Laura Riding’s Experts Are Puzzled is a difficult book to classify. At times it looks like a collection of short stories or parables, at other times it looks like a series of philosophical observations. Regardless of this ambiguity, Experts Are Puzzled is a clear and intelligent exploration of syntax, semantics, and the history of the written word.
The book is split into a variety of short prose pieces (ranging from one to twenty pages in length). Each new section brings with it a new variation of this experiment: What is the function of language, and how can we explore and understand this function. Riding approaches this question with circular, bureaucratic language. She writes with a strong hand, wrapping herself in short phrases, which she pushes to their very limits, examining each way that these phrases might exist in a sentence. Experts Are Puzzled reads as if it is the first English language book. As if nothing before it knew of this communicative form, as if it was her job to display what this language was capable of, and how it might be utilized by her peers.
This is a world where language itself has managed to physically manifest. In a parable titled, “The Populating of Cosmania” the protagonist manages to create a world by bringing the language to describe it into being. The world of Cosmania is not created through the act of creating concrete materials, but rather by creating the words that might describe these materials. The signifier shifts into this role of the signified, where the word represents itself as a word.
In a later section titled, “Introduction To A Book About Money” Riding shows off this idea with the word ‘money’ which she treats as enigmatic and elusive. Each attempt to talk about money is interrupted by the attempt to talk about talking about money. The author frequently finds herself stuck in these endless feedback loops, attempting to attempt. In this regard, Experts Are Puzzled feels like a book without setting. Each section feels as if it takes place within the writing itself. Each story acts as the stage for its own performance. The signifier as it is signified, a word that represents a word (the same word). Where the word ‘tree’ does not represent a real tree, rooted in the ground, with long branches and green leaves, but where the word ‘tree’ instead represents the word ‘tree’.
Each section of Experts Are Puzzled feels like it is an examination of a certain word or phrase. The titular story (which also acts as an introduction to the book), “Experts Are Puzzled” revolves around the phrase, ‘fixed old age,’ whereas “Another Subject” revolves around the word, ‘money’. These moments appear philosophical. They shift from the realm of fiction into the realm of linguistics. These explorations can be long and difficult, but they can also be rewarding and funny. The reader experiences a fatigue as the collection progresses, where each section becomes another equation and its proofs.
Experts Are Puzzled is not made to entertain the desires of the audience, it is made with the intent to understand these capabilities possible within the English language. And this means that plots are rare, but what replaces them is more interesting and elusive than most narratives manage to be.