"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

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December 15, 2008

James and the Giant Sentence

If a novel isn’t an instance of domestic fiction to begin with, yet James Wood needs to give it a positive review, then he has got to find ways to domesticate it.  Books can always be cast into the outer darkness, but sometimes the craftier course is to see if they can’t be neutered, de-clawed, housebroken.  Domestic fiction, in other words, doesn’t necessarily need to take place in the parlor or kitchen, doesn’t need to confine itself solely to the eternal verities of the holy family or the watered-down religious nostalgia of humanist “consciousness” (although it helps, of course).  No, domestic fiction, it turns out, is ultimately a way of seeing, a way of reading.  Think of it this way:  If Marcel Duchamp can take a urinal and make it into a work of art, then James Wood can at least perform that hey-presto in reverse, and turn a work of art into the humble receptacle of his piss.

We’ve seen an example of this operation quite recently in Wood’s review of José Saramago’s Death with Interruptions.  Saramago could hardly be accused of writing domestic fiction, yet Wood expresses a profound esteem for the Portuguese novelist’s works.  In order to give the novelist this seal of approval, however, the reviewer must struggle to subdue a very basic feature of Saramago’s writing, the long sentence: 

Some of the more significant writing of the past thirty years has taken delight in the long, lawless sentence—think of Thomas Bernhard, Bohumil Hrabal, W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño—but no one sounds quite like Saramago. He has an ability to seem wise and ignorant at the same time, as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates. Often, he uses what could be called unidentified free indirect style—his fictions sound as if they were being told not by an author but by, say, a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke, one of whom is the writer himself. This community is fond of truisms, proverbs, clichés.  […]  These platitudes are neither quite validated nor disowned; they are ironized by the obvious gap that exists between the knowing postmodern Nobel laureate writing his fictions and the person or persons seemingly narrating those fictions.

The run-on style is an important part of that irony: the breathlessness lends a sense of chatty unruliness, as if different people were breaking in to have their say. A single long sentence often seems to have been written by different voices, and the unpunctuated welter allows for sly twists and turns, as when a cliché catches itself in the act of being a cliché, and atones: “Such a man, apart from rare exceptions which have no place in this story, will never be more than a poor devil, it’s odd that we always say poor devil and never poor god.” In the sentence about the people’s early euphoria when death is suspended [quoted earlier in Wood’s review], notice that a poetic image for the Grim Reaper (“parca’s creaking scissors”) gives way to a more ordinary image (“sealed orders to open at the hour of our death”) and then to a frank, weary cliché (“this vale of tears known as earth”), and that this progression allows for the simultaneous presence of the writer, who has his images, and the people he is writing about, who have theirs. And a magical exchange occurs: by the time we reach the end of that sentence about death, the fancy mythical image seems somehow much less powerful than the most banal image.

In Wood’s review, on the contrary, the only “magic” that is being practiced is the attempt to give his reviewer’s clichés and banalizations some kind of stature, even as they reduce Saramago’s novel to their own dimensions.  Peel away the tinsel and you can see that Wood is trying to get Saramago’s sentences to cough up yet another humanist “novel of consciousness.”

There comes a point, however, where he almost gets it right; when he says that at times Saramago’s sentences sound “as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates.”  What Wood doesn’t want to say, what he in fact cannot say, is that it is precisely this sentence-form – what I call the baroque sentence – and its decentered narration that show Saramago and some of the other writers on Wood’s list to be post-humanist writers.  The baroque sentence practiced by writers such as Saramago is indeed a supple instrument and can do many things, but the one thing that it has in common among its practitioners is the priority it assigns to writing itself over any so-called depictions of “consciousness.”  Saramago’s sentences are not, in a sense, utterances at all, at least not in the conventional sense that they are caused by consciousness.  Rather, consciousness is their effect.  Human subjects are constituted by discourse, written into being, you might say, by discourses that precede them.  Some writers – I think Saramago is one – might stress the social and historical nature of these discourses; other writers (such as Bernhard) will emphasize the irreducible alterity of writing itself, but in either case there’s little shelter for the “old ego of the character,” as Lawrence (a great post-humanist of an earlier phase) called it.  Even authors themselves – this is the pathos but also the freeing affirmation of Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – are epiphenomenal.  Saramago includes a very telling (or is it killing?) joke about this in Death with Interruptions, an episode in which death’s writing style turns out to be like that which runs through Saramago’s own books.  Wood, in his review, seizes on the passage in order to turn it ass-end up, into an affirmation of the trite expression, “the storyteller’s godlike powers,” the author as Authority.

After acknowledging that Saramago’s sentences sound “as if he were not really narrating the stories he narrates,” Wood tries to recuperate or naturalize this by recourse to the idea of the chorus.  Thus if Saramago isn’t telling us the stories, it is only because they are narrated by “a group of wise and somewhat garrulous old men, sitting down by the harbor in Lisbon, having a smoke . . .”  Whew!  Dodged a bullet, there.  Wood wants to talk about how Saramago’s style recasts the debased coinage of clichés, but he can do so only by palming off on us this clichéd and deeply sentimental image (if it were France, no doubt the old men would be playing boules).  Of course, the sentences do have a choric function; it is typical of Saramago’s prose to “sample” the various social discourses that constitute a community (see for example the use of newspaper discourse in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), but always in a way that amplifies the extent to which human subjectivity is historical and articulated out of thoroughly transpersonal materials.  For Wood, on the other hand, this sampling can only be explained as “different people . . . breaking in to have their say,” an explanation that could be laughed off for simply being trivial and boring if it were not simultaneously so revealing of a deeply felt, indeed almost desperately felt, ideological requirement.  One way or another, there must always be a speaker, a controlling consciousness; consciousness must never unclench its grip on writing.  Perhaps it’s a sort of recognition – expressed as hysterical resistance – that otherwise writing would subsume consciousness. 

After a few paragraphs, Wood quits this unequal struggle with Saramago’s particular appropriation of the baroque sentence and tries to neutralize him on what he hopes will be a more convivial terrain, that of theme, the “message” of the novel.  Yes, it’s banal, but Wood likes to move in this direction in many of his reviews so that he can conclude them on a note of resounding bathos.  Here it is a question of putting words in Saramago’s mouth: 

If eternal life could not possibly work on earth, why is heavenly eternity so ardently to be desired? Perhaps it is because we desperately hope that Heaven will be the same as earth but also very different, given that man ruins Edens.  For Saramago . . . the problem is not just that humans are natural-born utopia-killers; it is that eternity itself —life forever uninterrupted—seems unbearable.   

Notice that “man ruins Edens” and “humans are natural-born utopia-killers” are presented as straightforward restatements of Saramago’s beliefs, as derived from the text of his novel.  Is Wood actually trying to suggest that Saramago – the anti-clericalist, the atheist, the communist (a fact Wood never gets around to mentioning) – endorses some version of the theological doctrine of the Fall?  And sure enough, to underline his point Wood makes a tendentious digression into another Saramago novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ:  Suddenly,” writes Wood, “Jesus is cursed by a form of original sin . . .”  Ah.  If there’s any heterodoxy here, it’s that he who was supposedly born without sin turns out to be just another lowly natural-born utopia-killer like the rest of us.  The main point, though, is that we’re fallen and we can’t get up. 

So there you have it, Saramago’s Death with Interruptions is a novel of consciousness with a sound basis in acceptable doctrine.  Of course it is neither, but the whole point is the spin, or, as Wood puts it in How Fiction Works,

Realism, seen broadly as truthfulness to the way things are, cannot be mere verisimilitude, cannot be mere lifelikeness, or life-sameness, but what I must call lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry.

“Lifeness” – how similar it is, really, to that after all not-inimitable neologism coined by another journalist of a stature and integrity one or two orders of magnitude higher than James Wood’s, Stephen Colbert:  “Truthiness.”

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