Saturday, July 30, 2011

When at last you give in...

I think the ultimate test of understanding an idea is being able to recognize it elsewhere. Anyone can string useless words together as some sort of definition, anyone can write, but it is actually seeing this concept outside of its initial context that allows you to truly claim understanding. It's like waiting on a girl to grow her hair out just to see if you're only attracted to the current boyish cut. Because you'd never know. I would say that being unable to recognize ideas that connect across different contexts is one of the major faults in ideology. Let's have ourselves a little experiment, then, in locating the concept outside of its context.

Anyone remember this? (Of course not, no one's even reading this question of remembrance, much less actually recalls the post.) The concept from that post (and yes, it would make sense to at least refresh yourself on what the fuck it is I'm talking about you assholes who disregards the link) was that complete control of a system, no matter how corrupt, holds certain forces in check, and when you drop even metaphorical bombs on these structures without thought to the inevitable negative consequences (need I say Iraq?) you end up cutting up a good bit of your nose to spite not your face but your ear, it's not the whole package but a part of it. I found this concept to have support both in anthropology's growing dissatisfaction with racial classification and the economic policies the West decided (naively, if not dumbly) were best for the area formerly known as the Eastern Bloc after the Eastern bloc got into that copyright trouble with recording company (quite an accurate portrayal if you identify said company as the West...) so I think we can truthfully conclude that I saw the concept occurring in two unrelated contexts.

But often, the contexts are not so apparently disjunct. Take one of the two original sparks in my mind for this post: the connection between Michael Chabon's call in "Trickster in a Suit of Lights" (the first article in his Maps and Legends) for a new appreciation of popular writing, or as he has it, entertainment and Philip Stevick's call for a newfound acknowledgement of experimental fiction in his introduction to his anthology, Anti-Story. The concept itself is very simply in this case: both of these men are criticizing the common short story in canon style, dubbed "epiphany" heavy by Stevick (who gives us a half of a page citing the vernacular etymology back up through to Joyce) and by Chabon as "plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew" (his lack of explanation for the word showing the differential that forty years has put between the two men--Stevick, writing in 1971 sees it necessary to explain the word, Chabon in the oughts, does not...or he just wasn't going to because he's not a critic and is writing an article not an introduction but I'm going with the choice that supports my point). The concept could even be claimed to be exactly the same: the writer critiquing the contemporary short story and its insistence on the "epiphany" structure. The context, however, complicates.

Maps and Legends is a book Chabon put out a short while after his admittedly genre'd Gentlemen of the Road and large stretches of it read as a love affair with the concept of "genre" itself, of pulp writers, and hacks, and I probably shouldn't use any more diminutive words because I'm already taking him too much out of context, but the point is across. One could read the book in the essence of the American importance of freedom, the right to write stories that aren't just the ones you call literary, and it would function quite well as such. Chabon, admittedly a writer of a great many of these literary tales himself (e.g. his collection A Model World and Other Stories if I'm actually on my game), does not mean so much to eliminate as to expand what is considered respectable writing. This sits quite well with Stevick's goals with his anthology: experimental fiction attempting to expand what was considered well and proper. However, the complication arises when we precisely define what each writer is criticizing as the only flavor of ice cream in the whole frozen foods aisle and what different brands could be brought in to expand on this monotony.

Anti-Story attempts to collect stories in relatively self-contained sections with cute little titles of protest like "Against Analysis," "Against Subject," and "Against Scale." Chabon talks about horror stories, adventure yarns, and pulp mysteries. The stories the two christen as supporting their cause could really be no different. How could this be? They are railing against the same establishment! I'll admit, it appeared as if they were, but that was due to the context. If you look at the context you are going to call all sorts of people names based on their predecessors thus Bolivar is the George Washington of South America, Fanon is the Black Rousseau, simply complicating matters because you could make an argument that the conditions were similar, although the solutions, which actually arise from the individuals, were not...

You see Stevick's ideas, as old ones often surely do, would grow to be a part of the problem. So while he would be delighted with a story that attempted to break down your ordinary narrative, Chabon will grow to connote "epiphanic" with "plotless." Ironically, the narrative of Chabon's own life shows the bumps and potholes in this road: after publishing his first novel to great acclaim, he would fall into a hole with his second. As he relates it in "Diving into the Wreck," an article late in the same collection:
In the final stages of work on my first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I cam upon a little picture that nearly ruined my life. It was a reproduction of an aerial painting of Washington D.C., by the architectural visionary Léon Krier--a tiny prospect of blue water, white avenues, green promenades, glimpsed from a tantalizing distance, unattainable, ever receding.
 That doesn't sound like much, you say. And it doesn't. But I don't want to type up more of the quote...and the point can still be made. In this reproduction of a painting, Chabon saw a second novel and he wrote a book for five years before giving up on it. It is important to note here Stevick's spark for his anthology--similarly he was stunned by a piece of (non-written) art: a sculpture of a large O that rocked when pushed. Ultimately Chabon's second novel would be about a writer who can't finish the book he's writing--who has the opposite of writer's block, it's as if his story has gotten the bends, and is continuously decompressing itself out past the 1000 the 2000 page markers.

To show the two writers at their most disparate, we can juxtapose a piece from Stevick's introduction with a line from Chabon's second novel (Wonder Boys). "If, in a fiction," Stevick presents, "we stay within a particular perceiving mind, then we are not really seeing a character at all. Plot, too, has to go."

Chabon: "'Grady,' she said, sounding more than a little horror-struck. 'You have whole chapters that go on for thirty and forty pages with no characters at all!'"

It reads like an argument between the Stevick and Hannah in Chabon's novel. These men are obviously very much at literary odds with one another. Or are they. For although this entire meandering piece of boring writing has been about cut away the context, we can't simply take the words out of context. (You ever get the feeling like you never really learn anything, make a certain decision, or believe a specific truth but perhaps it's not your fault? That it would be impossible to do any of that?) Stevick is talking about stories and Chabon is talking about novels--but still 30-40 pages without characters could easily be a story in the Stevick book, extracted from the neverending novel Chabon locks it into. To be fair, Stevick says that at 30 pages the writer is entering novel territory. But actually fuck that, let's not be fair to that. 30 pages, Stevick? That's like a 2 song e.p. release getting called an album.

I will conclude on another conclusion independent of context. Chabon criticizes the literary field for its dependence on the specific type of story considered somehow right for serious fiction while still being a writer of (at times) nearly exclusively this kind of story. This reminds me of William Gibson speaking in the introduction to his Burning Chrome of
another, variant species of science fiction, unnamed but to my mind somehow distinct, which seemed to start from less fixed assumptions of history, a fiction whose writers seemed willing to entertain ideas that suggested we might, in fact, not know where we'd come from, or even where we were--that we were perhaps failing to recognize where we were for what it most basically was.
Gibson, championing this style of science fiction, doesn't really write it. It came to me in reading Burning Chrome that the country I found most odd in Gibson's books was Japan: a world power. And it dawned on me why it was like that. Russia obviously makes sense because of the Cold War, but Japan's presence is due to the taking off of the Japanese economy (was it the economy?) post-WW2, the sort of growth that I'm sure you could have sketched out to top the US at some point in the not too distant future. And this fact grounded Gibson's work in its presence, as I didn't grow up in that world, or rather if I did I was too young to be aware of it, so it seemed fiction. Which is perhaps the point? The fact that Japan's expansion was an inaccurate prediction might cause the reader to realize "that we were perhaps failing to recognize where we were for what it most basically was."

Ultimately, though, from both Chabon's and Gibson's editorializing against, amongst others, themselves, it seems that we try to portray what we want to accomplish in our fiction when we portray the entire industry. Not so much who we actually are, but rather the ghost of the hope of the negative of the photograph of what the work was in your head and the shoddy rubble we set aside it as actually accomplished in this world.

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