Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Freakishly warm weather in Chicago and now back in Ithaca—if it's global warming, it's a case of the frog luxuriating in the pot before the first lethal bubbles form. I've been reading realist fiction by acclaimed middle-aged white men recently. First it was Tobias Wolff's Old School, because I'm a sucker for boarding-school stories (though I never attended one), then Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Wolff's is interesting because it's transparently the autobiography of the particular writer he became, one who almost literally navigates the Charybdis of personality (in the forms of Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway) and the Scylla of ideology (in the form of Ayn Rand) to strike at the heart of a kind of self-exposing authenticity achieved, somewhat paradoxically in the story, through an act of plagiarism. Really it's a book about piety, and one's patience for that sort of thing depends largely on whether you yourself have the kind of religious feeling for literature that Wolff's narrator does. Though in his case, that religious feeling is linked to a powerful case of class envy: Wolff's narrator is from, one gathers, a working-class family in the Northwest, and is part Jewish besides, so the tony Northeastern private school he attends in the early 1960s is part of a project of self-invention that is ironically completed by his expulsion. In its sly way the book is a manifesto for the kind of antimodernist storytelling that it is such a fine example of, but it's the self-consciousness required by a manifesto, even a covert one, that makes it most interesting to me.

Russo's novel won the Pulitzer and was thus almost guaranteed to be mediocre: I still found pleasure, though, in Russo's facility in conjuring the small-town Northeastern Rust Belt world that has been the main character of all his novels with the notable exception of Straight Man, a hilarious academic satire. World-immersion is for me the most primordial pleasure of reading fiction—I think of the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner called for—and it's a pleasure diametrically opposed to the Barthesian bliss of language: an imagistic dream virtually requires the disappearance of the language, sheer transparency. But it's also a distinctly bodily pleasure, if only in the negative sense: one morning, groggy from my own dreams, I picked up Empire Falls and immediately fell into the story, my eyes moving rapidly back and forth as though I were still in REM sleep, ignoring my system's cries for the usual morning dose of coffee. If dreams are, as many believe, a means of absorbing stimuli so as to keep you from waking up, then reading immersive fiction works similarly on me, so that I forget to eat or go to the bathroom or even to move my limbs. That's why such fiction is the best tonic for flying on airplanes: for several years I flew without discomfort by reading and rereading the Aubrey-Maturin novels. When I do notice the language in a book like Russo's, it's generally an infelicity, a speed bump: an ambiguous pronoun, a clumsy simile, which I'm sure the author would revise if he could so as to go back into the dream. (The single deliberate resistance the text offers to the reader takes the form of occasional italicized interchapters: but as the content and tone of these interchapters doesn't actually vary from that of the main text, one merely strains one's eyes in irritation trying to fall asleep again.)

All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.

So you could turn it either way: one's own stance is what determines whether a text will provide jouissance or pleasure. This is all commonplace enough. As a writer, though, I wonder about the writer's pleasure, since what doesn't please oneself probably won't please others. The pleasures of anti-absorptive writing are manifest to me, because one thinks into the language—but if anyone's a masochist in this scenario, isn't it the author of absorptive fiction, whose language is at best a tool, at worst an impediment, designed to disappear into the reader's dream? Where's the fun in that? It probably comes not from language, but from the elements of the dream: one must abstract oneself from primary concerns with idiom and syntax and instead focus on the larger linguistic constructs that we call plot, character, setting, etc. There's pleasure enough: and for me, it's the pleasure of world-building that has the greatest appeal.

What I wonder, then, is what combination of the two modes is possible. World-building would seem to require a writer to peer through language toward what he wants to represent, whether those representations are achieved through meticulous research or first-hand experience or both. The best example I can come up with of a world built out of language as such—the anti-absorptive world—is the one that's always before my eyes these days, Ronald Johnson's ARK. Here is language that wants to be literal without ever being less than itself: here is a structure that communicates, like a concrete poem, primarily its own structureness. The experience of reading ARK is the experience of wandering through a world, but one's eyes are always wide open, else you'll trip over the ambiguities of his symmetrical syntax. His is the complexity of interwoven surfaces, with none of the "depth" we seem to perceive in the submarine fictions of a Russo or an O'Brian or a Tolkien. This too, finally, is dissatisfying: but what might an ark make possible, what survives from it once the waters have receded? I aim to find out.

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