Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category
I was asked by students and others several times last week what I made of Coetzee’s new novel. I’ve been a bit annoyed with myself that I haven’t really had any good answers yet, and have been forced to make the same gestures towards “bafflement” that just about all the reviews I’ve read have made. But I’m starting to think that its our bafflement itself that we should be looking into – that there’s more to be made of it than a shoulder-shrug.
Chris Tayler, in his review of the novel in the LRB, gives us a good start at a list of the questions begged but left unanswered in the course of the narrative:
As a reading experience it’s utterly absorbing, with almost painful levels of meta-suspense as you try to work out where the story is aiming to lead you. Questions are as close as Coetzee comes to direct statements, and the novel is richly generative of these. Is the world it depicts an afterlife, a pre-life, a mere stage in an unending transmigration of souls, a realm of ideal images as discussed in Coetzee’s recent essay on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, or none of the above? How does the Jesus plot fit in with this? How come Inés has access to sausages? Do the deadpan jokes get less frequent or just ascend to a higher sphere?
One of the things that I try to teach my students is to developed a more nuanced take on literary “difficulty.” Most of us, especially when we’re starting out at reading “difficult” books and thus insecure about our ability to understand, let alone intrepret, them, take it on instinct that there always is something to figure out in such works. One acquires a “reader’s guide” to Ulysses, one takes up the challenge of the notes at the end of The Waste Land – one struggles to “solve” the riddles of the poems, to understand the allusions, etc. But what if (so I argue in my first-year seminars) we’re meant in dealing with these texts not so much to penetrate the difficult but to have an experience of difficulty’s opacity itself. (My favourite example is to use in teaching is the beginning of the second section of The Waste Land, where I think Eliot’s putting us through a sort of routine having to do with the “dissociation of sensibility.” We simply can’t see the image described, and perhaps that’s meant to make us feel our own post-lapsarianness…)
Why does Inés have access to meat – and what is La Residencia in the first place?
It has been a preoccupation of Coetzee’s for quite awhile, to tantalise the reader with the sense that there are answers to questions raised by the text, that there is an interrogate-able reality lurking behind the narrative itself, and thus, when the answers fail to arrive, perhaps to push the reader back into an awareness of her or his own need for answers in the first place. (Think for instance of Disgrace, where the reader is left in the same position as David Lurie himself – completely unable to understand the reasons why his daughter Lucy does what she does [or doesn't do what she doesn't do] in the wake of her rape.) In this case, why, in the end, are we bothered by Inés’s access to sausages? Why are we worried about the nature of La Residencia? It feels as though, at the beginning of the work, Simón would have asked them too – but by the end of the novel, he’s lost his appetite for questions of this sort – his appetite for questions about appetite and its fulfilment. In other words, the reader’s persistence in wondering falls out of sync with the characters in the text – it’s we readers who remain new arrivals at Novilla.
Likewise with the question “How does the Jesus plot fit in with this?” Not only is the abstraction inherent in this sort of typology or allegorical sense incompatible with the putative Jesus’s incessant refusal of such abstraction, but the question is exactly the sort that Coetzee’s fiction time and again refuses to solve for us – or stages the struggle and failure to solve on the part of his characters. Again, think of Lurie’s attempts to place is daughter into a discernable “category” of rape victim after their attack, or even more pressingly, the efforts of the administrators of the camp that Michael K ends up in at the end of his novel to deduce the “meaning” of this man who has come into their care and custody.
Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private to me. If it were, if the origin of this meaning were no more than a lack in myself, a lack, say, of something to believe in, since we all know how difficult it is to satisfy a hunger for belief with the vision of times to come that the way, to say nothing of the camps, presents us with, if it were a mere craving for meaning that sent me to Michaels and his story, if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be (what you seem to be), a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip (pardon me, I name only the obvious), then I would have every justification for retiring to the toilets behind the jockey’s changing-rooms and locking myself into the last cubicle and putting a bullet through my head.
With just a shift of a few details and a reduction in intensity, this passage from Michael K could stand as a rendition of what I was feeling when asked last week “what the new novel means” and probably isn’t all that far away from the sort of frustration that the reviewers felt as they worked up their pieces for the magazines, or so I guess…
Coetzee is often – with obvious justification – labelled a “meta-fictional” writer: his works build on and distort previous literary works, or are “about” the act of writing itself. But they are also books that generate – or should generate – a sort of “meta-reading.” Just as the writer is writing about writing, when we read them, we are reading about reading. Or at least that seems to be the point. Were a new (or even the first) messiah to arrive on earth, would we be so concerned with his meaning and relation to precedent, his conformity or lack of conformity to the models that we would impose, that we would fail to listen to him right from the start? With inherited instrumental logics and instinct to abstract categorization, our need to extract reified meanings from things, would we be able to read him at all?
This is not to suggest that minimalism finds its realisation in the repudiation of the category of expression as such. On the contrary, the inaugural model of minimalism, Ernest Hemingway, simply opened up another alternative path to expression, one characterised by the radical exclusion of rhetoric and theatricality, for which, however, that very exclusion and its tense silences and omissions were precisely the technique for conveying heightened emotional intensity (particularly in the marital situation). Hemingway’s avatar, Raymond Carver, then learned to mobilise the minimalist technique of ‘leaving out’ in the service of a rather different and more specifically American sense of desolation and depression – of emotional unemployment, so to speak.
Interesting thought: that the outrolling of literary history and influence reveals that the apophatic isn’t just “mentioning by not mentioning” but in the long run is an index of the fact that there was nothing to mention in the first place. Carver takes up a style that is meant to suggest depths by remaining on the surface only to realise that they’re only ever surface. The ineffable shifts from what can’t be said to what’s not there to be said in the first place. Or even that the adoption of minimalism leads fiction into perversely-Pascalian situation: Minimalise, delete your words, and you will believe that there was nothing to delete in the first place.
Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.
It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.
Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”
Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.
I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:
That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters because of, not despite, their ﬁctionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the ﬁctional framework established a protected affective enclosure that encouraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real people. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior witnesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however ﬁctitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realizations was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the ﬁgures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identiﬁcation. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall beneath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratextual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a ﬁctional “he” or “she” should really be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.
Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their ﬁctionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by reminders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they conﬁgure our emotional responses in ways unique to ﬁction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our ﬁctional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.
That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.
In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.
As I’m in a bit of one of those self-improvement-via-OCD-meets-CBT type places right now, am tempted to write a fiction daily, however short, that takes its title from one of the Google searches, that according to my stats, led someone (or many ones) to this site.
As with most blogs, I imagine, these are largely searches after pornography.
I’m not going to write pornography.
But still, even those searches / titles could work. So… how about for tomorrow (if there’s time):”the thing girls find pleasurable but shameful.”
Feels right to me….
I’ve not finished reading Teju Cole’s new Open City as I’ve been interrupted by review work and the like. So obviously I’ll withhold judgment on the novel itself. But for now it does seem to me worth noting that James Wood’s review of the book in The New Yorker is as clear a manifestation of what we might call the political unconscious of “liberal” fiction as is possible. Probably best to read the whole thing to contextualize what I’m about to quote, which comes at the end of the piece:
[The protagonist] is engaged but disengaged. He is curious about the lives of others, but that curiosity is perhaps purchased at the expense of commonality. (This contradiction is even more strongly felt in the work of V. S. Naipaul, whose influence is apparent in Cole’s book.) The city is “open,” but perhaps only in a negative way: full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another. One’s own small hardships—such as forgetting one’s A.T.M. card number, as Julius does, and being consumed by anxiety about it—may dominate a life as completely as someone else’s much larger hardships, because life is brutally one’s own, and not someone else’s, and is, alas, brutally banal. In a sad and eloquent passage, Julius suggests that perhaps it is sane to be solipsistic:
Each person must, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as these stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.
This is a brave admission about the limits of sympathy, coming as it does near the end of a book full of other people’s richly recorded stories. Julius is not heroic, but he is still the (mild) hero of his book. He is central to himself, in ways that are sane, forgivable, and familiar. And this selfish normality, this ordinary solipsism, this lucky, privileged equilibrium of the soul is an obstacle to understanding other people, even as it enables liberal journeys of comprehension. Julius sets out only to put people’s lives down on paper, and not to change them, as Farouq, his secret sharer and alter ego, would want to do. But then it is because Julius set out not to change Farouq’s life but to put it down on paper that we know Farouq so well.
In other words, Cole’s novel – whose protagonist is a half-Nigerian, half-German resident in psychiatry in New York – shows us, by the very act of looking at others, that our solipsism is nonetheless somehow not only terminal and excusable but also heroic. We look at others, others who are sometimes oppressed or angry or both, and in the very act of looking we learn that we can never truly see let alone try and connect but that that, in the end, is OK and probably even for the best. All this seeing is an alibi for itself. In short, the abbreviated version of Wood’s review would go something like this:
Valued New Yorker subscriber: read this elegant new novel by a young novelist, originally from Nigeria but now over here, and you too can move around your multicultural but gentrified neighborhood and all of those semi-interactions that you have with multi-hued cab drivers and shop keepers, utility workers and homeless people not only will become more vivid, they will further testify to the vivid youness of you, the heroism of your liberal quietude, the saintliness of your merely seeing. Even that which you see on the tv news – all those uncountable masses of often suffering others – will affirm in their difference and distance that you, sir or madam, are the hero of your own life, a self-contained monadic innocent amidst all that whatever and whomever out there in the fascinating world.
Again, I’d like to finish the book for myself, but this does make Cole’s novel sound like a candidate to replace McEwan’s Saturday as my permanent reference when it comes to what Ballard called conventional fiction’s “consular characters” and the ideological work that they do, despite the best of intentions.
Just found, via the excellent Antonio Marcos Pereira’s FB page, this DeLillo story from 2009 which I’d somehow never before seen. Pleasing to see this story because it works to confirm two things that I’ve been thinking lately:
1) Whatever word, if he even has a word, he uses to describe it to himself, DeLillo’s work continues to be haunted by the spectre of what I call the aggregate…
2) …and, true to my construction above (“haunted by the… aggregate”), the aggregate isn’t so much a fictional technique as something that at once tempts and haunts fiction writers, just as it has done as long as “realism” has been the order of the day – basically since the rise of the novel in Europe.
Fiction confronts the aggregate, attempts to incorporate it, but in the end turns away into character and especially characters, the dyad or triad, the romance.
In the case of the DeLillo story here, it turns on a dime, tires screeching, barreling off Eleventh Avenue and on to the sidewalk, the dark alleyway, for an standing-up non-anonymous fuck between a husband and a wife, momentarily re-consularized as discrete subjects after all the rest.
From Aristotle’s Poetics:
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen - what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.
Implicit in the construction of the fictional character is the notion of probability, estimation, aggregation. This becomes explicit, or at least more explicit, at certain moments of literary history, for instance the 18th-century when the novel as a form veers away from both factual reportage on “real people” (even if they’re fake) and fantasy. Characters at that point (as with Aristotle) become particular instantiations or condensation of a presumed group….
I’ve been reading Catherine Gallagher’s fantastic “The Rise of Fictionality” in Franco Moretti’s compilation The Novel – pretty much everything I’m saying here comes from that save, I guess, for the word “aggregation.” The essay is on the emergence of fictionality as a concept during the 18th Century, and the way that it takes a more complex shape than we generally have thought. (In short, rather than simply distinguishing itself from factuality, it further has to distinguish itself from fantasy as well… In doing so, it relies upon / informs the development of a new model of truth, one that moves toward verisimilitude and probability rather than the simple and literal. And the entire operation hinges on a different notion of character. As Gallagher writes, ”novels are about nobody in particular. That is, proper names do not take specific individuals as their referents, and hence none of the specific assertions made about them can be verified or falsified.”
The Times (the UK one) has put up a paywall, so you can’t read this article in its entirety unless you pay a pound or have a subscription, but this is from a feature piece on Lydia Davis from Saturday’s paper.
In late November Penguin Classics will publish Davis’s translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Why a new translation? There are many — Davis has counted more than 15. “I’ve found that the ones that are written with some flair and some life to them are not all that close to the original; the ones that are more faithful may be kind of clunky. So what I’m trying to do is what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French. The conventional wisdom is that we should bring to a translation what English has, and one of the things it has is these wonderful Anglo-Saxon words; but I tend to keep it more Latinate and closer to the French, and not draw on all those resources because I think they are very characteristic of English — but not of French.” It’s a remark of characteristic precision, and it’s clear she found the task, which took her three years, engaging. But then she says something that amazes me.
“I was asked to do the Flaubert,” she says, “and it was hard to say no to another great book — so-called,” she arches an eyebrow. “I didn’t actually like Madame Bovary.”
Really? I ask. Have you changed your mind? “Not really,” she says coolly. “I find what he does with the language really interesting; but I wouldn’t say that I warm to it as a book. I know a lot about his attitude too; he despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of life and he had a horrible time writing it, because it wasn’t the kind of book he wanted to write. And I like a heroine who thinks and feels … well, I don’t find Emma Bovary admirable or likable — but Flaubert didn’t either.” She shrugs. “I do a lot of things that people don’t think a translator does. They think: ‘She loves Madame Bovary, she’s read it three times in French, she’s always wanted to translate it and she’s urging publishers to do another translation, and she’s done all this background reading . . .’ but none of that is true.”
This, my friends, is some upsetting bullshit. Now I like Lydia Davis’s work well enough (though I liked her more before I read the above paragraphs) and even prefer her translation of Proust to the Moncrieff. But the current Penguin edition of Madame Bovary – Geoffrey Wall’s – is an absolute masterpiece. I have taught with it for years, and it’s absolutely astounding how little corrective work I need to do to bring even the most sophisticated issues from the original text to a class reading (close reading!) the thing in English. The fact that I was brought up on this edition as an undergraduate before I had good enough French to master the original is one of those small inflective miracles of academic life – as the very start of my life’s work as a critic owes itself to things that I found – and could only have found – in Wall’s translation of the novel. I simply can’t imagine what Davis is going to do – what she needs to do – to improve on it. And in light of this I can’t help but think – actually, I know – that this is simply one of those cynical retranslations bent on fucking up the used-text market. That is, hundreds of lecturers in the future will be forced to say to their classes “No, I want you to have the current Davis translation, not that old one you found used on Amazon or at Oxfam.”
I’m not even going to go into Davis’s whole “I hate Bovary” thing except to say that her words are suggestive of someone who has read the book, well, without the requisite amount of subtlety – say the amount requisite amount to pass muster in my MA seminars. But to each his or her own, I guess. Still, doesn’t give a lot of confidence regarding the quality of the forthcoming translation, does it? (Just a bit more snark. I remember buying Davis’s Samuel Johnson is Indignant when it came out with high expectations, reading bit of it, and then returning it to the store where I bought it under the claim that I’d bought it as a birthday present for someone who already had it. I’ve only done this sort of move two or three times – it takes a certain special antipathy to make me not simply consign it to the “maybe later this year” pile rather than actually asking for my money back…)
But just to let the people at Penguin know right now: Once I get a chance this summer I will a) walk into a Waterstones and b) purchase a new, unmarked copy of Wall’s Bovary and c) return to the department office and d) fire-up the fancy pdf-generating photocopier and then finally e) scan the entirety of Wall’s translation into a pdf which f) in future years I will distribute to my graduate seminars. I just basically can’t see teaching this novel without it, and I’m here claiming some sort of pedagogical mandate as a justification. If, nay when I do so, I will take up a collection at the end of the seminars and send the proceeds to Wall.
Shamefully, though there’s a decent reason why, I’m just now getting to Raymond Carver. (The reason has something to do with my intensely anglo- and euro-slanted undergraduate and graduate education, except when it comes to poetry…) But I’m reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and was just about to write a post about the endings of the stories, which as you probably know if you’ve read Carver are bemusingly ambiguous and frustratingly curt. But then I happened upon this piece by Charles McGrath from the New York Times in 2007, which reveals that I would have mislabeled the post. I was really going to be talking about Gordon Lish’s endings, not Carver’s. Go look at the whole article, but here’s the most relevant part:
That Mr. Lish was an early and tireless champion of Mr. Carver is beyond doubt, and some of his editing, or what one knows of it, appears to be brilliant. (There are no published scholarly studies of Mr. Lish’s edited manuscripts, which are now owned by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, but Mr. Carver often published his stories in magazines and journals before turning them over to Mr. Lish for collection in hardcover, and by comparing the magazine and book versions it’s possible to infer a fair amount.) Mr. Lish was a macroeditor, ruthless and aggressive, and he sometimes seemed to sense what Mr. Carver was trying to say even more clearly than Mr. Carver. He transposed, he retitled and rewrote (the endings especially), and most of all, he cut, sometimes reducing a story by 50 percent or more to get at what he felt to be its essence.
Not all his changes were improvements, however, and some resulted in considerable distortion. The most famous instance is “A Small, Good Thing,” a story about a couple waiting for their child to wake from a coma that is now regarded as one of Mr. Carver’s masterpieces. The Lish version, retitled “The Bath,” is a third shorter and eliminates the original story’s key passage, a moment of redemptive hopefulness at the end; instead, the couple are left frozen in despair. Mr. Carver was so upset that he insisted the original version be used in “Where I’m Calling From,” a 1987 collection of new and selected stories that was not edited by Mr. Lish. But several others he left in their edited versions, even though years earlier he had written to Mr. Lish begging him to restore the stories to the way he had written them. “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form,” he said in the letter, “I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.”
In fact it was “The Bath,” the Lish edited version of the story, that I was going to write about, along with a few others, and what I would call the 70/30 ambiguities that they leave us with. What do I mean with the fraction? Well, take “The Bath.” (Spoiler warning!) Basically it goes like this. A mom goes to order a birthday cake for her son, who at the same moment is walking to school. He gets hit by a car, stumbles home to mom, ends up in the hospital, and drops into a coma. The parents wait by his bedside, taking turns to go home and bathe. First the father goes home, where he takes annoying calls from the baker about the birthday cake that’s due to be picked up. Here’s the very end of the story as the mother has just driven home, leaving her husband at the bedside:
She got out of the car and went to the door. She turned on lights and put water on for tea. She opened a can and fed the dog. She sat down on the sofa with her tea.
The telephone rang.
“Yes!” she said. “Hello!” she said.
“Mrs Weiss,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes, she said. “This is Mrs Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.
“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”
What do I mean by 70/30? Well, probably, of course, this is the baker calling again – though of course, we can’t be sure. Maybe it’s more like an 85/15 in this case… As so much has gone into setting up the birthday cake angle of the story. In this case, the entire piece culminates on the pathos of the mother thinking that she’s getting a relevant, life-changing telephone call, when it’s really (probably) from a baker frustrated that he’s waiting around for payment and to get this cake off of his shelf. But then again… it could well be from the hospital… News good or bad, likely bad given the direction of things when she left. We’re left sharing some of her uncertainty as she waits for an answer that might, but probably won’t, arrive in a few seconds.
There’s a lot for me to say about this sort of tactic, Lish’s it seems in this case rather than Carver’s. And now I’m not sure who’s responsible for another 70/30 – the one at the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?” where we’re left half-wondering what it is that she wants to get “talked out.” (An issue like this one, not knowing what to call what, could either really put you off or really put you onto writing about Carver, depending upon what sort of scholarly type you are…) Anyway, I just for now want to say something quickly about the end of the original version of the story, before Lish got at it, and when it was titled not “The Bath” but “A Small, Good Thing.” It’s available in its entirety here. At the end of this one, after the boy actually dies and after taking repeated phone calls from the baker, the mother and father, driven by maddened despair, drive down to confront the baker:
They drove down to the shopping center. The sky was clear and stars were out. It was cold, and they ran the heater in the car. They parked in front of the bakery. All of the shops and stores were closed, but there were cars at the far end of the lot in front of the movie theater. The bakery windows were dark, but when they looked through the glass they could see a light in the back room and, now and then, a big man in an apron moving in and out of the white, even light. Through the glass, she could see the display cases and some little tables with chairs. She tried the door. She rapped on the glass. But if the baker heard them, he gave no sign. He didn’t look in their direction.
They drove around behind the bakery and parked. They got out of the car. There was a lighted window too high up for them to see inside. A sign near the back door said THE PANTRY BAKERY, SPECIAL ORDERS. She could hear faintly a radio playing inside and something creak-an oven door as it was pulled down? She knocked on the door and waited. Then she knocked again, louder. The radio was turned down and there was a scraping sound now, the distinct sound of something, a drawer, being pulled open and then closed.
Someone unlocked the door and opened it. The baker stood in the light and peered out at them. “I’m closed for business,” he said. “What do you want at this hour? It’s midnight. Are you drunk or something?”
She stepped into the light that fell through the open door. He blinked his heavy eyelids as he recognized her. “It’s you, he said.
“It’s me,” she said. “Scotty’s mother. This is Scotty’s father. We’d like to come in.”
The baker said, “I’m busy now. I have work to do.”
She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came in behind her. The baker moved back. “It smells like
a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?”
“What do you want?” the baker said. “Maybe you want your cake? That’s it, you decided you want your cake. You ordered a cake, didn’t you?”
“You’re pretty smart for a baker,” she said. “Howard, this is the man who’s been calling us.” She clenched her fists. She stared at him fiercely. There was a deep burning inside her, an anger that made her feel larger than herself, larger than either of these men.
“Just a minute here,” the baker said. “You want to pick up your three-day-old cake? That it? I don’t want to argue with you, lady. There it sits over there, getting stale. I’ll give it to you for half of what I quoted you. No. You want it? You can have it. It’s no good to me, no good to anyone now. It cost me time and money to make that cake. If you want it, okay, if you don’t, that’s okay, too. I have to get back to work.” He looked at them and rolled his tongue behind his teeth.
“More cakes,” she said. She knew she was in control of it, of what was increasing in her. She was calm.
“Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living,” the baker said. He wiped his hands on his apron. “I work night and day in here, trying to make ends meet.” A look crossed Ann’s face that made the baker move back and say, “No trouble, now.” He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap it against the palm of his other hand. “You want the cake or not? I have to get back to work. Bakers work at night,” he said again. His eyes were small, mean-looking, she thought, nearly lost in the bristly flesh around his cheeks. His neck was thick with fat.
“I know bakers work at night,” Ann said. “They make phone calls at night, too. You bastard,” she said.
The baker continued to tap the rolling pin against his hand. He glanced at Howard. “Careful, careful,” he said to Howard.
“My son’s dead,” she said with a cold, even finality. “He was hit by a car Monday morning. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn’t be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can’t know everything-can they, Mr. Baker? But he’s dead. He’s dead, you bastard!” Just as suddenly as it had welled in her, the anger dwindled, gave way to something else, a dizzy feeling of nausea. She leaned against the wooden table that was sprinkled with flour, put her hands over her face, and began to cry, her shoulders rocking back and forth. “It isn’t fair,” she said. “It isn’t, isn’t fair.”
Howard put his hand at the small of her back and looked at the baker. “Shame on you,” Howard said to him. “Shame.”
The baker put the rolling pin back on the counter. He undid his apron and threw it on the counter. He looked at them, and then he shook his head slowly. He pulled a chair out from under the card table that held papers and receipts, an adding machine, and a telephone directory. “Please sit down,” he said. “Let me get you a chair,” he said to Howard. “Sit down now, please.” The baker went into the front of the shop and returned with two little wrought-iron chairs. “Please sit down, you people.”
Ann wiped her eyes and looked at the baker. “I wanted to kill you,” she said. “I wanted you dead.”
The baker had cleared a space for them at the table. He shoved the adding machine to one side, along with the stacks of notepaper and receipts. He pushed the telephone directory onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Howard and Ann sat down and pulled their chairs up to the table. The baker sat down, too.
“Let me say how sorry I am,” the baker said, putting his elbows on the table. “God alone knows how sorry. Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being. I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure. But I’m not any longer, if I ever was. Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this,” the baker said. He spread his hands out on the table and turned them over to reveal his palms. “I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I’m sorry. Forgive me, if you can,” the baker said. “I’m not an evil man, I don’t think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore, it would seem. Please,” the man said, “let me ask you if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me?”
It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.
“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.
He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.”
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. ”It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Must say – I vastly prefer Lish’s ending. But it occurs to me that there’s something interesting to say about this, in light of some of the other discussions “we’ve” been having on here. Basically, the end of this story is an inverted narrativization of the central logic of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech, which I wrote something about here. It is a fantasy of the alienated interpersonal relationships of the everyday, when we brustle angrily past each other in the supermarket, yell at telemarketers, and generally move around the world with guard up, getting restored to some sort of empathetic civility via the epiphanic realisation that someone, in fact, is having the worst day of their lives. Odd relationship, when you think of it: Wallace is often figured as the hero who overturned the chokehold of Carveresque minimalism upon the post-MFA set in America, but were it not for Lish, at least some of the time, their work comes off the interstate at the same exit.
(Forgive me if all of this is obvious to those of you who know something about Carver – it’s new to me, and so I notebook away on here….)
Even those of them who were believers are still surprised upon landing in the queue. After all, one of the main things about hell is that everyone who gets there is surprised that it has happened. If any one of them had been absolutely confident that this fate awaited them after their deaths, they (obviously) would have acted differently, lived more prudently, treated those around them and themselves better. Hell, for the hell-bound, is a story that they each believed only in the way that we all “believe” in fairy-tales or novels, whose morals and messages are true in many senses but never, to our minds, true in the literal sense.
But here it is, there they are, and this is what it feels like for them once they are there. For each of them it is, of course, a bit different. But in other important senses every moment is, for each of them, exactly the same.
Of course it is overwhelming. Just a moment ago many of them were dying in a hospital, while others were driving their cars or sleeping in bed. A stray subset were taking aim at the enemy or drunkenly walking home along a busy road or robbing a small grocery store or strapped into an electric chair. Earthquakes swell the lines, as do campaigns of aerial bombardment and well-coordinated terrorist attacks. And now they are here.
One might think that their first reaction to their arrival would be to doubt the reality of the situation – to attempt to press what is now their only and final situation into a effervescence of a dream, the passing mental tangle of a bad night’s somnolent screenplay. But somehow, none do. The ordinary and binding logic of everyday earthly phenomenology is non-binding in hell, and somehow those perceptions and experiences that on earth we can distance through doubt they quite simply cannot. Whether the mechanism in question that makes this so is biochemical or architectural, electronic or what we might here on earth call magical, makes no difference. There simply is no relief to be had via the usual human means of self-relief through distancing and dissociation. None of that “Wow – this is just like a bad science-fiction movie” or “Fucking christ, this can’t be happening” works down there, here, below.
So what does it look like, this place where they abruptly find themselves? Through the ages, the décor has changed, and in fact for most of history there had to be several separate entrances for the damned of different places and stations in life: the hellmouth of a French king during the early eighteenth century had by course to differ from that provisioned to a particularly sadistic Balinese chieftain from the same time, just so that it would be properly understood to be what it was. If Dante had actually had an experience of hell before he wrote about it, rather than simply fantasized it in service of the young girl he lusted after, he would likely have been granted access only to the portal available to the Florentine nobility and their immediate subordinates, rather than the universal passo che non lasciò mai persona viva that he writes about in the Inferno.
My guess is, given who Dante was and what he was up to, he found this out for himself soon enough.
But latterly, due to the increasing and unprecedented standardization of human experience, efficiencies have become possible. As you might expect, as you’ve been told in countless of the more sophisticated novels and movies and even gnomic if modern everyday metaphors centered on the topic, the current design is most reminiscent of the bureaucratically-organized space, closest perhaps to a particularly grim airport jetway at a provincial airport well past-due for renovation.
Those who were philanderers on earth still can’t help themselves but search the line in front of them for likely targets and possible acquisitions, just as the enviable and covetous alike still can’t help themselves but size up the probable wealth and success of those around them as registered in the way that they are dressed or act or just generally hold themselves as they slowly pace toward their punishment to come.
When the moment arrives when they are stripped of their garments, which is about three-quarters of their way down the passageway, and each is revealed in their infernal corporeal reality – flesh pustulantly swollen in the places where its not sagging, desiccated and patchy hair, a skeletal thinness holding it all together, oozing sores where pores once invisibly dotted the skin – they, each of them, still can’t help but furtively and then less furtively stare at the sexual parts, the real nakedness, of those standing nearest them in the queue. In death as they would have been as children, the sight of the normally unseen, that which is revealed only on special occasions and has often meant love, greets them with a double beat of the heart, a second and then a third look, as horrible as what they’re actually seeing is. They even think, most if not all of them, of which of their hellfellows they might have seduced and those who would have attempted to seduce them in turn. They evaluate, and almost to a one they imagine themselves to be – that they would have been – at the top of the sexual pecking order, were they otherwise and elsewhere than in the giant line that leads to damnation.
And so it goes, for those invested in other forms of earthly pride – and most in this queue are invested in more than one. Despite the viscerally disgusting nakedness around them, and the fact that the game, all the games, seem to be up once and for all and they have finally lost, the wealthy search for signs of relative poverty, the intelligent for stupidity, the violent for weakness, the once-popular for signs of awkward unsociability, and so on.
A minority of the damned who are very literate – though there are more of these than you might have thought – think of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Some percentage of those that do even recall, word for word, the doorkeeper’s final utterance in that text: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Of course, they don’t all remember it in English but in the language in which they read it, generally their own language. Others of the same group think the phrase non serviam over and over again, like a mantra, but with in each case deep ambivalence, ambiguous effect.
Almost all of them, literate or not, wonder at various points whether this line is in fact hell – whether there really is an end at all. Cleverly, cynically, they try to guess at the joke in store for them, the joke that is hell. A large percentage actually have the phrase “I’ve seen this movie before!” run through their minds. An infinity spent standing in line amongst moldering bodies and their reek, a queue that never quite ends, how appropriate this would be! The perfect hell for a hellish modern world!
But they are wrong, all of these, almost all of those who are in the line. Eventually, after hours or months – the time goes by differently here – they turn yet another of the jetway-style turns and discover, in fact, that they can see the end. It is a dark yawning mouth, and you cannot see what happens to those who pass through it but the sense that you have is that people are falling off into some sort of abyss. There are signs of struggle that can be seen from far away, as far as the final turn. It seems, from what they can tell, that people resist at the end – grabbing on to the walls and the edges of the mouth, and even those around them, but the forward momentum of the line pushes all of them, however much they struggle, over the edge and into the dark place. Panic rises up in those that turn the corner and see what lies ahead of them, a panic only slightly undercut by the relieved curiosity that comes of realizing that the line does in fact end.
But first, before they find out, there is something to read. A few steps past that final corner, there is a small podium positioned on the right hand side of the corridor. On this podium rest printed sheets of paper. Obviously everyone takes one – there’s been nothing like this anywhere along the way. And obviously, as distracting as the sight of what seems to be the hellmouth proper is, everyone takes a minute to try to read what is on the flier that they’ve just taken.
It starts like this:
Welome to hell. The universe into which you were born favors the meek and the stupid, the ugly and the unambitious, the sexless and the boring. You are none or at least not many of these things. You were astute, given all indications, to doubt the existence of this place. Unfortunately, though, it exists and you are here. And though it is deeply understandable that you would, ultimately you were wrong to believe in the just indifference of the world, in the idea that because there was no escaping your genetic and/or socially conditioned destiny you could not be punished for being who who were or doing what you did. There simply was no escaping this fate, not for you. I could explain all this at length, but I don’t have to and won’t, because I am…
None make it further than this in their reading, because all by this point have fully started to grab at whatever can keep them, even for a second or two, from what lies ahead. The document goes on for pages, though none of them get to read it. And as the neurotic panic that has taken the place of cynical resistance gives way to the raw animal fear – just that of the animal in the abattoir at the moment they know that this blissful or horrible, whatever, bovine or porcine life is about the end and end violently – they slip over the edge and fall into a space that is distinctly not the stuff of joke, or Borsch-belt witticism or Catholic school bathroom scrawl. They fall, that is, into the lake of fire, a fire that burns so hot and hard that there literally is not a moment off from pain to formulate a second thought.
1. His shrink warned him once: in almost every case, the net result of perfectionism is not the creation of perfect things but rather mediocrity. One can’t quite face the work or the release of the work, the work becomes literally unbearable, thought drifts toward the meta-consideration of why the work isn’t right rather than what the work actually needs to be, one tries too hard or gives up and tries not hard enough. Whatever – the net result is generally the same.
2. He thinks about the deep compatibility of the internet with such attitudes and patterns of behavior. He thinks of the way it services a need to work that cannot face the work itself. He thinks of the outlet that a blog provides for the logorrhea that does indeed require outlet, but only ever in a space of effort without consequence, no possibility of reward or the failure to attain a reward.
3. They are sitting outside Medcalf in Exmouth Market.
Brooklyn-vibe, sunny. The hipsters are the next table who kept asking them for a light have given up on asking, just come and wordlessly do their business with the lighter on the table and then return to their own places.
A pause, and then the conversation resumes.
The agent says: “I would, if I were you, try to make it funny.”
“Funny, yes. Well, it’s not not funny. It’s funny, in a dry sort of way. I think it’s funny.”
“You just wouldn’t want to be po-faced about it. Given the subject matter, given what it’s about.”
From the bar across the pedestrianized street, a roar of expectation and then a roar of disappointment. South Africa v. Mexico. He puts his hand on his bag in the seat beside him. Expensive ultralight laptop, Macbook Air.
He says to the agent, “I suppose I know what you mean. But if it is funny, it is funny in the way that Coetzee’s Disgrace is funny.”
“Disgrace doesn’t strike me as a particularly funny novel.”
“No, actually I can name at least three, no four, no five funny things in it. The bit about the prostitute in the beginning, what does he say, ‘a moderate, moderated bliss….’ Funny.”
“The bit about Emma Bovary, Lurie’s fantasy of Emma Bovary coming out with him in Cape Town.”
“And of course the ending, the three-legged dog.”
“I guess that’s funny. I don’t know, maybe I’d call it…”
“The three-legged dog! Listen do you want another drink? I want another one. What is that, what sort of white?”
Minutes pass. South Africa - Mexico has come to an end, a draw. And the he returns, drinks in hands.
4. Later that night, he is drunk and discusses the matter in depth, sort of, with his wife.
5. The next morning, he checks his Current Fictional Projects for signs of humor. He is not sure. But when is he ever funny? When do people laugh at him? His students laugh, and people laugh at his lectures. But he decides that he is funniest when, in the murky confidence of a pub or a party, he is vicious about other people, says the worst things in the world about a mutual acquaintance. A Catholic school skill, a survival technique for smart kids, lexically inclined – you caption the weak lest ye be captioned yourself and become, then, the weak. Could he do this in fiction? Construct devastating little à clefs about people that he knows in the real world?
6. Later that morning, while the kids are still asleep, he sifts the piles of unsorted, unopened mail, a week’s worth, on his kitchen table. Ah! The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40″ fiction issue. Just the thing to cheer him up! He puts it aside.
He spends the rest of the morning writing emails to invoice magazines and get back to publicity editors and responses to his pitches, which makes him feel slightly better but not in a lasting way. He writes n+1 to tell them that one of his pieces seems to have disappeared from the new website.
A bit better but not much better. It doesn’t last.
7. He has the thought that if he simply could stop thinking about writing and simply do more of it… Well, sure…
8. He can only remember one occasion when he laughed aloud a something in a piece of fiction. Surely there were other times, but if there were he can’t remember them now. It was a scene in the middle of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Television when the protagonist / narrator is futzing away some grant-funded time in Berlin, during which he’s supposed to write an academic book. Futzing around, he comes to a large park in which it’s permissible to sunbathe in the nude, even if no one’s actually doing it where he is at the moment in question. He decides to take off all of his clothes anyway, and is walking along in the nude when he happens to run into the members of the board who offered him the grant. He ends up having a conversation with his bosses / benefactors, middle of the day and CABNM (clothed academic board naked male to put it into a porn category that doesn’t exist but perhaps should) about the progress of his work and the like.
It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…
9. On the toilet in the early afternoon he finally opens the issue of The New Yorker and reads Rivka Galchen’s story “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire.” Here’s the beginning.
People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case. Prisoners read. I guess they’re not given much access to computers. A felicitous injustice for me. The nicest reader letters I’ve received—also the only reader letters I’ve received—have come from prisoners. Maybe we’re all prisoners? In our lives, our habits, our relationships? That’s not nice, my saying that. Maybe it’s even evil, to co-opt the misery of others.
I want to mention that, when I sold the movie, my husband had just left me. I came home one day and a bunch of stuff was gone. I thought we’d been robbed. Then I found a note: “I can’t live here anymore.” He had taken quite a lot with him. For example, we had a particularly nice Parmesan grater and he had taken that. But he had left behind his winter coat. Also a child. We had a child together, sort of. I was carrying it—girl or boy, I hadn’t wanted to find out—inside me.
I searched online for a replacement for that Parmesan grater, because I had really liked that Parmesan grater. It was the kind that works like a mill, not the kind you just scrape against; it had a handle that was fun to turn. There were a number of similar graters available, but with unappealing “comfort” grips. Finally, I found the same model. Was it premature to repurchase? Two days passed basically like that. Then, on Wednesday, my brother called. I gave him the update on my life.
Ah, now there it is! The Parmesan grater! Is that the funny that he is meant to do? The quirkily revelatory detail, the absurdity of everyday life, of kitchenware? Our essential triviality, our accoutrements, our tick-work preoccupations! And then rendered in voice, a voice that knows that it’s being listened to but still doesn’t get it – doesn’t hear quite what we hear… which is the funny! The author pretends to be the sort of person who says things for effect that doesn’t know they are saying things for effect. Fucking brilliant!
It made him laugh, anyway. Who knows…
10. At night, after the World Cup game, which his wife spends reading The New Yorker, she makes a joke about their ages, the fact that they still have time etc. He asks her, completely seriously, po-facedly even, how old he is – whether he is 33 or 34. He is sure it is the latter, but as it turns out he’s wrong. 33, still the interminable Jesus Year, a year in which he has laughed, he is sure, less than in any other year of his life.
Just read a story, if that’s the word, called “This is for you” by Emmanuel Carrère in the new issue of Granta. It’s not online, and likely never to be… So unfortunately if you want to read it you’re going to have to shell out the (outrageous! though maybe they’re actually paying their authors, who knows) £12.99 / $18.99 for issue 110. (Shhh… If you ask nicely maybe I’ll play about with the new departmental pdf-capable photocopier on Monday and see what I can do…*) I’m trying to look into this story a bit which was originally published in French and in a newspaper, having some trouble finding anything out, so I’m a bit vague on some of the details, but let me try to describe it to you very very briefly.
Basically, the “story” takes the shape of a sort of public letter to Carrère’s lover “Sophie.” Apparently the story first appeared in a summer fiction supplement in Le Monde, and, according to what’s written here, Carrère arranged for it to be published on a specific day when Sophie would be traveling by train to visit him on the Ile de Ré in the west of France. The new issue of Le Monde will have just appeared as she’s about to board the train and he anticipates that she’ll buy it and turn to the supplement to see what he’s written. But what the letter consists of are a series of basically masturbational instructions for Sophie to follow, think about this, touch that, and so on. The kink is that, due to Carrère’s precise planning of the whole affair, there would likely be a large number of people on the same train reading the same “story” as she read it… Toward the end he has her go to the cafe car, the trick being that anyone who was on the train and who got the timing right might well show up looking for this ostensibly sexually aroused woman following a publically published set of erotic instructions… And then who knows what happens after that…
It’s a bit parlor-trickish, isn’t it, and a kind of banal version of the sort of thing that you might expect from a biographer of Philip K. Dick. But there’s also something interesting about it, even if it’s not what Carrère thinks is interesting about it. He thinks that the story is about the performative function of language:
I like literature to be effective; ideally, I want it to be performative, in the sense in which linguists define a performative statement, the classic example being the sentence ‘I declare war’, which instantly means war has been declared. One might argue that of all literary genres, pornography is the one that most closely approaches that ideal: reading “You’re getting wet”, makes you get wet.
But of course he’s wrong about this, or not quite right. “I declare war” or “By the powers granted to me by the great state of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife” are of a different nature than what he’s up to here. The problem is this: imperatives (“get wet”) or wishful descriptions (“bet you’re getting wet now”) are not phrases that are actions, they implore or anticipate action without of course necessarily having the power to provoke the action itself. That’s because the performative is about power – I just said “I declare war on South London” out loud in my kitchen, but as far as I can tell no bombs are falling on or around Clapham Common.
So he’s wrong. But actually he’s on to something interesting, even if he misunderstands what it is in part because he lacks the language that he needs to understand it. I’ve been working on and off for a year now on a theorization of something that I am calling aggregate fiction - here are some of the posts in that line. As Carrère’s story (and, if it works, Sophie) gets to the café car, it leaves behind the close attention to her subjective response to work with a broader character set. But look at how he establishes the shift:
In real life, a writer might sometimes see a stranger reading his book in a public place, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s not something you can count on. Quite a few passengers on this train certainly do read Le Monde, however. Let’s do the maths. France has 60 million inhabitants; Le Monde‘s print run is 600,000 copies; it’s readers thus represent 1 per cent of the population. The proportion of readers on the Paris-La Rochelle high-speed train on a Saturday afternoon in July must be much higher, and I’d be tempted to jump it up to 10 per cent. So we get roughly 10 per cent of the passengers, most of whom – because today have the time – will at least take a look at the short-story supplement, just to see. I don’t want to seem immodest, but the chances of these just-taking-a-look passengers reading all the way to the end hover in my opinion around 100 per cent, for the simple reason that when there’s ass involved, people read to the end; that’s how it is. So about 10 per cent of your fellow passengers are reading, have read, or will read these instructions during the three hours you will all spend on the train. [...] There’s a one-in-ten chance – I’m probably exaggerating but not by much – that the person beside you is at this moment reading the same thing you are. And if not the person next to you, someone close by.
This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in. A shift of fictional attention from the deeply explored single (or coupled) subjectivities to the informed but ultimately intuitive anticipation of statistically-aggregated subjectivities. The odds are that… It’s a way of changing the number of fiction without simply backing off into a panoptic wide-angled mass image. Neither simply the teeming crowd and its patterns, nor the classical bourgeois interiority, but an aggregation of anticipatory selves – educatedly guessed though never quite circumscribed. The scene that Carrère imagines at the conclusion of his piece – a group of random yet predictable Le Monde readers, assembled in the café car of the TGV to La Rochelle attempting to figure out which one was Sophie, then drifting off to masturbate singly yet also in the company (across closed toilet doors) of others who know the game that’s on – seems to me to be an anticipation of an alternative frame for fiction, one that does the math and then sketches out the probabilities. It’s not the performative so much as the probable, it forethinks assemblies of individuals rather than presumes the centrality of this or that self. Its characters are ghostly, futural beings, like the CAD people in real estate advertisements, there because they’re bound to be rather than simply because we suspend disbelief and learn to indulge ourselves in ourselves by solipsistic proxy.
The problem with aggregate fiction, this thing that I’ve been trying to describe for a year now, is that the actually existing examples are wonderful pieces of prose. Carrère’s story is tacky, a bit creepy, and generally bound to put people off rather than turn them on. Still, I’m going to keep cataloging what I find, in the hopes that I might be able to
* Some question in my mind why I shouldn’t simply scan the story in and freely distribute it to you – it’d be to every party’s benefit I’m sure. I could talk about it without extensive redescription, you could of course read it, but most importantly (from the legal-economic perspective) several hundred readers, probably none of whom I’m guessing (just as Carrère does with Le Monde) subscribe to Granta, would be introduced to the magazine as a possible source of interesting stuff to think about. The temporality of blog reading suggests that any sales the magazine accrues will come on future issues, not my readers sprinting to their local bookshop to buy the thing to read with my post now… Hmmm…. We’ll see what happens Monday… Granta editors feel free to permission me, if you see this, in the meantime…
Handke does advert-people a few times in TWoftheW:
Walking across the city. In the gaps left open by the masses of cars there are still a few isolated individuals, ashen pale or flushed, in incompatible states, and these people have subjected themselves to politics or world history, and amid the technological din they go around posing (like the figures shown in architectural drawings) at the foot of gigantic buildings, which are the essential while they are mere incidentals; moving through this catastrophe as through an underground hangar, I try to breathe everything in through my eyes, to preserve within me the forlorness of these people.
Advertisements for houses in artificial villages (“domaines“). The accompanying sketches show the latest conception of paradise: a father beaming from ear to ear as he strolls down a garden path with a child on his shoulders; slanting beach umbrellas; outside the house, slim young men arrange chairs for a party: “Here you will live from year’s end to year’s end as if you were on vacation” (none of the figures in these sketches has both feet on the ground – they are much too happy for that)
Brilliant, that last parenthetical bit. Hard to say just where the interest in these figures comes from, though I’ve tried before. One shouldn’t talk about fiction in general trying to do things, i.e. awarding the genre itself with desires and aspirations, but I do believe / pretend that it has been trying to enact a nearly impossible foreground / background reversal for quite awhile now. These ad-people
Don DeLillo has a story in the current, or at least a recent, New Yorker. He’s been experimenting forever, but more and more as time goes on, with plural forms of one sort or another – the depiction of crowds or aggregates, etc. (I’m sure I’ve posted something about this, right? Actually, looks like not. I’m probably going to write something mid to largish about it after Xmas… I’m sure some of it will dribble through on to here…) In this new story, something a bit different. Narration in large part in the first-person plural, a rhythmic alternation between first-person plural and singular. This technique allows DeLillo to dramatise something like the internal differentiation and self-disagreement that drives narration (or even thought in general) but which also threatens narration (or thought) with fissuring collapse. You’ll see what I mean, maybe, if you read the story. Here’s a bit of it up front:
I tried to invent an etymology for the word “parka” but couldn’t think fast enough. Todd was on another subject—the freight train, laws of motion, effects of force, sneaking in a question about the number of boxcars that trailed the locomotive. We hadn’t stated in advance that a tally would be taken, but each of us had known that the other would be counting, even as we spoke about other things. When I told him now what my number was, he did not respond, and I knew what this meant. It meant that he’d arrived at the same number. This was not supposed to happen—it unsettled us, it made the world flat—and we walked for a time in chagrined silence. Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine, and we understood now that the rest of the afternoon would be spent in the marking of differences.
Now, why does this matter? A very long story, and one that makes up a large part of the posts of fiction that I’ve lately promised. But for the moment: if one of the problems that we face as writers, critics, or readers of narrative fiction is that it is bound by formal convention always to tell stories grounded or promotional of the autonomy and importance of the individual self, the emergence of techniques that strain against this mandate holds the possibility of renewal and ideological repurposing. More soon….