Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fiction is Mystery

When I was younger, I thought that good reading leads to knowledge and that knowledge led to a deeper understanding of life, the world, the opposite sex, everything important.

It can, of course, I still believe that, but it does something much grander – it leads to a more sustained sense of life’s mysteries. It leads to confusion, to speak plainly.

I’m drawn, for example, to stories of self-deprecating writers. Charles McGrath had the following to say recently about John Updike, recently deceased:

His submissions to The New Yorker, where I used to edit him sometimes, were often accompanied by a little note declaring that the enclosed was not very good and would probably be his last, because the well was going dry, the tank was empty, the field was fallow. In fact, until the very end of his life Mr. Updike was remarkably youthful, and he filed his last piece with the magazine just weeks before he died (New York Times, January 31, 2009).

One mustn’t confuse writing and life, of course. Life can be mysterious, and one can live graciously and with an sense of wonder at each evolving moment and still not have anything to say, nor any talent for language. However muddled the writer, his or her fiction may still lead to revelation, conviction and certainty, but I don’t think so.

There are good readings and bad readings, better interpretations and worse interpretations. Interesting expositions and dull ones. But the interaction between reader and story is subjective; each of us reads differently, even if we are reading the same thing.

I will illustrate this point by referring to an article about children who struggle with literacy. Teachers were the audience of the article, which asked, “Who can tell the child that his or her interpretation of a story is wrong?”

The example provided was of a child who’d read a reference to a donkey being a “beast of burden” and concluded that the donkey was a vicious creature. He was “a beast.” This is clearly an incorrect reading, but this was a child who struggled to process language and here he offered his own interpretation. His imagination produced something mysterious, but it was correct, clear and meaningful to him. So it was not wrong.

Or was it?

I have a step-son with a learning disability, and he can say astonishing things, and he has taught me much. Such as, neurologically normal children are more predictable. It is the unexpected, however, that makes stories interesting. Unexpected interpretation is what leads to keeper knowledge; the mystery never ends.

This is not a conclusion that my graduate school professors passed on. Unless I missed something important, which I’m sure I did. Many times. I’d say I’m a slow learner, but Pynchon said that long ago. So I’ll just say my literary education has progressed in fits and starts. I was drawn to one school, then another. I have wanted to write dirty realism and fabulist-styled postmodern tales. I have ended up both more confused and more grounded. It’s the sort of contradictory conclusion that only fiction could provide.

One of the best quotations about fiction I’ve found is from John Barth: “Traditionalist excellence is no doubt preferable to innovative mediocrity (but there's not much to be said for conservative mediocrity; and there's a great deal to be said for inspired innovation).”

I also like Douglas Glover’s notion that fiction “opens into mystery.” (Carol Shields also apparently said that Alice Munro’s stories don’t end: “They soar off into mystery.”) If fiction works in any meaningful way, it’s to remind us that what we think we know, we probably don’t. We make many assumptions just to get us through, day by day. If we start living by what we expect to be true, we will inevitably end up hurting other people. So we all need forgiveness, but the universe doesn’t provide any.

We’re all just waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot.

I wrote a short story called “Beginnings and Endings” (included in Thirteen Shades of Black and White; Turnstone Press, 1999), which plays with a concept I stole from Robert Kroetsch’s Words of My Roaring. I’m sure he stole it from somewhere else, because beginning and endings are what make stories. They are the tops and sides of the box, the basic structure that holds in the middle.

Clark Blaise says he thinks beginnings are more important that endings, although most of the critical work about short stories focuses on endings (see Selected Essays; Biblioasis, 2008). I don’t privilege one over the other; I’ll just make this my final point. I think you can start just about anywhere and end just about anywhere. What matters most is the journey in between. The best stories make startling leaps, but they still make sense. Life is full of surprises, and fiction should be, too.

[This first appeared on Lemon Hound; February 19, 2009.]

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