Friday 10 June 2016

How I Lost the Plot (It’s a Good Thing, Too)

by Lydia Perović

We like things happening rather than not, we prefer continuity to contingency, purpose to chance, narration to meaninglessness. Alasdair MacIntyre is still right: humans are storytelling animals. That’s how we are as readers of books and as readers of our own lives. We talk of characters, events, arc, movement through time, one thing following another; that is our vernacular. Even in our fairly secular societies, we continue to need to re-enchant the world through the fabrication that is the story and the many shapes it assumes through different media.

You may ask, But isn’t the alternative too unpleasant? The answer depends on how you view literature’s purpose. If it’s there to offer comfort from the harsh world, or appease worries, or offer escape, if it’s used to give the mind a few hours of rest by engaging it in a well-told story, then we play on different teams.

I suspect I’m forever expelled from that particular paradise, of taking pleasure from stories and plot. I can’t pretend to having come even close to understanding what great fiction does, but it’s not that kind of consoling re-enchantment. Any consoling happens secondarily, not by design. Yes, Iris Murdoch, I hear you, “Great art cannot but console what it weeps over.” But this weeping nevertheless remains. Is it over the loss of continuity, the loss of purpose, or the hope in hell that Might won’t always make Right?

Great writing is, I suspect, in the business of a certain kind of truth-telling. It’s a kind of work, perhaps a work of conceptualizing, perhaps a work of play, that the reader and the author undertake together. It does not pretend that everything eliminated for a good story to exist does not actually exist. Rather, great writing is interested in what’s on the cutting room floor. It’s equally interested in those sides of life that are unreachable, invisible, unknowable or empty. It doesn’t run away from the void.

Of the many books that have influenced my thinking around the time I started writing All That Sang – a book trying to settle itself around a void – a few stand out.

There is Siri Hustvedt’s portrait of the artist as a woman, The Blazing World (2014). As an experiment in gendered reception, said artist decides to present her work to the world through men of her choice, the three artists who have agreed to the game. Little else is straightforward: multiple voices argue and speculate about the artist, her work and her reasons, but we never dip into the central character. The woman making art is not heard. An echo of what has been happening with women artists for centuries? Or a line of escape from other people’s narratives, a window of freedom?

Then there’s Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (2012), which begins as a police procedural set in North London, but then we zoom high up and the storytelling peters out in rivulets. What we follow are side views from the margins, people who may or may not be involved in whatever the central event will turn out to be. The two titular detectives occasionally reappear amid the other voices, but by the time they reunite in the final chapter, we realize we didn’t even grasp much of their relationship, let alone discern what exactly, if anything, is taking place in the centre of the book. Its core is disturbingly empty. What happened? And is it amenable to language?

There’s also Jean-Philippe Toussaint and his novels that explore the interstices of living. Some of his works are like a photographic negative, the usual story-forming elements made invisible and the rest, the useless in-between, brought forth. Which is not to say there are no things happening in sequence or some storifying in his work. What happens, however, is often the result of unknown forces, or absurd to the point of comedy. Comparisons with Jacques Tati’s films that appear in blurbs of his books are very apposite. The thingness of things conspires against the narrator, the finicky technology, missed trains, mystifying traffic rules, capricious ball trajectories in the game of boules, the time sucking device that is television.

And then there are the interstices. Camera is especially instructive: two thirds in, the absurdist, comic mode is replaced by a more somber, more static infinitesimal consciousness of the passing of time. The narrator, alone in a photo booth, ponders the moment when in the course of thinking, “you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” There are the constant struggles (for food, shelter, bodily integrity, making the plane on time), but sometimes we pause them long enough to wonder, Why is that I’m doing this, again?

There are many other great writers of not-a-story, many daring thinkers of the void and of the cacophony. Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is a cubist view of a life and a city. Harold Pinter was a master of the invisible, unutterable core. These things find me now with exciting frequency. The other day somebody on Twitter recommended Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago, and what do you know, it too is of the family: much is said through the unsaid.  

As for the unconscious influences on what we do, they are legion. On rare occasion they’ll come out into the light of day. The other night I was tidying the picture folders on my computer and come across this old JPG of the plinth on the Gwendolyn MacEwen statue in an Annex parkette that I took years ago. Could the tenor of the last small chapter in All That Sang have come out of this memory? The two share the general idea of the nonlinearity of time in the face of grief and joy.

Probably not. I should be so lucky. Who knows? Nobody, much. But the dancing will go on.

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