Monday, December 21, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The digressive narrator

Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.

Thus begins The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And already, we find the great author seeming to break a basic rule, not just of fiction, but of writing in general. The crucial first sentence of the all-important first paragraph of this gigundous book, which we are about to commit ourselves to for the next, I dunno, thirty months--this sentence is misleading. For after lending his name to launch the whole enterprise, Alexey Karamazov vanishes from the narrative, starting on word 4; he is not the subject of the opening chapter after all. This must be the quickest swerve into digression in all of literature. By the end of the first sentence we realize we are in the hands of a gossipy and somewhat easily distracted narrator. A local citizen, he's given to making sweeping pronouncements about people in general, and his nation, despite what seems to be the limited scope of his personal experience: "he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it."

So, fine. We have ourselves an unreliable narrator. Yet this unreliability serves an unusual function in the opening chapter--rather than increasing our suspicion of the "truth" of the story, it does the opposite. How? By rambling, speculating, passing and then ultimately withdrawing judgment, the narrator serves to open the reader's mind and heart to the story that will follow. We've talked before about how various authors (Melville, Chekhov) establish the story's boundaries in the first paragraph. If you're going to go "way out there" later in the story, you have to run out and touch that outer limit right away, even if you're not going to spend a lot of time there till later. This narrator signals that he's going to be talking about the entire nation of Russia, not only a single province or family; but more important, he'll be diving deep into the human heart and bringing up that most elusive of treasures, forgiveness.

In the early paragraphs of this chapter, he delightedly harps on Fyodor's haplessness, viciousness, and stupidity: "a worthless, puny weakling, as we all called him"; "he was, in fact, an ill-natured buffoon and nothing more." But, just as this narrator can't quite hold to a single train of thought, he also cannot maintain a clear-cut opinion for very long. This is partly because (like Gogol's narrator in "The Overcoat," on whom he is at least partly based), he admits that much of what he is telling us is based on rumor. He has heard at least a couple of different versions of certain events. But this admission leads us to trust this narrator more, rather than less, because of this remarkable statement at the end of the chapter:

Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife's death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” but others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more na├»ve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

He admits to not knowing how Fyodor Pavlovitch reacted to his wife's death. But rather than throwing up his hands, as a contemporary ironist might have his narrator do, he decides that both could well be true at the same time--because human beings are complex. Even Fyodor, whom he's just said was "nothing more" than a buffoon, is indeed more than that, or at least was capable of being more. Just as we ourselves are.

The idea that all humans are capable of being better than we think we are is a critical thread in this novel, and in Dostoevsky's Christian faith. It's an exceedingly difficult notion to hold onto, which may be the reason this narrator is so digressive; he's falling into the trap of simplifying people and assuming the worst about them, but then he remembers and pulls himself out. As this first chapter signals, his struggle will be ours too. He has not only challenged us to remember the potential goodness of all the characters in the novel, but to become better people ourselves by remembering this. Here's one of the few cases in which it does seem possible that reading literature could lead to moral improvement. In his meandering way, this narrator makes the novel and the experience of reading it represent the author's best idea of what it means to human.

To sum up this week's lesson for writers: the "unreliable narrator" need not be just an intellectual game. Such a narrator can reveal the limits of factual truth in order to open readers to a deeper emotional experience than they might otherwise be prepared for.

This seems like a good a Christmas message as any to leave you with...Posting will likely be light or nonexistent till the new year. Have a happy and forgiving holiday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Take two

So I finished A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I would like to retract my first appraisal, in which I rather casually used it to represent all of "genre fiction." That was uncalled for. I now think the book can hold its own with anything we call "literary." And I really think you should read it, if you haven't already. Maybe you have. I tend to be late to these parties.

What I find most interesting about my changed opinion is that it falls in line with the argument I was trying to make in that earlier post: that determining whether a piece is "literary" or "genre" need not hinge on the function of character. Yes, CfL's characters are tools to advance the plot--or in this case the "theme," as Miller's plot is just the long spelling out of a philosophical conundrum--rather than the other way around. However, they are no more so than, say, Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (or possibly anyone in BK). In the third section of CfL in particular, the characters are literally torn apart by their desire to love--and forgive--a God they are not willing to admit is seriously flawed (if he even exists). The questions, to me anyway, are as powerful and relevant as anything Dostoevsky wrote. I didn't get attached to Walter Miller's characters; but I was very moved by their struggles--especially at the end--which take place amid nuclear holocaust, and so are pretty damn relevant. I cared more about the outcome of these struggles than I often do in the character-focused domestic dramas that seem to dominate contemporary fiction. CfL takes on the biggest of all human ideas and refuses to provide easy answers. Also there's a lovely image at the very end, of a derelict sea plane, and big fish eating little fish--all diseased, mind you--and a shark swimming out to deeper water looking for food. Chekhovian, or even Melvillian.

I admit it: I'm a sucker for novels about religion. I was raised by secular humanists in a very Catholic town and still have a bad case of religion envy. (Yes, I know I was lucky in many respects--but you guys who had it jammed down your throats all those years: what a wealth of material you have! The imagery, the rituals, the lingering sense of the supernatural in everyday life! Not to mention the whole rebellion experience! Whereas I had...Washington Week in Review.) So maybe that accounts for some of my fascination. And I also gave Miller a pass for a somewhat tedious middle section. There's a little too much blah blah back-and-forth which began to feel like filler to me. But the last section really tied everything up--not in a tight little plot package, but poetically, with a series of striking events and images that would have been pure schlock in other hands (two-headed woman, spaceships, end of the world as we know it, etc.).

Anyway, a pretty impressive book, and an important one. If you ask me.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: A tale of two endings

There. We did it. We finished reading Moby Dick. That wasn't so bad, was it? I mean, if we were reading The Brothers Karamazov, which it kinda seems like we (I) will be doing next, we'd (I'd) only be halfway done. Fortunately, Borrowed Fire, like writing itself, is a journey, not a destination. So expect a leisurely crawl through BK, starting, oh, next week or so. We'll see what I finish first: BK or my novel.

Anyway, let's talk about the ending of MD. Or, rather, its endings. I'm certain there's an academic book out there about the double ending, which seems quite common in literary fiction. What do I mean by double ending? It varies. There can literally be two endings, as we have in Moby Dick--the Pequod's demise, followed by the Epilogue that explains how Ishmael survived (more on this in a moment). Or you can have the did-it-happen-or-not ending, as in H.G. Wells' "The Door in the Wall," which is intended to make us question the relationship between reality and fiction. In a variant of this ending, in "The Overcoat," justice happens in the realm of the fantastic, but remains elusive in the "real" world in which Akaky lives and dies. I recently took another stab at the possibly useless question of what separates literary from genre fiction, and at this moment it seems to me that it has less to do with relative emphasis on character, than with the role of ambiguity. Genre fiction, on the whole, eschews it. It may bring up difficult political or philosophical issues that it doesn't fully resolve, but the main purpose of its storytelling is to answer questions. Who did it? Do they catch that rogue shark? Does she escape from that awful basement, and how? Literary fiction prizes ambiguity, and the double ending affirms it by placing it front and center. Such an ending holds ambiguity up to the light so we can see its facets. The ambiguity derives from the acknowledgment of different levels of experience--fantastic (or fictive), real-world, personal, collective, intellectual, emotional, etc.--which occur at the same time, intersecting, colliding, and diverging.

So: the first and most obviously necessary ending is the final battle with Moby Dick, after which the Pequod and all its sailors (but one) are dragged by the whale into a watery hell. The whole bit's pretty impressive, I must say! Action packed! Gory (thanks to poor Fedallah in particular)! Foamy! All capped off with a stunning final image, followed--and blanketed, so to speak--by the biblical flood:

But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving a few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coincidings, over the destroying billows they almost touched;--at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

So, you know, that's pretty good. You've got your heaven and your hell; the sea swallowing the just and the unjust alike. And then the sea rolls on--it's already over (literally) this particular story. So why then do we need Ishmael's Epilogue? Melville / Ishmael asks the same question:


The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth?-- Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee's disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

Of course, this ending takes care of the logistical question of how this story got told if everyone on board (as it first appears) perished. It also brings back the thread of Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg, which has been dropped for the bulk of the story. It's Queequeg's coffin, which he had made when he thought he was dying--but wasn't, yet--that saves his beloved Ishmael from drowning. It's a last gesture of love, though accidental, from the unmarked grave.

It seems the sinking of the Pequod and the image of the rolling sea was too "big" a place for Melville to leave the story. He wants to go out with both the bang of the great ocean, and the whimper of the single, radically alone human being. The rolling sea of five thousand years ago is stirring and appropriate, but that word "orphan" is a little harpoon in the reader's heart.

So, yes, writers, you can have it both ways. Try going for the double ending--with each one unfolding on a different plane.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Bad messages in Christmas carols: Rudolph and Rand

Last year, by way of holiday cheer, I examined the vexed issue of means testing and the giving imperative as manifested in "Little Drummer Boy." To launch this season's festivities, let's look at "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and its Ayn-Randian implications.

To review:

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
"Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then all the reindeer loved him*
And they shouted out with glee:
"Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
You'll go down in history!"
*Emphasis added.

First off: Notice how Santa lets his underlings bully Rudolph with impunity for an unspecified length of time and only intervenes when he wants something. Where was Santa all those months, even years, when Rudolph was getting his ass kicked on a daily basis? But now that it's foggy and Santa's headlights aren't working, it's all, Oh, Rudolph, you're so wonderful / talented / amazing, and it's high time you moved up in my organization.

And then notice: once he's singled out by the authority figure, suddenly "all the reindeer loved him." Perhaps this indicates that the other reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, et al) are a pack of mediocrities and followers who do only what they are told--while Rudolph is an individual. But it also seems that at the North Pole, love is purely a measure of one's usefulness in the Santasian service economy. Had Rudolph's nose not proven necessary on this foggy evening, after Santa has fallen down on the critical task of sled maintenance (shouldn't he have been prepared for poor visibility already? It's December, at the North Pole, for Chrissake)--the attacks on Rudolph would have proceeded indefinitely. So is the "love" of the bullying herd meant to be Rudolph's reward for putting up with the taunts of his peers? Is all right with the world at last? Is Rudolph now one of the crowd of his former tormenters, albeit a first among equals--who might join in (or lead) the hazing of the next funny-looking reindeer who comes down the pike?

The song does not specify. I believe we're meant to assume that Rudolph happily accepts the accolades, takes (and returns) the love as sincere, and guides the sleigh for the rest of his immortal life, even on clear nights. He forgives; but perhaps something has been lost in forgiveness--an opportunity to reassess the system in which he is now but a cog. Perhaps there ought to be a final verse in which Rudolph tells Santa, "You and your mob of antlered thugs can go wrap yourselves around a cellphone tower. I'm going to be a social worker!"

Friday, December 04, 2009

Wandering thoughts about books about men in robes

As I creep up on the end of Moby Dick, I find myself seriously contemplating The Brothers Karamazov for the next Borrowed Fire series. Contrary to my previous impression, MD is really not that long of a least not compared to BK, which is 940 pages in my very tiny print version of the Constance Garnett translation (the same one they have on Project Gutenberg, so it's almost like a sign that I should do this). It would be quite a slog. But I found myself rereading "The Grand Inquisitor" section last night to help me figure out something for my novel...and, well, it's just freakin brilliant. "Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?" says the GI. Dostoevsky was a rebel against the God he loved and craved to believe in. That's why Alyosha Karamazov, the novice monk, is a sweetie but pales in comparison to his rebel brothers, who suffer so palpably.

Speaking of monks, it looks like I am finally going to finish Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I started about four years ago, then misplaced, then restarted on the plane to and from Cleveland. It's quite interesting, about the rediscovery, many centuries in the future, of atomic-age technology that ended up destroying the planet. As they did in the first Dark Ages, Catholic monks have been preserving technical books and diagrams, which they don't really understand; I've just finished the part where they finally manage to construct a generator to power a lamp in the library. (Leibowitz was a former engineer from the atomic age who repented and became a monk himself.) The writing is strong, witty, and compelling, and the characters are less flat than in other genre novels--especially in the first section, where we spend a lot of time with the charmingly meek novice, Francis. He has unwittingly discovered a cache of papers that will allow Leibowitz to be canonized, and we share his disappointment and cheer his patience as the hierarchy squabbles over what to do with the find.

But then at the end of section one, Francis is shot between the eyes and eaten by mutants.* (The eating part is not shown.) Centuries pass, and we meet a new batch of monks, still puzzling over relics and trying to form alliances with the "savage" clans prowling the blighted American landscape. (It is one of the other great joys of this book that the new Roman Catholic church is rooted in the American west, so the great centers of religious civilization aren't Rome and Constantinople, but Texarkana and Denver.) But the abrupt end of Francis teaches us not to care about these new monks. Even though Miller gives them reasonably compelling quirks and dialog, we now assume that any of them could get the ax--or the arrow--at any time. We realize the characters, for all the work that Miller puts into them, are just vehicles for the real subject of the book, which is the process of technological discovery.

Is that what makes Canticle, ultimately, a genre rather than a literary novel--this clear signal that character is a secondary concern? The quick and dirty answer is "yes"--genre fiction's about plot; literary's about character. But...that's a boring answer. Don DeLillo is considered a literary artist; yet he's always knocked for creating unmemorable characters who exist solely to express ideas. In his recent New Yorker story, that's certainly the case. Of course it's a story *about* overly intellectual college students, who are aware of and dramatize their own detachment from others. Maybe the self-awareness of the characters (and the author) about their condition gives the story more artistic ballast than Canticle. But I read both in a similar emotional state; a kind of warm, hmmm, interesting, what's-this-all-about feeling, with no real concern for the "people." Maybe DeLillo's a little smoother at integrating interesting ideas with interesting-enough characters.

Anyway, for ideas dressed up as human beings, you can't beat Dostoevsky. And DeLillo's story is called "Midnight in Dostoevsky," and it's kinda sorta about Dostoevsky...See, another sign...BK, here I come...?

*Or "sports," as Miller calls them. I spent about a week being fascinated by this term--is it a slur? Does the term of endearment "old sport" mean "old mutant"? Turns out it's a term from biology, and thus neutral in its implications, I guess.