For me, the best read of 2014 was Richard House’s thousand-page hardcover The Kills. I traveled a lot last year and I lugged The Kills around with me everywhere, undaunted by the fact that it was not built for shoving into an airplane seat-back pocket. It was the tome I could not put down, and it captured me so utterly that I begged off meal invites and bar get-togethers to finish it. I resented gigs because if I was reading my own work I wasn’t reading The Kills.
The Kills begins with a classic set-up: embezzled money, predatory contractors, and illegal U.S. waste burning sites in the Iraqi desert. A character known as “Sutler” (not his real name) serves as the front for a much larger conspiracy. From the literal and figurative wreckage of secret machinations, the novel explodes outward, exploring every bit of shrapnel and collateral damage, every consequence of the initial corruption. As Sutler flees the scene, other characters come into focus and then disappear into the anonymity from whence they came. Identities are abandoned, replaced with new fictions and mythologies about the self. The soldiers in charge of the burn pit reappear in a different context later in the novel. A book about serial killers in Italy — based on real events? — permeates all four sections and influences decisions by the soldiers back in civilian life.
House gives the reader exactly what we need to know about each character and situation through deft shifting between points of view, but no more than that. The overall structure has immense power as a result, thwarting normal reader expectations while showing great respect for the reader’s imagination. Comparisons to Thomas Pynchon, John le Carré, and Roberto Bolaño apply, but really are only a way of letting readers know the general territory they’re about to traverse. In short, the novel is surprising and unique — and, in the end, cathartic.
Published in the U.K. in 2013, The Kills was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It’s been highly lauded, and House, an accomplished filmmaker, has created audio/video extras that further illuminate the story. I interviewed House recently via email to explore some of the ideas in The Kills.
Jeff VanderMeer: In what ways does fiction infiltrate history? And, as individuals, are we fated to turn life into a story of some kind, whether we mean to or not? Is this different for U.K. writers?
Richard House: There’s a cultural difference in what happens in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe — in how writers do and don’t directly address social issues. I don’t want to generalise, but I do think U.S. writers allow themselves a broader platform in terms of subject, and also in how they approach form. It’s engaged and also playful. I’ve a lot of respect for that.
On a more fundamental level we (as in a generic ‘we,’ not just writers) have bad habits when it comes to translating life into any kind of narrative. I think this is almost automatic — and I really want to resist this — the way that fictive structures begin to shape and command history. The sense that events have a beginning, a middle, and an end is pernicious. It’s so deep we rarely question it. For me it comes from the way I was taught at school, from the way the media shape events, and even from the way my parents and peers speak about the world. There’s an artificiality to all of these stories, because they are always complete, and lessons are always learned. There’s always a point. I find this notion of closure really dangerous and it works against my experience of the world, of history — there’s a sense of putting something away, of learning from it, and of trying to establish one dominant way of regard. As if what we go through has a design, so that something occurs in the world for the explicit purpose of teaching us something, or proving a point. I find this artificial and frightening. It’s a form of consumption. It’s also, essentially, lazy. That three-part structure oversimplifies everything. I dislike the transformation of life or events into a received three-part act with an intensity.
That said, I think fiction is a useful, perhaps the most useful, way to digest the world, to consider ideas and positions that you otherwise couldn’t enter so willingly or freely — and fiction, like all disciplines, has certain necessary defining structures, genre to genre. Plus, it’s almost impossible not to narrate the world in some way, which is all about finding your feet, I suppose. I prefer fiction which struggles with topical events and wrestles with how to tell them — and that often comes through the lens of a specific genre.
JV: I don’t think of you as an absurdist in the way Franz Kafka was, but there is a streak of the irrational running through The Kills that struck me as very true to the way the world works. Where does this come from? I’m curious about your personal entry point or observation platform.
RH: For me this is a structural thing also. I want to resist that desire to round off, to teach, to give across an explicit position. In fiction there’s enough space to allow a reader to construct their own story. That roughness, of one thing knocking into another, is for me, pretty much how the world works.
I’m 53 and too much of a pragmatist to be truly absurd (although I’ve a weakness for humour which tends toward the absurd). Experience very rarely matches expectation (usually a very good thing, sometimes just awful) because at any given time the story or event which you think will play out in certain way, just isn’t the same story or event to anyone else. Experience is always oddly articulated — seldom ever what you expect. Things collide. Our perspectives are intimately subjective, and therefore always skewed. The good thing is that we’re not alone in this. Everyone bumps along, one way or another, all at different speeds. Most of the time there’s a sense that this or that is under our control, but that can fluctuate in a nano-second depending on a million other things. This goes back to your first question, how the world as we speak about it isn’t really the world that we experience.
JV: Are there parts of the novel you meant to be darkly funny?
RH: Definitely. Some of the core ideas — like building a city in the middle of nowhere — are to me rich with potential. I try to level that darker stuff as it can dominate — more stark than bleak, I guess. I particularly enjoyed writing the sections with Rem in Iraq, it’s not that these sections are funny, so much, but I liked writing about how men congregate, socialise, wrestle for position. Similarly with characters like Rike and her sister, there’s a competition and friendship that I hope comes through with a little more lightness than in other sections. There’s a wryness to the German Berens also. I’ve known many people like that who seem to closely observe themselves. In person I’m a lot more affable than my writing probably indicates.
JV: The section entitled “The Kill” and set in Italy is, to me, the center of the novel thematically and it radiates out fictional affects that impact the real world. There’s a potential resonance or connection with the parts set in Iraq in the depictions of war-time life as well. Were there other, less obvious connections, you want the reader to make?
RH: As I worked on the main body of The Kills, the idea that there would be a separate story which would somehow refocus ideas and issues in the other books became useful. I was very particular that The Kills would show an occupation from the occupiers perspective — my father was in the military, and this was my experience of Malta, Cyprus, Germany, where we had very limited interaction with any local population. In the Naples story, I was able to look, in a small way, at the other side of an occupation, and by setting that in Europe, and referring to WWII, I could give a perspective to what an occupation could mean, one that most of us could readily follow. What was happening in Iraq was immediate, we could see it in the news as it happened. But it was also removed, in happening in some remote place about which we have no proper or developed understanding. Iraq is somewhere else, foreign, distant. It’s almost a rule of action, that every country in which we have a conflict (I’m specifically thinking of the U.K. here) becomes abstract, and in some way, lesser. This is exactly what happened in Naples in 1943. If you look at a place as a theatre for war, then it makes it easier for us not to consider the reality of what is happening. That makes the consequences very hard, very bitter — and long term. I think the third book, “The Kill,” was a way of looking at this from a different angle.
Almost every character is out of water, in some circumstance they can’t control, to which they have to adapt, change, react. In “The Kill” the characters are outside in some way, being foreign, unable to speak a language, a sex worker, gay, not that these are equitable positions in any way, but they each add a level of complication to how they manage in the world. The same fish out of water issue stands for [several other characters].
“The Kill” works from a basic proposition. Two brothers deciding “what if.” There’s no consideration of what might happen afterward. In fact, there’s some delight for these brothers in how they leave behind them as big a mess as possible. I don’t believe this was our intention in Iraq, but it is the effect. There’s something deliberate and wilful about breaking a country apart and in attempting to restructure it as a marketplace — particularly a country which largely worked on traditional models of kinship and association. We demolished a country, every structure was devalued, disassembled, and when we came to reassemble it, we just couldn’t manage. Parts of Europe underwent similar destruction, except our obligation to restructure — propelled by a fear of communism — was followed through — for good or bad.
JV: I’ve heard “The Kill” was written first. Did the rest accrete around that? How much exploration was there structurally for you?
RH: I wanted to write something like Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger, a short book that starts out as a crime novel but quickly unravels, and while seeming to be simple (the murder of high court judges) it addresses why these killings are happening, rather than who is doing the killing. Which is a smart distinction, and it opens up an ever-expanding problem. It’s a scary read, and there’s a film version by Francesco Rosi called Cadaveri Eccelente that was largely shot in Naples and is superb.
I took a side trip to Naples, thinking I’d write something lighter and quicker than usual, and ended up spending a considerable amount of time there, back and forth, over a couple of years. Whenever I met people, Italians, there would be this groaning realisation that if I was a writer, in Naples, then I’d probably be writing a crime novel or a thriller, and that the city was, and is, overburdened with these narratives. I set the book aside, and once the main story based on the Massive developed (the idea of a city being built in the desert in Iraq, and of focussing on contractors rather than the military) I included “The Kill,” the novel set in Naples, as a private reference. Not a joke exactly, but I didn’t want to let those ideas disappear.
JV: Did you realize after you’d finished The Kills that you might’ve written something that mimicked certain genres but didn’t really fulfill the trope-arc of those genres?
RH: I wanted to play with different kinds of narratives, partly because, as a reader, it sets up an expectation. As a writer it is hugely interesting to twist and articulate, and also frustrate those expectations. I’m a big fan of Wilkie Collins The Moonstone because almost too much is happening, it’s uncategorisable because it acknowledges different expectations — it’s a penny-thriller, a heist (sort of), a ghost story, a romance, a story divided between narrators and forms. Big fun. Thrillers and crime novels are also populated by different kinds of characters, which is for me their main pleasure. Mainstream literature can tend towards normalization — even when characters aren’t straight and white, they might as well be for all of the values represented. While thrillers and crime novels tend to freak difference and can be hugely problematic in how they stereotype (particularly women), they also show difference. I might not like some of the gay characters I read in crime novels, but once in a while there will be some humane, amazing character that I just won’t find anywhere else. I think I’m mimicking that kind of inclusion. I hope that those smaller characters (particularly in “The Kill”) matter. Part of how I worked their stories is that you’re engaged with a character only when and where they intersect the main narrative — more or less.
This might not be right, but when I read a thriller the characters, in some ways, fit the narrative, they work within that world, so much so that you’re right in that world with them, but they are clearly constructions. I’m aiming for that. There’s a real pleasure for me in seeing the artifice of something while you are also involved within it. A performer, Nancy Forrest Brown, used to perform these events where she would inhabit these characters, which was a kind of a drag act in a way. You’d be aware that this character was Nancy, but also, simultaneously, this character. I love that fluctuation. Fiction does that for me. Fake and real at the same time. Genre writing excels in this.
In terms of structure, I think readers are, or can be, highly sophisticated. As soon as a story starts we’re already working on the middle and the ending — and while we progress through a book tiny modifications or clarifications are happening to that overall plan. I prefer works which mess with this, and articulate themselves in unanticipated ways. Not fulfilling a genre’s expectation is going to frustrate a reader, and in some ways I take it for granted that a reader can complete a story arc without it needing to be spelled out. I have a particular dislike of being instructed, of being told how everything works, how I should feel, how I should think. Closure is an artifice, and it’s also the point where a writer can display their moral position or a neatly packaged world view — which is almost always problematic. I don’t read to be instructed, I read to discover and debate and to be challenged.
JV: Did you think that you were writing something metafictional just because a text embedded in your narrative replicates itself in people’s minds? I don’t personally see the novel as metafictional, but that might just be my world view intruding.
RH: Good question. There are certain pleasures here, some quotes from other writers that I love — in many senses the book is a map of writing that I value. There’s Sciascia, Highsmith, a bunch of others I forget. What I enjoyed in writing The Kills is that I’d given myself something huge to work across, and that some ideas could be re-articulated, and that other ideas could be set and returned to many hundreds of pages later. It’s tricky, because I’d like to set up a narrative where some associations or links are explicit, and others are implicit, without impeding the story. It would make me very happy if a reader started to make connections I hadn’t intended. I wanted to set up that potential. When I think about events in my own past I often have realizations — ‘oh, ok, that meant such and such,’ — notions which you revisit, revise, there’s the potential for this in a long-form narrative.
JV: There’s the novel in your head and then the novel on the page, and then the novel in the reader’s head. Have readers, generally, gotten what you were going for? The novel tends to keep making you re-evaluate how to read it from section to section.
RH: I have to be totally honest. Most discussions, frustratingly, are about the book’s size. It takes a certain temperament and intention to take on. We’re all watching that “% of pages read” progress bar on the kindle or iPad, which turns a novel into a challenge, not an experience, and takes out all of the pleasure. I’ve had a few people ask what happened to Eric, or Sutler, or Lila, and I love the idea that this question means that they could push the stories further for themselves.
I wanted a book that was packed with ideas and invention, without being too cumbersome. I also wanted a book which shifts in direction and has a logic that assembles itself as you read. I think I achieved that.
JV: What’s been the most interesting reader or reviewer response?
RH: A great deal of writing is about process, and about finding your way, so reviews are useful in helping me reflect back on what I’ve done. I think I was a little stunned once it was finished, so any kind of discussion helps me gain perspective, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s a scary prospect putting out something so huge and so involved. The book has received some passionate and particular support. As a very general rule, people who read a hell of a lot tend to get the overall project. People who don’t tend to read a huge amount think, erm, well, what kind of a thriller is this? Which makes the book a tough proposal. It makes me unspeakably happy when someone does get it. Some reviewers have asked questions about genre, which has been hugely productive for me to consider.
A good number of people think I invented the burn pits. Which sadly exist, and have caused ongoing health problems, perhaps even some deaths.
JV: Did Sutler make it out?
RH: No. I think not. You know that frozen man, Otzi…
There is perhaps no more fitting summer job for a writer than processing books in the basement of a university library. To get up before the real heat of the day begins and descend into the air-conditioned cool of the dimly-lit basement archives is a particular kind of atmospheric trick, but emerging after a full day’s work into the thick evening is even better, since it mimics the way writers feel when they get up from a long grapple with a manuscript; your eyes are bleary, your head is half-dazed, and the hot summer night feels overly sharp, hyper-real, cluttered with shouts and sirens.
(I highly recommend an archiving job as a remedy for the effects of writer’s block, since it’s easy enough to pretend that a pile of close reading is a substitute for your own literary production. Your verbal overload is no less intense for being totally vicarious.)
All of this describes the job I worked last summer, in the rare books section of a local university library. I was assigned to a basement room nicknamed “the cage,” because most of the shelving was set off behind a wall of wire mesh, accessible only by a carefully guarded key. I did my work at a small desk in the corner, and when I wanted to enter the cage I had to ask for this key, and return it to its appointed hook straightaway when I was done.
The project that I was hired to work on is somewhat difficult to describe. Sometime in the early aughts, a famous bookstore in New York—I can’t tell you which one, on conditions of job-related secrecy—closed its doors forever, at which point several wealthy patrons banded together to buy its entire inventory (distressed periodicals and all) and hand said inventory over to a local university library. This inventory consisted of thousands upon thousands of volumes: some rare, some middling, some eminently forgettable. They had early editions of Finnegans Wake, nestled next to paperback Modern Library editions of the collected works of Thackeray, propped up against a stack of 25 cent magazines for teen movie lovers of the 1950s.
I am not a rare books specialist; I am not capable of making fine distinctions. I do not know a first edition unless it is clearly marked in the front of the book, preferably in large type, all capitals. Thus my job consisted only of logging the books, regardless of content or merit, into the computer system: name, title, ISBN, and relative condition.
There have been moments of excitement. I have shelved books from the personal libraries of Anaïs Nin and Joseph Mitchell. I have learned terms which include, but are by no means limited to: bastard title page, bumped corners, colophon, ex libris, flyleaf, foxing, worn boards, and gutter tear. I have held William Gaddis first editions and signed versions of nearly every title in Joyce Carol Oates’s massive oeuvre.
But the actual function of my day was repetitive, nearly robotic.
Name, Title, ISBN
worn board edges
gutter tear in front flyleaf, board corners slightly bumped,
dj (short for “dust jacket”) worn
owner’s signature on front flyleaf “(illegible), Chicago, 1923”
inscription on front flyeaf: “To Brenda, for the memories, Cape Cod, 1932”
A New Yorker cartoon, featuring a man pushing a massive cube up a featureless hill, was taped to the wall above my supervisor’s desk. The caption: Extreme Sisyphus.
Common themes in books, 19th to early-20th century:
Detailed author portraits on the title page, covered in thin, almost tissue-like paper (to prevent blotting?)
Inexplicably small, but also thick, multi-volume editions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, of which multiple volumes are missing
Inscriptions from fathers and uncles in said novels, in loopy, almost illegible cursive, along the lines of: may this add to your education
When one thinks of libraries in literature, the most famous reference point has to be Borges’s The Library of Babel, in which the Argentine writer (in a joking mood) conceived of an infinite library, composed of a series of hexagonal rooms, and posited (half-ironically) that the library was a stand-in for the perfect divine creation: “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god.”
Often, during my summer in the archives, I would reflect on the fact that all my work was only the reconstruction or (to be more accurate) weird vivisection of an already existing bookstore. The books I catalogued came to me in numbered trays, with each section number corresponding to a section of the now-departed bookstore, and on days when my mind really wandered—which was a higher percentage than I would have admitted to my immediate superiors—I considered the possibility of reconstructing the bookstore in my head, using the section numbers and the books I’d processed, recreating a sort of bookstore-of-the-mind.
Usually, however, I was interrupted from my reverie by one or another common typo:
Worn bards, utter tear.
And, even if I managed to keep my mental concentration long enough to maintain one section of this library-of-the-mind, the idea of trying to juggle multiple sections ended up being too much, and I was forced to give up the whole project, having only completed one of Borges’s hexagons.
Which reminds me of another quote from The Library of Babel:
“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure.”
By the time I arrived at my archiving job, the project had already been going for nearly seven years, and over half of the books had been catalogued. Of course, each volume would still need to be judged and sorted by minds more discerning than mine, which meant that, like many projects conceived at the university level, it might last for much longer than the scope of ordinary human patience.
There is something strange about doing a job that you will never see finished, like Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
“Five hundred meters could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.”
Common themes in books, early- to mid-20th century:
Books of obscure poetry inscribed by nuns
Books published under the auspices and regulations of the U.S. Military
Mass-market book plates with bucolic scenes: cows, dogs, and/or roosters
As a fiction writer, I am perhaps unusually interested in what makes a book last. Much of this I ascribe to pure ego. During my stint in the university library, I happened to come across the great English critic Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, which is a very odd and very vain book; it begins as an investigation of this very question, “why does a book last” (Is it prose style? Content? Political conviction?) only to devolve into a self-pitying investigation of why Cyril Connolly himself couldn’t write such a lasting book.
I assume that most readers of books do not engage in this sort of absurd behavior. Fiction writers have such high regard for themselves that they can’t see why they shouldn’t be immortal. Keeping their work in print is the next best thing available.
(An addendum: during my work in the archives I logged several thousand copies of Horizon, the British literary magazine which Connolly edited. Of the many names inside its covers, I recognized two.)
Still, if one puts pure vanity aside for a moment, the process by which a book survives more than a century is a fascinating thing. When I held a copy of Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone, or an early American edition of Wuthering Heights, I’d sometimes reflect on the many deaths the book had to avoid on its way to me. It had to be bought, first of all, and not left to linger on a bookstore shelf, and later pulped—or, as is sometimes the case, burned. Then someone had to keep it after the first read, keep the bindings dry, move it from house to house, and later, after that person died, the book had to be inherited, or else sold, instead of thrown away; at the very least it had to be packed in such a way that the book block didn’t warp and the pages didn’t go moldy: all the little deaths to which a hardbound book is vulnerable.
There is a certain kind of immortality to a passed-down book—the sense of having outlived many human lives.
So what makes a book last—not just in the minds of critics and readers, but also as a physical object? What’s essential here is a combination of initial popularity, physical hardiness, and a sterling reputation. There were more copies of The Moonstone in circulation than a host of other Victorian mysteries, so it had a good start, and the hardback edition I handled one summer morning seemed to have lasted pretty well, but nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore (my apologies, Moonstone aficionados, bless your cosseted Victorian hearts), and so I have my doubts about what will happen when the library higher-ups finally handle the archive’s copy.
The local university library can’t possibly hold all of the books I archived, much less the whole of the departed bookstore; many of the books will be sold at sidewalk sales, to readers much less scrupulous about their storage.
Some, I’m sure, will simply be pulped—or burned.
Common themes in books, mid- to late- 20th century:
Signed copies of books which immediately go out of print, their authors forgotten
Male poets with sideburns who write poems about driving
Poets of any gender with sad, searching eyes who write about cancer
Long biographical notes which expose their authors’ desperate search for respect
There’s no keeping ego out of the conversation entirely, though. What fiction writer could work for a whole summer handling old novels without wondering about the fate of any book he or she might manage to publish in their lifetime? Based on even the slightest research, the percentages are bad. Is the work you’re producing destined to be recycled—or, now that everyone’s crowing about e-books, erased from the world’s collective hard-drive?
(As if it wasn’t worrying enough to get published in the first place.)
Or, if you’re the type to raise your concerns to the highest power, you can occupy yourself with a larger existential question: why, once you’ve witnessed a pile of words beyond human comprehension—when you’ve personally catalogued more books in a single day than it would be possible for you to read in an entire year—would you ever go on writing novels in the first place?
Forget about the death of the novel, for a moment—that old saw—and consider, instead, its terrifying, zombie-like nature. Old novels never die; they walk among us, tattered and moldy, neither living nor totally destroyed, giving off an offensive fungal stink that can best be described as a cross between rancid dust and damp feet.
Worse still, these zombie books have a way of infecting the living volumes which sit next to them; for every book is only a year’s neglect away from turning undead itself, a victim of time and circumstance, one more body for the undead legions.
From The Library of Babel: “The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.”
Common trends in books, early-21st century:
Total lack of clarity
Despite all overarching existential concerns, I usually left my job at the archive feeling exhilarated. Part of this was just a matter of getting off work; like I said before, the job itself was rote and methodical, an amazing combination of repetitive stress and screen fatigue. Just being able to walk free in the summer evening was a glorious feeling.
But, during the best —when I could leaf through a whole stack of 19th-century French poetry in translation, or the collected prose of William Carlos Williams, or all the books Joseph Mitchell owned concerning Gypsies—I experienced a more than bodily thrill at having run my eyes over so many odd and obscure titles, so many volumes that had survived years and chance to arrive in my hands—a feeling that was only increased by the possibility of the books’ destruction, despite my careful cataloguing. I was there to log books, not to save them.
It was a feeling I can only compare to the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, a man whose work consists of pulping books into a paper compactor, which he describes as “holy work,” and whose responses to the avalanche of words echo my own:
…inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself… When my eye lands on a real book and looks past the printed word, what it sees is disembodied thoughts flying through the air, gliding on air, living off air, because in the end everything is air…
At times it felt as if I was swimming in sentences, with the sense of Heraclitus, dipping into the river over and over and coming up with new books, new iterations of language, as if by taking the job I’d turned on a continuous flow of literature. Here, individual work seemed frankly meaningless, reminding me that intertextuality is not some new thing—for language is always in conversation with itself.
Thus I spent my summer vacation: building a library of the mind.
Image Credit: Wikimedia/Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.