To Cut A Long Story Sh-
Real life is not a narrative. That is not to say we don’t place a narrative quadrat over our lives, trying to make sense of it all. We select, we edit events and experiences, trying to deduce an inner logic, a readable pattern to guide our future behaviour. Our faculty of memory itself is highly selective, filtering out all that it judges to be excess to its limited storage capacity, even if in all likelihood most of the extraneous stuff is never completely deleted and could be brought back to consciousness, by the trigger of a smell, or a long forgotten specific sound.
Our brains are getting constant feedback and stimulus from our immediate environment. It too filters the data for relevance. It doesn’t constantly remind us of the feel of the shirt against our backs, or the smell of our own nasal mucus, because these are downgraded in importance in the wider scheme of things; they don’t vary as much as say the perils of the cars driving along a road we are trying to cross, or the co-ordination required to drink a cup of tea whose volume gradually lessens as we drink it., so we have to adjust the angle of the teacup in order to still be able to imbibe. We have to make adjustments accordingly to these changing phenomena. Narrative would sum these up simply as ‘he waited for a break in the traffic before crossing’, or drank his tea down to the leaves. Narrative manipulates time. It nearly always foreshortens it, just as the brain filters out extraneous details. In doing so it also elides cause and effect where to do so makes huge assumptions about reality and our belief systems. Scarlett Thomas gives a wonderful example of this mechanism; using the example of a cat emerging through a catflap, first you see the head, then the body and finally the tail. Narrative would tell you that the appearance of the head causes the body to emerge and that in turn entails the inevitability of the tail. While they certainly follow on one another, each is not causing the next to happen. Everything is author ex machina in fiction world.
Our brains and particularly our visual sense, looks for patterns. It has a recognition sheet for comparing the sensory data against templates and thereby can pronounce a verdict on the information it gathers. It even fills in some of the irregularities, papers over the cracks, when the sensory data doesn’t quite correspond to the data – optical illusions and trompe d’oeil being examples of this. This is the patterning that narrative also seeks after. To bring order to the inchoate. But just because the visual cortex seeks after patterns, doesn’t make them true. The eye is hoodwinking us, fitting the evidence to feed into its templates. What if you challenged the validity of those templates? What if the retinal scan couldn’t match the data quite so easily to the incoming data? So rather than a narrative of consequences, maybe a writer wants to challenge these pre-settings by which we order the world. To look beyond the patterns, both as to how their arrangements came into being and why they came into being in that particular way.
Such pattern recognition neural templates always have a linguistic element to them, to assist in their recognition through naming, grouping and classification. Maybe rather than narrative ordering (foreshortening of meaning), the writer may want to consider how the basal building block of language underpins all patterning. If the visual assumptions are questionable, what about the linguistic ones? What does their arrangement tell us about the patterning we humans seem wholly reliant upon in order to be able to function. If the visual sense is treacherous, as I believe it to be, then is the linguistic also unreliably built upon assumptions? Narrative is fundamentally reliant on language, but is vice versa true? No, I don’t believe it is. To employ a metaphor here; the human skeleton is held together (and articulated) through the tendons, muscle and sinew it supports and spaces. When the muscle putrefies and fades from existence, there is nothing to hold the bones together and they collapse. Well now, narrative are the bones and language the sinew, muscle and tendons. Narrative is just an armature for mounting meaning through language. And what meaning is language trying to express? Emotional meaning. Emotional intelligence. What it is to be human, which is probably why humans write and read books and animals do neither.
I’ve just finished Scarlett Thomas’ latest book “Our Tragic Universe” from which I lifted the catflap metaphor. In the novel she explores all different strands of storytelling and narrative. She offers jokes and koans and the narrative of the archetype as revealed by a Tarot reading. It unravels its own narrative and actively tries to flee it. I would just like to cite 3 quotes from her novel:
1)”The storyless story has no moral centre. It is not something that the reader should strive to learn something, … (being) encouraged not to ‘get into’ but to stay outside.”
2) “We should have stories not to tell us how to live and turn our lives into copies of stories, but to prevent us from having to fictionalise ourselves”.
3) “The (fictional) hero’s journey is not as universal as Joseph Campbell has suggested. The hero’s journey is actually the colonial journey. It’s the journey of the American dream. There are many different types of story patterns all over the world that don’t show a hero going to good fortune from bad fortune through overcoming. Of course at the moment the loudest voices do tell these hero-myths and claim that this has been so since the beginning of time.”
Firstly she makes the simple but valid point that why do we use fiction to tell us the truth about reality? And yet non-fiction books, especially self-help, but even new science and history and biographies, are always being challenged on points of fact.
Do we still require the modern novel to lay out moral dilemmas for us?
Do we still believe in heroes, who must overcome or complete a quest in order to demonstrate that they have changed and developed, or died tragically in trying? A hero out in the real world (although not a concept I’m terribly comfortable with) is not the same as a hero of a novel, who simply gains such status by being the main character.
It is her point 2 that really interest me. We are so busy peddling illusions to ourselves in the form of society and the requirements for living our lives, that we shore these up in our art and culture rather than exposing them for the consensual self-delusions they are. We are so busy buying into the everyday reality, of family, of consumerism, of the working week, of our pleasures, that we fictionalise ourselves in order to conform to them as Thomas suggests.
Andrew Gallix quotes Robbe-Grillet Man looks at the world (but) the world does not look back, “which precludes any symbolism or transcendence. The novelist’s task now is to describe the material world, not to appropriate it or project himself onto it; to record the distance between human beings and things without interpreting this distance as a painful division.”
I am not saying all novels now have to be written this way. But equally don’t lump me in as a storyteller in the novelistic tradition.