The Narrative of Dead Narrative
Suddenly, it feels like post-war France again. Two essays were published within days of each other, both denouncing something they call narrative: "Narrative in the Anthropocene Is the Enemy" by Roy Scranton at LitHub and "Storytelling and Forgetfulness" by Amit Chaudhuri at LA Review of Books. Is the nouveau roman back in vogue?
Neither essay is especially illuminating or compelling, I don't think, but it's interesting that they both appeared so close together and from such different writers, with quite different purposes. That fact (their synchronicity) more than anything else is what caught my attention. What work, I wondered, is the concept they call narrative doing within these essays?
In his essay, Roy Scranton is doing what he's known for, a shtick that was provocative when Learning to Die in the Anthropocene was published and Scranton positioned himself as the Norman O. Brown of the anthropocene, but which now is getting a little bit threadbare. Though his more recent We're Doomed. Now What? has its good parts (particularly the essay about Iraq), it's vastly better at supporting the declaration in the first half of the title than answering the question in the second half. At this point, though, the shtick just feels to me like what you get from one of those old toy dolls where you pull a string and the doll repeats a few phrases and then you pull the string again and it repeats the phrases again on and on until the string breaks and the doll is finally silent. Which is not to say that the words coming out of the doll are wrong. If anything, at heart I'm probably gloomier than Scranton. (He at least has a child. Making new, suffering beings seems to me to be cruel.) But my irkedness is not so much about the gloom as it is about the prescription. Scranton does doom-and-gloom ecophilosophy better than he does literary theory. In the new essay, he comes out against narrative because human life is going to end soon and the universe is absurd. ("Ah, oui!" says an old French guy, lighting another cigarette.)
I'm totally with him on apocalypse and absurdity — you'll have to pry my copies of Camus out of my globally-warmed, dead hand — but ... narrative?
Chaudhuri is a bit more subtle, or perhaps it's just that his complaints are less clear. (One thing about Scranton that I appreciate is that you never have to guess what he doesn't like. Chaudhuri woozes.) He complains about the idea that humans are storytellers and storytelling is "a primal communal function for humanity." Storytelling, he says, "shouldn’t be guaranteed an aura simply because humans have been at it from the beginning of history." As best I could figure it out, what Chaudhuri wants is to do away with narrative in favor of immanence. He praises first paragraphs and envisions an entire text of them, but even that isn't enough: By the end of the essay, what he wants is to live with nothing more than the potential offered by a bookshelf of unread books, the end of reading and storytelling altogether. Even to read a book is, it seems, to kill it. What appears to be Chaudhuri's greatest praise rises in the final sentences: "Our bookshelves are largely made up of books that we do not read. These are our ongoing moments of writing — a self-generated accumulation of writing as possibility." It's like he's decided the best text is the most radical writerly text (in the Barthesian sense). Or that he's reached a point where he just wants to sit and stare at a shelf and think big thoughts.
We might have expected this from Chaudhuri, if we've read any of his novels. I've read A Strange and Sublime Address, a book I find more interesting to think about than to read — in that sense, Chaudhuri achieved his goal early on. In the new essay, he says that he's now realized that as a writer his "subterranean aim — so subterranean that it’s taken me two decades to see what I was up to — was to create an assemblage of opening paragraphs, to expand as much as possible, without introducing a sense of development, the vivid lack of resolution of the first three or four pages." This is what I wrote of A Strange and Sublime Address when I first read it in 2014:
A Strange and Sublime Address seems like an assemblage without a plot, a city without a story — and yet cities do not lack for stories. Sandeep feels that the “‘real’ story, with its beginning, middle, and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist” (54), and yet this is not exactly true; or, rather, it is true but not exactly useful as an insight, especially if we apply it to the text we are reading. A Strange and Sublime Address has a first word, a middle word, a last word, as it also has a first, last, and middle sentence, page, chapter. These linear arrangements allow patterns to become meaningful. Stories are told, and stories lead into other stories. This is much like a city. The concepts that we associate with the textual effect we call the character “Sandeep” are concepts that are advanced for a child’s mind, but not entirely unrealistic, and it seems to me that his perception that the “real” story of life could not be told because it is too big and overdetermined for narrative representation is unsatisfying. The desire for one story is the problem. Reality is not one story. Reality is an assemblage of infinite moments, actions, and perceptions. Reality is a system of relations. We can name some of these assemblages and systems — we can call them a city, a family, an object — and we can talk about the beginning, middle, and end of each.It's odd that it took Chaudhuri so long ("two decades") to see what was really quite apparent from that, his first novel. He's never much liked plot, certainly, and whether he's liked narrative or not depends on how you define narrative. (I read plenty of narratology during my PhD, so I'm not touching that question right now. Only the brave or foolish will!)
Chaudhuri conflates narrative and novel in his essay. In some ways, it's a perfectly reasonable conflation — novels are long narratives — but it causes confusion because there are such things as short stories, and not all of Chaudhuri's complaints about narrative apply to short fiction. Indeed, much of the time while reading his essay, I thought, "Give up on novels if that's the way you feel about them! Read short stories! The lovers of novels are not out here throwing novels at you! Use your free will, man! Be happy!"
Both of these essays take the common but obnoxious route of turning personal pet peeves into prescriptions for literature, society, and humanity. I suppose that's what irks me about them, since I don't really care about narrative as a concept, though I do enjoy much narrative prose. And while I like the concept of anti-narrative fiction, I rarely have much interest in it in practice if it lasts for more than 10 pages or so. Life's too short, and I've got other things to do. Call me middlebrow, but narrative is a tool to make a long book feel worth the time and effort of reading.
Scranton wonders, "Would it be possible to reduce these considerations to a handful of questions, if only as an exercise?" and then offers: "1) What can narrative do in the face of global ecological apocalypse? 2) Is it possible to use narrative to subvert and attenuate narrative desire?"
It's odd to have such serious questions posed as if they matter somehow. According to Scranton, nothing really matters: anyone can see we're all doomed, life is a meaningless flood of experience and sensation, Twitter sucks. He's like an adolescent in a snit. Did he even want to write this essay? It has an obligatory feel to it, the feel of something dashed off, something not quite rote but nearly. Maybe there's some part of Scranton that knows that if he really believes what he says he believes, then maybe he shouldn't publish anything, and maybe instead of writing he should join Bartleby and company in stubborn silence.
But he's not Bartleby, he's not working in the dead letter office; he's got a new novel out and he needs to do what he can to promote it, or else nobody will know it exists, nobody will read it, and then what good will it have done? Life may be meaningless and most life on Earth may be ending soon, but that's no excuse not to buy my book! (To be honest, the new novel sounds fun. I didn't like his first novel, War Porn, since once you know the basic concept there's little reason to read the book, but the new novel's description is pretty gonzo and sounds like something I'd like. And it got blurbed by Noy Holland, a marvelous writer who ought to be more famous. So I'll probably pick it up once it's in paperback. If any of us are still alive then.) I expect the new novel has a narrative, since it's not published by a tiny avant-garde press, the only sort of place that would publish a non-narrative novel in the US these days. I wonder: Is Scranton saying, "Narrative creates delusion and misery and we're gonna die soon and narrative hides that fact but my book's narrative is a better narrative than other narrative buy it please I have a child to feed." No, probably not. At least, I want to believe not.
"Go to the library," [David] Antin instructed his class, "find someone who's already written about something better than you could possibly do at this moment in your life, and we'll consider the work of putting the pieces together like a film. Within about four or five weeks," he said, they were, "producing wonderfully quick, shifting beautiful things, like race drivers shifting gears." Throughout her career Acker would describe how she'd apprenticed herself to David Antin. The idea, he explained, wasn't just to cut and paste things by rote, but to find the connections between disparate realities. "A piece of Aeschylus and a plumbing manual have to be brought together in some sort of way. You could make it be like a car collision on I-5" ... or then again, "you might want to slip things into each other, as if Aeschylus was being sodomized by the plumbing manual." After a while the students began finding the library too far to walk and began faking it, all the while claiming they were using found sources. Freed from the demand of creating "original" work, they started making things up. Antin, who thought he didn't know how to teach, became one of the most popular teachers at UC San Diego.If you actually care about doing something to maybe lessen a bit of the doominess of the impending doom, you won't publish a new book, you'll go out and actually, you know, do something. If you are frustrated with writing because it doesn't do enough, writing is probably not to blame.
—Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker
In a discussion of the playwright Maria Irene Fornes as a teacher, Luis Alfaro tells a story of being in one of her workshops where she asked him, "What kind of play do you want to write?" and he responded, "I want to write political plays," and she gagged and said, "I hate people who write political plays." (Despite, as Alfaro says, her own work being quite clearly political.) She said, "I'm going to ask you to do something that may be the hardest thing I've ever asked a writer to do: Stop writing. Go off and live your politics. Go do that. And then come back and write a story and I promise you, even if you write a story about a rock, I promise you it will be political." Alfaro took her advice. He stopped writing, he lived his politics, becoming a union organizer, then running an AIDS hospice. "Then I came back to Irene's workshop," he says, "and the writing took off. The writing got clear. The stories got clear. The form got clear. So the remaining years with Irene were really about a word she used to use with me: get more sophisticated with it, get clear with it, you have like one word and you're not expanding the word."
Expand your word. Expand your world.
It's easier to just complain about narrative, though. It lets you feel righteous, you who is above it all, you who has escaped false consciousness, you the enlightened. If nobody cares (and nobody cares) it just proves how right you are.
Writers think narrative is important because, unlike normal people, they spend a lot of time thinking about it and trying to manipulate it. And since it feels important to them, they think it must somehow be related to other important things. But that's just the bias of attention. If Scranton were a photographer, he'd be out here declaring that imagery is killing us and we need to make abstract photos. If he were a plumber, he'd be trying to figure out how to make a sewer empty in to a house rather than out of it.
The fact is, hardly anybody wants to read an anti-narrative novel. That's hardly an argument against them, though, since only a small percentage of the world's population reads books of any type, narrative or no. The people who pick up transgressive, subversive, anti-narrative novels do so because they already like that sort of thing. Narrative or anti-narrative, it doesn't really matter, though. I've said it before: Publishing novels is an utterly inefficient way to try to change the world.
(Scranton isn't only talking about novels. He's not as stuck on that as Chaudhuri. Does it matter? Maybe. I don't know. I don't care about narratives.)
Question 2 is a little easier to answer: "Is it possible to use narrative to subvert and attenuate narrative desire?" People have been trying to do exactly that since at least Tristram Shandy. Whether they've succeeded or not depends on the reader. Readers' desires are not all alike. Readers' uses of narratives are not all alike, and so their response to anti-narratives will not be all alike. In any case, you could probably spend the rest of your life just reading books that try to use narrative against narrative. (Postmodern much?) For Scranton to pretend that his is some sort of original idea requires either ignorance or arrogance — or the addition of the word anthropocene, the word that's launched a thousand thinkpieces.
And I saw that I could have a narrative if I copied another narrative and didn't interpose too much. I was getting away from the position of elitism, and I wasn't having to deal with "I'm an expert telling you how I think the world is" — you know, this damned "world position" that I hate — but I could still have narrative, and all I wanted was narrative. There's a kind of beauty, you know. Something I wanted. But I didn't have to mean by it.Chaudhuri and Scranton's complaints against narrative are easily dismissed if limited to narrative, but I return to the idea I posed at the beginning: What does the sudden desire to kill off narrative suggest, what work does it do?
—Kathy Acker, informal interview, 1986
Chaudhuri wants to get beyond an idea of humans as storytellers, beyond the turning of storytelling into some great moral act that brings us back to our species' roots. He wants to preserve potential, to be truer to the flow of experience. It's a Modernist desire: to get to a greater realism than what's available in traditional narrative (however you define "traditional" and "narrative" — 19th century European social realism seems to be what we're talking about). He brings up Walter Benjamin's desire for a text made only of quotations. The citation leads him astray, leads him toward his essay's tendency to privilege his own way of reading, his own suppositions and responses, over other possibilities. Quotations don't have to work in the way Chaudhuri says. Details don't, either. Nor novels, nor narrative, nor nor nor...
Recently, I've been revisiting the work of Kathy Acker and reading Chris Kraus's biography, After Kathy Acker. I've been reading around in Acker for years, ever since undergraduate days in New York City, where her books had a certain aura of transgressive coolness at places like St. Marks Books. She seemed to be the natural next step from William S. Burrough. I liked her boldness, but then and now I've never really embraced her writing. (Does anybody? Is it embraceable?) But it's long accompanied me in short bursts.
My current burst of Ackering is Steve Shaviro's fault. After I read his lovely recent tribute to her, I couldn't help but go back and stroll skippingly through Great Expectations and Pussy, King of the Pirates, as well as Kraus's biography and the interviews collected in The Last Interview. I was struck by Acker's turn (around the time of Empire of the Senseless, it seems) away from purely conceptual fiction and toward more narrative.
I've also been reading Benjamin Moser's new biography of Susan Sontag. In it, Moser quotes a 1988 interview with Sontag, who reflects on her young enthusiasm for certain types of avant-garde fiction:
I was not being entirely honest with myself in the 1960s about the accomplishments of le nouveau roman. What I really liked much more was the idea of it. When I wrote about Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet, I liked their essays and the ideas they had about fiction much better than the fiction that they themselves were writing.
What do Scranton's and Chaudhuri's essays want? What kind of texts do they desire? What do these writers want to read? (Not novels, Chaudhuri says. Unless, of course — perhaps — he wants you to read his own. Does he exempt himself? Are his the only novels he wants to read?)
(Maybe I care about narrative.)
This morning, I read these words from John Berger:
Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories, when heard, stop the unilinear flow of time.Berger was committed to the political and social idea of the storyteller in a way I'm not, but nonetheless, attacks like Chaudhuri's make me want to stand up for storytelling.
Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless.
The lens is the secret of narration...
I want to tell you there's no need to read these guys when you could be reading Anne Boyer or Kate Zambreno. Read Boyer's The Undying, particularly. In a review I wrote for the latest print issue of Rain Taxi, I said this of The Undying and Zambreno's Screen Tests:
Though The Undying focuses on one primary topic [Boyer's experience of cancer] and Screen Tests ranges more widely, there are numerous similarities of form and reference, of motor and fury. A reader flipping through the books will notice one similarity immediately: Both books eschew conventional paragraph formatting for the style most common on the internet (and in this magazine), where blank space separates unindented paragraphs. In a book of hundreds of pages, this style makes each break feel slightly greater than a simple shift of paragraphs. It relieves any expectation of elegant transition and promotes instead a sense of gaps and parataxis. These are books of fragments, shards, shores, ruins; these are writers trying to set wastelands in order.Are these the sorts of books Scranton and Chaudhuri might champion? I don't know. They have the separation of paragraphs that Chaudhuri so hungers for. But are they narratives? Anti-narratives? Subversive narratives? I don't know.
(I don't care about narratives. Except when I do.)
I don't think either Scranton or Chaudhuri is really talking about narrative (whether loosely or strictly defined), but I can't figure out what they are talking about. (Do I care?) I can't figure out what they want, except for us to agree with them, to read the way they read, to read what they write. Am I wrong to suspect that what they have written is more about them and their own sense of struggle and perhaps failure than it is about much else? Do they feel sidelined, underappreciated? Are they angry that popular narratives are popular and their work is not? Perhaps that is it, and perhaps they feel embarrassment about their feelings. But not enough embarrassment to stop publishing their work.
(Or perhaps they want us to forgive them.)
(Or to love them.)
There is a weird desire within both Scranton's and (to a lesser extent) Chaudhuri's essays for immortality. Scranton writes: "All the wonders with which we bedazzle ourselves are a snap in the long grind of ecological, geological, and cosmic time." Okay. But so what? Is narrative bad because books aren't likely to last as long as rocks? This is the reasoning of the child who won't do his homework in Annie Hall because the universe is expanding and will eventually break apart and that will be the end of everything, so why bother.
The fact that human life is likely to end long before the universe breaks apart isn't really a very good reason to say narrative won't help us. Sure, narrative won't help us, not in the long run. Nothing will help us in the long run. We aren't part of the long run. If something has to be immortal to be useful then, well, nothing's useful. So how much time is enough time? If humanity will last an extra 100 years, does that make anything more meaningful than it was before? If something will be valued and appreciated for 1 year, is that a disappointment? Is 100 years better than 99? What's the threshold?
And what do you care? You'll be dead.
(Why should I work hard for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?)
Perhaps I'm thinking about posterity because I just watched a documentary about the late Maria Irene Fornes, The Rest I Make Up. Fornes was one of the most important American playwrights of the 20th century, both as a writer and a teacher. In the later years of her life (from about the year 2000 to her death in 2018), she was unable to write and lost many of her memories to Alzheimer's disease. Director Michelle Memram spent more than a decade filming Fornes, capturing the difficulties of age and memory loss, as well as many joys of individual days and old friends.
Better than most, Memram's documentary captures the melancholy drifting away of time. She and Fornes travel to Cuba to see Fornes's family, a wondrous reunion that lasted two weeks.
Shortly after their return, Fornes confesses that she has no memory of the trip to Cuba.
(Write as if in a few weeks you will forget it all.)
(Or don't write, because in a few weeks you might forget it all.)
(And you might be forgotten.)
Write toward forgetfulness.
I will be ____ instead.
____ is something impossible.
I'll be a girl pirate.
—Kathy Acker, Pussy, King of the Pirates
I have reached an age now where there are many books I know I have read but which I have no memory of reading. Or I have a memory merely of a certain impression, a vague sensation I've attached to that book. Is that a book that still has potential for me, in Chaudhuri's sense, or is it somehow hollow, soiled, lost? Why did I read all those books in the first place, if all that would happen would be that I would forget them later? Every day, I forget more books. If I live to anything like old age, there's a good chance I will suffer considerable memory loss, even of books I love. And then I will die. The greatest forgetting: oblivion.
I don't ask why bother? to be cynical and mean, but rather to provoke an answer. Each of our answers will be different, but if we can't answer — if we let the absurdity and gloom overtake us — then...
Maria Irene Fornes's extraordinary plays might be described as lacking narratives or working against narrative. (Read Fefu & Her Friends. Read Mud. Read The Danube. Read Conduct of Life. Read them all, if you can find them. Even better, see a production, if you are lucky enough to live in a place where there are productions of Fornes plays. They are experiences and ought to be experienced. I still quite vividly remember a production of Mud I saw somewhere in New York almost 25 years ago.) Fornes was a better writer than Chaudhuri, a better writer than Scranton, a better writer than me. Her life mattered in a way ours will not. And yet...
(My narrative here keeps breaking down. [You might have noticed.] Would Chaudhuri and Scranton approve? I don't care. I don't want to spend time with these querulous boys; I want to see productions of Irene Fornes's plays, read her words, listen to the songs she wrote for Promenade: "Yes, I have learned from life, and what surprises me, is life has not learned from me.")
Scranton ends by saying, "One must not resist, one must not react: one must interrupt the flow with infinitely slower flow, one must do less, one must be nothing less than less than nothing, pure and total negation, stopping time. One must simply refuse to go on." That's not a conclusion, that's a Beckett novel. I Can't Go On, I'll Go On is the title of a selection of Beckett's work. But but but anthropocene! Scranton is not the Beckett of the anthropocene. Beckett already wrote Endgame.
Back in the mid-1960s, the great Tom Lehrer noted that "one problem that recurs more and more frequently these days, in books and plays and movies, is the inability of people to communicate with the people they love: husbands and wives who can't communicate, children who can't communicate with their parents, and so on. And the characters in these books and plays and so on, and in real life, I might add, spend hours bemoaning the fact that they can't communicate."
This seems to me to be the situation of writers who complain at great length about the failures of narrative, the failures of writing, the failures of themselves. And perhaps they might consider Lehrer's advice:
"I feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up."
FEFU: You see, that which is exposed to the exterior ... is smooth and dry and clean. That which is not ... underneath, is slimy and filled with fungus and crawling with worms. It is another life that is parallel to the one we manifest. It's there. The way worms are underneath the stone. If you don't recognize it... (Whispering.) it eats you. That is my opinion. Well, who is ready for lunch?
—Maria Irene Fornes, Fefu and Her Friends