"For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it's been a real human life!" Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Rowling Effect: The Uses and Abuses of Storytelling in Literary Fiction

It’s in school that almost everyone first experiences both the joys and the difficulties of reading stories. And almost everyone quickly learns to associate reading fiction with all the other abstract, impersonal, and cognitively demanding tasks forced on them by their teachers. One of the rewards of graduation, indeed of adulthood, is that you no longer have to read boring stories and novels you have to work hard to understand, all those lengthy texts that repay the effort with little else besides the bragging rights for having finished. (So, on top of being a waste of time, reading books makes normal people hate you.) One of the worst fates for an author, meanwhile, is to have your work assigned in one of those excruciating lit courses students treat as way stations on their way to gainful employment, an honor all but guaranteed to inspire lifelong loathing.

As a lonely endeavor, reading is most enticing—for many it’s only enticing—when viewed as an act of rebellion. (It’s no accident that the Harry Potter books begin with scenes of life with the Dursley family, caricaturizing as it does conformity and harsh, arbitrary discipline.) So, if students’ sole motivation to read comes from on-high, with the promise of quizzes and essays to follow, the natural defiance of adolescence ensures a deep-seated suspicion of the true purpose of the assignment and a stubborn resistance to any emotional connection with the characters. This is why all but the tamest, most credulous of students get filtered out on the way to advanced literature courses at universities, the kids neediest of praise from teachers and least capable of independent thought, which is in turn why so many cockamamie ideas proliferate in English departments. As arcane theories about the “indeterminacy of meaning” or “the author function” trickle down into high schools and grade schools, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine, let alone test, possible reforms to the methods teachers use to introduce kids to written stories.
  
Miraculously, reading persists at the margins of society, far removed from the bloodless academic exercises students are programmed to dread. The books you’re most likely to read after graduation are the type you read when you’re supposed to be reading something else, the comics tucked inside textbooks, the unassigned or outright banned books featuring characters struggling with sex, religious doubt, violence, abortion, or corrupt authorities. One of the reasons the market for books written for young adults is currently so vibrant and successful is that literature teachers haven’t gotten around to including any of the most recent novels in their syllabuses. And, if teachers take to heart the admonitions of critics like Ruth Graham, who insists that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction,” they never will. YA books' biggest success is making reading its own reward, not an exercise in the service of developing knowledge or character or maturity—whatever any of those are supposed to be. And what naysayers like Graham fear is that such enjoyment might be coming at the expense of those same budding virtues, and it may even forestall the reader’s graduation to the more refined gratifications that come from reading more ambiguous and complex—or more difficult, or less fantastical—fiction. 

James Wood
Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon at a time when authors, publishers, and critics were busy breaking the news of the dismal prognosis for the novel, beset as it was by the rise of the internet, the new golden age of television, and a growing impatience with texts extending more than a few paragraphs. The impact may not have been felt in the wider literary world if the popularity of Rowling’s books had been limited to children and young adults, but British and American grownups seem to have reasoned that if the youngsters think it’s cool it’s probably worth it for the rest of us young-at-hearts to take a look. Now not only are adults reading fiction written for teens, but authors—even renowned literary authors—are taking their cue from the YA world. Marquee writers like Donna Tartt and David Mitchell are spinning out elaborate yarns teeming with teen-tested genre tropes they hope to make respectable with a liberal heaping of highly polished literary prose. Predictably, the laments and jeremiads from old-school connoisseurs are beginning to show up in high-end periodicals. Here’s James Wood’s opening to a review of Mitchell’s latest novel:

As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J.K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Maddox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

As is customary for Wood, the bracingly eloquent clarifications in this passage serve to misdirect readers from its overall opacity, which is to say he begs more questions than he answers.

              The most remarkable thing in Wood’s advance elegy (an idea right out of Tom Sawyer and reprised in The Fault in Our Stars) is the idea that “the novel” is somehow at odds with storytelling. The charge that a given novel fails to rise above mere kitsch is often a legitimate one: a likable but attractively flawed character meets another likable character whose equally attractive flaws perfectly complement and compensate for those of the first, so that they can together transcend their foibles and live happily ever after. This is the formula for commercial fiction, designed to uplift and delight (and make money). But the best of YA novels are hardly guilty of this kind of pandering. And even if we acknowledge that an author aiming simply to be popular and pleasing is a good formula in its own right—for crappy novels—it doesn’t follow that quality writing precludes pleasurable reading. The questions critics like Graham and Wood fail to answer as they bemoan the decline of ambiguity on the one hand and meaning on the other is what role either one of them naturally plays, either in storytelling or in literature, and what really distinguishes a story from a supposedly more serious and meaningful novel?

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Goldfinch has rekindled an old debate about the difference between genre fiction and serious literature. Evgenia Peretz chronicles some earlier iterations of the argument in Vanity Fair, and the popularity of Rowling’s wizards keeps coming up, both as an emblem of the wider problem and a point of evidence proving its existence. As Christopher Beha explains in the New Yorker,

The problem with “The Goldfinch,” its detractors said, was that it was essentially a Y.A. novel. Vanity Fair quoted Wood as saying that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”

For Wood—and he’s hardly alone—fantastical fiction lacks meaning for the very reason so many readers find it enjoyable: it takes place in a world that simply doesn’t exist, with characters like no one you’ll ever really encounter, and the plots resolve in ways that, while offering some modicum of reassurance and uplift, ultimately mislead everyone about what real, adult life is all about. Whatever meaning these simplified and fantastical fictions may have is thus hermetically sealed within the world of the story.

            The terms used in the debates over whether there’s a meaningful difference between commercial and literary fiction and whether adults should be embarrassed to be caught reading Harry Potter are so poorly defined, and the nature of stories so poorly understood, that it seems like nothing will ever be settled. But the fuzziness here is gratuitous. Graham’s cherishing of ambiguity is perfectly arbitrary. Wood is simply wrong in positing a natural tension between storytelling and meaning. And these critics’ gropings after some solid feature of good, serious, complex, adult literature they can hold up to justify their impatience and disappointment in less ambitious readers is symptomatic of the profound vacuity of literary criticism as both a field of inquiry and an artistic, literary form of its own. Even a critic as erudite and perceptive as Wood—and as eminently worth reading, even when he’s completely wrong—relies on fundamental misconceptions about the nature of stories and the nature of art.

            For Wood, the terms story, genre, plot, and occurrence are all but interchangeable. That’s how he can condemn “the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” But the type of meaning he seeks in literature sounds a lot like philosophy or science. How does he distinguish between novels and treatises? The problem here is that story is not reducible to sheer occurrence. Plots are not mere sequences of events. If I tell you I got in my car, went to the store, and came home, I’m recalling a series of actions—but it’s hardly a story. However, if I say I went to the store and while I was there I accidentally bumped shoulders with a guy who immediately flew into a rage, then I’ve begun to tell you a real story. Many critics and writing coaches characterize this crucial ingredient as conflict, but that’s only partly right. Conflicts can easily be reduced to a series of incidents. What makes a story a story is that it features some kind of dilemma, some situation in which the protagonist has to make a difficult decision. Do I risk humiliation and apologize profusely to the guy whose shoulder I bumped? Do I risk bodily harm and legal trouble by standing up for myself? There’s no easy answer. That’s why it has the makings of a good story.

            Meaning in stories is not declarative or propositional, just as the point of physical training doesn’t lie in any communicative aspect of the individual exercises. And you wouldn’t judge a training regimen based solely on the exercises’ resemblance to actions people perform in their daily lives. A workout is good if it’s both enjoyable and effective, that is, if going through it offers sufficient gratification to outweigh the difficulty—so you keep doing it—and if you see improvements in the way you look and feel. The pleasure humans get from stories is probably a result of the same evolutionary processes that make play fighting or play stalking fun for cats and dogs. We need to acquire skills for handling our complex social lives just as they need to acquire skills for fighting and hunting. Play is free-style practice made pleasurable by natural selection to ensure we’re rewarded for engaging in it. The form that play takes, as important as it is in preparing for real-life challenges, only needs to resemble real life enough for the skills it hones to be applicable. And there’s no reason reading about Harry Potter working through his suspicions and doubts about Dumbledore couldn’t help to prepare people of any age for a similar experience of having to question the wisdom or trustworthiness of someone they admire—even though they don’t know any wizards. (And isn’t this dilemma similar to the one so many of Saul Bellow’s characters face in dealing with their “reality instructors” in the novels Wood loves most?)

            The rather obvious principle that gets almost completely overlooked in debates about low versus high art is that the more refined and complex a work is the more effort will be necessary to fully experience it and the fewer people will be able to fully appreciate it. The exquisite pleasures of long-distance running, or classical music, or abstract art are reserved for those who have done adequate training and acquired sufficient background knowledge. Apart from this inescapable corollary of aesthetic refinement and sophistication, though, there’s a fetishizing of difficulty for the sake of difficulty apparent in many art forms. In literature, novels celebrated by the supposed authorities, books like Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, and Infinite Jest, offer none of the joys of good stories. Is it any wonder so many readers have stopped listening to the authorities? Wood is not so foolish as to equate difficulty with quality, as fans of Finnegan’s Wake must, but he does indeed make the opposite mistake—assuming that lack of difficulty proves lack of quality. There’s also an unmistakable hint of the puritanical, even the masochistic in Wood’s separation of the novel from storytelling and its pleasures. He’s like the hulking power lifter overcome with disappointment at all the dilettantish fitness enthusiasts parading around the gym, smiling, giggling, not even exerting themselves enough to feel any real pain.  

            What the Harry Potter books are telling us is that there still exists a real hunger for stories, not just as flippant and senseless contrivances, but as rigorously imagined moral dilemmas faced by characters who inspire strong feelings, whether positive, negative, or ambivalent. YA fiction isn't necessarily simpler, its characters invariably bland baddies or goodies, its endings always neat and happy. The only things that reliably distinguish it are its predominantly young adult characters and its general accessibility. It's probably true that The Goldfinch's appeal to many people derives from it being both literary and accessible. More interestingly, it probably turns off just as many people, not because it's overplotted, but because the story is mediocre, the central dilemma of the plot too easily resolved, the main character too passive and pathetic. Call me an idealist, but I believe that literary language can be challenging while not being impenetrable, that plots can be both eventful and meaningful, and that there’s a reliable blend of ingredients for mixing this particular magic potion: characters who actually do things, whose actions get them mixed up in high-stakes dilemmas, who are described in language that both captures their personalities and conveys the urgency of their circumstances. This doesn’t mean every novel needs to have dragons and werewolves, but it does mean having them doesn’t necessarily make a novel unworthy of serious attention from adults. And we need not worry about the fate of less fantastical literature because there will always be a small percentage of the population who prefers, at least on occasion, a heavier lift.

Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

And: What's the Point of Difficult Reading?



Sunday, August 24, 2014

How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

            Any acclaimed novel of violence must be cause for alarm to anyone who believes stories encourage the behaviors depicted in them or contaminate the minds of readers with the attitudes of the characters. “I always read the book as an allegory, as a disguised philosophical argument,” writes David Shields in his widely celebrated manifesto Reality Hunger. Suspicious of any such disguised effort at persuasion, Shields bemoans the continuing popularity of traditional novels and agitates on behalf of a revolutionary new form of writing, a type of collage that is neither marked as fiction nor claimed as truth but functions rather as a happy hybrid—or, depending on your tastes, a careless mess—and is in any case completely lacking in narrative structure. This is because to him giving narrative structure to a piece of writing is itself a rhetorical move. “I always try to read form as content, style as meaning,” Shields writes. “The book is always, in some sense, stutteringly, about its own language” (197).

As arcane as Shields’s approach to reading may sound, his attempt to find some underlying message in every novel resonates with the preoccupations popular among academic literary critics. But what would it mean if novels really were primarily concerned with their own language, as so many students in college literature courses are taught? What if there really were some higher-order meaning we absorbed unconsciously through reading, even as we went about distracting ourselves with the details of description, character, and plot? Might a novel like Heart of Darkness, instead of being about Marlowe’s growing awareness of Kurtz’s descent into inhuman barbarity, really be about something that at first seems merely contextual and incidental, like the darkness—the evil—of sub-Saharan Africa and its inhabitants? Might there be a subtle prompt to regard Kurtz’s transformation as some breed of enlightenment, a fatal lesson encapsulated and propagated by Conrad’s fussy and beautifully tantalizing prose, as if the author were wielding the English language like the fastenings of a yoke over the entire continent?
David Shields

Novels like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and, more recently, Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party, take place amid a transition from tribal societies to industrial civilization similar to the one occurring in Conrad’s Congo. Is it in this seeming backdrop that we should seek the true meaning of these tales of violence? Both McCarthy’s and Wilson’s novels, it must be noted, represent conspicuous efforts at undermining the sanitized and Manichean myths that arose to justify the displacement and mass killing of indigenous peoples by Europeans as they spread over the far-flung regions of the globe. The white men hunting “Indians” for the bounties on their scalps in Blood Meridian are as beastly and bloodthirsty as the savages peopling the most lurid colonial propaganda, just as the Europeans making up Wilson’s roving party are only distinguishable by the relative degrees of their moral degradation, all of them, including the protagonist, moving in the shadow of their chief quarry, a native Tasmanian chief.

If these novels are about their own language, their form comprising their true content, all in the service of some allegory or argument, then what pleasure would anyone get from them, suggesting as they do that to partake of the fruit of civilization is to become complicit in the original sin of the massacre that made way for it? “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” It could be that to read these novels is to undergo a sort of rite of expiation, similar to the ritual reenactment of the crucifixion performed by Christians in the lead up to Easter. Alternatively, the real argument hidden in these stories may be still more insidious; what if they’re making the case that violence is both eternal and unavoidable, that it is in our nature to relish it, so there’s no more point in resisting the urge personally than in trying to bring about reform politically?

            Shields intimates that the reason we enjoy stories is that they warrant our complacency when he writes, “To ‘tell a story well’ is to make what one writes resemble the schemes people are used to—in other words, their ready-made idea of reality” (200). Just as we take pleasure in arguments for what we already believe, Shields maintains (explicitly) that we delight in stories that depict familiar scenes and resolve in ways compatible with our convictions. And this equating of the pleasure we take in reading with the pleasure we take in having our beliefs reaffirmed is another practice nearly universal among literary critics. Sophisticated readers know better than to conflate the ideas professed by villainous characters like the judge in Blood Meridian with those of the author, but, as one prominent critic complains,

there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or [Harold] Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be.

What’s interesting about this interpretation is that it doesn’t come from anyone normally associated with Shields’s school of thought on literature. Indeed, its author, James Wood, is something of a scourge to postmodern scholars of Shields’s ilk.

Wood takes McCarthy to task for his alleged narrative dissemination of the myth of eternal violence in a 2005 New Yorker piece, Red Planet: The Sanguinary Sublime of Cormac McCarthy, a review of his then latest novel No Country for Old Men. Wood too, it turns out, hungers for reality in his novels, and he faults McCarthy’s book for substituting psychological profundity with the pabulum of standard plot devices. He insists that

the book gestures not toward any recognizable reality but merely toward the narrative codes already established by pulp thrillers and action films. The story is itself cinematically familiar. It is 1980, and a young man, Llewelyn Moss, is out antelope hunting in the Texas desert. He stumbles upon several bodies, three trucks, and a case full of money. He takes the money. We know that he is now a marked man; indeed, a killer named Anton Chigurh—it is he who opens the book by strangling the deputy—is on his trail.

Because McCarthy relies on the tropes of a familiar genre to convey his meaning, Wood suggests, that meaning can only apply to the hermetic universe imagined by that genre. In other words, any meaning conveyed in No Country for Old Men is rendered null in transit to the real world.

When Chigurh tells the blameless Carla Jean that “the shape of your path was visible from the beginning,” most readers, tutored in the rhetoric of pulp, will write it off as so much genre guff. But there is a way in which Chigurh is right: the thriller form knew all along that this was her end.

The acuity of Wood’s perception when it comes to the intricacies of literary language is often staggering, and his grasp of how diction and vocabulary provide clues to the narrator’s character and state of mind is equally prodigious. But, in this dismissal of Chigurh as a mere plot contrivance, as in his estimation of No Country for Old Men in general as a “morally empty book,” Wood is quite simply, quite startlingly, mistaken. And we might even say that the critical form knew all along that he would make this mistake.

 
James Wood
           When Chigurh tells Carla Jean her path was visible, he’s not voicing any hardboiled fatalism, as Wood assumes; he’s pointing out that her predicament came about as a result of a decision her husband Llewelyn Moss made with full knowledge of the promised consequences. And we have to ask, could Wood really have known, before Chigurh showed up at the Moss residence, that Carla Jean would be made to pay for her husband’s defiance? It’s easy enough to point out superficial similarities to genre conventions in the novel (many of which it turns inside-out), but it doesn’t follow that anyone who notices them will be able to foretell how the book will end. Wood, despite his reservations, admits that No Country for Old Men is “very gripping.” But how could it be if the end were so predictable? And, if it were truly so morally empty, why would Wood care how it was going to end enough to be gripped? Indeed, it is in the realm of the characters’ moral natures that Wood is the most blinded by his reliance on critical convention. He argues,

Lewelyn Moss, the hunted, ought not to resemble Anton Chigurh, the hunter, but the flattening effect of the plot makes them essentially indistinguishable. The reader, of course, sides with the hunted. But both have been made unfree by the fake determinism of the thriller.

How could the two men’s fates be determined by the genre if in a good many thrillers the good guy, the hunted, prevails?

Fixin to do somethin dumbern hell
One glaring omission in Wood’s analysis is that Moss initially escapes undetected with the drug money he discovers at the scene of the shootout he happens upon while hunting, but he is then tormented by his conscience until he decides to return to the trucks with a jug of water for a dying man who begged him for a drink. “I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways,” he says to Carla Jean when she asks what he’s doing. “If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her” (24). Llewelyn, throughout the ensuing chase, is thus being punished for doing the right thing, an injustice that unsettles readers to the point where we can’t look away—we’re gripped—until we’re assured that he ultimately defeats the agents of that injustice. While Moss risks his life to give a man a drink, Chigurh, as Wood points out, is first seen killing a cop. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine Moss showing up to murder an innocent woman to make good on an ultimatum he’d presented to a man who had already been killed in the interim—as Chigurh does in the scene when he explains to Carla Jean that she’s to be killed because Llewelyn made the wrong choice.

Chigurh is in fact strangely principled, in a morally inverted sort of way, but the claim that he’s indistinguishable from Moss bespeaks a failure of attention completely at odds with the uncannily keen-eyed reading we’ve come to expect from Wood. When he revisits McCarthy’s writing in a review of the 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road, collected in the book The Fun Stuff, Wood is once again impressed by McCarthy’s “remarkable effects” but thoroughly baffled by “the matter of his meanings” (61). The novel takes us on a journey south to the sea with a father and his son as they scrounge desperately for food in abandoned houses along the way. Wood credits McCarthy for not substituting allegory for the answer to “a simpler question, more taxing to the imagination and far closer to the primary business of fiction making: what would this world without people look like, feel like?” But then he unaccountably struggles to sift out the novel’s hidden philosophical message. He writes,

A post-apocalyptic vision cannot but provoke dilemmas of theodicy, of the justice of fate; and a lament for the Deus absconditus is both implicit in McCarthy’s imagery—the fine simile of the sun that circles the earth “like a grieving mother with a lamp”—and explicit in his dialogue. Early in the book, the father looks at his son and thinks: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” There are thieves and murderers and even cannibals on the loose, and the father and son encounter these fearsome envoys of evil every so often. The son needs to think of himself as “one of the good guys,” and his father assures him that this is the side they are indeed on. (62)

We’re left wondering, is there any way to answer the question of what a post-apocalypse would be like in a story that features starving people reduced to cannibalism without providing fodder for genre-leery critics on the lookout for characters they can reduce to mere “envoys of evil”?

As trenchant as Wood is regarding literary narration, and as erudite—or pedantic, depending on your tastes—as he is regarding theology, the author of the excellent book How Fiction Works can’t help but fall afoul of his own, and his discipline’s, thoroughgoing ignorance when it comes to how plots work, what keeps the moral heart of a story beating. The way Wood fails to account for the forest comprised of the trees he takes such thorough inventory of calls to mind a line of his own from a chapter in The Fun Stuff about Edmund Wilson, describing an uncharacteristic failure on part of this other preeminent critic:

Yet the lack of attention to detail, in a writer whose greatness rests supremely on his use of detail, the unwillingness to talk of fiction as if narrative were a special kind of aesthetic experience and not a reducible proposition… is rather scandalous. (72)

To his credit, though, Wood never writes about novels as if they were completely reducible to their propositions; he doesn’t share David Shields’s conviction that stories are nothing but allegories or disguised philosophical arguments. Indeed, few critics are as eloquent as Wood on the capacity of good narration to communicate the texture of experience in a way all literate people can recognize from their own lived existences.

            But Wood isn’t interested in plot. He just doesn’t seem to like them. (There’s no mention of plot in either the table of contents or the index to How Fiction Works.) Worse, he shares Shields’s and other postmodern critics’ impulse to decode plots and their resolutions—though he also searches for ways to reconcile whatever moral he manages to pry from the story with its other elements. This is in fact one of the habits that tends to derail his reviews. Even after lauding The Road’s eschewal of easy allegory in place of the hard work of ground-up realism, Wood can’t help trying to decipher the end of the novel in the context of the religious struggle he sees taking place in it. He writes of the son’s survival,

The boy is indeed a kind of last God, who is “carrying the fire” of belief (the father and son used to speak of themselves, in a kind of familial shorthand, as people who were carrying the fire: it seems to be a version of being “the good guys”.) Since the breath of God passes from man to man, and God cannot die, this boy represents what will survive of humanity, and also points to how life will be rebuilt. (64)

This interpretation underlies Wood’s contemptuous attitude toward other reviewers who found the story uplifting, including Oprah, who used The Road as one of her book club selections. To Wood, the message rings false. He complains that

a paragraph of religious consolation at the end of such a novel is striking, and it throws the book off balance a little, precisely because theology has not seemed exactly central to the book’s inquiry. One has a persistent, uneasy sense that theodicy and the absent God have been merely exploited by the book, engaged with only lightly, without much pressure of interrogation. (64)

Inquiry? Interrogation? Whatever happened to “special kind of aesthetic experience”? Wood first places seemingly inconsequential aspects of the novel at the center of his efforts to read meaning into it, and then he faults the novel for not exploring these aspects at greater length. The more likely conclusion we might draw here is that Wood is simply and woefully mistaken in his interpretation of the book’s meaning. Indeed, Wood’s jump to theology, despite his insistence on its inescapability, is really quite arbitrary, one of countless themes a reader might possibly point to as indicative of the novel’s one true meaning.

Cormac McCarthy
Perhaps the problem here is the assumption that a story must have a meaning, some point that can be summed up in a single statement, for it to grip us. Getting beyond the issue of what statement the story is trying to make, we can ask what it is about the aesthetic experience of reading a novel that we find so compelling. For Wood, it’s clear the enjoyment comes from a sort of communion with the narrator, a felt connection forged by language, which effects an estrangement from his own mundane experiences by passing them through the lens of the character’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, phrasings, and metaphors. The sun dimly burning through an overcast sky looks much different after you’ve heard it compared to “a grieving mother with a lamp.” This pleasure in authorial communion and narrative immersion is commonly felt by the more sophisticated of literary readers. But what about less sophisticated readers? Many people who have a hard enough time simply understanding complex sentences, never mind discovering in them clues to the speaker’s personality, nevertheless become absorbed in narratives.

Developmental psychologists Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom, along with then graduate student Kiley Hamlin, serendipitously discovered a major clue to the mystery of why fictional stories engage humans’ intellectual and emotional faculties so powerfully while trying to determine at what age children begin to develop a moral sense. In a series of experiments conducted at the Yale Infant Cognition Center, Wynn and her team found that babies under a year old, even as young as three months, are easily induced to attribute agency to inanimate objects with nothing but a pair of crude eyes to suggest personhood. And, astonishingly, once agency is presumed, these infants begin attending to the behavior of the agents for evidence of their propensities toward being either helpfully social or selfishly aggressive—even when they themselves aren’t the ones to whom the behaviors are directed. 

            In one of the team’s most dramatic demonstrations, the infants watch puppet shows featuring what Bloom, in his book about the research program Just Babies, refers to as “morality plays” (30). Two rabbits respond to a tiger’s overture of rolling a ball toward them in different ways, one by rolling it back playfully, the other by snatching it up and running away with it. When the babies are offered a choice between the two rabbits after the play, they nearly always reach for the “good guy.” However, other versions of the experiment show that babies do favor aggressive rabbits over nice ones—provided that the victim is itself guilty of some previously witnessed act of selfishness or aggression. So the infants prefer cooperation over selfishness and punishment over complacency.

            Wynn and Hamlin didn’t intend to explore the nature of our fascination with fiction, but even the most casual assessment of our most popular stories suggests their appeal to audiences depends on a distinction similar to the one made by the infants in these studies. Indeed, the most basic formula for storytelling could be stated: good guy struggles against bad guy. Our interest is automatically piqued once such a struggle is convincingly presented, and it doesn’t depend on any proposition that can be gleaned from the outcome. We favor the good guy because his (or her) altruism triggers an emotional response—we like him. And our interest in the ongoing developments of the story—the plot—are both emotional and dynamic. This is what the aesthetic experience of narrative consists of. 

            The beauty in stories comes from the elevation we get from the experience of witnessing altruism, and the higher the cost to the altruist the more elevating the story. The symmetry of plots is the balance of justice. Stories meant to disturb readers disrupt that balance.The crudest stories pit good guys against bad guys. The more sophisticated stories feature what we hope are good characters struggling against temptations or circumstances that make being good difficult, or downright dangerous. In other words, at the heart of any story is a moral dilemma, a situation in which characters must decide who deserves what fate and what they’re willing to pay to ensure they get it. The specific details of that dilemma are what we recognize as the plot.

The most basic moral, lesson, proposition, or philosophical argument inherent in the experience of attending to a story derives then not from some arbitrary decision on the part of the storyteller but from an injunction encoded in our genome. At some point in human evolution, our ancestor’s survival began to depend on mutual cooperation among all the members of the tribe, and so to this day, and from a startlingly young age, we’re on the lookout for anyone who might be given to exploiting the cooperative norms of our group. Literary critics could charge that the appeal of the altruist is merely another theme we might at this particular moment in history want to elevate to the status of most fundamental aspect of narrative. But I would challenge anyone who believes some other theme, message, or dynamic is more crucial to our engagement with stories to subject their theory to the kind of tests the interplay of selfish and altruistic impulses routinely passes in the Yale studies. Do babies care about theodicy? Are Wynn et al.’s morality plays about their own language?

This isn’t to say that other themes or allegories never play a role in our appreciation of novels. But whatever role they do play is in every case ancillary to the emotional involvement we have with the moral dilemmas of the plot. 1984 and Animal Farm are clear examples of allegories—but their greatness as stories is attributable to the appeal of their characters and the convincing difficulty of their dilemmas. Without a good plot, no one would stick around for the lesson. If we didn’t first believe Winston Smith deserved to escape Room 101 and that Boxer deserved a better fate than the knackery, we’d never subsequently be moved to contemplate the evils of totalitarianism. What makes these such powerful allegories is that, if you subtracted the political message, they’d still be great stories because they engage our moral emotions.

            What makes violence so compelling in fiction then is probably not that it sublimates our own violent urges, or that it justifies any civilization’s past crimes; violence simply ups the stakes for the moral dilemmas faced by the characters. The moment by moment drama in The Road, for instance, has nothing to do with whether anyone continues to believe in God. The drama comes from the father and son’s struggles to resist having to succumb to theft and cannibalism to survive. That’s the most obvious theme recurring throughout the novel. And you get the sense that were it not for the boy’s constant pleas for reassurance that they would never kill and eat anyone—the ultimate act of selfish aggression—and that they would never resort to bullying and stealing, the father quite likely would have made use of such expedients. The fire that they’re carrying is not the light of God; it’s the spark of humanity, the refusal to forfeit their human decency. (Wood doesn't catch that the fire was handed off from Sheriff Bell's father at the end of No Country.) The boy may very well be a redeemer, in that he helps his father make it to the end of his life with a clear conscience, but unless you believe morality is exclusively the bailiwick of religion God’s role in the story is marginal at best.

            What the critics given to dismissing plots as pointless fabrications fail to consider is that just as idiosyncratic language and simile estranges readers from their mundane existence so too the high-stakes dilemmas that make up plots can make us see our own choices in a different light, effecting their own breed of estrangement with regard to our moral perceptions and habits. In The Roving Party, set in the early nineteenth century, Black Bill, a native Tasmanian raised by a white family, joins a group of men led by a farmer named John Batman to hunt and kill other native Tasmanians and secure the territory for the colonials. The dilemmas Bill faces are like nothing most readers will ever encounter. But their difficulty is nonetheless universally understandable. In the following scene, Bill, who is also called the Vandemonian, along with a young boy and two native scouts, watches as Batman steps up to a wounded clansman in the aftermath of a raid on his people.

Batman considered the silent man secreted there in the hollow and thumbed back the hammers. He put one foot either side of the clansman’s outstretched legs and showed him the long void of those bores, standing thus prepared through a few creakings of the trees. The warrior was wide-eyed, looking to Bill and to the Dharugs.
The eruption raised the birds squealing from the branches. As the gunsmoke cleared the fellow slumped forward and spilled upon the soil a stream of arterial blood. The hollow behind was peppered with pieces of skull and other matter. John Batman snapped open the locks, cleaned out the pans with his cloth and mopped the blood off the barrels. He looked around at the rovers.
The boy was openmouthed, pale, and he stared at the ruination laid out there at his feet and stepped back as the blood ran near his rags. The Dharugs had by now turned away and did not look back. They began retracing their track through the rainforest, picking among the fallen trunks. But Black Bill alone among that party met Batman’s eye. He resettled his fowling piece across his back and spat on the ferns, watching Batman. Batman pulled out his rum, popped loose the cork, and drank. He held out the vessel to Bill. The Vandemonian looked at him. Then he turned to follow the Parramatta men out among the lemon myrtles and antique pines. (92)

If Rohan Wilson had wanted to expound on the evils of colonialism in Tasmania, he might have written about how Batman, a real figure from history, murdered several men he could easily have taken prisoner. But Wilson wanted to tell a story, and he knew that dilemmas like this one would grip our emotions. He likewise knew he didn’t have to explain that Bill, however much he disapproves of the murder, can’t afford to challenge his white benefactor in any less subtle manner than meeting his eyes and refusing his rum.

Rohan Wilson
            Unfortunately, Batman registers the subtle rebuke all too readily. Instead of killing a native lawman wounded in a later raid himself, Batman leaves the task to Bill, who this time isn’t allowed the option of silently disapproving. But the way Wilson describes Bill’s actions leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind about his feelings, and those feelings have important consequences for how we feel about the character.

Black Bill removed his hat. He worked back the heavy cocks of both barrels and they settled with a dull clunk. Taralta clutched at his swaddled chest and looked Bill in the eyes, as wordless as ground stone. Bill brought up the massive gun and steadied the barrels across his forearm as his broken fingers could not take the weight. The sight of those octagonal bores levelled on him caused the lawman to huddle down behind his hands and cry out, and Bill steadied the gun but there was no clear shot he might take. He waited.
                        See now, he said. Move your hands.
            The lawman crabbed away over the dirt, still with his arms upraised, and Bill followed him and kicked him in the bandaged ribs and kicked at his arms.
                        menenger, Bill said, menenger.
The lawman curled up more tightly. Bill brought the heel of his boot to bear on the wounded man but he kicked in vain while Taralta folded his arms ever tighter around his head.
Black Bill lowered the gun. Wattlebirds made their yac-a-yac coughs in the bush behind and he gazed at the blue hills to the south and the snow clouds forming above them. When Bill looked again at the lawman he was watching through his hands, dirt and ash stuck in the cords of his ochred hair. Bill brought the gun up, balanced it across his arm again and tucked the butt into his shoulder. Then he fired into the lawman’s head.
The almighty concussion rattled the wind in his chest and the gun bucked from his grip and fell. He turned away, holding his shoulder. Blood had spattered his face, his arms, the front of his shirt. For a time he would not look at the body of the lawman where it lay near the fire. He rubbed at the bruising on his shoulder; watched storms amass around the southern peaks. After a while he turned to survey the slaughter he had wrought.
One of the lawman’s arms was gone at the elbow and the teeth seated in the jawbone could be seen through the cheek. There was flesh blown every place. He picked up the Manton gun. The locks were soiled and he fingered out the grime, and then with the corner of his coat cleaned the pan and blew into the latchworks. He brought the weapon up to eye level and peered along its sights for barrel warps or any misalignment then, content, slung the leather on his shoulder. Without a rearward glance he stalked off, his hat replaced, his boots slipping in the blood. Smoke from the fire blew around him in a snarl raised on the wind and dispersed again on the same. (102-4)

Depending on their particular ideological bent, critics may charge that a scene like this simply promotes the type of violence it depicts, or that it encourages a negative view of native Tasmanians—or indigenous peoples generally—as of such weak moral fiber that they can be made to turn against their own countrymen. And pointing out that the aspect of the scene that captures our attention is the process, the experience, of witnessing Bill’s struggle to resolve his dilemma would do little to ease their worries; after all, even if the message is ancillary, its influence could still be pernicious.

            The reason that critics applying their favored political theories to their analyses of fiction so often stray into the realm of the absurd is that the only readers who experience stories the same way as they do will be the ones who share the same ideological preoccupations. You can turn any novel into a Rorschach, pulling out disparate shapes and elements to blur into some devious message. But any reader approaching the writing without your political theories or your critical approach will likely come away with a much more basic and obvious lesson. Black Bill’s dilemma is that he has to kill many of his fellow Tasmanians if he wants to continue living as part of a community of whites. If readers take on his attitude toward killing as it’s demonstrated in the scene when he kills Taralta, they’ll be more reluctant to do it, not less. Bill clearly loathes what he’s forced to do. And if any race comes out looking bad it’s the whites, since they’re the ones whose culture forces Bill to choose between his family’s well-being and the dictates of his conscience.

Readers likely have little awareness of being influenced by the overarching themes in their favorite stories, but upon reflection the meaning of those themes is usually pretty obvious. Recent research into how reading the Harry Potter books has impacted young people’s political views, for instance, shows that fans of the series are more accepting of out-groups, more tolerant, less predisposed to authoritarianism, more supporting of equality, and more opposed to violence and torture. Anthony Gierzynsky, the author of the study, points out, “As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series.” The messages that reach readers are the conspicuous ones, not the supposedly hidden ones critics pride themselves on being able to suss out. 

            It’s an interesting question just how wicked stories could persuade us to be, relying as they do on our instinctual moral sense. Fans could perhaps be biased toward evil by themes about the threat posed by some out-group, or the debased nature of the lower orders, or nonbelievers in the accepted deities—since the salience of these concepts likewise seems to be inborn. But stories told from the perspective of someone belonging to the persecuted group could provide an antidote. At any rate, there’s a solid case to be made that novels have helped the moral of arc of history bend toward greater justice and compassion.

            Even a novel with violence as pervasive and chaotic as it is in Blood Meridian sets up a moral gradient for the characters to occupy—though finding where the judge fits is a quite complicated endeavor—and the one with the most qualms about killing happens to be the protagonist, referred to simply as the kid. “You alone were mutinous,” the judge says to him. “You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). The kid’s character is revealed much the way Black Bill’s is in The Roving Party, as readers witness him working through high-stakes dilemmas. After drawing arrows to determine who in the band of scalp hunters will stay behind to kill some of their wounded (to prevent a worse fate at the hands of the men pursuing them), the kid finds himself tasked with euthanizing a man who would otherwise survive.

                        You wont thank me if I let you off, he said.
                        Do it then you son of a bitch.
            The kid sat. A light wind was blowing out of the north and some doves had begun to call in the thicket of greasewood behind them.
                        If you want me just to leave you I will.
                        Shelby didnt answer
                        He pushed a furrow in the sand with the heel of his boot. You’ll             have to say.
                        Will you leave me a gun?
                        You know I can’t leave you no gun.
                        You’re no better than him. Are you?
                        The kid didn’t answer. (208)

That “him” is ambiguous; it could either be Glanton, the leader of the gang whose orders the kid is ignoring, or the judge, who engages him throughout the later parts of the novel in a debate about the necessity of violence in history. We know by now that the kid really is better than the judge—at least in the sense that Shelby means. And the kid handles the dilemma, as best he can, by hiding Shelby in some bushes and leaving him with a canteen of water.

These three passages from The Roving Party and Blood Meridian reveal as well something about the language commonly used by authors of violent novels going back to Conrad (perhaps as far back as Tolstoy). Faced with the choice of killing a man—or of standing idly by and allowing him to be killed—the characters hesitate, and the space of their hesitation is filled with details like the type of birdsong that can be heard. This style of “dirty realism,” a turning away from abstraction, away even from thought, to focus intensely on physical objects and the natural world, frustrates critics like James Wood because they prefer their prose to register the characters’ meanderings of mind in the way that only written language can. Writing about No Country for Old Men, Wood complains about all the labeling and descriptions of weapons and vehicles to the exclusion of thought and emotion.

Here is Hemingway’s influence, so popular in male American fiction, of both the pulpy and the highbrow kind. It recalls the language of “A Farewell to Arms”: “He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew.” What appears to be thought is in fact suppressed thought, the mere ratification of male taciturnity. The attempt to stifle sentimentality—“He looked very dead”—itself comes to seem a sentimental mannerism. McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.

Here again Wood is relaxing his otherwise razor-keen capacity for gleaning insights from language and relying instead on the anemic conventions of literary criticism—a discipline obsessed with the enactment of gender roles. (I’m sure Suzanne Collins would be amused by this idea of masculine taciturnity.) But Wood is right to recognize the natural tension between a literature of action and a literature of mind. Imagine how much the impact of Black Bill’s struggle with the necessity of killing Taralta would be blunted if we were privy to his thoughts, all of which are implicit in the scene as Wilson has rendered it anyway.

            Fascinatingly, though, it seems that Wood eventually realized the actual purpose of this kind of evasive prose—and it was Cormac McCarthy he learned it from. As much as Wood lusts after some leap into theological lucubration as characters reflect on the lessons of the post-apocalypse or the meanings of violence, the psychological reality is that it is often in the midst of violence or when confronted with imminent death that people are least given to introspection. As Wood explains in writing about the prose style of The Road,

McCarthy writes at one point that the father could not tell the son about life before the apocalypse: “He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and thought perhaps the child had known this better than he.” It is the same for the book’s prose style: just as the father cannot construct a story for the boy without also constructing the loss, so the novelist cannot construct the loss without the ghost of the departed fullness, the world as it once was. (55)

The rituals of weapon reloading, car repair, and wound wrapping that Wood finds so offputtingly affected in No Country for Old Men are precisely the kind of practicalities people would try to engage their minds with in the aftermath of violence to avoid facing the reality. But this linguistic and attentional coping strategy is not without moral implications of its own.

            In the opening of The Roving Party, Black Bill receives a visit from some of the very clansmen he’s been asked by John Batman to hunt. The headman of the group is a formidable warrior named Manalargena (another real historical figure), who is said to have magical powers. He has come to recruit Bill to help in fighting against the whites, unaware of Bill’s already settled loyalties. When Bill refuses to come fight with Manalargena, the headman’s response is to tell a story about two brothers who live near a river where they catch plenty of crayfish, make fires, and sing songs. Then someone new arrives on the scene:

Hunter come to the river. He is hungry hunter you see. He want crayfish. He see them brother eating crayfish, singing song. He want crayfish too. He bring up spear. Here the headman made as if to raise something. He bring up that spear and he call out: I hungry, you give me that crayfish. He hold that spear and he call out. But them brother they scared you see. They scared and they run. They run and they change. They change to wallaby and they jump. Now they jump and jump and the hunter he follow them.
So hunter he change too. He run and he change to that wallaby and he jump. Now three wallaby jump near river. They eat grass. They forget crayfish. They eat grass and they drink water and they forget crayfish. Three wallaby near the river. Very big river. (7-8)

Bill initially dismisses the story, saying it makes no sense. Indeed, as a story, it’s terrible. The characters have no substance and the transformation seems morally irrelevant. The story is pure allegory. Interestingly, though, by the end of the novel, its meaning is perfectly clear to Bill. Taking on the roles of hunter and hunted leaves no room for songs, no place for what began the hunt in the first place, creating a life closer to that of animals than of humans. There are no more fires.

            Wood counts three registers authors like Conrad and McCarthy—and we can add Wilson—use in their writing. The first is the dirty realism that conveys the characters’ unwillingness to reflect on their circumstances or on the state of their souls. The third is the lofty but oblique discourse on God’s presence or absence in a world of tragedy and carnage Wood finds so ineffectual. For most readers, though, it’s the second register that stands out. Here’s how Wood describes it:

Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful—and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. (59)

This description captures what’s both great and frustrating about the best and worst lines in these authors’ novels. But Wood takes the tradition for granted without asking why this haltingly graceful and heavy-handedly subtle language is so well-suited to these violent stories. The writers are compelled to use this kind of language by the very effects of the plot and setting that critics today so often fail to appreciate—though Wood does gesture toward it in the title of his essay on No Country for Old Men. The dream logic of song and simile that goes into the aesthetic experience of bearing witness to the characters sparsely peopling the starkly barren and darkly ominous landscapes of these novels carries within it the breath of the sublime.

            In coming to care about characters whose fates unfold in the aftermath of civilization, or in regions where civilization has yet to take hold, places where bloody aggression and violent death are daily concerns and witnessed realities, we’re forced to adjust emotionally to the worlds they inhabit. Experiencing a single death brings a sense of tragedy, but coming to grips with a thousand deaths has a more curious effect. And it is this effect that the strange tangles of metaphorical prose both gesture toward and help to induce. The sheer immensity of the loss, the casual brushing away of so many bodies and the blotting out of so much unique consciousness, overstresses the capacity of any individual to comprehend it. The result is paradoxical, a fixation on the material objects still remaining, and a sliding off of one’s mind onto a plane of mental existence where the material has scarcely any reality at all because it has scarcely any significance at all. The move toward the sublime is a lifting up toward infinite abstraction, the most distant perspective ever possible on the universe, where every image is a symbol for some essence, where every embrace is a symbol for human connectedness, where every individual human is a symbol for humanity. This isn’t the abstraction of logic, the working out of implications about God or cosmic origins. It’s the abstraction of the dream or the religious experience, an encounter with the sacred and the eternal, a falling and fading away of the world of the material and the particular and the mundane.

            The prevailing assumption among critics and readers alike is that fiction, especially literary fiction, attempts to represent some facet of life, so the nature of a given representation can be interpreted as a comment on whatever is being represented. But what if the representations, the correspondences between the fictional world and the nonfictional one, merely serve to make the story more convincing, more worthy of our precious attention? What if fiction isn’t meant to represent reality so much as to alter our perceptions of it? Critics can fault plots like the one in No Country for Old Men, and characters like Anton Chigurh, for having no counterparts outside the world of the story, mooting any comment about the real world the book may be trying to make. But what if the purpose of drawing readers into fictional worlds is to help them see their own worlds anew by giving them a taste of what it would be like to live a much different existence? Even the novels that hew more closely to the mundane, the unremarkable passage of time, are condensed versions of the characters’ lives, encouraging readers to take a broader perspective on their own. The criteria we should apply to our assessments of novels then would not be how well they represent reality and how accurate or laudable their commentaries are. We should instead judge novels by how effectively they pull us into the worlds they create for themselves and how differently we look at our own world in the wake of the experience. And since high-stakes moral dilemmas are the heart of stories we might wonder what effect the experience of witnessing them will have on our own lower-stakes lives.  

Also read:

Hunger Game Theory: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and the Rebirth of Humanity

Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

Monday, July 21, 2014

In the Crowded Moment atop the Fire Wave

Emily had continued ahead of them all along the trail until she was out of sight. Steven had fallen behind, likewise now occluded by the towering red wall of rock. He was sure for a while after he began following Stacy that Steven would be coming along. But when he stepped up onto an escarpment and climbed a ways to a higher vantage he looked and saw no one on the trail behind him. The way Emily plunged forth with no concern for keeping apace the rest of the group and the fact that now Steven was showing a similar disregard gave him the sense that some deadly tension was building between them. But, then, hadn’t they been like this for as long as they’d been together? He turned and continued along a route above the sandy track on the rock surface, thinking of the rough-grained unyielding folds as ripples caught in some time-halting spell as they oozed along, the lower tiers melting out from beneath those stacked above, the solid formation melting from the bottom up.  

            Marching at a pace to overtake Stacy, he watched the dull blood-stained bands of the undulating sandstone pass through the space immediately before his feet and thought of Darwin striding across the volcanic rock surface of an island in the Galapagos, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology still resonating in the capacious chambers of his dogged mind, the sense taking hold more solidly that the solid earth beneath his feet had once been, and may again at any moment be, a flowing emblem of impermanence. Later, when the Beagle docked in Chile, the coast hours hence blasted by an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Darwin, stepping onto the rocky shore, smelled putrefying fish. The quake had lifted what had moments before been seafloor up into the open air, and, seeing the remains of all the stranded marine creatures, he suddenly understood the provenance of the fossil shells and crustaceans he’d found high in the mountains, thousands of feet above sea level.

            A hundred and fifty years later, it seems like such a simple deduction. To advance our understanding of geology or evolution today, he thought, you would have to be much more subtle than that. And yet, he wondered, how many people think of moments in history, the earthshaking conception of earthshattering theories, as they traverse rock formations like these? What do most people think of when they’re walking along this trail? He looked up and saw how the distant mountains bursting up into the sky gave scope to the vast distances, making of the horizon a symbol of the tininess of these individual human bodies tossing imperceptibly about on the tide of eternity, precipitating a vertiginous dropping away of identity, obliteration before the shock wave of detonated timescales.

             Stacy and Emily were still far enough ahead, and Steven far enough behind, that he had the trail to himself. Darwin just isn’t relevant to anyone, he thought. The concentrated heat of the toppling afternoon sun was momentarily chased over the corrugated sandstone by a chill. You can live your whole life, he thought, be moderately happy, and never have to think of evolution or geological timescales even once—hell, you may even be happier that way. And you, he thought to himself, you may have a type of passion teachers think is just delightful—until you let it loose to savage their own lessons. But most people, most of the time, would rather not have to take anything that seriously. Examine the underpinnings to a point. Allow for doubts and objections to a point. The point where having to think about what it could mean isn’t as exciting as it is scary. The way you do it makes people uncomfortable. It made your ex want to kill you.

            He had the thought—before deciding that he wouldn’t be thinking about her anymore this trip—that his ex couldn’t make that final compromise. Whatever disagreement they’d had was years past, but, even though her ability to articulate what this insurmountable barrier in her heart consisted of went no further than “I can’t forgive you,” even though she’d meet the idea with her own detonations, he knew that last unbudgable bit of incompatibility, the ultimate deal-breaker, had everything to do with her gathering recognition that their two worldviews, once so distant, their separate territories so fiercely guarded, had moved steadily closer over the years—and it wasn’t his that was undergoing the displacement. She needed that one refuge of holding out. So I got to be right, he thought. But what’s it worth if I’m alone? And anyway, much as everyone assumes the contrary, I could give a fuck about being right.

            Then there’s Stacy’s easy social grace—masterful really. She has a fine sense of everyone’s perspective, an impressive memory for everyone’s preferences, and, when in doubt, she simply fills the void with the surging energy of her character. Her charms are even such as can accommodate the intensity of his skepticism and passion for science’s refining crucible. What would she be thinking right now? Where she’s going to live in the coming weeks? Whether she’ll be able to find a job in Charlotte? How much she’s going to miss the poor boys she drives so crazy? Or maybe she too is wondering how the rock came to have such clearly demarcated bands, what accounts for the red hues—iron?—and what it means that our human lifespans scarcely even register on the timescale of geology. As vivacious and loquacious as she is, she’s always had an impressively developed inner life. Still, he remembers her nudges under the table that first night he was in L.A., debating with her friends during their apartment gathering about the virtues, or lack thereof, of SSRIs, those nudges which effectively said, “Don’t do that now—don’t be you,” though that last part was more in keeping with what his more recent ex might’ve said.

            As he covered more distance yet failed to overtake the women ahead of him on the trail, he felt increasingly and pleasantly placeless, but the discomfort at leaving Steven behind for all this time began to disrupt the flow his thoughts. Still, he assured himself, it isn’t like any of us will have the chance to pop over again some other time. Steven could’ve come along; it isn’t my responsibility to make sure no one gets stuck waiting for the others—a task that between them Steven and Emily seemed to be going out of their way to make impossible. His mind went back to the party, to Corina, the pretty blonde, talking about how people give her directions out of Compton whenever she drives through to meet with the troubled teens she tries to help. He scanned his memory for evidence that she was offended or unsettled by anything he said. No, she was incredulous—how could someone say antidepressants don’t work? It was such a foreign idea. But she seemed to enjoy grappling with it, batting it back. She seemed exhilarated to be in the presence of someone so confidently misguided. And fine, he would have said, let’s see how far down the rabbit hole you can go before you start to panic. No, he decides, it really is bullshit, all that about me hurting people. The worst that can be said is that I ruined the mood—and even that isn’t true. If anything, I brought some unexpected excitement.

            When he first stepped into the apartment and was introduced to Corina, he put some added effort into answering the question about what it is he does in Fort Wayne, setting his current job within the context of his aspirations, perhaps making it seem more exciting than it really is, as if it were just a way station along the path to his career as a novelist. Speaking of your occupation as a vocation, telling a story about how you came to do what you’re doing and how it will lead to you doing something even more extraordinary—it was something he’d ruminated on as he made the trip westward. All the strangers making small talk on the planes and in the airports, and that question, “What do you do?”, so routine. One or two words couldn’t suffice as an answer. The two words may as well be, “Dismiss me.” Telling a story, though, well, everyone appreciates a good story. You may forget a mere accountant, or programmer, or copywriter, but everyone loves a protagonist.

Maybe, he thinks now, you can do something similar when it comes to your beliefs and your way of thinking and debating and refusing to shy away from disagreements. Present it in the context of a story—how you came to think the way you do—with a beginning, middle, and end.

He imagines himself on a first date saying, I always talk about the importance of science, and I feel it’s often necessary to challenge people on beliefs that they’ve invested a lot of emotion in. So a lot of people assume I’m heartless or domineering—that I get off on proving how smart I am. The truth is I’m so sensitive and so sentimental that half the time I’m disgusted with myself for being so pathetic. If I’m calculating, it would be more like the calculations of someone with second degree burns lowering himself into a tub of ice water. That sensitivity, though, that receptiveness, it’s what makes me so attentive and engaged. I go into these trances when I read or even when I’m watching movies or shows. People are impressed with how well I remember plots and lines from stories. People in school used to ask how I did it. There wasn’t any trick. I sure as hell didn’t apply any formula. I just took the stories seriously—I couldn’t help but take them seriously. The characters came across as real people, and I cared about them. The plots—I knew they weren’t real of course—but in those moments when you’re really into it, they’re real in their own way. It’s like it doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. And that connection I have to novels and shows, you know, it’s like in school they try to tell you that’s not how you should read and they tell you all this bullshit about how you’re supposed to analyze them or deconstruct them. All I can say is when I realized how utterly fucking stupid all that literary theory crap is—it was like this huge epiphany. I felt so liberated. And today a lot of the arguments I get into are with people who want to take this or that writer to task for some supposed sexism or racism, or for not toeing the line of some brain dead theory.

            But the other part of it is that I still remember being sixteen and realizing that the Catholicism I was brought up with was the purest nonsense, nothing but a set of traditions clung to out of existential desperation and unthinking habit. What made that so horrible for me, again, was that up till then I had taken it so seriously. I wasn’t a bible thumper or anything. But I prayed every night. I really believed. So when it came crashing down—well, I can’t describe how betrayed I felt. I remember wondering why no one tried harder to get at the truth before they all conspired to foist this idiocy on so many children. The next big disillusionment came when my friends and I started watching the Ultimate Fighting Championships. At the time, I’d been taking tae kwon do and karate for over four years in a couple of those strip mall dojos MMA guys talk about with such disdain these days. Watching those fights, guys actually going in there and trying beat the shit out each other, I saw—even though I admit it took me a while to accept it—most of the stuff I’d been learning so assiduously all those years was next to worthless. It was like, oh well, at least you learned some discipline and stayed in shape. Yeah, but I could have been learning muay thai or jujitsu. The thing is, when you go in for this type of nonsense, it’s not just your thing. It affects other people. Religious people teach religion to their kids. They proselytize to anyone who’ll listen. Those charlatan karate teachers, they take people’s money. They give them a false sense of control—not to mention wasting their fucking time.

            Then there were the two years in college when I had my heart set on being a clinical psychologist. At the time, everyone just knew childhood trauma was at the root of almost all mental illness. I listened to that Love Lines show on the radio where Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla interrogated the women who called in until they broke down and admitted they’d been abused as children. Then, the summer before my senior year, I start digging into the actual science. Turns out the sexual abuse everyone is so sure fucks kids up for life—its effects can’t even be distinguished from those of physical abuse or neglect. There’s almost no evidence that those childhood traumas lead to psychological issues later in life. Repressed memories? Total bullshit. If you think you underwent some process of recovering long-forgotten memories of sexual abuse you suffered as a child, what you were really doing was going through a ritual induction into a bizarre, man-hating, life-ruining cult. And I was graduating from college at just about the time in the late 90s when all the false accusations and wrongful imprisonments were coming to light. Oh, and did I mention that the first girl I fell in love with—the woman up ahead of me on the trail right now—I couldn’t touch her for years because I was so worried about the harm it might cause, that lost time of my late teens and into my twenties. My mind so full to capacity with all that ridiculous feminist pseudo-psychology.  Instead of coming on to her, I waited for her to initiate, and she wondered what the hell was wrong with me since all the while I kept insisting I didn’t want to be just friends. Oh, the awakenings I had in store, rude and otherwise, when it came to women and desire.

            Then there was a brief flirtation with new age ideas after I took a course on Religion and Culture where the teacher assigned the fucking Celestine Prophecy as a text book—and she treated all the claims as if they were real. Luckily, Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World was recommended by one of my anthropology teachers, so I read it soon afterward. I wanted to leave a copy in the Religion and Culture teacher’s mailbox. Sagan’s book was what showed me, not what ideas I should believe in, but how I could go about finding out which ideas were most likely to be true. That book changed my perspective on society and conventional wisdom in general. I think most people assume if a bunch of teachers tell you something and if enough people believe it there must be something to it. But some ideas, most ideas, sometimes I think nearly all ideas but a precious few are just plain wrong no matter who or how many people believe them. What I couldn’t have known then is how much that kind of thinking would alienate me.

            He stopped, having arrived at the top of a large rise which dropped off precipitously before him. He chuckled, thinking, yeah, maybe you better not say all that on a first date. Looking across to another, somewhat lower rise, he saw Stacy leveling her iPhone for a picture. Two tall and slender women, attired in form-fitting apparel like Stacy’s, were likewise taking turns getting pictures of each other on the various peaks and mounds. He watched the girls, turned back to the jagged mountains on the distant horizon, like the spine of some scarcely corporeal monster cresting the surface of a sand-crusted sea, the air separating the countless miles as perceptibly invisible as the freshly polished crystal of a priceless timepiece, and he thought about how hospitable all the world has become to us humans. Without the cars and the roads and the ready stores of water, this desert would appear so differently to them. In all likelihood, they would even lose something of their humanity, becoming vicious to adapt to the precariousness and harsh brutality of a less trustworthy denizenry.

            He imagined roving bands of Native Americans, then government-sponsored cavalries, cowboys, thieves, marauders, so many varieties of deadly men, barely human. We’ve had to build up, on such a flimsy foundation, a space for men to be more civilized, more peaceful, less desperate. And somehow what we—or our forebears, also mostly men—created has succeeded to such a stupid degree we take it enough for granted that whole schools of thought have grown up to lament the evils of civilization. The truth is, before civilization came, as civilization was still busy coming, there was probably enough bloodshed in this region that the pink of iron glowing in these seasonally layered bands under our feet may have leeched into the rock after leaking from the endless variety of wounds sustained by human flesh.

            Looking over the rim of the bulging rock, he saw it rolling away severely to reveal a drop of several hundred feet. And he was surprised to realize, for the third time in two days, the instinctual anchor preventing him from taking a step, and another, toward that abrupt curving back and away of the rough surface, it had either vanished or simply never existed. He felt his weight pulling against the spongy grip of the soles of his shoes while his breaths continued slow and his heart beat softly on. It wasn’t until turning back to check once again if he could see Steven from this elevated vantage that he felt an impulse to back away from the downward curve. If he was to let himself fall, he’d only do so eyes forward.

            Self-conscious now, he glanced about for Stacy and the handful of other people milling about the outcroppings, nestled pockets, and rolling protuberances of ancient rock. What are we all looking for in these travels and treks to otherworldly places? We’re looking for inspiration, calling forth moments, invoking the powers of transcendence, pushing ourselves forward into what we hope are those periods of our lives when it seems like we’re finally becoming who in our dreamlife hearts we always believed we would be. Set the world alight with enchantment and endless possibility. And we’ve all had those experiences where we’ve met someone, or undertaken some project, or set off to some faraway destination—and all our lives seemed in flux and we were moving at last toward that state of being when we could relax, be ourselves, but work and strive meaningfully at the same time. Usually, though, we miss them. The quake’s upheaval threatens more than it promises. We can’t appreciate these periods in our lives while we’re living them because we’re still caught up in the time and the transformation that occurred previous to this one. Attachments are like habits that way. You could wait till the end of time and they’d never extinguish on their own. Your only hope is to replace the old ones with new ones. But since no love you have can ever match the poignancy of the loves you’ve lost, no civilization lives up to the golden accomplishments of the one that’s vanished, you live looking back, boats against the current and all that. Or, knowing all this, you wait. And you look out. And you wonder all the while if there’s something more you should be doing to bring about that next period of becoming who you are, worrying that you may have already used up all the ones you had coming.

            He walked down the rounded surface, on the side he’d come up, feeling purged, emptied of some burden of long-accustomed ache, as if it had drained from his blood into the banded stone beneath his soft-soled shoes. Drops in time, echoes like living breathing beings, the absent people in our minds. Exes, old friends, Darwin, roving bands of savage men—they have life, existence independent now from the bodies housing their own autonomous searchings and wanderings. Their echoes forever pull and impact us, scour our flesh and turn us inside out—flaring with the red heat of rage and longing and protectiveness and abandonment and loss. These emotions they call forth with their spectral gestures, their faces, their words, they never cease, even with physical absence. Each prod, each tug, each blow gets recorded and replayed forever, the dynamic of our interactions carrying on even when we’re alone, drowning out all the other beckonings at the doorstep of our hearts.

            “Where the hell is Steven?”

            He looks up from where he’d been searching for footholds to see Stacy startlingly close to where he’d finally landed two-footedly in the sand. “I don’t think he’s coming.” His felt snot wetting his mustache, the unaccountable allergic outflow that had been plaguing them all for the past two days. “He’s really missing out.”


Also read: The Tree Climber

And: Waking Up a Completely Different Person: From "Dr. McAdams' Method"

And Encounters, Inc.