Sunday, December 09, 2007

Letters from Mars

Yesterday in the Times, he always sublime Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that reading Doris Lessing's science fiction has inspired him to envision the other book he is reading, the 18th century letters of Mary Wortley Montagu, as if they were written on an alien planet in the future:

What struck me was the impact of reading Montagu as if she were writing from the future. For one thing, it helps undo an inherent chronological bias peculiar to our own time — the belief that we live on a progressive timeline of steady advancement. It’s too easy for us to assume that the past is merely precursor to the present, as if we had absorbed all its wisdoms and replaced its outmoded tools, rendering it irrelevant.

Science fiction of Ms. Lessing’s sort is the comparative study of civilizations, and that is one of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s purposes, too. Pretending that Montagu is writing from centuries in the future allows me to see her civilization in its own light, rather than as just a diminished version of ours.

It is hard to remove an artistic experience like reading Montagu from the context of what you assume about her time and what it means to you. Maybe what is valuable in Klinkenborg's exercise isn't the specific setting provided by Doris Lessing's sci-fi, but just that he is using some context for Montagu other than the one he would normally assume.

(Side note: Jonathan Lethem, Octavia Butler and others who complain that "sci-fi" is unfairly treated as a literary ghetto are right, even in this day of admired crossovers like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I played to party game "Celebrity" during Thanksgiving, and was roundly shouted down when I called Doris Lessing a science fiction writer.)

Like everyone, I'm sorta ambivalent about avant-garde and experimental art, but Klinkenborg's essay makes me wonder if I've been expecting the wrong things from it. I've always assumed the intention of avant-garde art is to upend my expectations and confront me; thus I fault it when it fails to make a clear case that I'm wrong about something. But I haven't thought about the value of just presenting familiar themes (justice in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, maybe, or parenthood in Harold Pinter's The Play about the Baby) in an unfamiliar context.

In the NY Times Book Review today, George Saunders has an essay on a fascinating, newly translated Russian fiction writer named Daniil Kharms. Kharms's stories aggressively carve storytelling elements out of their usual context:
In “Blue Notebook #10,” for example, Kharms starts out conventionally enough (“There was a redheaded man ...”) but then, as if reacting against all the common ways a writer might further describe this redheaded man, veers off in a mini-critique of the descriptive tradition itself. This redheaded man, we learn, “had no eyes or ears.” Succumbing to a strange frequency in his underlying logic, Kharms begins Kharmsifying: “He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.” By the end of the story — a scant two paragraphs later — our poor redheaded man has also been shorn of his mouth, nose, arms, legs, stomach, back, spine and insides. “There was nothing!” Kharms crisply concludes. “So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about. We’d better not talk about him anymore.”
Saunders describes Kharms's writing as something like authorial civil disobedience: not only is he screwing with the context the story takes place in, he's refusing to allow the reader the experience of reading a story at all.

Alice pointed out to me that David Fincher's film Zodiac explores some of this same ground. In Fincher's telling, the investigation of the killings starts as a puzzle to be solved but disintegrates into a mess where each new clue seems to be cut from a different jigsaw. Here and there, events burst the seams of the police procedural genre and spill haphazardly. As the chance for clear resolution becomes distant, some characters accept that this puzzle cannot be assembled, while others (and viewers) long so hard for closure that they tell themselves lies to force the pieces together.

Saunders captures a similar longing when he describes what it's like to read Kharms:
Exiting a Kharms story, we are newly aware of how hungry we are for rising action, and we have a fresh respect for, and (importantly) suspicion of, storytelling itself. We’re reminded that narrative is not life, but a trick a writer does with language, to make beauty.
Of course, one result of this was that Kharms has not been anthologized, isn't assigned to be read, isn't often translated, isn't often remembered. Artists who become famous for fighting against closure were able to be successful, partially, because they actually do admit some closure: Arnold Schoenberg's pieces sometimes broke from his professed dissonant formulas to give the listener consonant codas; Jorge Borges ends short stories with explanatory revelations (the killing was meant to be printed as a code in the newspaper, or the elaborate Babylonian lottery is actually a metaphor for chance itself); and Fincher, at the end of Zodiac, gives viewers a final scene that strongly suggests one of the film's competing truths is the correct one. I don't fault them for these spoonfuls of sugar, because they usually enhance the medicine. (Though in the case of Zodiac, the resolution feels like a cop-out.)

Finally, in celebration of freedom from false resolution, I wont bother to draw myself to a close!