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Fiction in Bits
Many contemporaries write a fiction intended to achieve traditional kinds of excellence. Many others write a fiction which is more abstracted--the kind of fiction Borges wrote in Ficciones, or Nabokov wrote in Pale Fire. This latter kind of fiction has no name, and I do not intend to coin one. Some people call it "metafiction," "fabulation," "experimental," "neo-Modernist," and, especially, "Post-Modernist"; but I find all these terms misleading. "Post-Modernist" is the best, but it suffers from the same ambiguity which everyone deplores in its sibling term, "Post-Impressionist."
Recently a stranger from New York City sent me a green button, a big green button, which read: POST-MODERNIST. From his letter I inferred that he disliked Modernism, found it baffling and infuriating, and for reasons I could not fathom, included me on his team.
But Modernism is not over. The historical Modernists are dead: Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and also Biely, Gide, Malraux, Musil, Woolf. But one could argue--and I do--that diverse contemporary writers are carrying on, with new emphases and further developments, the Modernists' techniques.
I am going to use the dreadful mouthful "contemporary modernist" to refer to these contemporary writers and their fiction. I trust that the clumsiness of the term will prevent its catching on. I will also use the lowercase, nonhistorical term "modernist" loosely, to refer to the art of surfaces in general. The historical Modernists explored this art and bent it, in most cases, to surprisingly traditional ends. Transitional writers like Knut Hamsun, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz expanded itscapacity for irony. Now various contemporaries are pushing it to various interesting extremes: Jorge Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Coover, John Barth, John Hawkes, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Thomas M. Disch, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jonathan Baumbach, William Hjorstberg, and Flann O'Brien, Italo Calvino, Tommaso Landolfi, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Elias Canetti, and Carlos Fuentes.
Nothing is more typical of modernist fiction than its shattering of narrative line. Just as Cubism can take a roomful of furniture and iron it onto nine square feet of canvas, so fiction can take fifty years of human life, chop it to bits, and piece those bits together so that, within the limits of the temporal form, we can consider them all at once. This is narrative collage. The world is a warehouse of forms which the writer raids: this is a stickup. Here are the narrative leaps and fast cuttings to which we have become accustomed, the clenched juxtapositions, interpenetrations, and temporal enjambments. These techniques are standard practice now; we scarcely remark them. No degree of rapid splicing could startle an audience raised on sixty-second television commercials; we tend to be bored without it. But to early readers of Faulkner, say, or of Joyce, the surface bits of their work must have seemed like shrapnel from some unimaginable offstage havoc.
The use of narrative collage is particularly adapted to various twentieth-century treatments of time and space. Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead, time is a flattened landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen from the air. There is no requirement that a novel's narrative bits follow any progression in narrative time; there is no requirement that the intervals between bits represent equal intervals of elapsed time. Narrative collage enables Carlos Fuentes in Terra Nostra to approximate the eternal present which is his subject. We read about quasars one minute; we enter an elaborated scene with Pontius Pilate the next. Narrative collage enables Grass in The Flounder to bite off even greater hunks of time and to include such disparate elements as Watergate, the history of millet, Vasco da Gama, a neolithic six-breasted woman, and recipes for cooking eel. Narrative collage enables Charles Simmons, in Wrinkles, artistically to fracture a human life and arrange the broken time bits on the page. And it enables Michael Ondaatje, a Canadian novelist, to include in his novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid not only prose narration in many voices and tenses, but also photographs ironic and sincere, and blank spaces, interviews, and poems.
Joyce, 163 years after Sterne, started breaking the narrative in Ulysses. The point of view shifts, the style shifts; the novel breaks into various parodies, a question-and-answer period, and so forth. Later writers have simply pushed farther this notion of disparate sections. They break the narrative into ever finer particles and shatter time itself to smithereens. Often writers call attention to the particles by giving them each a separate chapter, or number, or simply a separate title, as Gass does in "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country." Donald Barthelme has a story ("The Glass Mountain") in which each sentence constitutes a separate, numbered section. All these cosmetics point to a narration as shattered, and as formally ordered, as a Duchamp nude.
If and when the arrow of time shatters, cause and effect may vanish, and reason crumble. This may be the point. I am thinking here of Robert Coover's wonderful story "The Babysitter," in which the action appears as a series of bits told from the point of view of several main characters. Each version of events is different and each is partially imaginary; nevertheless, each event triggers other events, and they all converge in a final scene upon whose disastrous particulars the characters all of a sudden agree. No one can say which causal sequence of events was more probable. Time itself is, as in the Borges story, a "garden of forking paths." In other works of this kind, events do not trigger other events at all; instead, any event is possible. There is no cause and effect in Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, an unbound novel whose pages may be shuffled. There is no law of noncontradiction in Barthelme's story "Views of My Father Weeping." Barthelme writes the story in pieces, half...
|Part 1||Some Contemporary Fiction|
|1||Fiction in Bits||19|
|Time in Smithereens||20|
|The Egg in the Cage||25|
|2||Two Wild Animals, Seven Crazies, and a Breast||36|
|Point of View||41|
|Return to Narration||44|
|3||The Fiction of Possibility||49|
|Art About Art||49|
|The Problem of Knowing the World||53|
|The Fiction of Possibility||56|
|Where Is the Mainstream?||63|
|Part 2||The State of the Art|
|5||Marketplace and Bazaar||76|
|6||Who Listens to Critics?||93|
|7||Fine Writing, Cranks, and the New Morality: Prose Styles||103|
|Shooting the Agate||104|
|Calling a Spade a Spade||115|
|Part 3||Does the World Have Meaning?|
|8||The Hope of the Race||127|
|May We Discover Meaning?||128|
|Who Is Crazy?||135|
|9||Can Fiction Interpret the World?||145|
|How a Whale Means||148|
|Find the Hidden Meaning||155|
|10||About Symbol, and with a Diatribe Against Purity||163|
|A Diatribe Against Purity||170|
|11||Does the World Have Meaning?||173|
Posted June 8, 2013
Posted January 24, 2010
No text was provided for this review.