Thursday, August 30, 2012

Doorstoppers & Other Excuses

The Alexandria Quartet.
The Master and Margarita.
Star Maker. (And Last and First Men.)
Ilium. And, indeed, the Iliad.

It's been a summer of big books: physically large and intellectually capacious. Each of them plays crazy games with scale, whisking the reader from 1930s Moscow to Herod's Jerusalem to Walpurgisnacht and back, or billions of years into the future and light-years across space, or into the perception of character after character viewing the same compressed events.

Hence the radio silence. Not only because reading the books demands time and attention, but because I've been obliquely focused on trying to work out how they do what they do: shifting scale (and even tone) yet following a thread; offering both a gripping narrative and a theory of narration as a way of being, a metaphysics.

There's no diagram, or even argument, I can offer: this apprehension is not outwardly analytical (that energy has been taken up with Margaret Tait and Maya Deren). It's a kind of proprioception, a thinking out of the corner of the mind. It doesn't (just) demand a graphed structural analysis but an observation of both the text and the reading experience.

I am trying to put into words something that remains, importantly and resolutely, unverbalised in my thinking. Not to mystify it, but to allow it to operate without the intensive censorial forces that operate in second-order thinking. It's as if I push the process wilfully into the unconscious, even though it is willed and analytical.

But perhaps that makes sense, because at the same time -- in writing -- I am trying to move unconscious processes into conscious access without compromising them; subjecting them to the rational order of the alphabet, syntax and literary history (among other constraints). And perhaps that's why the Alexandria Quartet is the text that most haunts me, as a story of exactly that process: it's a book about a writer turning his most intimate experiences over in words, only to be forced to re-view them through others' (equally unstable) perceptions. Durrell was well-read in Freud: in the books, that's mostly apparent in the metaphysics of sex, but sex -- and Justine -- are (as in de Sade, to whom the book is dedicated epigraphicallu) figures of the operation of the unconscious.

Bulgakov's rowdy, melancholy novel is also a series of interlinked incompossible iterations that try to capture the internal truth of the writing process. Folded into the external bleak comedy of bumbling, pompous producers, publishers and poets -- all the external apparatus of the literary industry -- is a burnt novel about a man who keeps writing the wrong thing (Herod) -- and bridging the two, the figure of the Lovers.

Even Olaf Stapledon's treatise (he never called it a novel) is framed by the device of the Lovers, as the unnamed narrator contemplates his partnership as a model of the forces holding together and driving forward the universe -- well aware of the fragility of the relationship, and of relationship itself.

Ilium, Dan Simmons' acclaimed take on the Iliad, is also about text -- but about reading rather than writing. It's less honest -- no, less sincere -- than the other three books. But it's interesting that modish, tech-savvy SF should still be so concerned with high EuroWestern literary culture, and indeed with the physical object of the book and the skill of reading, not to mention authenticity. It feels very conservative compared to the others.

The inevitable fate of genre fiction? Of postmodernism compared to the modern? I don't think so. Its scale remains compelling (the book as object again). Other questions: all books by white men. It's true that few women essay texts on this scale. Or if they do, they are often forgotten or ignored. Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy is up next for re-reading: definitely a metaphysics of generation and culture. And Abdouramen Waberi's In the United States of Africa after that (when it arrives). There is something about a big, ambitious book -- a book that restructures the reader's spacetime -- that I need right now. Not just the shift of scale or play of ideas. Not escapism or hand-ache. Ambition? Edge? The limits of the novel form? Yes.

More though: a teemingness that presents other minds observing the crisis of their time in all its awful complexity, and turning insistently to language, thought, literature as media for that complexity and as a bulwark against the awfulness. A Romantic, humanist notion, no doubt, to prefer books to protests, and unresolved contradictory masses of ideas propounded by flawed beings to hard and fast manifesti. But the need for expansiveness -- spacetime to think, to be in the full multilayeredness of being in history and a body -- that's what these books offer. Now, how can I do that in my work?

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