A Year in Reading: Matt Seidel

December 3, 2016 | 1 6 min read

In honor of — or in dismay at — Oxford Dictionaries announcing “post-truth” as the word of the year, I thought I’d highlight books that dove headlong into fiction, books that are set, quite literally, in the land of literature.

coverIn Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows, a work comprising 34 sections, the narrator resides in an upper story of “the house of fiction” along with like-minded writers. Henry James’s name naturally comes up frequently in their conversations, but, as the narrator dryly notes, another subject is avoided: “The word plot is seldom heard in the sporadic discussions that take place in the upper corridor of this remote wing of this building that remains largely unfamiliar to most of us.”

A Million Windows is, among other things, a primer on narratology, though when the narrator looks at a chart produced by a renowned German narratologist, it brings to mind an “inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilization long since vanished.” The narrator’s primary contention, however, is far from inscrutable: There is an unbridgeable divide between the real, or “visible,” world and the fictional, or “invisible,” world — each operating under an incompatible set of principles. Both sets of principles are mystifying to the narrator, but “I could never doubt that those in the one differ greatly from those in the other and could never consider any writer claiming otherwise to be anything but a fool.”

There are many such fools. The narrator has little patience for social novelists, “the paraphrasers of yesterday’s newspaper headlines: those who write, often with what is praised as moral indignation or incisive social commentary, about matters that none of us in this building has ever understood, let alone wanted to comment on.” Confessional novelists, whose works “might have passed for documentary films, with themselves as subject-matter,” don’t impress him either. (No Karl Ove Knausgaard on his Christmas list.) He shows a grudging respect for a writer like Charles Dickens and the “control that [he] and others exercised over their characters,” yet views his own lack of control as liberating, admiring Evelyn Waugh’s remark that he had never entertained the least interest in why his characters behaved as they did. The principled narrator technically cohabitates with romance novelists in the house of two or three stories, but late night assignations are unlikely: “Somewhere in this building is a colony of writers of this sort of fiction, although none of us has sought to learn where.”

The narrator distrusts easy mimeticism, railing against the “faulty fiction” that draws on filmic techniques to set the scene: “What happens in the mind of the reader of true fiction is richer and more memorable by far than anything seen through the lens of a camera or overheard by an author in a bar or a trailer park.” Dialog is a no-no for a variety of reasons: because it makes the text look like a “filmscript;” allows the writer to avoid “struggl[ing] with a report of elusive or abstruse matters;” and, crucially, is a device that “most readily persuades the undiscerning reader that the purpose of fiction is to provide the nearest possible equivalents of experiences obtainable in this, the visible world where books are written and read.” As a result, the narrator and his ilk react with palpable disgust opening dialog-heavy books, “the sight of quotation marks looking like swarms of flies…” An Ivy Compton Burnett novel would thus be a festering carcass.

What, then, distinguishes “true” fiction from “faulty” fiction? A Million Windows answers this question by defining and then exhibiting what true fiction looks like. First the definition — or rather one of many:

We sense that true fiction is more likely to include what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence but comes continually to mind ten or twenty years afterwards not on account of its having long ago provoked passion or pain but because of its appearing to be part of a pattern of meaning that extends over much of a lifetime.

A certain Keatsian receptivity is required, the willingness to obey the apparitions delivering the following command: “Write about me in order to discover my secret and to learn what throng of images, as yet invisible, lie around me.” There are tantalizing snippets of these “haunters,” or “ghosts above the pages,” or “casters of fictional shadows” — all terms used to emphasize the absolute otherworldliness of the fictional realm and its inhabitants. Primary among these is the narrator’s mother, who “for reasons that he could never afterwards recall…was not to be trusted.” (Trust — in narrators, people, readers — is a main theme.) The mother is the first in a series of dark-haired haunters who bewitch him. In some cases, a brief glimpse of a stranger is enough: “A few strands of hair and a small area of skin of a certain colour had started him on a detailed mental enterprise that occupied much of his free time for two years.” (With so little else to grasp onto, colors become almost more important than characters.)

coverThere are two ways to read A Million Windows. One would be to recoil at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction and stubbornly defend the meticulously choreographed plots, intense identification with characters, genre fiction, film, and prestige television. Or, as the “discerning reader” mentioned throughout the novel, you could marvel at the narrator’s ostentatiously recondite, and rigid, vision of fiction, then, before picking up another Murnane — say, Inland — treat yourself to a cozy mystery, perhaps set in a house of two or three stories with numberless windows.

coverAnd now for something completely different…yet another work of the fictional landscape made manifest: Christopher Boucher’s Golden Delicious. The novel takes place in the town of Appleseed, Mass., or rather in the pages of Appleseed. Plentiful stories used to grow in the once fertile soil, and “wild language” ran through the streets, prompting parents to enact “no language-in-the-house policies.” But a blight has struck Appleseed, and the ground is filled with “dead language…commas, semicolons, fragments, wordbones, and other carcasses.” Meanwhile, bookworms, with their unparalleled “ability to metaphor,” have infiltrated the town and spread their rot into language, rendering sentences incoherent and threatening to destroy the lifeblood of the economy: meaning.

The narrative world runs riot with personifications. A certain War is said to have died after a truce, though rumors persist that he lives on. The narrator loses his virginity to the Appleseed Community Theater: “The scene happened so quickly; soon it was one spotlight, then several, and then all the light, bright hot white, and then curtains and applause, and darkness.” And the description of an automobile as “a strange metaphor of a vehicle, assembled from pieces and parts of others cars” reminded me of a friend’s elegant, turnpike-inspired simile that forever solidified for me the distinction between a metaphor’s tenor and vehicle: “My love for you is like a truck.”

Yes, the novel is clotted with whimsy, and some readers won’t find its wit, or scenes of non-whimsical menace, sufficient to counteract the glut. But for me the fanciful novel managed to walk the tightrope, stumbling but never falling into the cloying abyss.

coverAnd now for something even more completely different…I’ve been paging through an edition of The Voynich Manuscript (Beinecke MS 408), a baffling 15th-century book of “herbal, astrological, balneological (relating to healing baths), and pharmacological” drawings accompanied by an impenetrable text that has never been decoded. The manuscript was once purchased for the low price of 600 ducats by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who thought it to be a work by Roger Bacon; centuries later, a shadowy rare books dealer and revolutionary by the name of Wilfrid Michael Voynich got his hands on it. Yale University’s Beinecke Library has the book now.

The Voynich MS is not a work of fiction — though it very well may be a hoax — and yet there is something of the fictional imagination at play, a commitment to a private truth expressed in a private, indecipherable way. The sui generis manuscript contains a world unto itself. In one section, a series of nude women bathe in green water, in blue water, in communal or private tubs, posed in foot baths or sticking their arms in an octopus-like contraption of pipes and funnels. What Whitmanian raptures, or hygienic tips, does the surrounding text reveal?

We will probably never know. William Friedman, “the world’s greatest cryptologist” who led the U.S. effort to break Japanese codes in World War II, tried to solve the riddle over many years. His final statement on the matter expressed “the futility of searching for anagrammatic ciphers,” and the statement itself concealed a coded message: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type—Friedman.”

That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a try. After all, in the past year I’ve successfully completed Escape the Room — twice.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at matthewseidel.com.