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the frictional fiction of small differences

with 4 comments

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….

Written by adswithoutproducts

November 28, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Posted in aggregate, delillo, fiction

4 Responses

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  1. Have you read Luhmann’s “Notes on the Project: Poetry and Social Theory.” He seems to be onto something similar in that essay: i.e. the friction (as he calls it) between psychical systems (i.e. individual, unsharable conscious experience) and social systems (i.e. the relational experience of subjectivity). The interesting difference though, as I read it, is that he thinks the key to understanding this is poetry, whereas you seem to be leaning towards prose. Or, to point back to your previous post, he’s more inclined to look to Baudelaire, and you to Flaubert. Am I reading this right?


    November 29, 2009 at 3:48 am

  2. have been reading this blog for a while – and I have entertained similar ideas in my own writing. For me, part of it is a way of legitimizing the time I still spend reading and thinking about the contemporary novel – indeed, why bother when so much of it is so disappointing? to me, one obvious answer is that if the history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are nearly the same, then surely formal and technical innovations in the contemporary novel are privileged places to encounter new forms of subjectivity, agency, community, or ideological repurposing. To me, that is one reason to still deal with the novel in an age that is no longer in any sense ‘novelistic.’ Anyway, greatly looking forward to your fiction posts


    November 29, 2009 at 2:29 pm

  3. Pollian,

    No I haven’t. Luckily for me (and anyone interested) it seems to be available right here:

    I have no doubt there’s a poetic analogue for what I’m talking about. I just tend to think about prose. I’ll have to read this and have a think about it…

    Thanks for that.


    Yes, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel too. Glad we’re on the same page, and I’ll be interested to hear what you think as I post them!


    November 29, 2009 at 8:38 pm

  4. Also worth reading alongside Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”

    David Buuck

    April 19, 2010 at 11:14 pm

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