Burning Down the House
Essays on Fiction
By Charles Baxter
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2008 Charles Baxter
All rights reserved.
Dysfunctional Narratives: or: "Mistakes Were Made"
Here are some sentences of distinctive American prose from our era:
From a combination of hypersensitivity and a desire not to know the truth in case it turned out to be unpleasant, I had spent the last ten months putting off a confrontation with John Mitchell. ... I listened to more tapes. ... I heard Haldeman tell me that Dean and Mitchell had come up with a plan to handle the problem of the investigation's going into areas we didn't want it to go. The plan was to call in Helms and Walters of the CIA and have them restrain the FBI. ... Haldeman and I discussed [on the "smoking gun" tape] having the CIA limit the FBI investigation for political rather than the national security reasons I had given in my public statements. ... On June 13, while I was in Egypt, Fred Buzhardt had suffered a heart attack. Once I was assured that he was going to pull through, I tried to assess the impact his illness would have on our legal situation.
These sentences are almost enough to make one nostalgic for an adversary with a claim upon our attention. There he is, the lawyer-president setting forth the brief for the defense, practicing the dogged art of the disclaimer in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. I've done some cut-and-pasting, but the sentences I've quoted are the sentences he wrote. And what sentences! Leaden and dulling, juridical-minded to the last, impersonal but not without savor — the hapless Buzhardt and his heart attack factored into the "legal situation," and that wonderful "hypersensitivity" combined with a desire "not to know the truth" that makes one think of Henry James's Lambert Strether or an epicene character in Huysmans — they present the reader with camouflage masked as objective thought.
The author of the memoir does not admit that he lied, exactly, or that he betrayed his oath of office. In his "public statements," he did a bit of false accounting, that was all. One should expect this, he suggests, from heads of state.
Indeed, the only surprise this reader had, trudging gamely through RN looking for clues to a badly defined mystery, was the author's report of a sentence uttered by Jacqueline Kennedy. Touring the White House after RN's election, she said, "I always live in a dream world." Funny that she would say so; funny that he would notice, and remember.
Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN, not in the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made-up word, it reeks of the landfill-scented landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school. Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners-up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations put the passive voice, politically, on the rhetorical map. In their efforts to attain deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath, and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence, "Mistakes were made."
Contrast this with Robert E. Lee's statement the third day after the battle of Gettysburg and the calamity of Pickett's Charge: "All this has been my fault," Lee said. "I asked more of men than should have been asked of them."
Lee's sentences have a slightly antique ring. People just don't say such things anymore.
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or "We did that." You can't reconstruct a story — you can't even know what the story is — if everyone is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like "deniability," we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.
The spiritual godfather of the contemporary disavowal movement, the author of RN, set the tenor for the times and reflected the times as well in his lifelong denial of responsibility for the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He has claimed that misjudgments were made, although not necessarily by him. Mistakes were made, although they were by no means his own, and the crimes that were committed were only crimes if you define "crime" in a certain way, in the way, for example, that his enemies like to define the word, in a manner that would be unfavorable to him, that would give him, to use a word derived from the Latin, some culpability. It wasn't the law, he claimed. It was all just politics.
A curious parallel: The Kennedy assassination may be the narratively dysfunctional event of our era. No one really knows who's responsible for it. One of the signs of a dysfunctional narrative is that we cannot leave it behind, and we cannot put it to rest, because it does not, finally, give us the explanation we need to enclose it. We don't know who the agent of the action is. We don't even know why it was done. Instead of achieving closure, the story spreads over the landscape like a stain as we struggle to find a source of responsibility. In our time, responsibility without narratives has been consistently displaced by its enigmatic counterpart, conspiracy. Conspiracy works in tandem with narrative repression, the repression of who-has-done-what. We go back over the Kennedy assassination second by second, frame by frame, but there is a truth to it that we cannot get at because we can't be sure who really did it or what the motivations were. Everyone who claims to have closed the case simply establishes that the case will stay open. The result of dysfunctional narrative, as the poet Lawrence Joseph has suggested to me, is sorrow; I would argue that it is sorrow mixed with depression or rage, the condition of the abject, but in any case we are talking about the psychic landscape of trauma and paralysis, the landscape of, for example, two outwardly different writers, Don DeLillo (in most of Libra) and Jane Smiley (in the last one hundred pages of A Thousand Acres).
Jane Smiley's novel has been compared to King Lear, and its plot invites the comparison, but its real ancestors in fiction are the novels of Émile Zola. A Thousand Acres is Zola on the plains. Like Zola, Jane Smiley assembles precisely and carefully a collection of facts, a naturalistic pileup of details about — in this case — farming and land use. As for characters, the reader encounters articulate women (including the narrator, Rose) and mostly frustrated inarticulate men driven by blank desires, like Larry, the Lear figure. Lear, however, is articulate. Larry is not. He is like one of Zola's male characters, driven by urges he does not understand or even acknowledge.
Somewhat in the manner of other naturalistic narratives, A Thousand Acres causes its characters to behave like mechanisms, under obscure orders. Wry but humorless, shorn of poetry or any lyric outburst, and brilliantly observant and relentless, the novel at first seems to be about 1980s greed and the destruction of resources that we now associate with Reaganism, a literally exploitative husbandry. Such a story would reveal clear if deplorable motives in its various characters. But no: The book is about the essential criminality of furtive male desire. With the revelation of Larry's sexual abuse of his daughters, in a recovered memory scene not so much out of Zola as Geraldo, it shifts direction toward an account of conspiracy and memory, sorrow and depression, in which several of the major characters are acting out rather than acting, and doing their best to find someone to blame.
The characters' emotions are thus preordained, and the narrator gathers around herself a cloak of unreliability as the novel goes on. It is a moody novel, but the mood itself often seems impenetrable, because the characters, including the men, are not acting upon events in present narrative time but are reacting obscurely to harms done to them in the psychic past from unthinkable impulses that will go forever unexplained. Enacting greed at least involves making some decisions, but in this novel, the urge to enact incest upon one's daughter is beyond thought, if not the judicial system, and, in turn, creates consequences that are beyond thought. Rose herself lives in the shadow of thought. Throughout much of the book she is unaccountable, even to herself, by virtue of having been molested by her father. This is dysfunctional narrative as literary art, a novel that is also very much an artifact of this American era.
Watergate itself would have remained narratively dysfunctional if the tapes hadn't turned up, and, with them, the "smoking gun" — notice, by the way, the metaphors that we employ to designate narrative responsibility, the naming and placing of the phallically inopportune protagonist at the center. The arms-for-hostages deal is still a muddled narrative because various political functionaries are taking the fall for what the commander in chief is supposed to have decided himself. However, the commander in chief was not told; or he forgot; or he was out of the loop; or he didn't understand what was said to him. The buck stops here? In recent history, the buck doesn't stop anywhere. The buck keeps moving, endlessly. Perhaps we are in the era of the endlessly recirculating buck, the buck seeking a place to stop, like a story that cannot find its own ending.
We have been living in a political culture of disavowals. Disavowals follow from crimes for which no one is capable of claiming responsibility. Mistakes and crimes tend to create narratives, however, and they have done so from the time of the Greek tragedies. How can the contemporary disavowal movement not affect those of us who tell stories? We begin to move away from fiction of protagonists and antagonists into another mode, another model. It is hard to describe this model but I think it might be called the fiction of finger-pointing, the fiction of the quest for blame. It often culminates with a scene in a court of law.
In such fiction, people and events are often accused of turning the protagonist into the kind of person the protagonist is, usually an unhappy person. That's the whole story. When blame has been assigned, the story is over. In writing workshops, this kind of story is often the rule rather than the exception. Probably this model of storytelling has arisen because sizable population groups in our time feel confused and powerless, as they often do in mass societies when the mechanisms of power are carefully masked. For people with irregular employment and mounting debts and faithless partners and abusive parents, the most interesting feature of life is its unhappiness, its dull constant weight. But in a commodity culture, people are supposed to be happy. It's the one myth of advertising. You start to feel cheated if you're not happy. In such a consumerist climate, the perplexed and unhappy don't know what their lives are telling them, and they don't feel as if they are in charge of their own existence. No action they have ever taken is half as interesting to them as the consistency of their unhappiness.
Natural disasters, by contrast — earthquakes and floods — are narratively satisfying. We know what caused the misery, and we usually know what we can do to repair the damage, no matter how long it takes.
But corporate and social power, any power carefully masked and made conspiratorial, puts its victims into a state of frenzy, a result of narrative dysfunction. Somebody must be responsible for my pain. Someone will be found. Someone, usually close to home, will be blamed. TV loves dysfunctional families. Dysfunctional S&Ls and banks and corporate structures are not loved quite so much. They're harder to figure out. They like it that way. In this sense we have moved away from the naturalism of Zola or Frank Norris or Dreiser. Like them, we believe that people are often helpless, but we don't blame the corporations anymore. We blame the family, and we do it on afternoon TV talk shows, like Oprah.
Afternoon talk shows have only apparent antagonists. Their sparring partners are not real antagonists because the bad guys usually confess and then immediately disavow. The trouble with narratives without antagonists or a counterpoint to the central character — stories in which no one ever seems to be deciding anything or acting upon any motive except the search for a source of discontent — is that they tend formally to mirror the protagonists' unhappiness and confusion. Stories about being put-upon almost literally do not know what to look at. The visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations. In any particular scene, everything is significant, and nothing is. The story is trying to find a source of meaning, but in the story everyone is disclaiming responsibility. Things have just happened.
When I hear the adjective "dysfunctional" now, I cringe. But I have to use it here to describe a structural unit (like the banking system, or the family, or narrative) whose outward appearance is intact but whose structural integrity has been compromised or has collapsed. No one is answerable from within it. Every event, every calamity, is unanswered, from the S&L collapse to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
So we have created for ourselves a paradise of lawyers: We have an orgy of blame-finding on the one hand and disavowals of responsibility on the other.
All the recent debates and quarrels about taking responsibility as opposed to being a victim reflect bewilderment about whether in real life protagonists still exist or whether we are all minor characters, the objects of terrible forces. Of course, we are often both. But look at Montel Williams, or Oprah. (I have, I do, I can't help it.) For all the variety of the situations, the unwritten scripts are often similar. Someone is testifying because s/he's been hurt by someone else. The pain-inflicter is invariably present and accounted for onstage, and sometimes this person admits, abashedly, to inflicting the ruin: cheating, leaving, abusing, or murdering. Usually, however, there's no remorse or shame. Some other factor caused it: bad genes, alcoholism, drugs, or — the cause of last resort — Satan. For intellectuals it may be the patriarchy: some devil or other, but at least an abstract devil. In any case, the malefactor may be secretly pleased: s/he's on television and will be famous for fifteen minutes.
The audience's role is to comment on what the story means and to make a judgment about the players. Usually the audience members disagree and get into fights. The audience's judgment is required because the dramatis personae are incapable of judging themselves. They generally will not say that they did what they did because they wanted to, or because they had decided to do it. The story is shocking. You hear gasps. But the participants are as baffled and as bewildered as everyone else. So we have the spectacle of utterly perplexed villains deprived of their villainy. Villainy, properly understood, gives someone a largeness, a sense of scale. It seems to me that this sense of scale has probably abandoned us.
What we have instead is not exactly drama and not exactly therapy. It exists in that twilight world between the two, very much of our time, where deniability reigns. Call it therapeutic narration. No verdict ever comes in. Every verdict is appealed. No one is in a position to judge. The spectacle makes the mind itch as if from an ideological rash. Hour after hour, week after week, these dysfunctional narratives are interrupted by commercials (on the Detroit affiliates) for lawyers.
But wait: Isn't there something deeply interesting and moving and sometimes even beautiful when a character acknowledges an error? And isn't this narrative mode becoming something of a rarity?
Most young writers have this experience: They create characters who are imaginative projections of themselves, minus the flaws. They put this character into a fictional world, wanting that character to be successful and — to use that word from high school — popular. They don't want these imaginative projections of themselves to make any mistakes, wittingly or, even better, unwittingly, or to demonstrate what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of character that produce intelligent misjudgments for which someone must take the responsibility.
What's an unwitting action? It's what we do when we have to act so quickly, or under so much pressure that we can't stop to take thought. It's not the same as an urge, which may well have a brooding and inscrutable quality. For some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning. (Continues...)
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