9.03.2010

Narrative is Essential, or, See the Stars During the Day

So... I'm in the mood to beat this blog up a little bit. I'm sick of it's face.

Let me try to reissue my foundations:

I've read plenty of narratives, but I've had an involuntary perception over the past five or so years of one essential divide among literary narrative: most narrative (say 90% +) seems to depict elements of human experience (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.) without being conscious of itself as part of that experience. When you open Little Women, you will not feel that the author is making metacommentary about human experience by conceiving of your reading experience as a usable example of said human experience. It's just a book about life. Not a book that is life.

The other 10% of books -- and, again, to me, they stand out as if they carried another dimension with them -- seem very conscious of the experience that reading creates, and work deliberately to make that experience the fundamental subject of inquiry. That's really hard to express, and probably more difficult to "receive" if you haven't already had the thought yourself. Let's see if three examples help:

#1: The Stranger, by Camus: it begins like this: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

When I have taught that book, I pause right there and ask my students, "How many of you kept reading--kept listening to this unfeeling sociopath--past these lines?" They sort of reluctantly/confusedly raise their hands. And I try to explain then that Camus is teaching you to listen to even that man.--teaching you that human sympathy, ethics, requires nothing quintessential other than attention. And you've already shown that you're capable of it.

So the reading becomes a kind of discipline or practice -- just like saying a rosary or doing Yoga -- in a highly ethical way of being.

#2: A book like Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: most people who have read this read it as part of their sophomore literature survey, and found it immediately impenetrable, and so purchased a Cliff's Notes and then figured out that the narration was coming from a mentally challenged person in part one. Some readers of the book may have been forewarned by their teachers. But I don't think Faulkner intended it to be so. The trick to reading a book like that is to change everything about yourself, everything about your expectations, and just be willing to see in that other way, trusting that there is some logic to it.

Then, like Camus' book, the reading of Faulkner itself becomes the highlighted experience: are you able to make the kinds of adjustments to your appetites and expectations to experience some shade of reality/human existence that you may have previously been unwilling to see? Books like these have always been most difficult for me: I have not finished Ulysses, not because "it's too hard" or "I don't get it," but because I haven't been able to look the way Joyce is requiring me to look long enough to get to the end. In that way the book--my reading experience--reveals to me my own ethical shortcomings.

#3: The Bible. You've heard people who don't really want to argue about G-d or Jesus--people who simply reiterate: just read the Bible. Have you read it? No? Read it. These people are intuiting the special nature of Biblical narrative.

One of my favorite examples is in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples, "Wait here while I go pray," and then he goes on "a little further" and readers are given the precise language of his prayer (!). It ought to beg the question: who is reporting? Who is the teller? Did Mark really not sleep, but slink along behind Jesus to overhear his prayer? Absurd! Similarly when Jesus is being interviewed by Pilate: who was privy to that conversation? The narrative perspective cannot remain consistent with the apparent journalistic mode of much of the rest of the gospel.

And so the narrative itself teaches us without "saying" it to be wary, to ask not only of the book, but of our own experience: who is the teller?

So to quote/paraphrase Borges, who wrote in another language: "Nobody realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same."

Narrative is not, in this way, extravagant, but necessary. It is a complete way of thinking. It does not supplement theory, it replaces it.

In this way, the authentic historical response to Derrida will not come in the form of a bizarro-Derrida, who writes similarly but offers different content. Rather, the response may be a narrative experience. Which may be a novel. Or may be something exactly like a novel, an experience that surpasses what Derrida was pointing out:

You know you're all invited to my August 21, 2017 "It ain't just the sun that's getting Eclipsed" eclipse party in Charleston, SC, right?

A total solar eclipse is not like the one you saw in tenth grade, where you looked through a pinhole in wax paper at something and couldn't see anything. A total solar eclipse will change your life. Here's a preview. And it's paid for, folks. On me.*

*Flights and accommodations not included.

1 comment:

Jon Sealy said...

Casey, I'm going to need you to elaborate a bit. Would you distinguish between the 10% you refer to and straightforward metafiction where a narrator says, "You are reading a novel"?

I wouldn't say the Bible is metafiction, nor The Stranger. So it seems like that 10% is something other than metafiction. Are you after "conscious fiction" that doesn't acknowledge that it's conscious?

(Sidenote: While I'm here, I'm also going to need you to take a look at this article:
http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2010/09/do-protagonists-of-great-novels-have-children.html)

What I'm really wanting to know is how do I, as a novelist, achieve the great stuff you're writing toward?