Writing and artifice

With a certain frequency I read complaints about assorted aspects of contemporary writing and am embittered to recall that I and probably a number of persons like myself have written things that address the lacunae indicted in these complaints and that nonetheless have failed to provoke the interest, perhaps not of the very people who have uttered these complaints, but at the least of people of similar outlook. Undoubtedly there is something comely about disaffection and cynicism tel quel, and the demands they levy upon independent thought are fairly low. Lately I have read a number of critiques of the artificiality of fiction calling for a greater degree of self-consciousness with relation to artifice and have recalled ruefully the number of replies I have received from publishers who have alleged to be in search of so-called writing that slips through the cracks in which I have read that this is unfortunately not what we’re looking for. I don’t mind because there are so many things in my life that make me happy. It is merely an irritation. If anything, for my own amusement, and for that of a few friends who will read this, I am posting two short sections from my novel The Philosophy of a Visit about process and narrative. 

(Incidentally, this all came into my mind thanks to the reading of an interesting poem  I read thanks to a person who is as far as possible from the flippancy I am referring to above.)

1. I have a favorite memory of my sister:  her hair is still blond, her frame lanky, the bones still too long for the flesh.  She has yet to buy her first car.  She has walked to the daycare center to pick me up because my mother is coming home late.  It has been concluded that love in general is founded on mother-infant love and that love is moreover progressive, so that the failure to establish affectional bonds with the mother, or some mother-like figure, renders the attainment of secondary and tertiary forms of love impossible; still, it is true that later forms of love add something and are not mere recapitulations of infantile yearnings.  The sight of my sister at this time gave me a special frisson—I feel compelled, rather than to cut out this pompous Gallicism, to attribute its appearance here to my reading this morning, in a quarter hour’s respite from my time with my father, Frank Kermode’s essay—his last—in the London Review of Books, about the use of the word frisson in Eliot’s criticism, which the author translates as shudder, because it seems to me all this may have some bearing on what I have to say here, although I confess to having no idea what the phrase to have bearing might denote.  The sight of my sister gave me a kind of frisson—the word suggests for me less the quiver of the uncanny than that tingling in the forelimbs attendant on being torn out from one’s thoughts and cast into the sensual—amid the clamminess of a held hand and the sweet scent of exhaust fumes, which themselves recall David Geary’s assertion that consciousness arises primarily in response to problems for which the routines of involuntary memory are inadequate.  I had thought to ascribe this frisson to repressed incestuous longings, but the phrase repressed incestuous longings is merely risible.  We evoke these stale Freudianisms because we can lie back upon them, a stale Freudianism, like any popular wisdom, plugs up those perforations which are our lone access to our hearts.  To state a stale Freudianism is to feign self-understanding, with this gesture we relieve ourselves of the duty of self-understanding, and we resume, apparently impenitently, that series of rites and acquisitions for which self-understanding is a mere obstacle, as though these rites and acquisitions have evicted us from our lives…


2. It is presumption to act as though I have any idea what is passing through my father’s mind as he manipulates this copy of the London Review of Books, especially as his back is to me and all I can see of him is the slope of his brown sweater over his shoulder and the bird’s nest of sparse, dry hair spun around the almost orange crest of his head; but we are condemned not only to attribute, but to overattribute motives and thoughts to the people in our lives, and we cannot release ourselves from this constant and tormenting attribution and overattribution except through the sort of perverse meditative “letting-go” that is utterly contrary to our philosophical natures.

            At length, I accustom myself to ignoring my father’s page-turning and my own conjectures about his intellectual vacuity and I absorb myself, as one says, in the book of essays by Coetzee, a writer of whom I do not have the highest opinion.  Now, nearly a year after, having taken the book from my shelf, I look for passages I have marked, thinking I will analyze one of them here and give the impression that it impressed me in such a way as to linger in my thoughts, indissociable from the moments I passed with my father on the bus, and I see that I must have skipped most of its second half.  The last passage I have annotated is an acute but pedestrian comment comparing the respective maturation of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and after that, I have underlined the title of a book on Borges that interested me, but that I will probably never buy.  The only piece I read attentively, it seems, pertains to Richardson, an author I know only second-hand and to repeatable opinions about whom I am thus overly susceptible.  I interrupt my reading of Coetzee to look at Facebook on my phone.

            When we can see the city from the window, I touch my father’s shoulder and say, “That’s the city over there.”  We round a curve and it disappears, and in its stead is an obsolete swivel bridge on a shattered pylon surrounded by schools of ducks.  I ask myself whether such geographical and putatively lyrical details are desirable or necessary in such a narration as the present one.  I think of how much of our time is wasted watching movies with their endless, pointless shots of landscapes or faces or furnished rooms, and about Shklovsky’s thesis that narrative is, essentially, an accumulation of dreamed deferrals, of stalling tactics, before a climax of which we were conscious all along….