By Divya Victor
Insert Blanc Press
Reviewed by James Ardis
Unlike the 1,000-page books that mark much of modern conceptual writing, Divya Victor's UNSUB is fifty-two pages long and can easily be read in one sitting. Victor utilizes this brevity to take on institutionalized assumptions and sliding scales of human value. UNSUB stands for "unknown subject," a designation the FBI uses in cases of an unapprehended and/or unidentified criminal. Victor's book repurposes descriptions from the FBI of wanted or victimized persons.
The first series of wanted or missing people we encounter in UNSUB have a reward of $10,000. Our first UNSUB is "a computer 'expert' / has demonstrated above-average knowledge regarding computers / has use of the Internet / has the ability to integrate into various socio-economic classes . . ." As the descriptions continue, it is hard to get a grasp on whether the FBI considers each characteristic suspicious by its own nature (is being a computer "expert" instead of a casual user nefarious?) or if they're just distinctive features of a wanted individual. The FBI's notes, with the help of Victor's editing, become a list of suggestions of what should be considered suspicious behavior.
The brevity of each report means we are not even entirely sure if the person being described is a culprit or a victim. When we reach UNSUB descriptions that are as ambiguous as ". . . has been described as possibly having bisexual tendencies," or even, ". . . speaks fluent Spanish," we are left with no idea of how the FBI wants us to interpret them, creating an empty space that can only be filled with our own biases and prejudices.
UNSUB enters the conversation of conceptual writing at a time when Victor and other conceptual writers are trying to escape the shadow of the genre's faltering spokesperson, Kenneth Goldsmith. In a 2013 dialogue in Jacket2 between Victor, Swantje Lichtenstein, and Riccardo Boglione, she notes her desire for conceptual writing to better ". . . account for a growing number of players in [the] field well beyond the figureheads who have become instrumentalized into rhetorical shorthand for polarizing discourses." In the MFA-era of writers and poets, conceptual writers like Victor are trying, ". . . to challenge the institutionalization of the genre…" and even dismantle the limitations that inevitably follow when a certain kind of writing is labeled a genre, ". . . if Conceptual writing is everything we've hoped/dreaded it to be, it will also be a generous host for the occasion of its own destruction, just as it will be open to fabrications of refusal, regeneration, reshaping, renewal."
With conceptual writing in flux, Divya Victor's UNSUB nonetheless accomplishes the conceptual writer's traditional goal: taking found language and making it truer through manipulation. It is all the more satisfying that Victor focuses her energy on the epitome of institutional power, the FBI, and exposes systemic biases and bigotry through the FBI's own language.
At the start of part two of UNSUB, the price tag for each person drops from $10,000 to $5,000. One $5,000 person is described as "may have facial birthmarks," while another $5,000 person is only identified as someone who "has ties." People in this tier are valueless and do not warrant basic points of clarification.
If we are to fall into the natural habit of defining conceptual writing as a genre, then it is a genre characterized by massive texts that usually belabor their point. These texts often accumulate hundreds of data points to prove a singular thesis. In Victor's UNSUB, the thesis is made in the whitespace—in what is implied but not said in ". . . speaks fluent Spanish," or the quick price-drop on human beings from $10,000 to $5,000 that requires no justification. You might, indeed, sit down with UNSUB and breeze through it in one sitting without even meaning to do so. You'll probably feel guilty afterwards, even if you can't quite pin down why.