Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Where is the fault?

(For those new to the blog: Borrowed Fire is an ongoing series, in which I attempt to learn fiction writing by reading classic works of literature. All BF texts are posted on Project Gutenberg, so everyone can follow along, or at least locate the relevant sections. We're now about knee-deep in The Brothers Karamazov, God help us. Previous works include Chekhov's "Gusev," H.G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall," Melville's Moby Dick, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Gogol's "The Overcoat," Conrad's The Secret Agent, and Thoreau's Walden. One of my purposes is to figure out how older--and perhaps seemingly outdated--ideas and techniques might be brought to bear on contemporary fiction. This is not, by the way, to say I don't like Raymond Carver. I do. Really. But there are other models we might follow, too, or...dare I say, instead...)

So this past week I was reading along through the series of chapters called "Lacerations." And I have to say it was getting a tad monotonous. Our hero, Alyosha, has become the designated errand boy for the bunch of lunatics that comprise his family and the small town in which they live. We therefore get many, many pages of people falling upon him, pouring out their troubles, and begging him to go see so-and-so and explain to them about such-and-such, because they can't bear to do it themselves, you see... The problem is they all express themselves in pretty much the same way, at length, and at the textual equivalent of high volume (lots of exclamation points!). As we know from the latest season of Lost, constant high volume is as boring as no volume at all. We need ups and downs, what they call in music dynamics. And we need people's voices not to all sound the same.

Still, I'm pretty sure I see where Dostoevsky is going. For one thing, he's building toward "The Grand Inquisitor," possibly the greatest set-piece in all of literature, and certainly one of the most intriguing meditations on Christianity that I've ever read. Before that, the pious Alyosha has to be exposed to all manner of suffering, the bulk of it undeserved--because his faith, although he never loses it, is going to be challenged. The question of why God allows innocents to suffer (or maybe makes them suffer, for that has to be the same thing, really) preoccupies Dostoevsky. The three brothers Karamazov, representing sensuality, intellectuality, and spirituality, are instruments through which he works these questions out. The degree to which they are also very human--not allowing themselves to be completely instrumentalized, by either Dostoevsky or God--is one of the most fascinating aspects of BK. They really do rebel against their creator(s).

Which brings me to today's topic, which was going to be the topic even before I attended Richard Powers's talk yesterday. Now it's even more the topic, because I have it on good authority that this is a question writers are going to have to consider seriously as the trans-human age approaches. The question is, where do characters' faults lie? In the stars or in themselves, or in some specific combination of the two? In other words, does fate (or genes) or free will rule, and how do these forces actually function in your created world?

All right, let's make the question specific to BK. In the course of his errand-running, Alyosha happens across a group of schoolboys who are throwing stones at another boy. Taking the underdog's side, as a good Christian, Alyosha approaches the lone boy to attempt to find out why the others are attacking him. But the victim promptly grabs Alyosha's hand and chomps the hell out of his finger. As fortune--i.e. the tangled web of intrigue woven by Dmitri--would have it, Katerina sends him to the household of that very boy's father. Turns out Dmitri humiliated the boy's father, a captain, by dragging him out of a tavern into the street, by his beard, no less. The schoolboys, who witnessed the scene, call the beard a "wisp of tow," and I suppose the Freudian implications need not be elaborated upon here.

Anyway, in talking to the captain, Alyosha figures out why Ilusha bit his hand.

"I think I understand it all now," said Alyosha gently and sorrowfully, still keeping his seat. "So your boy is a good boy, he loves his father, and he attacked me as the brother of your assailant.... Now I understand it," he repeated thoughtfully.

Alyosha understands that Ilusha is not really justified in biting him. But Alyosha is a Karamazov, a fact of which people keep pointedly reminding him. He is as different from Dmitri as can be, but he bears the same name. Therefore he bears some responsibility, if not guilt, for Dmitri's actions.* There is talk throughout the novel of a "Karamazov curse." Alyosha can disavow neither his brother's actions, nor his name. In this world, there's no going elsewhere and reinventing yourself. This does not mean Alyosha is powerless, but he has to play the cards he's been dealt; and his, though unfairly, will always be marked with a "K." Thus all the errand-running.

This notion of having relatively little control over your basic identity has at least two sources here: a firm belief in an all-seeing God, and the kind of rural / small-town setting that keeps extended families close together. Everyone knows who you are; God knows who you are. And so you are that guy, forever enmeshed in that web. Contrast this with (for example) the atomized three-sibling family in The Corrections, another sprawling family novel that I love. The Corrections concerns questions of responsibility as well, especially responsibility toward one's aging parents when one's own life is going down the toilet. But the sins of Chip have nothing to do with the sins of Gary. They and their sister each struggle along in their own narrative silos; while each appears in the others' stories, the bulk of the novel is made up of separate narrative sections in which each sibling is the lead protagonist. If someone told Gary that Chip was an asshole, Gary might say, "Yeah, he is, isn't he?" and that would be a perfectly reasonable response. Gary has his own problems, besides. But Alyosha must constantly circulate from brother to father, from wronged fiancee to humiliated captain, because the fault is not *only* with oneself in BK. It is familial, national, and ultimately global. Humans are all fallen, and all are therefore responsible for each other.

In other words, deciding where the "fault" lies will shape the structure of your fiction, as well as the precise nature of your characters. An interesting experiment for your (or my) next story might be shifting the location of the fault from where we normally would place it. If you tend to think people are the masters of their own destinies, make it so they aren't. If you believe in an overarching fate or power, remove it, or change that power's nature. Just being conscious of where we place the fault, I think, will yield some very interesting results.

*See the Slacktivist for a fascinating discussion of guilt vs. responsibility, which ties right into Dostoevsky.

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