Sunday, October 07, 2007
The Mirror Was Watching Us
"Bioy Casares had dined with me that night and talked with us at length about a great scheme for writing a novel in the first person using a narrator who omitted or corrupted what happened and who ran into various contradictions, so that only a handful of readers, a very small handful, would be able to decipher the horrible or banal reality behind the novel” ("Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius").
John made a similar inquiry a while ago, but would you care to propose an existing novel meeting Bioy’s criteria? The banal interpretation seems especially interesting to me, but you have to be among the handful in any case: i. e., not something that’s been amply discussed in the literature.
The novel exists. It is “Spider”, by Patrick McGrath. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it turns out that none of that stuff really happened, apparently, and it’s, frankly, sort of annoying. It is precisely the case that, apparently, something simpler and more banal happened. Really the reason it is annoying - as a novel - is that not just the solution but the puzzle is rather banal. There is no ingenious path to banality. You just get told, in the end, that the pieces you have been given to work with are total garbage. Unreliable. You have no basis for drawing any inferences. Who the hell knows what happened?
It works better as an idea for a novel than as a novel.
"The Sacred Fount” by Henry James
This is the exact theory that you had for the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, isn’t it? The varous contradictions are supposed to indicate that it could have been that Severian inherited the Autarchship through some kind of banal accident or minor politicking, and made up the whole I-was-a-fated-torturer story to justify his rise to power and make himself seem glamorous. Of course, this theory is not really “not something that’s been amply discussed in the literature”, but I’m not sure what you’re asking for in that regard. That one of the small handful of unpublished geniuses who have figured out a work will step forward?
It was something like that, Rich, but I wasn’t the person who came up with it. In fact, all three of these books fail the “handful” criterion, I think, The Sacred Fount most spectacularly.
Sorry, I think that it was John Clute who who came up with it if I remember rightly; when I wrote “the exact theory that you had” I only meant that I thought that you held to it.
I still don’t understand the handful / not amply discussed criterion. If some book has a very-hard-to-figure-out unreliable narrator, and no one has written about it much in the critical literature, then it seems likely that the book is either not worth writing about or that the handful of people who think it has a super-secret solution are wrong.
Rich, that comment seems to privilege professionalism far more than is your wont. When did you start valuing critical opinion so highly?
Also, can their solutions, however unlikely-seeming, be wrong?
You are right. “Spider” fails the handful test.
Well, their solutions can either be very banal, in the sense that one could claim that any first person narration is a lie from start to finish by the narrator, or they could be wrong in the sense that the contradictions that they point to as evidence to do not turn out to actually be contradictions after more careful reading.
But, OK. To my knowledge, I was the first one to come up with the idea that in the Iain Banks book Look To Windward, the entire plot by the opponents of the Culture, the Chelgrians, was set up by the Culture to cause the long-term genocide of the Chelgrian linked species or whatever you’d like to call them. Admittedly, the whole novel is not written in the first person using a single narrator, but a good chunk of it is, and with a bit of work I could modify the theory to make that person a knowing Culture agent, whose story of innocent scholarship is a cover for his genocide-causing activities. Does that qualify?
No, strike that, I misremembered the book, which doesn’t use first person narration for the sections concerned with the point of view of that character.
Don Casmurro, by Machado de Asís, fits the bill pretty well.
Machado de Asís is, I thought, quite renowned—is there really only a handful written about it?
It’s interesting. I’m not sure how I understand the sense in which there could be a horrible or banal *reality* *behind* a novel - I mean, presumably, if it can be decoded by reading the novel then it must somehow be *in* the novel surely? and likewise I don’t quite see what *reality* means in this context either. It’s a strong word to use for what appears to be an alternate reading.
Unless it’s historical fiction or something, and there really is a referent which corresponds to reality and is ‘behind’ the novel. But that would bring up another set of impediments, wouldn’t it, connected with what the meaning of historical facts are and who has the authority to make that decision.
All I can think of is a novel which is actually a kind of minority / gnostic / perverse reading of another text. Whit Stillman’s novelisation of The Last Days of Disco might fit the bill in some way. It’s written in the first person by the original of the dumbest character in the movie and he fails to grasp quite a lot of what he sees in the film (he’s confused by his own recollection of events the movie is based on.)
I mentioned Don Casmurro because, while I’m sure it has been the object of criticism, it is from a less studied literature and might not be the first that springs to mind.
Hmmm. I suppose Dick’s The Man in the High Castle doesn’t qualify because an ordinarily astute reader would realize that what lies behind everything is our (banal?) world in which Germany and Japan lost in WWII.
I suppose there could be a sort of perverse pleasure in writing a novel so abstruse that only a handful of readers worthy of the novelist’s genius could figure out the trick (and that’s what we are talking about, a trick). And then once the trick is known to English teachers, they can exhibit their superiority before befuddled students.
It all sounds like masturbation to me.