Thursday, June 3, 2010

Writing in a Material World, or: When Wishing Makes It So

At the end of the children's novel The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, the kingdom of Fantasia has been destroyed by the Nothing, an all-consuming force that literally obliterates everything in its path. But a scrap of hope remains in the protagonist Bastian, a confused kid who got sucked into this magical land by reading about it in a dusty old book. Moon Child, Fantasia's empress, appears before him and explains that the future of her kingdom is in his hands: "Fantasia will be born again through your wishes, my Bastian. Through me they become reality." Bastian asks how many wishes he gets. Moon Child replies, "As many as you want -- the more, the better. Fantasia will be all the more rich and varied." In the face of this unlimited freedom, Bastian chokes, his mind suddenly blank, and Moon Child grows concerned. If he can't think of anything, she warns him, "there won't be any more Fantasia."

I will use any excuse to put pictures of cute dogs on this blog.
You do not have to be Gilbert Sorrentino to detect some metafictional hijinks going on in this passage. Back when I read it, circa 1993, I still licked "scratch-and-sniff" stickers to see if they tasted as good as they smelled and considered non-matching socks a couture fashion statement. Yet even I could see a glimmer of something self-conscious here, a statement about the make-believe aspect of the book's own fictive universe. This was the first, and perhaps truest, lesson I absorbed about the nature of the writer's task: that the more wishes you make -- the more images and characters and scenarios you articulate in language -- the richer your fantasy grows.

Around the same time, I remember thinking hard about the lyrics of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a chart-topper during our Advent-season chapel services in my Christian school. In one of the later verses, there's a line that goes, "veiled in flesh the God-head see/hail incarnate deity," referring, of course, to baby Jesus's grand entrance through the fabled virginal meat curtains. There was something I found particularly entrancing about the words "veiled in flesh," the same kind of twisted logic I associated with another favorite at the time, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. After all, in reality, a veil hides something visible -- usually flesh, in fact. But if the flesh itself is a veil, what does it conceal? Isn't the bare flesh, by definition, naked? If you stripped the flesh (and blood and bone) from a person, what would be revealed? Wouldn't you just be left with nothing? Or at the very least, nothing you could sing about?

Religious folks would no doubt have a smart answer to this question, but I'm not religious and I never claimed to be smart. And I'm not trying to make a religious point here, but an aesthetic one, which is this: in a piece of writing, there are two forces, the force of Something and the force of Nothing. Something is just what it sounds like: it's the stuff of the world and the imagination, falling out onto the page. Something is made of images, characters, names -- it's flesh. You can claim there's a god* under there somewhere, but you'd be hard pressed to see him if there wasn't skin on top. Then there's the force of Nothing. Nothing doesn't have to be a bad thing, and in fact, it's essential at the beginning of a project. Nothing is the whole roaring universe of possibility. In a way, I could just as easily call it the force of Anything, since the beauty of Nothing is that it doesn't preclude any choice the author can make. The problem comes when, like Bastian, the author freezes in the face of this dizzying array and finds himself unable to choose -- unable to veil his god in anything the reader can see.

I'm saying all this before returning to the subject of my last post because, to me, these ideas are all connected with the act of naming, not just characters, but the stuff of a character's world. One way that the Nothing can win is obvious: it's writer's block, when the author finds himself unable or unwilling to choose a single path from amid the myriad that present themselves. Thomas Mann once said, "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people," and while that sounds like a pretentious bullshit excuse for drinking during the day, there is a grain of truth to it. The more a person reads and writes, the more possibilities and approaches appear, and the larger the Nothing becomes. But the second way the Nothing can win is more insidious, occurring within the work itself.

When I was in a writing workshop during college, we read a couple of student stories where the gender of the first person narrator went unspecified. The class was somewhat divided about whether to regard this as a problem or not, and rightly so. There are certainly times when ambiguity -- about gender, race, etc. -- can itself be a distinct and provocative choice. But I remember being bothered at the time not just by the fact the genders were going unstated, but by the attitudes of some of the students, including the author of one of the stories, who said it "didn't matter."

On one hand, of course, this is inarguably true: it's not as though fictional characters are real people who will eventually be faced with, for example, having to choose the men's or women's restroom in a crowded movie theater whether the author likes it or not. But the author's willingness to relinquish such a basic aspect of her own creation, not out of hopes of making a statement but simply out of apathy, needled me deeply. One might suggest, of course, that I'm misreading the statement, "It doesn't matter." Perhaps the author herself believes gender shouldn't matter, and wants that attitude to be reflected in her fiction, by creating a world where it doesn't. Even if this is case, though, the author still has to sketch in that world for us, because it's a place no one currently living on earth has ever visited. Alternately, one might suggest that the narrator's gender doesn't matter to the narrator. Yet if the narrator's gender does not matter to the narrator, the fact of regarding oneself as genderless in a gendered world is an interesting enough character trait to merit the story's attention.
Again, I'm not arguing that there aren't times when ambiguity isn't the most powerful choice. But a writer can't use that as an excuse to avoid making a choice at all. The problem here, I think, is that when writers see an opportunity not to make a decision, not to pin something down, they often seize it. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if they see a fork in the road, they take it. And this goes not just for student writers, but a lot of published ones too. A favorite teacher of mine once sadly observed, "In contemporary fiction, nobody has a last name or a job." It's worth wondering why not.

*I use "god" here as a stand-in for any intangible quality of fiction — its "heart," its "soul," etc.

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