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.

~ by yearzerowriters on June 27, 2010.

9 Responses to “To Cut A Long Story Sh-”

  1. To make a short story looooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggg

    Once upon a time we told a story around a campfire and we more or less knew what was coming and who was in it and what was important to them and what might happen in the end. As you say we are built a certain way for categorization, for sameness and other, for this is and that is not. Conventional storytelling lets us tell a story to the greatest number of people who believe they understand where we are coming from.

    One of the things that happens when we take away the structures is the stream-of-consciousness, everything in my head kind of writing.. If we write in that manner, it is possible to take on another persona but are we really out of the picture because we our mining ourselves, our associations, our memories, our high voltage synapses. The observer, as Heisenberg noted, is always there and by virtue of that, things are changed instantaneously, so narrative is built in, fundamentally – at particle level. Do you agree? So experimentation is anti-narrative, breaking free of convention while holding the awareness of convention. The opposites always hold a seed of the other.

    Without experimentation, without taking things apart we cannot see anew, we are just fitting things into existing frameworks and reinforcing worldviews. But without worldviews we are left flailing. One of the current scientific theories asks what if by thinking about things we are actually creating them, as infinities of new galaxies keep appearing with gazillions of planets, all with the possibility of life. As we look back for answers, are we affecting how things are turning out?

    Then the amazing experiments where you can be stripped of a fundamental reality – the awareness of being in your own body, and made to feel as if you are in someone elses. The biological seatedness of self is constantly being fed back to us by stimuli but even that can be undone. But this type of experience is rare. However much we try to escape it, we are always imagining out of our current framework. I love the title of the Philip K. Dick biog – What if our World is their Heaven? Famed for ‘innovative philosophical narratives’, he wrote a novel (Man in the High Castle) that is its own anti-novel, unravelling, written with the I-Ching. But WHAT IF this world IS the figment of someone else’s imagination and who cares if it is? And do I care if the writer puts /herself/itself/himself into the narrative. Not really. Maybe real life IS someone else’s narrative.

    • I agree with every word of yours until maybe the scientific speculations about ‘being’. While they are certainly worth meditating on & fictionalising, they are just one theory among many. There is a wonderful little book called “Sum – 40 Tales of the Afterlife” which offers 40 short & highly imaginative stories about the afterlife which consider God, creation, scale, relationship, quantum etc etc.

      I once wrote a play that proceeded narrative wise through I-Ching, Tarot & particle physics… These are just metaphors to me, but no less worth using as a literary conceit.

      The interference with personal sensation through alternate reality technologies changing over bodies, raises interesting questions as to what human consciousness actually is, but like all experiments, its models the phenomenon rather than proves it. However, it may suggest what we call ego is simply that centralisation of all feedback & sensory consciousness, that means “I” am perceiving it rather than “you” or “Abraham Lincoln”.

      Because so much of contemporary science is counter-intuitive, it takes the form of literary metaphors. A fascinating development, but one that fills me with sadness that few fiction authors are rising to their challenge to pen our own new metaphors. As you say, if you just write to fit in with the existing consensus of ‘reality’, then dead metaphors are inevitable. They shine no new lights into dark corners.

      I think we’ve progressed beyond the campfire now. Nor do we need paintings on cave walls to describe the reality outside those walls. This is an infinitely complex, atomised world. The cave painters depicted an interesting mixture of literalism of what they saw, with supernatural elements of what they couldn’t comprehend directly and ascribed magical/divine agency to. Well now we have no reified supernatural belief to append to our art and yet we cannot any longer trust to the ‘reality’ of our senses as to what they perceive. Cause, effect & consequence are artificially rendered by fictional narrative. They don’t have to be. Hence, we need new narratives…

      marc nash

  2. I agree with vast swathes of this so I’m afraid I won’t be able simply to play the contrarian. But. But, but but

    This whole “death of narrative” is bollocks. It’s the problem with modernism and the problem with postmodernism and, well, the problem with anyone who points out that real life is fact and fact and interconnections are there none. The idea that the law of cause and effect is undue extrapolation whereas the existence of the world is somehow “given” is just the worst kind of bollocks, and Scarlett Thomas should be ashaed of herself the way Hume and Ayer and Locke should be ashamed of themselves for saying it. The death of narrative is a narrative; the death of metanarrative is a metanarrative, and as soon as we realise that we are thrown back onto one of two horns – either flounder in one’s own helplessness and scrap together disembodied sensations onto the page in a way that will never be understood because understanding is impossible (that sounds negative, it’s not, it’s a perfectly valid and very interesting strategy); or accept that the appearance of the thing is as good as the thing itself, in which case narrative along with the world is restored (see Alison’s last comment, which I think hits the nail on the head).

    As you know, writing for me needs to be confessional. i think there are good epistemological reasons for admitting to oneself that writing is confessional, but that’s not the point here. The point is that narrative has as sound a basis as the existence of a physical world – “absolutely none but who cares?”. Everything is a fiction, not just narrative, and admitting the fiction means one can simply get on and tell.

    I disagree so much as well with point 2 (and not just because I was brought up on Anscombe telling us to stop doing philosophy and read novels). The use of the word “should” shoots it to self-contradicting pieces.

    Great, thought-provoking and epee-sharpening post as ever!!

    • I care Dan, I care greatly…

      Partly on a political level, because I believe such delusions lie behind so much misery in the world because they sustain & disguise naked power relations. But I confess fiction writing is a terribly indirect form of political praxis. I do not cut it as a man of action, more a sniper from the sidelines. Not terribly noble, but it fits in with my personality I guess. (it’s also why I am uncomfortable with all this self-pushing of building one’s platform, but there you go. There is no more room for anchorites in today’s literature.)

      Re cause & effect, I don’t take any level of existence as ‘given’ in line with Alison’s points about consciousnesses & who is creating who exactly. I don’t accept that the appearance of the things is as good as the thing itself, because of the contamination of language naming it all and grouping it all and foreshortening it all. That is the whole point of my writing. I am not saying it should be the point of everybody’s writing, but I do think it might reinvigorate literature & make it sizzle again. I do need to point out that it is a fiction the reader is reading, I’m not going to then go back on that and just ‘get on with the telling’ as if no such revelation/averring had been made in the first place. It is a constant process within the writing and reflects a non-linear narrative in itself as it constantly rounds on itself like the oroborus that eats its own tail.

      I have to say the Scarlett Thomas book is probably unreadable as literature, were I not so well disposed to the ideas it contains. Not every reader is going to be as indulgent towards her as I am. But i admire her for laying it all out, just a shame she couldn’t find a literary way of doing so.

      marc nash

      • You know I absolutely agree with you on the political praxis thing – but I wrestle with it on an almost constant basis (as I’m sure you do). On one level yes, I want to expose the mechanisms of power that masquerade themselves as absolutes and deconstruct them to show their idiocy. And I consider that to be an essential part of what I do (within the bounds of what I say about confessional art, that I think you can only do so effectively when you dig inside to the specific). On the other hand the “trained” part of my mind tells me there are no values, the oppressed have no more rights than the oppressor, there may not even BE oppressed or oppressor, and certainly if there are, all are equally irrelevantly tiny points in the universe. Keeping the balance between those two – between the rational urge to nihilism and some kind of innate will to compassion – and knowing that neither probably has a basis in “reality” – that’s such a hard juggling act. We want to change the world so much – and yet our brain tells us the fact of a world to want to change is pure delusion – it seems to me the ONLY way we can reconcile the two is by constructing fictions for ourselves. Which, for most of us, is probably the fiction OF ourself. And so we are thrown back time and again onto the specific.

  3. Again, I think being a novelist is a very poor (nay cowardly?) form of political action. Fiction changes nothing, other than occasionally, very occasionally, some small part of language itself. Which is not to be sniffed at I suppose.

    I agree with your analysis, but even the point about utter relativity of value needs establishing as a possible approach to our existence and it isn’t widely out there. Is there a ‘compassion gene’, an ‘altruistic gene’? The scientists are certainly searching and in the most reductive of ways as I explore in my unpubbed novel “G”). Maybe us artist ought to get with the programme and we can enlighten and help them in their inquiries?

  4. Have to laugh as in Dr Who, Amy told herself stories about her imaginary friend the Doctor, because the stories were all she had. In the end the stories brought him back from never existing – he was embodied in the stories. One day we might discover story particles that contain genetic traces!

    Reminded of the book Time, Love, Memory by biologist Jonathan Weiner, from fruit flies on – ‘the story of Dr. Seymour Benzer’s breakthrough research on the genes responsible for time, love and memory, the essentials of life and story. It’s in the cells already.

    And we can only say what’s in our heads at a particular time, place, society, situation, emotion, reaction, juxtaposition, subliminal processing of extrasensory stimuli, ghosts of dreams, sounds from the outside, residue feeling, assoications, influences, hormones etc etc etc. Weiner quotes Feynman ‘Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of the fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry.’ So there’s nothing wrong with the specifics, our precious beautiful details because they can be extrapolated into Everything.

    • in that same novel I mentioned, the human genome chides our paltry linear efforts at conceiving her multi-dimensional self-arrangements and the democracy of cell division and apoptosis. And our ridiculously limited search for the origins of human creativity. As you I think imply, it lies across the whole mesh.


  5. […] To Cut A Long Story Sh- […]

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