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Q&A | August 19, 2014 1 comment
Describe your latest book. The Getaway God is the sixth book in the Sandman Slim series. In it, the very unholy nephilim, James Stark, aka Sandman... Continue »
Anything and Everythingby Christopher Sorrentino
These omissions seemed reasonable. In fact, they seemed essential. The sheer mass of fact can upend not only a novel, it upends nonfiction as well. Discussing his own historical fictions, E. L. Doctorow once observed, "All history is composed. A professional historian won't make the claims for the objectivity of his discipline that the layperson grants him." It's a valuable remark, underscoring the fundamental: composition is a matter of selection.
But, while acknowledging the similarities of method shared by historians and novelists, I'd suggest that the composition of prose fiction involves an additional element. While historians and novelists alike shape their work to establish "what will exist and what won't exist," as Doctorow put it, the historian or the journalist monitors the project with an editorial eye, determining the stream of content. But fiction is the creation of a flow that runs free of the information factually based or not that the story provides. Fiction intensifies insight with discernment. It emphasizes the fleeting and barely perceptible, adumbrates the prolonged and the extensive. It fashions patterns, establishes rhythms, makes motif from coincidence. It allows us to see the unfamiliar in the everyday, and to gape at the new with recognition. Nonfiction renders one kind of truth one tethered to selected facts. Fiction, though, is a matter above all of trying for a kind of precision that goes beyond factual accuracy, that becomes "language charged with meaning," a seventy-year-old phrase of Ezra Pound's that still resonates.
This becomes most apparent while writing. Stanley Elkin spoke of the ideal novel as an "open-ended book where anything can happen." The phrase pops up again in Elkin's The Living End: "Anything can happen. Everything is true." And, writing, we discover anything and everything. A phrase one character utters to another on page 21 is moved, placed in the mouth of a different character, talking to himself on page 441, under different circumstances entirely: the phrase needed a different setting to thrive, to shine. Events drift through narrative time and the physical space of the book: some manuscript pages of Trance are marked with four or five different page numbers. Characters mutate, good to bad, major to minor; or they're conjured out of nowhere, riding in to save the day. Linchpin facts vanish.
Much of this goes on unseen: it's worked out in private and woven into the narrative. But often, this "anything and everything" remains in the book. Any stab at effacing artifice seems unnecessary, or impossible, or somehow beside the point, and the reader is asked to accept, propter se, embroidery. Strange interludes multiple chapters on cetology, or a disquisition on the future of video phone technology linger, seemingly out of place. And yet the author is announcing, with the presence of such things, that they are a part of the novel. The author is announcing that the author and his choices are a part of the novel.
As Trance shed the historical record, exposing a nice, spare armature on which a novel could be constructed, the book's form began to open to possibilities that seemed limitless. Trance came to contain, among many other things, silly blackout sketches featuring publishing executives; haikus and anagrams; a reading by a psychic; a guided tour of an autopsy room; a gourmandizing FBI agent; a standup comedy routine at a fading Borscht Belt resort hotel; a boy who masturbates to thoughts of Flip Wilson dressed in women's clothing; a depraved letter to Penthouse Forum; a brief treatise, articulated by one of the main characters, on the nature of television nostalgia; an imaginary Miss Universe pageant; three increasingly demented run-ins with would-be presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore; a parody of radical feminist writing circa 1975; and a satirical précis of each of the major conspiracy theories associated with the Hearst case.
The question of what does and does not belong in a novel becomes, at least hypothetically, more acutely relevant when the novel is taken from history. As far as having any bearing on the book's plot or story is concerned, few of the things catalogued above "belong" in Trance , and their factual basis is almost always fragile and often nonexistent. But I think the book is richer for them. This sort of extrapolative activity is a natural task of the novelist, it seems to me. What's suggested by the raw material that the writer has to work with whether historically based or otherwise is the stuff at a novel's imaginative core. The material points in all different directions, each heading into the wilderness down a half-formed trail that's soon thickly overgrown, but to the artist one direction feels right. One direction feels particularly good. That's how, working from the same facts as I did, Susan Choi could write an excellent novel as different from Trance as can be. It's not the portrayal of "facts," their accurate interpretation, that a so-called historical novel represents. It is a "diagram of certain aspects of the inside of [a writer's] skull," as B. S. Johnson put it.
But, like it or not, when you fictionalize a historic episode, you're inviting readers to assert a proprietary interest in the story. Not in your work in the story. It's a crucial distinction: if everyone "remembers" your novel before ever having read it, then they come to it with definite ideas about what it should and should not contain. Trance, many readers (and some reviewers) have assumed, is supposed to be "about" Patty Hearst; its function to fill holes in the record if not definitively, at least plausibly. Some reviewers have adamantly led with this misapprehension. "No literary reincarnation of a flesh and blood Patty Hearst emerges in the novel," said one critic, echoing the sentiments of several others. It's a response so overwhelmingly beside the point that I have to laugh at it.
It may be that in choosing the historical as subject matter, a writer also chooses to provoke this sort of misunderstanding. Carter Scholz and I were recently discussing, by email, his idea of "engaging the wrapper": according to Carter, some books "come with a kind of high concept wrapper to the real book," that "may or may not have anything to do with the real book." The wrapper functions as both built in pre-sell and as a kind of firewall: "reviewers and commentators and even readers can then engage solely with the wrapper." Carter and I immediately agreed on the negative aspect of this: reviewers, commentators, and readers engage solely with that wrapper.
Readers, at least, I've been able to lead toward the inventive terrain of the novel, sometimes by demonstrating that I'm just as eager to engage them concerning the historical record, the wrapper, as they are to engage me. Certainly Trance is about that record as well, and usually ten seconds or so into my answer to the first question put to me at a reading I realize that I'm referring interchangeably to history and to fiction; to Patricia Hearst, a human being I've never met who as far as I know resides happily in Connecticut with her family, and to Alice Galton, a character I invented for my novel, who has only thought and said and done exactly as I made her.
The border between the fictive and the real becomes most obscured when I'm invited to offer a speculative answer to a question concerning the motives or fate of one of the characters: the amount of speculation contained in the response depends on who, exactly, I'm being asked about: the fictional character or the real-life counterpart? At these times I think of a cautionary story I was told about an author who'd written a novel based on the life of a historical figure. During a Q&A, someone asked whether or not the author agreed with some of the more lurid theories surrounding the figure's mysterious and unresolved disappearance. The author assuming, I suspect, that the question concerned not the creation but the model shut down the imagination immediately, offering a reasonable, plausible, and banal answer. This is judicious and prudent and probably is what I would have done under the circumstances. But at that moment, the author lost the audience. In drawing that line, in shutting the door on the imaginative possibilities inherent in the story, the author also shorted out the electricity coursing through the heads of the people who'd come to the reading: they'd been ready for anything and everything; what they got was delimiting, restrictive; it was too real.
Such a rejection of the plausible pleases me. If historical fiction were to become simply the "dramatization" (to employ a famous TV phrase) of the known facts; the sum of its accurate period details; if readers came to expect of fiction simply the representation of the merely plausible, then fiction would inch closer to becoming another fawning art, flattering its readers by sedulously conforming to their expectations. "Reality" is another comfortably familiar pillow readers can hold tightly to. But whose reality? We've already heard that we're a nation, a society, of addled spectators. But I think hiding in that exhausted observation is the secret idea that the common stuff of life that imaginative literature used to be made from is gradually being replaced by mediated experiences that we view in common. In other words, novels like mine will happen more and more often, and in interpreting and competing with the media collage from which their work springs, novelists will have to use all of their writerly wiles to take back the imagination from a seductive, supervised past that moves and talks to paraphrase Beckett, to find another form to accommodate the mess.