Op deze pagina's is het archief van DW B terug te vinden. Voor de actuele website ga naar: http://www.dwb.be

Alleen online: Not a Breath Wasted. Part two

Verschenen in: De verwondering

10 February 2011

Digression and the geography of the brain: you???ve given me a huge forking path here! I could easily disappear down either branch and run for the rest of this conversation, without ever coming back out. What I???d love to do instead (given my congenital obsession with connection) is to try to suggest how closely related these seemingly disparate topics really are.
      What does a ???straight-ahead??? story look like? In it, some core value in a character produces an objective, and we watch that character march inexorably toward either the achievement or the failure to achieve that goal. In such stories, the traditional narrative arc (what once was called Freytag???s Triangle) traces out a classic rising tension graph from exposition through development to climax and on to denouement. I don???t deny the incredible pleasure of that style of story; it has formed the backbone of much if not most story-telling for millennia. We want to know what happens. But of course, if ???what happens??? can be predicted too easily by simply tracing out a straight line from the point of departure, the story collapses into its own prediction and the journey is over before it starts.
      The counter-stream to such straight-ahead storytelling puts everything in the formula up for grabs. Core values collide or collapse in crises. The characters??? objectives are discarded and replaced by others. Success and failure???the whole notion of where the story needs to go???can change by virtue of the journey so far. One of the great aesthetic triumphs of modernism is this reversal of figure and ground: the main forward motion of the plot can get subsumed in the seemingly gratuitous side-excursion. The side-excursion can become the central and salient event. I first discovered (and totally fell in love with) the pleasure of this discursive approach in Sterne???s singular and incredible Tristram Shandy. Later on, I indulged the pleasure for years by reading Proust through, twice. The central McGuffin of plot in the Recherche is insignificant, compared to the marvelous endless filigrees of interruption and digression. This is the stream that Beckett takes to its logical extreme. In Beckett, there is only ever endless and marvelous digression, and we recognize in such wandering a fundamental truth about existence that makes the causal chains and grand narrative syntheses of ???straight-ahead??? narrative seem almost embarrassing. Calvino???s If On A Winter???s Night, A Traveler becomes an acme of meaning through frustration and interruption.
      But the extremes of discursive and digressive writing produce their own backlash. Like the ???straight-ahead??? plunge into total obviousness, the Drunkard???s Walk tends to produce its own predictability. To wander everywhere is to go nowhere at all. Digression is only digression if we can see what it digresses from. I think our own literary moment, at least in North America, is still characterized by a reaction against the digressions of post-modernism and a return to ???real story,??? i.e. the constraints and satisfactions represented by a linear and advancing plot in which each event chains to another and moves protagonists closer toward or farther from identifiable goals.
      It does not take much of a dialectician (or Information Theorist) to point out that, as I always like to say, ???The stars get their brightness from the surrounding dark.??? The kinds of narrative forms I???m after set up very real expectations, so that the frustration and subversion of those expectations can generate real meaning. Think of those composers who live right on the boundary of tonality and atonality, and the thrilling kind of music that employs both audible harmonic expectation and turbulence. That is the kind of fiction I???d like to write: directionality, with the infinite potential for side surprises.
      And here, I think, is where the brain comes in. Cognition has evolved in a world that is at best semi-predictable. It???s of enormous survival value for a brain to be able to pick out and isolate an anomaly???the unexpected datum, the moving vector, the small variance ???from out of an otherwise steady background and to pay attention to it. At the same time, we are programmed to take all the noise and detritus of the singular moment and stitch it all back together into an explanatory whole. Without those two abilities???first, to be obsessed with the aberrant and exceptional, and second, to fit them into predictable grand patterns???we would not survive the structured turbulence of the world for very long. The surviving brain exists somewhere between explanatory, synthesizing story and endless, amorphous particulars. Too much totalizing explanation or too little ability to generalize, and we???re dead.
      The stories that I love best, and the stories that I want to write, know how to seduce the brain???s two impulses, and how to subvert them. The thing that fiction does best in the world is to give the reading, synthesizing, noticing, explaining brain a chance to glimpse itself in action, and to retune that endless balancing act between pattern and exception, expectation and surprise.

23 February 2011

The devastation of the Christchurch aftershock earthquake yesterday (only six months after the one of 4 September 2010) here in New Zealand is hitting us hard even though, in Wellington, we are not directly affected. The horror of this natural disaster so close to home is expressed in some ways by our disbelief; it???s as if our brains cannot comprehend it, or even actively refuse to conceptualize it.
I want to explore this kind of horror, our intimations of it, as a source of terrifying inspiration today. In your last installment, Rick, you write about digression and direction in narratives, and how this relates to the brain. The idea of control which we associate with the brain reveals itself when we feel we can see what the digression is digressing from, when we revel in the brightness of the stars against the surrounding dark. The stories you love best, and which you definitely write, display an oscillation between fulfillment of expectation on the one hand and deferral of gratification through surprise on the other hand. The balancing act between pattern and exception which we associate with good fiction also characterizes the way in which we process information in our brain.
      It is also a particular trait of an artist you admire, Pieter Breughel. Breughel???s paintings, wisely celebrated by W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and yourself, portray the everyday banality of unspeakable horror. Breughel???s horror usually refers to man???s inhumanity to man, to hubris, but, in the wake of his even more hallucinatory predecessor Jeroen Bosch, his paintings sometimes have an apocalyptic, natural disaster, dimension as well, a dimension which is not necessarily divorced from human agency. Breughel???s general sense of disaster and mayhem is also firmly rooted in a local landscape, the Low Countries which also feature in your fiction.
???The thing that fiction does best is to give the brain a chance to glimpse itself in action,??? I am quoting from your last paragraph above. What do you make of the brain in a situation where reflection becomes impossible, because your novels do go into those very dark places too (Operation Wandering Soul, Gain, Ploughing the Dark very obviously so, but The Echo Maker also makes no bones about the threat of massive ecological disaster, even though Generosity offers a remarkably optimistic take on the brain???s coping strategies). Your novels articulate the predicaments stunningly well, and I wonder what you think about the limits of the brain and its capacity for wonder.


We are watching, too, in helpless shock from the other side of the globe, as the images and accounts emerge from a leveled Christchurch. What I want most to do, in the face of the inexplicable, is to keep silent. But the mind, when it is stunned by something like this disaster into realizing the failure of every explanatory narrative it puts forward, seems condemned to rush forward into the rubble with new stories.
      I can remember sitting in an undergraduate writing class here at the University of Illinois just two hours after the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Half an hour before class, someone from The New York Times had called, asking if I would do a quick piece about the significance of the attacks for Friday???s papers. I felt such horror at the idea of speeding into print with ridiculously insufficient words that I told them no. I went to class, fully expecting that my students would be too shocked to want to stay. But they wanted to, and they talked more freely and starkly and urgently in that session than in any other class I???ve ever taught. I told them about the Times request, and why I felt I couldn???t do it. To a person, they insisted that I had to write a piece.
      After class, I called the Times back and told them I???d changed my mind. I had about 26 hours to give them a finished draft. Billions of words were already flowing around in all media by then. The silence of shock was already impossible. I wrote about how so many attempts to grasp the total horror of the attacks resorted to comparing this most extreme reality to imaginary things: the attack was like a Bosch, like something out of the Bible, like a disaster movie.
      The mind will never be sufficient for the terror that the world can hand to it, at any minute. Language is built for containing and explaining, while moments of catastrophe on the scale of 9/11 or the Christchurch quake will never be contained. But all kinds of controlled lab experiments attest to the very real and measurable analgesic power of words to reorder and restore. People who put the meaningless brutality of cataclysmic events back into a story, however insufficient, fare better than those who do not. Silence is part of that story, and the only stories worth anything to us still acknowledge the oblivion that waits for us just beyond any narrative explanation.
      Terror is wonder by another name: an awed humility at the scale and power of forces that blow away any explanation we have for them. Like joyous wonder, terrified wonder turns us out of ourselves and lets us glimpse a story bigger than our own.

22 August 2011
Dear Rick,

In Japan, forty-four nuclear reactors sit on the unstable boundaries of tectonic plates. (Gain, 1998)
      It was only a matter of a few short weeks before the Christchurch catastrophe was dwarfed by the cataclysmic events in Japan. The destruction by the tsunami and the concurrent failure of the nuclear reactor cooler was advertised by horrific footage and frighteningly simplistic diagrams of supposedly fool-proof cooling systems. Ships sat like abandoned toys on matchsticks which used to be trees and the inside of a nuclear cooling system looked like a child???s diagram on the back of an envelope. Size and proportion, and our reactions to it, were up for grabs. The savage irony of Siegfried Sassoon???s ???does it matter? losing your legs??? has now turned into that salaciously predatory question: ???how does it feel? losing your house, legs, child, spouse, parent???? By the time I arrived in Osaka in July I came across many exhortations in hotels to save electricity, the kind of statements which leave the carbon producing global traveler with a warm glow that they???ve done their bit when they remember to switch off a light or use a towel twice, and yet, by default, every toilet seat was heated and every gadget ready for use. The corporate creation of individual needs, and the loss of control over our own decisions over those needs, lies at the heart of your novel Gain. Much has changed in the thirteen years since Gain (1998) was published--public visibility of everything has increased exponentially, ???news??? has abandoned even the illusion of coherence, oncology has changed-- , but the inexorable march or metastasis of greed and cancer cells continues all the same. What are for you some of the most striking changes since you wrote Gain? My Amazon kindle suggested I read Solar and Freedom next, because other people who had finished your book had also bought these. How does it feel, Rick, being lumped together with Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen? Whatever happened to individual genius?
      I love the pastoral opening description of Lacewood in Gain; it reminds me of Sylvia Plath???s Morning Song:

Day had a way of shaking Lacewood awake. Slapping it lightly, like a newborn.

and Plath???s

 Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

 Gain is framed by records of birth and death. From the pastoral opening scene we ultimately end up, still in Lacewood, with a nurse???s aide binning ???a disposable miracle, no less than the least of us,??? the camera left in Laura???s hospital drawer after her death. In Three Farmers you write about the endurance of Sander???s photographic record of the early twentieth century; in Gain you also explore the changing visual record of a company???s advertisements and its power to sell the suggestion of cleanliness as much as the product, the imaging of deadly cells in Laura???s cancer-riddled body and the ineffective attempts to get rid of them, the power and limits of therapeutic visualization, real estate flyers and fridge magnets, the frail magic of the disposable camera. We haven???t gotten any nearer to grasping the big picture of gratification and cost, have we?

24 August
Dear Heidi,

So much in the world has changed in the half year since we last wrote each other, let alone the dozen-plus years since I published Gain: The most costly natural disaster ever to hit the earth???a quake and tidal wave that moved the entire island of Honshu almost three meters. Waves of revolution across North Africa and the Middle East. Months of cataclysmic freak weather over the entire globe, highly indicative of the long-term changes that human industry has inflicted on the planet. The killing of Bin Laden, which of course has done nothing to alter the realities of global terror and paranoia. Europe on the brink of fiscal collapse, and the American stock market going into mad whiplash, with the entire world economy once more feeling as precarious as it did in 2008. Fiction can no longer keep up with even the most modest news feed coming across your smart phone from one week to the next.
      Gain was my attempt to use fiction to portray those intersecting and accelerating forces of industry, technology, and finance that, more than any other set of influences typically explored by the novel of psychology and character, combine to define who we are and what we are able to think and feel. It???s really the story of two individuals???a 40ish divorced mother of two with ovarian cancer and a 160-year-old enterprise that starts out as a family hand-made soap company and eventually turns into a multinational consumer conglomerate employing tens of thousands of people around the globe. And as a limited liability corporation, it enjoys all the rights and protections of an individual in the eyes of the U.S. law. In a few hundred pages, I tried to contrast the finite, uncertain, and largely helpless life of Laura Bodey with the ???hockey-stick curve??? of runaway, compounding growth enjoyed by the Clare Corporation, the company that may or may not be responsible for her cancer. By the end of the book, Clare, like all those other engines of creation of the contemporary consumerist world, has grown into a self-governing organism far beyond any person???s ability to comprehend or control.
      And of course, in 1998, I couldn???t even begin to guess the half of that compounding story. One month after Gain came out, a couple of Stanford students founded a company called Google, privately held for a few years before going public???a limited liability corporation that in less than one tenth of the time it took Clare to grow up, changed the world beyond saying. eBay and Amazon???three and four years old when I published Gain???along with all kinds of bootstrapping startups, unimaginable back then but by now preordained, have completed the merger of commerce with information that makes it possible for you to order, with three taps on your 4G touchscreen tablet, (prompted by a tracking ad that is tailor-made from the data-mined analysis of your innermost desires) a just-in-time-manufactured wireless beaming storage device several terabytes large (capable of storing orders of magnitude more books than you could read in a lifetime) and track it, almost in real time, as it makes its way in two or three days from a factory on the other side of the globe to your doorstep.
      The scale of human production and consumption is now shooting straight up the dead-vertical part of that hockey stick curve. The convergence of computing and corporations, data-tracking and consumer desire has changed us in ways that I despair of ever being able to capture in a conventional narrative. It has made us more capable, more powerful, more appetitive, more obese (in every imaginable sense of the word), and more insatiable. ???How much is enough???? a reporter once asked John D. Rockefeller. And Rockefeller replied, ???Just a little bit more.???
      At the same time, overconnection has greatly amplified the perturbations of markets and cranked up the boom-bust cycle that has always plagued capitalism, leaving all of us the fragile victims of ever-more leveraged greed. How many Enron-Lehman like pyramiding schemes have we all paid for, since my book came out? I???ve lost count.
      The transformation of the world through e-commerce and e-creation has exploded in the creation of ever more e-commodities. And we have all become artists and creative producers, to a degree far beyond what I predicted way back with Three Farmers. Youtube alone now receives 48 hours of new video uploads every minute. Within hours of the T??hoku quake that would eventually kill 20,000 people and release vast amounts of radioactivity over one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, dozens of clips began appearing showing the destruction. But for every person who watched the most popular of these clips over the coming days, an order of magnitude more people were watching Friday, an insipid amateur music video by a 13-year-old American girl, which went viral on the day the wave hit.
      Gain concludes with an ambiguous but very possibly optimistic ending in which commerce and industry may come to redeem the very problems that commerce and industry created. I???d be much harder pressed to generate even a fraction of that ambiguous optimism, today.

Text continues in Part three