Narrative Realities: A Symphony in Four Books

By Matthew Cheney

First Movement

Reading multiple books at once inevitably causes words, phrases, entire paragraphs to pose and juxtapose and interpose and superimpose, to dance and breed, until the reader's mind is either a cacophony of a symphony, and the closed covers of books resting on a table or the floor cannot silence all the notes they've got to share.

Recently, for instance, I read four books that seemed to want to make some sound together, to find some harmonies and counterpoints: Reality Hunger by David Shields, Narrative Power edited by L. Timmel Duchamp, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, and Vanishing Point by Ander Monson. I kept wanting them to make noise together, to sing.

If I did not know how I wanted to order this welter, I knew very well how I did not want to order it. To set out what I already understood and believed about the case was too tedious to face. I had to find a way to write out of my knowledge so that I would discover as I proceeded. Only in this way could the task of writing justify itself.
—Wendy Walker, "Imagination and Prison"

There's a story in the Great Book about a boy destined to be Suntown's greatest chief. You know the story well. It's a Nuru favorite, no? You all tell it to your children when they're too young to see how ugly the story is. You hope the girls will want to be like Tia the good young woman and the boys like Zoubeir the Great. In the Great Book, their story was one of triumph and sacrifice. It's meant to make you feel safe. It's supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness. This is all a lie. Here's how the story really happened:
—Nnedi Ororafor, Who Fears Death

Second Movement

Reality Hunger is a collection of 618 numbered paragraphs, some of them as short as a single five-word sentence, others a few hundred words long. Many of them are quotations from other writers, and in an appendix at the end of the book David Shields claims he originally wanted the quotations to be unsourced, but his publisher's lawyers were nervous with that and insisted there be some effort to source the quotes. "If you would like to restore the book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages 210-218 by cutting along the dotted line." And then, last of all, he says, "Stop; don't read any farther."

I, of course, read pages 210-218 faithfully, and frequently flipped back and forth between them and the main text. I'm not particularly reverent of writers' intentions for their books, and Shields's desire to create a kind of "authorless" text interested me far less than what the chosen pieces had to say amidst and among each other. A chorus is not a soloist.

Reality Hunger has an argument to make, but one of the appealing things about the book's collage structure is that we don't have to accept David Shields's idea of what that argument is. For instance, he spends a bit too much energy trying to justify his own apparent lack of interest in writing traditional novels. (Okay, so you don't want to write traditional novels anymore; don't write them. Big deal.) But many of the items he selects to discuss the limitations of traditional novels and the opportunities of innovative writing help us understand the values and possibilities of both approaches, and the nuances of the views collected in Reality Hunger undermine (or perhaps subvert) the more narrow, less interesting view apparent in the paragraphs more clearly attributable to Shields himself, often about "traditional fiction" being bad and hybrid forms being good.

Narrative Power contains a frustrating essay by Lance Olsen, "Against Accessibility: Renewing the Difficult Imagination," that is as beholden to a false dichotomy of traditional vs. innovative as David Shields thinks he is, but because Olsen's essay is only six pages long and is itself written in a traditional form, it gives the reader little to do but accept or reject it, perhaps with a few qualifiers. A reader has a lot more space to breathe and move in Reality Hunger. For instance, both Olsen and Shields praise J. M. Coetzee's book Elizabeth Costello, a strange and unsettling collection of essay-type fictions that question a variety of genres and ideologies. Olsen likes it because it is not a familiar, traditional sort of narrative, it is "difficult," but his discussion of it is reductive and clumsy. David Shields cites Elizabeth Costello as his favorite of Coetzee's books because he likes books that are not like traditional novels. It's among my favorites of Coetzee's books, but I love it alongside Coetzee's most traditional novel, Disgrace, too. Reading Shields, I find plenty of space for my different opinion of Coetzee's oeuvre; reading Olsen, I just feel stuck in a small room, the air rotting with every breath.

Compare Olsen's clunky hectoring to Wendy Walker's fascinating Narrative Power essay "Imagination and Prison," an essay that vividly shows how Walker wrote her book Blue Fire, a book which mixes prose and poetry to explore a historical murder case. The essay brings us into Walker's creative process, revealing the thoughts and questions that led her to choose to write Blue Fire the way she did. It confronts us not with dichotomies of technique or jeremiads about vision, but rather with the problems and inspirations of a writer when deciding how to approach a topic or text. It certainly says more about history, creation, memory, art, and life than Olsen, and it approaches the philosophical complexity of Reality Hunger.

The novel, the traditional novel, she goes on to say, is an attempt to understand human fate one case at a time, to understand how it comes about that some fellow being, having started at point A and having undergone experiences B and C and D, ends up at point Z. Like history, the novel is thus an exercise in making the past coherent. Like history, it explores the respective contributions of character and circumstance to forming the present. By doing so the novel suggests how we may explore the power of the present to produce the future. That is why we have this thing, this institution, this medium called the novel.

She is not sure, as she listen to her own voice, whether she believes any longer in what she is saying.

—J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

Stories shape our minds, our institutions, our possibilities. Stories map the future. We believe the stories we have internalized despite our immediate experiences to the contrary. Story persuades us to see what's in the story as truth and deny the truth of our own experiences.
—Andrea Hairston, "Stories Are More Important than Facts: Imagination as Resistance in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth"

Third Movement

Narrative Power contains a handful of excellent essays and many essays that offer provocative ideas and not enough development of them; the essays are at their best when most specific, their worst when attempting to create grand pronouncements, to state certainties rather than admit doubts. This is clear right from the beginning, comparing the first two essays. The second essay, L. Timmel Duchamp's "Lost in the Archives: A Shattered Romance" explores (effectively, informatively) the author's training as a graduate student, letting us learn both from her scholarship and her life. Such learning stands in contrast to the first essay, for me the least effective in the book, Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Telling Reality: Why Narrative Fails Us," which at its best relates Gilman's ideas from a career spent studying American frontier history, but too often descends to making sweeping statements and generalizations about a vague entity Gilman calls "narrative," but that word is a placeholder for other tendencies that cannot be summed up in a word or a page, problems that require analysis and soul-searching, not hortation.

The least convincing essays in the book seem ignorant of the vast corpus of writings on the subject that precedes them, and so their conclusions are naive and superficial, like someone who wants to talk about the importance of blood but never gets much beyond the fact that it's kind of red in color. A book aimed at a general audience doesn't necessarily have to be fully conversant with decades of writings in narratology (for one point of reference, the Journal of Narrative Theory was founded in 1971), but with so many of the writers wanting to Say Big Things, the effect is occasionally like reading student papers for an undergraduate seminar.

We don't have to be hematologists, though, to offer valuable insights about the power of blood, and the best essays in Narrative Power don't try to make vast claims for Narrative Itself, but rather stick to knowable specifics or to types of insights that are more intuitive or experiential than analytical or theoretical. (While most of the essays in Narrative Power are original to the book, the richest essays in terms of theory and analysis are reprints—two by Rebecca Wanzo, one by Samuel R. Delany.)

Fiction is a particularly powerful tool for exploring the idea of narrative, its ways and byways, and it has been at least since the days of Cervantes. The most powerful example I've encountered recently is Who Fears Death, wherein Nnedi Okorafor not only tells a compelling story, but makes the telling and the story central to the book's meaning.

While reading, I wanted to throw Who Fears Death as a wrench into the gears of Reality Hunger's argument—or, rather, into the limited gizmo of David Shields's preferences. In a paragraph (#347) that is not sourced to someone else in the appendix, Shields writes,

I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters' names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It's not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I'm drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that's focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

Reality Hunger is compelling and compulsively readable because of how Shields has assembled and edited it, but it is, perhaps inevitably, a mix of the occasionally profound and the occasionally idiotic. The above is one of the most head-smackingly obtuse statements in the book. If Shields only appreciates writing that is "about what it's about," then he shouldn't read fiction, he should read philosophy or historical treatises or scientific papers or instruction manuals. Most of the writing in the world is "about what it's about"; literature is the one province in which other complexities—or, to steal the title of an excellent book by Ander Monson, other eccentricities—abound. Even the most craven of hack novels usually want to "say something" about love or heroism or sacrifice by embedding it into the actions and situations of characters. If Shields is really as bad a reader as he presents himself being, he shouldn't write about fiction any more than I should write about theoretical mathematics.

The nonsense of Shields's paragraph is made obvious by countless examples. Who Fears Death is a particularly good one, because it is a traditional novel (characters, plot, causal action, details meant to create verisimilitude, etc.) that is mostly written in a straightforward manner and uncomplicated diction, and yet its complexities are vast. Even more impressively, those complexities are woven into the book itself, inextricable from it, and summary can't present them all. Who Fears Death is and needs to be a story in a popular form, because it is also about stories and popular forms, their effect in the world and on the world, with itself as an entire exhibit hall in the museum of human possibilities.

Good fiction of whatever form—fiction that compels us to read it, fiction that holds our attention and gets our brains going, fiction that unsettles us or perplexes us or moves us or cracks us up—is always "a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking," always "focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about." Narrative is not the opposite of thought—stories are an integral part of thought. As Benedict Carey noted in a 2007 New York Times article, "Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent."

She was like a character locked in a story. It was truly awful.
—Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death

By reading and retyping thousands of lines from over a hundred memoirs I feel like I have absorbed them, consumed them, become them, stuffed them in my mouth, enveloped their shells with my own. When we say a thing, it is an incantation. When we write a thing, we are summoning. When we read a thing, we are susceptible to magic. I become a we, a little less lonely.
—Ander Monson, Vanishing Point

One of the uniformed maintenance men said, "You've been playing around with your reality tape."
—Philip K. Dick, "The Electric Ant"

Fourth Movement

Vanishing Point is subtitled Not a Memoir, a description which is mostly true, but not quite, and in any case, the book is more than what it's not. It's plenty of things, in fact—a collection of essays, a meditation on truth and memory and essay-writing, an experiment in form. Many of Monson's ideas and concerns parallel those of David Shields, but Vanishing Point is a more edifying book than Reality Hunger. There are sections where Monson's technique echoes Shields's: he cuts and pastes without direct attribution in a series of short pieces he calls "assembloirs" made out of sentences pulled from a hundred or so memoirs. And though he doesn't write much specifically about fiction as a type of writing, there's a marvelous essay about Dungeons & Dragons, conceived after learning that D&D creator Gary Gygax had died.

Mostly, though, Monson writes about the difficulty of apprehending the self: the all-seeing I versus failures of memory and foibles of perception. The ideas and themes of Vanishing Point are entirely familiar, common to fiction and nonfiction alike, since they are fundamentally themes of consciousness, and writing is most often about consciousness, about how we perceive and what we should perceive and what has been perceived—even an instruction manual seeks to help us perceive a task, and anyone who has tried to follow badly written instructions knows how difficult it can be to bridge the gulf between utterance and reception ("Is the problem me or them?" we wonder as we stare at the impenetrable instructions). It is not in its general topics or themes that Vanishing Point is unique and powerful, but rather in how it approaches and develops its topics and themes.

Like Nnedi Okorafor, David Shields, and Wendy Walker, Ander Monson succeeds by setting the problems he wants to investigate not only at the heart of what he writes and at the heart of how he writes. Form is content. Early in the book, Monson describes being a preliminary judge for a contest of nonfiction manuscripts:

I think the experience will be fun, and it is—for the first twenty manuscripts or so. After that, I learn that it's incredibly boring to read manuscript after manuscript of "I"s asserting themselves and their claims to truth. Listen to what happened to me, they say. They interpose themselves between the reader and the world so everything is filtered through their shadows, so each I stands between us and actual experience. They suppose their "I"s are solid, inviolable, made up of evidence and verifiable memory, that their stories are theirs and theirs alone, and do not think what it means to make a story their own. The more I think about "I," the more self-conscious I get about its proliferation in my own documents, in my emails (in which embarrassingly many—or all—paragraphs begin with I, as if each email is an exercise in assertion, in letting everyone else in on my solipsism), my letters, notes about my experience, these essays, and the way I process it all through I, through these eyes, assumptions of truth or at least verisimilitude.

Monson's own manuscript escapes the monotony of "I" through awareness—he does not suppose his I is "solid, inviolable, made up of evidence and verifiable memory," and he explores all the ways it isn't, and then explores the implications invoked by these insights, the meaning of making a story his own. Monson is smart enough to know that he is implicated in anything he says about narrative and truth, that he cannot escape it any more than any of us can, and yet this doesn't stop him from continuing to delve into the effects and ambiguities of all he thinks about: the paradox of being inseparable from what he is discussing fuels his discussion. One essay, titled "Solipsism," begins with two pages of nothing but the word "Me," but it doesn't end there, a banal concrete poem—instead, Monson continues by discussing how easy it is, in the era of cut-and-paste, to create two pages of the word "Me," and how much more effort it would have required with a manual typewriter. This leads to a discussion of technology, writing implements, and typography.

Narrative is reality: it makes reality. Neither word is stable, though, because both are built by and rely on human perception: language, thought, memory. Language, thought, and memory, too, are aspects of each other. They are consciousness, and consciousness enables and enacts them. Writing seeks to capture consciousness, to replicate and represent it, and consciousness is affected by writing. Writing goes to work in the world. The world is our perception of the world.

The symphony exists beyond the orchestra, the orchestra beyond the symphony, but neither without the other.

Yesterday, I put a few pages of an abandoned book inside the walls as a note to whoever lives here in the future, time capsule-style, before I sealed it up, or at least I tell myself I did. I should have put some Borges there, or Philip K. Dick, or something visionary and meaningful, though more than likely this house—these walls—will be knocked down before anyone opens up the walls again, or it might be reduced by rising water or terrifying wind, tornado on its way to an appropriate trailer park, termite infestation, terrorist action, manifest destiny and the progress of interstates, apathy of its inhabitants, poor typography, bad mathematics, lack of love, or any of the thousand other enemies of structure, which is all that protects us from white space, blankness, ether, and weather, whatever is outside and after this.

—Ander Monson, Vanishing Point


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea, and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.