Unholy Writ

 Originally Appeared in: Venue 1 | Published: September, 1997

Tracking literary trends is a thankless job, especially here in New York where the trails crisscross, double back and disappear, baffling even the most dogged trend-seekers: hot on the trail one moment, befuddled the next by scents that mingle into some unidentifiable bouquet or some all too familiar smell.

Harder yet is the job of advising avid readers. Consider the judgments that came tumbling out of the New Yorker and the New York Times a year ago June, as though the summer solstice itself obliged a ritual pronouncement. Bill Buford, whose brilliant and gutty editing made Granta a great magazine, which in turn made him the fiction editor of the New Yorker, introduced the latter’s Summer Fiction issue by confidently declaring the revival of story: “Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories — that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives. The beginning, middle, and end of our personal trajectories” {New Yorker, June 24/July 1, 1996). New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani surveyed the same scene the same week and declared, with the same confidence, the extinction of story: “[S]loppiness has become the style of the day. Not only are old-fashioned stories with beginnings, middles and ends on their way to extinction, but the basic principles of dramatization, character and structure are in danger of becoming endangered species as well” (New York Times Magazine, June 30, 1996).

So, which is it? Is storytelling coming back or on its way out? Were in-the-know readers supposed to spend the summer glorying in story or lambasting its demise? Actually, there isn’t all that much critical controversy at work here. The two pronouncements complement rather than contradict one another. The relative proportion of stories with beginning-middle-end doesn’t vary much from one literary season to the next; storytelling is always half-revived, half-extinct, and the tastemakers can glory or lambast at will. Both editor and critic were stroking their readers, who they assume require true-to-life stories with beginning-middle-end. 

I’d hate to assume any reader’s needs are so fixed or so narrow. There is a flaw in the idea that our need for story, our will to orderly narrative, requires that stories simplistically follow a beginning-middle-end formula. As readers we are fully capable of supplying narrative continuities, refining and revising as we go, no matter how complicated the written narrative becomes. Therein lies much of the deep joy of reading. Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Faulkner never write in a straight line; they don’t have to, because readers tease out chronologies and test out patterns all by themselves.

Structuralism has the idea that every narrative reduces to a single sentence, a sequence in which an agent transforms one situation into another. Gerard Genette wonderfully proved the point by distilling Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, all seven volumes, down to the following: Marcel becomes a writer! Structuralists believed that their capacity, as readers, to reduce a narrative to a sentence meant that the sentence generated the narrative in the first place. Likewise, the middling aesthetic believes that the beginning-middle-end which every reader pulls from a narrative ought to be plainly reflected in the narrative itself. Armed with such a principle, editors would have sent most every great novel from Rabelais to Gordimer back for total rewrite. 

Novelists do not discard beginning-middle-end just to ruin our summer vacations. If the beginning they have to narrate is multiple, unknowable or contradictory, they get inventive. Christa Wolfs Patterns of Childhood is an autobiographical novel told as a third-person narration about a girl named Nelly growing up in Nazi Germany. Wolf intersperses the story with excerpts of the diary she keeps while working on the novel, detailing the difficulties of memory and writing. The search for her own beginnings gradually reveals, through the story of Nelly, how thoroughly the origins of her personality were interwoven with her adoration of the heroic Fuhrer and her crush on her teacher Julia, an independent woman and a Nazi. The author loses herself in knowing herself: “The closer she gets to you in time, the less familiar she becomes.” Thanks to the novel’s narrative layering, its superimposition of past and present, such a paradox in the project of self-narration finds form. And it’s our need for that form-finding that novelists fulfill.

In Toni Morrison’s Jazz, the “story” — beginning, middle and end — is over on the first page: a man murders his young lover; his wife goes to the funeral parlor to disfigure the dead woman’s face; the two live on as pariahs. The novel elaborates on this thin story line until it yields a vision of Harlem, migration, erotic torment and agonized community. The reader of course composes chronology and causality as needed, but it is the syncopated elaborations that make the novel and the world it evokes. The storyteller, here an enigmatic figure compounded of the author and the protagonists’ anonymous neighbor, doesn’t merely tell a story. “I break lives to prove I can mend them back again,” she confesses, only to realize that the characters rebound on her. “[A]ll the while they were watching me. Sometimes they even felt sorry for me and just thinking of their pity I want to die.”

Recent literary criticism, scholarly as well as journalistic, has embraced the idea that 20th-century literature divides into a modernist and a postmodernist half. Neat and grandiose though it may be, the modernist/postmodernist plot utterly distorts the history of the novel and the contemporary state of world fiction. Our century’s fiction does not fall into two symmetrical halves; it unfurls in dizzying spirals of modern epics and language experiments, surrealisms and realisms, colonialist adventures and postcolonial tragedies, male mythologies and feminist rewritings, fictional autobiographies and true life novels — not to mention the steady flow of romances, mysteries and science fiction.

The modernist/postmodernist plot tells a tidy little story: in the beginning was realism (all those 19th-century representations of vulgar social reality); in the middle was modernism; in the end, postmodernism. The 20th-century novel’s defining achievement becomes its anti-realism: modernism uses interiority and self-referentiality to supersede realistic representations; postmodernism fractures or deconstructs representation itself. Accordingly, innovation in the novel has removed it ever farther from realism. Some critics glory in the overthrow, others lambast the decline.

But is any of it true?

The most important developments and innovations in recent fiction have come from novelists like Wolf, Morrison, Giinter Grass, Norman Mailer, Carlos Fuentes, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. None of them abandons the realist imperative. The need to illuminate individual life-histories in the flow of collective histories, to represent the movement of time or of impersonal forces traversing individual experience and intimate relationships, to assess the boundaries of moral action — all these imperatives of realism animate these writers’ diverse projects and varied styles.

“Postmodernism” is too crude a term to designate the diversity or the purposes of contemporary fiction. the work of the writers I’ve listed doesn’t even fit under any of several labels frequently used to exemplify postmodernism: the nouveau roman, metafiction, magical realism, dirty realism, minimalism. Moreover, while all these labels name significant trends in contemporary fiction, they differ so much from one another that none of them can on its own define “postmodernism.” So, this term which has gained such currency is at once impervious to cogent definition and inapplicable to the major writers of our time!

Now as before, the novel’s mission is in its worldliness. Secular, profane, even blasphemous, it boots literature out of its holier precincts to follow human lives in all their ungrounded, often unhinged agony and adventure. Worldly, too, is the novelist’s dedication to whatever shapes and misshapes those lives, from institutions to wars, from economies to mythologies. Today the worldliness of the novel has assumed yet another guise, for contemporary fiction is decidedly world fiction. Novelists from many different literary traditions are acutely aware of developments in the novel worldwide. It’s not that some new international style has emerged, though certain motifs have become part of the lingua franca of global narration (magical-realist touches, storytelling by wise grandmothers, inexplicable metamorphoses). What matters far more is that writers do continuously renew the language and the form of the novel.

The sense of political (and religious) unease that accompanies the new globe is captured by Octavio Paz’s title, One Earth, Four or Five Worlds. The literary challenges created for readers and writers by interpenetrating worlds is also daunting, but for that very reason it truly matters. As readers we are called beyond ourselves. But then why else do we read?
Ngugi composes a novel in his mother-tongue, Gikuyu, while working in New York, exiled from his native Kenya. An open critic (and former prisoner) of his country’s Western-supported, one-party government he writes in Gikuyu in defiance of English. British rule imposed the official language, Kenyan rule accepted it, but neither extended fluency and literacy to all Kenyans. Ngugi therefore writes in the language of his childhood, family, village. In then translating that same novel into English, he delays a bit his gift to literature in English, but more significantly the work is shaped by knowledges, storytelling styles, archetypes, forms of humor, which the writer shares uniquely with his Gikuyu readers. English consequently gains something it could not possibly generate out of itself.

The Algerian writer Assia Djebar has followed the opposite linguistic path, choosing to write in the language of the colonizer. But her choice, too, expresses defiance, for she found in French the means of escaping the monopoly that men held over Arabic as a language of public expression. Djebar’s writing is as remarkable for its transformations of French literary style as for its challenge to Islamic authority. For example, she learns from the nouveau rontan the art of descriptions and narrations which seem devoid of any subjective perspective. But she does not do so in pursuit of the New Novelists’ own ideal of objective writing; instead, she uses this style to trace the struggle of Muslim women aching to place themselves in the world, to remove the veil and make their own perceptions, feelings and words matter. 

Prose is worldly — it’s the prose of the world — in the novel as nowhere else. That’s why it’s so important to look at current fiction from the standpoint of the novel, in its double imperative of realism and innovation, not merely from the standpoint of story. And why it’s crucial to look at it internationally. No particular national tradition or single “world” determines the direction of the novel today. What fascinates us about world fiction are not the titillations of exoticism (the worldliness of the novel is an attack on exoticism) or the comforts of an international style or world language (the contemporary novel’s vitality is in its deep diversity, not its superficial resemblances). What fascinates us is that the very meaning of world is in flux, and that the novels we genuinely need are those which embody and interpret this changing worldliness.