Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Story Of Us Is About Us As Storytellers

In the BBC programme "Birth Of The British Novel" (for limited time on I-Player) Tom McCarthy (Man Booker shortlisted for "C") discusses Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy". Asked what defines a novel, McCarthy says "Shandy's" constant subverting of its own story, the digressions and discursiveness of the narrative, sly references to its own creation, suggests that the key is that any novel contains its own antithesis, it's own anti-novel.

I take this to mean that the novel constantly tugs the reader's attention to the fact that this is just a work of fiction. It is not real life, even if it has things to say about real life. It undermines itself so that the reader is returned to the fact that it is a book with a life and a world of its own between the covers, different and removed from actual life. It is not dissimilar to Bertolt Brecht's approach to theatre, to break down the imaginary fourth wall separating the audience from the staged action. Brecht doesn't want his audience to suspend their disbelief in order to enter the world of the play in its terms; at every turn he is reminding them that they are an audience, sat in a theatre watching actors enact a drama in all its artifice and remove.

In a rather wonderful debut novel by Ida Hattemer-Higgins which I'm currently reading, she gets to the very heart of fiction: "What is the difference between having a knife thrown at your head and reading a story about having a knife thrown at your head?" She goes on to list how in the story there is sentence after sentence of description, contextualising the room, the entry of the girl, the type of knife, the surface in which the blade lodges, its resonating judder. Pretty much a linear list in order of the sense experience as conceived by the author putting herself inside the scene. But the reality of actually having a knife unexpectedly launched at one, she reveals to only conjure up two things, confusion and fear.

Two emotions, almost instantaneous responses to the sense perception that a knife is winging its way towards you. Emotions that overlay, inform, catalyse and subvert one another, in most non-linear fashion. If as my contention is, that the novel must, must get to grips with emotions in an intelligent way, then how do we match the plodding, linear, sentence after sentence approach of the first, prosaic representation, with the actuality of complex, layered and trigger sped emotions?

Story-telling, plot, whatever you want to call it, is the prime artifice of human experience. Because it takes our human experiences and events and arranges them into patterns (the narrative) and groups things together that may not in fact bear true relationship to one another. It distorts cause and effect and consequence, when again things may not be the direct outcomes of what precedes them. (Quantum physics challenges all such notions of cause,effect and material reality itself). Even the human eye uses such short cuts and abbreviations. The rods and cones of the eye wrangle externalities into boundaried shapes, colours and depths and the brain's retinal template overlays its recognition patterns upon them to render them recognisable. But the brain is slightly cheating, rounding off the rough edges of things that don't quite measure up, in order to make them fit its templates. Language is the same with its naming and classification of everything; if you eat food off a slave's back, is the slave not performing the function of a dining table? But no one would ever think to call a human being a table.

So on the one hand is this artifice of ordering, arranging and patterning, without which we probably couldn't function in our lives. And on the other non-linear hand, is our emotions which at least colour everything we as humans do, if not actually determine them wholesale. So again, in order for a novelist to deal in emotional intelligence, to represent their complexity and dimensionality, he might just have to cut against his ordering and plotting of story. Or, as with "Tristram Shandy" and Brecht and others, tug the reader's sleeve periodically to remind them that this is fiction, though what is 24-carat reliable is the emotions being depicted.

So I write novels that are about storytelling, our relationship to it, our need for it, the function which it fulfils in us. Along the way I happen also to tell stories, but I make damn sure to investigate why I'm telling them.

Linear representation of emotions

Representation of non-linear.


John Wiswell said...

A novel must be about more than its own existence as fiction, or else you have no material to twist into post-modern statements. Shandy is quite good because its narrator is so strong, and we don't need any more Shandys. What overarching fiction is doing, and sadly doing slower than film and even good television, is being at ease with its nature as make-believe. Good immersive fiction ought to take us into what we know isn't real without having to jab us; we ought to be in and out of it at the same time.

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks for responding John. I agree with you that the post-modern knowingly self-referential literature can be dreary and devoid of human 'soul' (for want of a better word.

What I'm talking about is more through the language itself - what could be more human than words and our entire physical (and emotional) world is constructed through words. It is this tension between 'reality' and its construction through words that I am more about exploring in literature, each showing up the ellipses and slippages in the other.

Dan Holloway said...

I agree with everything you say, but I'm not sure you've said everything you think you've said. Is this not just the distinction between percept and concept? The fact that ANY representation we make of our sensual or emotional percept - to others or to ourselves - is a fiction (in the sense in which Hume uses it, as a necessary construct)? I am not sure that you have differentiated the novel from other forms of conception.
Where I very much DO agree though is that "fiction" (now used in the vernacular way) is much more promising as a way of attempting to convey something of "what-it-is-like" than "non-fiction" because of its lack of pretence (this has always been my central point in these arguments) - we are not tempted to think of it as trying to convey a literal percept field, so we can get on with the proper business of truth in a meaningful sense - and yes, I agree it's good for works of fiction to remind us they are works of fiction lest we forget and look to them for the wrong thing