte” – “the first dictatorship I knew” (Haines-Littler 17), the theme in B.S. Johnson’s piece is the relationship with a friend Tony and his death from cancer. This is told through recollections and associations about the time spent together: “The waves of the past batter at the sea defences of my sandy sanity, need to be safely pictured, still, romanticized, prettified.” (pamphlet beginning: “I had a lovely flat then,” 2). Müller’s piece is constructed with a strong criticism against the totalitarian regime, which is apparent both in poetic text and the visuals. The political orientation of this work is related to her direct experience with Ceausescu’s regime in Romania. Johnson’s piece was written in the time when the literary discourse was oriented at the discussion of the boundaries of personal and political. But with Muller´s work, the surrounding literary discourse is not at stake, but the work´s narrative itself addresses the political regime.

Saporta states on the inside of the top of the box that the plot of Composition No. 1 changes according to the order of the pages – “The reader is requested to shuffle these pages like a deck of cards; to cut, if he likes, with his left hand, as if at foretuneteller’s.” Although Saporta strongly suggests here that the order, like those of cards used to tell a fortune, really matters, the interpretation of Rheinhold Grimm and Helene Scher seems more plausible. They hold that the work represents X’s memory and recollection of events. Grimm and Scher write that however the reader shuffles this “novel as card game” (their term), the events of X’s life will be the same; what will change will be the “revolving kaleidoscope of memory.” (Grimm and Scher 289). In these segments of text, there is a central male figure and three women: Marianne, his wife; Dagmar, his mistress; and Helga, a young babysitter at his house. There are descriptions and evocations of domestic life, crime, rape, affairs, love, and war. Grimm and Scher, looking at Composition No. 1 through the prism of nouveau roman, find that the novel’s form works to portray consciousness.

In considering what is common in the presentation of all three stories, it is interesting to note that each of the narratives they present are focalized on a single character. Herta Müller’s narrative and that of The Unfortunates are presented as memories and recollections of events by a single character, while Composition No. 1 focalizes the character identified as X. Although the story is not internally focalized, the reader feels the constant presence of X. It seems as if X were a diegetic narrator who simply omits mention of himself, but who is addressed by others as “you” in the cases when only the presence of the other characters is mentioned. The boss says: “What amazes me is that you declined to take a day off for the funeral” (sheet beginning: “The silence is very embarrassing”), the little girl states: “I am not a cheat. I won’t give them to you.” (sheet beginning: “The little girl is dressed like a boy”). A situation from X’s childhood is even related; Mademoiselle at school addresses him: “Why do you tell your schoolmates such a nonsense? I’m sure you don’t even have a dog.” (sheet beginning:  “A little pink dog with a pig’s head…”). X also seems to be the addressee of other conversations that do not use an explicit “you.”

These three works also cover a long span of events, rather than presenting events that happened in a week or a day. While The Unfortunates has a clear and short time of narrating (the narrator reminiscences during the sport match), this is not the case in the other two works. Composition No. 1 contains more significant events and consequences than does The Unfortunates, which is clearly an attempt to provide the subjective portrayal of a friend and to keep this person alive in narrator’s mind. Unlike The Unfortunates and Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm, Composition No. 1  does not seem to have autobiographical features. Its title refers to a painting (within the novel’s fiction) with the same name, which the character Dagmar is working on:

Ugliness is born under the brush, though it is difficult to see why this meaningless mass of paint gradually acquires such violence. Unlike abstraction, it is a monstrous distortion, a torment of the sensibility. Each stroke has its own life among the others, and this composes a world spinning on its own axis, caught in a cluster of meteors, in the bonds of shooting stars. (sheet beginning: “Dagmar steps back to consider the effect.”)

This description of ugliness and distortion, torment and violence strongly recalls (or foreshadows, depending upon the order of the pages) the crimes that X committed. The world spinning on its axis (its own axis, as if a world could spin on any other) maps to the world of X, and the axis of his consciousness. The independent strokes, which can be seen to represent the loose pages, live on their own (the pages present a text that provides one scene and can be read in any order) but they form connections with others – and thus the whole narrative is formed. The cluster of meteors and the shooting stars could suggest the women, whose bonds with X are the main themes. The women of the novel would then be not only influences but the opposite of X, the bright side, shining in contrast to the dark. Thus the painting, bearing the name of the novel, could artistically define, or at least suggest, the relationship between the content and the form of the novel. This quotation could provide the way how to approach X and his world – a world composed of strokes or pages, each with their own life. That each scene is presented as an unbound page, each equally likely to be found at any point in the novel, none of them is more or less important than any other. All have a special importance, however, in this network of the whole narrative, just as each separate stroke plays a part in a composition.

There is only one composition mentioned in the text, and the entire shuffle text is referred to as the same composition. This can also be read to suggest that there is only one possible underlying story (the fixed life of X) to be presented and told in many ways, many possible orders. 1Given this concept of memory and mind, Grimm’s and Scher’s idea of understanding the text as the random associations of X’s memory seems quite relevant (280-299). They explain X’s continual (although sometimes implicit) presence in the text via his memory and consciousness. In their reading, on one particular page, describing the hospital, the formal aspects of the piece become integrated with the content. This is the setting that they consider as the time and place of narrating:

The hospital room is only a heap of chaotic memories. On the white ceiling the shifting scenes are inscribed in palimpsest, as on a film used several times by an absent-minded photographer … Under closed eyelids the scenes are composed. By quick touches flowers bloom into long rockets, leaving on the surface of the black canvas a constellation of meteors, trails of falling stars. (sheet beginning: “The hospital room is only a heap …”)

Composition No. 1 and “Heart Suit” are connected not only by their formal and material nature as shuffle texts, but because they both present a fictional world in which relationships in a domestic and political environment are highlighted – relationships that include sexual ones. While Composition No. 1 narrates the sexual relationships of a man, “Heart Suit” is set in a kingdom, where the one having affairs and liaison is a woman, the most powerful one in the land: the queen.

The main theme of the story is the theft of king’s favorite tarts (a term with a double meaning) and his investigation of who is to be blamed. There are eight suspects, all of whom live in the kingdom and are close to the monarchy: the Cook, the Flautist, the Jester, the Viceroy, the Knave of Hearts, the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Chaplain, the White Knight. The king, considering the theft as an assault upon the kingdom, announces: “Someone will hang for this!” The search for the thief, and its outcome, is determined by reader’s shuffling. The twelve cards that the reader is instructed to shuffle start and end mid-sentence, with ellipses. The cards end with the name of one of the suspects (sometimes with some additional text added) and begin with a sentence lacking a subject. The shuffling thus determines which information the reader gets about which characters; it also determines which will be executed in the end.

As the reader finds out in the process of reading, the queen is engaged in romances with more or less all of them. The crime of stealing the actual pastries, the tarts in the literal sense, is never revealed. These queen’s dalliances are often described in the first part of the text of each card, and depend on the shuffled sequence, but the text of the second part of the card usually is dedicated to providing some personal information about one or more of the characters, who are named in that section so that shuffling does not change who this information refers to. The beginning of the story refers to a traditional, anonymous verse published in 1782:

The Queen of Hearts she made some tarts all on a summer’s day;
The Knave of Hearts he stole the tarts and took them clean away.
The King of Hearts called for the tarts and beat the Knave full sore
The Knave of Hearts brought back the tarts and vowed he’d steal no more.

While a different character may be put to death in different readings, invariably, in the final text, another tray of tarts, baked by the Queen for the King, is stolen. The King shouts: “Round up the suspects and send them shuffling through here again! This is not over! Justice must be done!” The King wants us to go through the process of reading again and again, as if he has forgotten and he (and the court, and the reader) has been through all of it already. The idea that this is a new theft is rather difficult to sustain, since all the characters will be alive again when the cards are re-shuffled; either the execution was botched or the fiction’s state is being reset rather than continued. Either way, it is appropriate that this bit of metalepsis, this call from within the story for the reader to reshuffle and read again, comes from the Joker. In many card games, the Joker is a wildcard with the meta-level ability to serve as any other card.

“Heart Suit” is the only one of those five works in which the events do not revolve around a single character. The story itself is short, and the duration of the events is also much shorter than in the other pieces. “Heart Suit” refers to cards and card game and is playful, funny, and entertaining. The form of the work certainly does not seem to evoke consciousness and fragmentary memories, even if the King’s memory lapses. An important difference is that cards are almost always a social game – a one-player game such as Solitaire is the exception. Shuffling and reading “Heart Suit” is typically a solitary activity, where the characters are the ones who socialize and have all the fun – and where one of them ends up the loser.

In Grenier’s Sentences, relationships are presented not in a romantic or erotic tone, but rather to highlight present moments and their continuity in the mind. Sentences suggests a single cognition. The reader imagines a single narrator (in poetic terms, the speaker of the poem) giving an account of the recollections, events, memories. The style is personal and autobiographical; the span of work’s creation covers the years 1972-1977. The text attends to language as a process, a force that is put into effect by an intensive perception of its phonemes and patterns but at the same time by referring to the world. The use of common language thus directs attention to the common experience, the human capturing of a moment – the moment of being in a space, of just existing. This sort of presence is characteristic of Language Poetry, a permanent presence (part of the legacy of Gertrude Stein) that does not refer to one exceptional moment, but to the moment’s exceptional nature. The reading of multiple cards simulates the experiencing of the chain of moments, each of which can stand separately but which together create the continuum.

This absence of binding leaves the text, and the cards it is printed on, able to be free as a bird. Upon opening the box, this box itself is freed into a “bird,” a shape suggestive and the cards are made available for reading, unbound. Grenier said in a radio interview with Charles Bernstein that the format of the work invites the reader to make the story. In regard to the relation between a particular card and the other cards Grenier answers that there is “None. But you can make a relation. That has something to do with fiction, something to do with imagining how something can be…” (5min: 15s). Jena Osman, speaking on another radio shows says that even though readers may be resistant, they know that the cards in Sentences “are to be shuffled” (Perelman, Osman and Yearous-Algozin 19min: 20s).

John Cage’s performance piece Indeterminacy, although from the world of music rather than literature, is fascinating to consider alongside Sentences. This piece, from 1959, is subtitled New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Ninety Stories by John Cage, with Music. A performance of it has been issued on CD. In it, Cage read 90 stories of different lengths so that each one lasts for almost exactly a minute. In the other room, a pianist played a tape from Cage’s Fontana Mix and interprets the selections from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The concept was the “indeterminate” outcome of the parallel reading/music in two separate rooms. Other shuffle scores have been created. Among them are Christian Marclay’s Shuffle and Graffiti Composition, which both incorporate musical notation found in urban spaces.

Cage’s ninety stories (along with some others) were published in his Silence: Lectures and Writings from 1961. Here, the stories were written as paragraphs in columns. Both Grenier and Cage make the type of writing in each card (a sentence, a story) explicit, naming sentences and stories. The stories in Cage’s work are anecdotes – personal stories. As Cage states: “The continuity of the 90 stories was not planned. I simply made a list of all the stories I could think of and checked them off as I wrote them” (notes for CD). While Cage’s initial presentation of this work was in performance (the score was published much later), Grenier’s work was first published as a text and then performed in readings. Both works have online editions, each of which have a random button and a similar visual presentation: A white rectangle containing the black text.

Gaston Bachelard, in his book Poetics of Space, makes a parallel between the nest and home as places of return after a longer time (whether physically or cognitively). This returning to a place of memories, recollection of the events of one’s life, associations that evoke certain places, thoughts about certain moments that due to their emotional value create one’s personal narrative, and the recycling of events happening to the person and surrounds are the main themes not only of Sentences but also of The Unfortunates, Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm, and Composition No. 1.

Shuffling Discourse, not Story

We have focused on shuffle literature that is meant to be seen as a single work and read in its entirety, although there are other collections of text that have a similar material form and may also be read in any order. Some of the most notable examples are Marcel Duchamp’s The Green Box and the Fluxus boxes assembled by George Maciunas, but there are numerous others. [2] We have also tried to focus on works that are fairly widely available, rather than looking at rare examples that are available only in a few libraries, museums or private collections. Composition No. 1 was re-issued in 2011 in the print format and also as an app for iPad. The Unfortunates was republished in 2008 and Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm in 2009. Sentences was published in print only once, in a small edition (of 200), but can be read in a freely available online edition. “Heart Suit” has been recently published as part of a popular literary magazine and in a collection of Coover’s stories.

While The Green Box and Fluxus boxes thrived in an art context, there was another interesting unbound text that reached an audience thanks to the museum world: The Shufflebook by Richard Hefter and Martin Moskof. The Shufflebook was not displayed in galleries; it was sold at Museum of Modern Art’s store as a sort of (unbound) children’s book. The reader/storyteller is instructed to deal the cards that featured large illustrations and either a verb phrase (e.g., “slipped,” “got kissed”) or a noun phrase (e.g., “and my uncle”, “and 5 cows”). These very fine-grained text segments are, on average, significantly shorter than those the five literary works that we focused on, even though there are a few very short texts in Sentences. The total number of the cards is 104.

Richard Hefter and Martin Stephen Moskof, A Shufflebook, 1970, cards and cover

The opening and closing sentence of the text on one special card says: “This is an anything book.” The text on the cover states: “There are over a million stories in this box. Shuffle the pages, lay them down and make your own story happen.” The text segments are written to combine into one very long (possibly run-on) sentence or several sentences. There is no text with capital letters and no punctuation. There are also 2 special pages with empty lines where the “storyteller” can write additional text, a possibility not offered by other shuffle texts. One possible “sentence” produced by laying out cards is: “and I and my brother laughed and my sister bumped got hurt and the turtle and the firemen and the robot and 7 squirrels got in trouble went home and the baby ate got hugged got spanked got kissed and the balloon.”

While The Shufflebook is an extreme case syntactically, it differs from the five “adult” works of shuffle literature that we have considered, including Sentences, in another significant way. Shuffling the cards and drawing different ones to read does actually change the underlying story in The Shufflebook. The reader is creating different sequences of events, not just telling the same story in different ways; sometimes it’s her uncle that gets kissed and sometimes it’s the five cows.

It is quite consistent, then, that one shuffle literature work which explicitly toys with having different events occur, leading to a different outcome after each shuffling, is Coover’s “Heart Suit.” This shuffle short story plays on childrens’ literature – as do the other stories in Coover’s collection A Child Again. “Heart Suit” builds an adult tale out of nursery-rhyme material, and the other four works are fully in the adult world. On the other hand, The Shufflebook is genuinely intended for children.

Eric Zimmerman and Nancy Nowacek, Life in the Garden, 1999, main cover, box, cover of cards and cards

A formally and materially similar work, although not written for children and thematically quite different, is Life in the Garden by Eric Zimmerman and Nancy Nowacek. While closer in size to a standard deck of cards and declaring itself “a deck of stories,” Life in the Garden also strongly refers to the form of the book. An inner box holds the loose pages and a cover for assembled stories; it contains instructions and states the names of the two authors, describing their roles in creating this work. The “cards” are thicker than typical pages and have images on one side and text on the other, but they also have rectangular corners and are uncoated, making them page-like. The included cover has “Life in the Garden” on the front and texts on the inside front fold – “Adam, Eve, and the serpent lived in the garden” – and “The End” on the inside back fold. The instructions are: “Shuffle the pages. Without looking, select five pages and place them between the covers of the book. Then read the story.” There is also a suggestion to try “variations” such as three- or seven-page stories.

The stories selected in this way tell of events in the Garden of Eden before the fall. As one of the texts explains, “Nothing ever really / happened / in the garden / but no one / seemed to mind.” An important conceit is that no events transpire that have clear external consequences. In one text, Eve falls into the river but (still immortal, at this point) is fished out by angels and placed in the garden again. In another, Eve leaves and returned, “changed somehow” – but Adam does not even notice she left. Some texts are rather corny and sappy, some funny (as when the two use the forbidden fruit as sex toys), some contemplative, some disturbing (as when Eve is impregnated by the serpent and gives birth to a stillborn child), some neutral. The stories selected have different emotional textures, but there are not strong ties of semantics or consequence between one page and the following one. The Nowacek’s illustrations, which can separate the text – zero, one, or two will occur between a pair of texts, depending upon how the cards are flipped – serve to create additional distance between texts which are not very typographically connected otherwise. The Garden of Eden, a space without the traditional sort of consequences, is a setting in which emotionally resonant, fabular, and allusive incidents can surface in different orders. Or perhaps it is a space in which everything happened outside of our notion of time, and the shuffling and selection of the pages simply provides different snippets of discourse that are a window on the same underlying events?

In multisequential writing that takes place in bound books, the same shift of emphasis from story level to discourse level can be seen in books for children and young readers, books playing with the idea of children’s stories, and works for adults. The Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series and similar books offer young readers the ability to direct a main character’s actions. Raymond Queneau’s “Un conte a votre facon” brings psychoanalytic dream interpretation into a fabular world of a child’s story; it begins by suggesting story-level influence, but the choices that can be made turn out to bear upon discourse level. Finally, the great multisequential novel for grown-ups, Cortázar’s Rayuela, offers only a choice of reading or not “expendable chapters” with different perspectives – while the underlying events remain, whether one reads about them or not.


What are the implications of the literary works that present themselves as containing a number of different stories but in which the only thing that truly varies is the discourse, the way that the same underlying story is narrated? The main work we have discussed that changes its underlying story upon reconfiguration is the example of children’s literature, A Shufflebook. “Heart Suit” does this, too, but is more distant about it. It is not really important who stole the tarts or even who dies for the crime. Someone has to pay, and not only one character at one point in time – the revenge will continue in the following shuffling. The shuffling here does mean shuffling with the fate of the characters. Since the reader is asked to shuffle again and again, in the repetitive shuffling none of the suspects will be able to escape: “Death is the inevitable punchline for the joke called life” (card Joker).

The possible changes at the discourse level correspond to concern about memories, consciousness, and associations. Such mental processes do not lend themselves to a single linear presentation of the sort that would not lay out all the ways recollections could occur. The format of shuffle literature does allow this. The authors using this format provide a clue that it is not relevant which scene the reader encounters as the first one, the second, the third – because these scenes are being presented to provide insight into a mind that remembers at random.

The underlying events do not change because this mind does not change; for all the fragmentation there is in Composition No. 1, The Unfortunates, and Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm a single consciousness is being consistently portrayed in each. Whatever narrative is sorted out, it relates to a specific setting, and time, and characters, and to a consistent way of thinking about these story elements. This is not the sort of thinking that results in one fixed telling, but one that can always reorder its memories randomly as the pages, pamphlets, or cards are reordered. The emphasis on changing the ways of telling while keeping underlying events largely fixed traces a late 20th-century and early 21st-century concern for cognition and memory, a drive to see – not all the ways that events in the world could turn out – but the one consistently random way that a mind brings up slices of the past.

The category of shuffle literature is quite rewarding to consider from formal and material points of view. Its further study might bring some fresh and significant insights into the field of literary scholarship. Considering shuffle literature further from the perspective of cognitive literary theory is likely to be rewarding. Also, regarding the relationship between shuffling (as a mode of reading or accessing an unbound work) and shifts in the reading habits would be worthy of a further scholarly work and could contribute to the contemporary debates on post-human reading (and nonreading) practices.

What invites such inquiries are some unusual features found in mapping the terrain of shuffle literature. The shuffle literature pieces that are most directly in the literary fiction genre, and not playing with or attempting to directly be children’s fiction, are most concerned with providing the reader with a view into the narrator’s or speaker’s mind – not stressing a narrative or poetic world and using the shuffling of pages to determine a character’s fate. Instead, this shuffling of pages (cards, pamphlets) and the method of reading them in any order connect with the associative processes of memory and the recollection of particular past situations. What makes the approach of shuffle literature distinctive in contrast to the conventional codex novel and in contrast to computer-generated literature, for instance, is its stress on the reader’s manual shuffling and the unusual, tactile perception of the discourse and how it is rearranged. The reader has not been given the power of the heavy hand of fate, the capability to influence events, but by being given a hand of events, recollections, and moments, the reader is invited to feel how they can be sorted, recalled, and told in different ways.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review|

Works Cited:

Bachelard, Gaston. Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Cage, John. “Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, 1959.” Indeterminacy. John Cage: Reading, David Tudor: Music. Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, 1992. CD.

Coover, Robert. “Heart Suit.” Child Again. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2005.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Grenier, Robert. Sentences. Cambridge, MA: Whale Cloth Press, 1978.

Grenier, Robert and Charles Bernstein. “Grenier in conversation with Charles Bernstein.” Pennsound. 20 October 2006. Web. March 2012. <….

Grimm, Reinhold – Scher, Helene. “Marc Saporta: The Novel as Card Game.” Contemporary Literature 19. 3: After the Nouveau Roman: Opinions and Polemics (Summer 1978): 280-299.

Haines, Bridgid – Littler, Margaret. “Gespräch mit Herta Müller”. Herta Müller. Ed. Bridgid Haines. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998. 14–24.

Hefter, Richard – Moskof, Martin Stephen. A Shufflebook. Racine: Golden Press/Western Publishing Company, 1970.

Huth, Geof. “Pick a Card.” dbqp. January 2012. Web.  April 2012 <>.

Johnson, B.S. The Unfortunates. London: Picador, 1999.

Marven, Lyn.”‘In allem ist der Riss’: Trauma, Fragmentation, and the Body in Herta Müller’s Prose and Collages”. The Modern Language Review 100. 2 (2005): 396-411.

Müller, Herta. Der Wächter nimmt seinen Kamm: Von Weggehen und Ausscheren./ Stra¿nik bierze swój grzebieñ: O odchodzeniu i odciêciu. Trans. Artur Ko¿uch. Krakow: Korporacja Ha!art: liberatura, 2009.

Perelman, Bob, Jena Osman and Joseph Yearous-Algozin. “Outside the box: Robert Grenier’s “Sentences” (PoemTalk Podcast #31) .” PoemTalk. Hosted by Al Filreis. 22 April 2010. Web. April 2012 <>. 

Saporta, Marc. Composition no. 1. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

Zimmerman, Eric  and Nancy Nowacek. Life in the Garden. New York: Razorfish Subnetwork, 1999


[1] The 150 pages of Composition No. 1 have 150! (150 factorial) possible arrangements or permutations. 150! = 150 x 149 x 148 x … x 3 x 2 x 1, which is a number with 263 digits. This calculation is the appropriate one in this case because in choosing a first page, a reader has 150 choices, there are then 149 choice for the next page, then 148 for the next, and so on. The same principle, of course, applies to all of the five main shuffle texts discussed here and any shuffle text meant to be read exhaustively. In “Heart Suit” there are 12 cards to be shuffled, thus 12! = 479,001,600 possible arrangements. This is far fewer, but about half a billion possible arrangements is still quite a large number.

[2] There are works that invite the reader to encounter them in different orders and which combine text and image, including Peter Beaman’s and Elizabeth Whiteley’s Deck of Cards and Carolee Schneemann’s ABC. Slovak artist Dezider Tóth (Monogramista T.D.) has also been working on various pieces in the form of cards containing text and sometimes images; these appear only in author’s private collection. Polish author Pawel Dunajko also published a piece consisting of 35 big black cards (out of which 34 have poetic text and one is paratextual) packed in a box with openings that display the title and several words of the top card. This work does not seem to need an exhaustive reading, since the titles refer to the individual poems underneath. Several experimental works by American authors consisting of the cards are looked at also by Geof Huth in his blog entries in “dbqp: visualizing poetics.” He discusses pieces by Susan Howe (Poems Found in a Pioneer Museum), bpNichol (still water), Lev Rubinstein (Thirty-Five New Pages) and Márton Koppánny, who produced poems on cards. Rubinstein’s piece has the cards numbered on the front page, so it does not invite the reader to shuffle and read them in any order. Susan Howe’s work does not strongly suggest this either, as it consists of found poems from the identification cards of the items displayed at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Memorial Museum. It is also not clear that bpNichol’s and Koppánny’s pieces are meant to shuffled and read entire. Nevertheless, these are all related texts which could be considered in later studies. Another author dealing with the stories in card format is Judy Malloy, who created several card catalogs from 1976-1981. These contain from 50 to 200 cards with textual and visual material filed in metal trays. Although her card catalogues are categorized as artists’ books and belong more to the visual culture (were shown at different venues), Malloy’s Uncle Roger is presented as a hypertext. This work would require to be studied from the perspective of a hypertext work (with the hypertextual characteristics) rather than a shuffle literature piece.