Authority Always Wins

Perhaps it's the Midwest in me, or maybe it's my astounding talent for humility, but most of my demands are made in the whimperative. In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steven Pinker illustrates the convergence of the imperative and the whimpy with the sample sentence, "If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome." It would be too bold, too daring to say "Give me the guacamole," so we couch it in the throw pillows of politeness. But a large part of us wants to just grab the stuff and have our Tex-Mex way with it.

It seems to me that what we culturally call "literature" is often that sort of writing that asks, please, if isn't any bother, would you consider sending the guacamole this way? Most fiction seems to seek to present what we know, as written by people who are writing what they know, for an audience that knows what it wants. It's interesting and remarkable, then, when a book or an author steps out boldly into the territory of assertion -- or, as we called it in the MFA program I attended, "authority."

Here's a passage from Jose Saramago's The Stone Raft, a novel in which the Iberian Peninsula breaks away from Europe and drifts out to sea:

The starlings kept on screeching and began to stir uneasily, some had awakened as the men spoke, others, perhaps, were dreaming aloud, that terrible nightmare of the species, in which they feel themselves to be flying alone, disoriented and separated from the flock, moving through an atmosphere that resists and hinders the flapping of their wings as if it were made of water...

This is bold. Saramago suggests -- no, by God, he asserts -- that birds dream, and dream in this particular way and, as we should infer from the familiarity in the words "that terrible nightmare of the species," the dreams of birds have been well-charted and quantified. This is an author who steps beyond writing a novel into the realm of universe-creation. Saramago as narrator becomes the voice of God, the world-shaper of genre fantasy and sci fi, the 19th Century George Elliot style omniscient narrator. This style of story-telling is rare in mainstream literature, probably since about the onset of relativity theory.

Machine, a novel by Peter Adolphsen that comes highly recommended from Jordan at The Inside Flap, is full of the same sort of authority as in Saramago. In following the creation of a drop of oil from its prehistoric creation to an ultimate end, Machine is as daring throughout as the passage from The Stone Raft above. In 85 pages, Machine delves into the thoughts of an Eocene-era horse, the nature of power, a comprehensive list of ethnic groups of the mid-20th-century Soviet Union, and the engineering flaws of the Ford Pinto, in addition to mounds of geologic and biologic data that explain the creation and dispensation of oil. One presumes, for most of its pages, that it's narrator is as all-knowing as Saramago's or Elliot's. The book, as fiction, seems to brim with fact.

But authority of the sort that fuels Adolphsen's machine is, as in Saramago, playful. One character, seeking out poetry similar to Emily Dickenson's, discovers in his local library the double-haiku's of Poems, the sole book from Seymour Glass. And here's the bold part, the part that approaches the dreams of starlings: Seymour is not fact. Seymour Glass is a central figure in every J.D. Salinger book except the one for which he is most famous, despite the character's suicide in his first appearance in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," from 1948. (A side note on Seymour: I haven't read "Bananafish" in a very long time, but it always struck me as kind of twee, and it's culmination in suicide a juvenile last grasp at getting some drama into the story. The rest of the Glass family novels and stories strike me as Salinger's attempt to make up for, excuse, or, you know, whimperate that first gloss.)

But, just as I love the terrible nightmares of starlings, I love that this book, so full of lore, sneaks in this bit that can refer only to a fictional world, the drop of magic that calls reality into question, that suggests a realm beyond the known.

1 comment:

jordan said...

oh joy, i do believe your review trumps mine royally. i really must read this book again, i completely forgot the bit about Seymour Glass.

have you read "Hapworth 16, 1924"? - the long lost Salinger story - look it up on wikipedia.

thank you for spreading the good word.