Transformation (1831)

April 13, 2019

Mary Shelley’s Transformation is a work of short fiction that bears some interesting similarities to the masterwork that is her magnum opus, Frankenstein (1818/31). It speaks to the psychological undercurrent that writers experience, even as H. M. Jones has suggested, that “our novelists search the subconscious mind…in order to achieve reality, the mode of achieving verisimilitude” (xx). This “search” is the meditative process that extraordinary art requires, which for Shelley is the opportunity to do what she does best, pairing bold, exquisite language with the recurrent themes that linger in her imagination.

Some comparisons go as follows:

1A) Victor Frankenstein is a self-assured student of medicine who through his ambitions, believes he can control the forces of nature, which underscores his character with a sense of arrogance.

1B) Guido of Genoa has an “imperious, haughty, tameless spirit.” He realizes the “wild impetuosity” of his character and states that he was “insolent and domineering,” and possessed of a “rebel heart.”

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2A) After experiencing a drastic chain of events, Victor finds himself scaling the Alps, alone seeking solace from the world and its woes.

2B) Having lost everything as a result of his behavior, Guido finds himself wandering alone the shores of the sea.

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3A) Surrounded by the vast mountainside isolation, Victor encounters the monstrous “fiend” bounding towards him, a sight that is highly unusual. The two end up conversing about the great dilemma Victor has caused for them both.

3B) Along the isolated sea shore, Guido observes a shipwreck from which the sight of a surviving dwarf “bestrding a sea-chest” is astonishing and very strange to see. They come to discuss Guido’s unfortunate predicament.

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4A) A voyeuristic theme emerges in connection with the loss of love, when Victor’s creation is seen peering through the window, where a mate is about to be created for him. Here the loss of love actually comes to take place.

4B) Voyeurism makes an appearance when Guido “hid himself” to watch the window of his love, who is set to marry the dwarf who is inhabiting his body. Here the loss of love is threatened.

Victor Frankenstein’s abhorred creation attempts love in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Both narratives establish characters who experience the “great-is-thy-pride” theme, which translates into the inevitable and subsequent theme, “the greater thy pride, the harder thy fall.” Victor and Guido are dumbfounded by the consequences of their actions, and turn to the sublimity of nature as a means to remedy their inner turmoil. Nature is viewed here as the go-to source for healing and wisdom in the presence of emotional discomfort and confusion. As well, the natural space becomes the metaphorical space of the mind, a natural-world battlefield where the ugliness of the alter-ego is forced to make an appearance for the purposes of confrontation.

Both confrontations are pivotal story points designed to bring forth a resolution, speaking to the human condition which all humans must face, the path of coming to terms with the debacle of self. For Victor, his alter-ego is personified as an unspeakably strong monster, representing the fostered arrogance which has grown to overpower him. For Guido, his cocksure, near-criminally-minded ways are represented and personified as the dwarf-human whose voice was “screeching and horrid, and his contortions as he spoke were frightful to behold.”

The dwarf is a fascinating aspect of Transformation for the way it ushers in the Victorian view of dwarfism, as seen in the writings of other authors. In 1872, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla describes a hunchback with “sharp lean features that generally accompany deformity,” who has a “pointed black beard…white fangs…and a grotesque hat.” In 1891, Oscar Wilde echoes a more startling picture, and the shame it incurs, when he describes what happens at The Birthday of the Infanta — when a dwarf who has never seen himself looks in a mirror, he realizes: “It was a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld.” Such views have a history, as we see in Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762) — when a visitor spots what he believes to be a small zoo, a proprietor answers that the enclosure is an “asylum for those poor creatures who are rendered miserable from some natural deficiency or redundancy,” little people “whose deformity would lead them to wish to be secluded from human view.” Here they are kept from the “monster-mongers” who would display them, where the cost of the “maintenance of the monsters [is] a hundred and twenty.” The notion of displaying little people for money, along with the world of others who look different, reaches into the 20th Century, where criticism has been heaped upon Todd Browning’s notoriously ill-conceived movie, Freaks (1932).

G.R.R. Martin capitalizes on the olden view of dwarfs as undesirable in his book and television series A Game of Thrones (1996-2019). His view is vindicated as he seizes the opportunity to thoroughly celebrate the character and the actor who portrays him, Peter Dinklage.

Shelley’s depiction of a dwarf as “misshapen” is not so much a politically incorrect standpoint as it is, what I would term, a Barthesian Slip. Roland Barthes posited that writing does not need an authorial tag because an author is merely the transfer point between society and the written page (Source). The Great British perception of dwarfism emerges through Shelley’s writing; her mind is but an extension of a larger state of consciousness. Shelley’s authorship, as any author’s might, functions as the interpretation of the social mores of her day, even when judgments as to the exact nature of insensitivity are difficult to define and comprehend.

The form of Transformation is certainly worthy of note. To read it in a day or two sitting as a compact version of the Frankenstein story is to experience in real time the vivid power of language. Written in the first-person, the first few acts consist of Guido “telling” us about the horror he has caused, a combination of conveyed events with heartfelt confessionals that read like intense poetry.

“I arrived in Genoa. I trod the pavement of my ancestral palace. My proud step was no interpreter of my heart, for I deeply felt that, though surrounded by every luxury, I was a beggar. The first step I took in claiming Juliet must widely declare me such. I read contempt or pity in the looks of all. I fancied that rich and poor, young and old, all regarded me with derision. Torella came not near me. No wonder that my second father should expect a son’s deference from me in waiting first on him. But, galled and stung by a sense of my follies and demerit, I strove to throw the blame on others.”

The language is dense and requires careful reading, yet when the moment arrives when he agonizes at sea, the sudden “showing” of the scene becomes impacting on the mind. We are treated to lustrous visuals along with a sense of alarm, thus drawing in the readership into the stakes of the story.

“Even now my heart fails within me when I recur to this rout of grim-visaged ideas. Now subdued almost to tears, now raving in my agony, still I wandered along the rocky shore, which grew at each step wilder and more desolate. Hanging rocks and hoar precipices overlooked the tideless ocean; black caverns yawned; and for ever, among the seaworn recesses, murmured and dashed the unfruitful waters.”

The key formulaic detail that alters the text from condensed story-telling to the sudden feeling of immersion is found in the dialogue, and the effect which reflects the very title itself becomes complete. The story literally “transforms” from the diegetic to the mimetic, serving to move a claustrophobic texture to that which is open and breathable, allowing for a lightening of the mind, a chance to ride the wave of the plot-line.

Transformation stands in opposition to Frankenstein when the ending unfolds, and for this we are thankful. The sense of tragedy that clung to the lives of people before and during the Victorian Era is hard to fathom — Chartism was a nightmare, civil rights were unheard of, children had it very rough, and the continual presence of death from disease, most notably in tuberculosis among others, must have been a nuisance. To read then a story in which a protagonist changes his ways to become a better person is the kind of writing of which, if Shelley was a conduit of the times, then what she gave back was the notion that matters do not have to remain as they stand.


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Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Essay, 1967. UbuWeb, 2019.

Jones, Howard Mumford. Introduction. Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, 1742. The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1939.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” In a Glass Darkly. London, 1872.

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London, 1762.

Shelley, Mary. “Transformation.” The Keepsake. London, 1831.

Wilde, Oscar. “Birthday of the Infanta.” A House of Pomegranates. London, 1891.

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Sharp Objects (2006)

February 14, 2019

The expert magician knows how to keep his audience focused on a specific object, so as to allow for his magic trick to unfold with precision, in a different part of the visual spectrum he represents, mind you. And so it is with the writer of mysteries, coloring her linguistic canvas with red herring detours of plot so that by the end of her novel, one can only blame oneself for the outcome they didn’t see coming.

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is just such the novel, going so far as to take a page from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to secure that which was unexpected, whether intentionally or not. Even as I suspected from the outset a certain character’s dubious disposition, I have to admit that I, too, was taken in by the element of surprise in the final act, though it’s nothing to be ashamed of; it’s what Flynn would’ve wanted. Of course, what followed was the observation of all the markers, replete with the feeling that it all should’ve been so obvious.

With that we have Flynn’s debut into the world of genre writing, impressive as it is. Following on the success of the movie adaptation of her third novel Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects was filmed as a ten-part series for HBO, and it was through this medium that I was driven to read the novel, because after the third episode, I was no longer able to allow myself to get strung along for another car ride with a spaced out Amy Adams.

What unfolded was that I had been, indeed, drawn in to reading a genre novel, but additionally, that I was reading something that was slightly more introspective than other genre novels that I’ve read. While the immediate claim is that the protagonist is the subject of focus for her inability to commit to a relationship, the writing does well to delve into the psychological underpinnings which facilitate the issue. Big time money in a small town, hellish coping mechanisms, drug abuse and peer-pressure are among the list of factors which contribute to the murder of two young girls.

If anything, Flynn provides an excellent contribution of thought to the realm of actual police detective work. Throughout the novel, Detective Richard Willis repeatedly insists that he is looking at anyone and everyone, and that it could be an outsider or a local, some transient or even a family member. It points to notions of seeking truth and justice in a manner that is not rushed and hurried; guilt can only be determined by the facts, and when the facts are slim, the need for patience is key. Sharp Objects is nearly an ode to the hundreds even thousands of those who have been wrongfully convicted by pressured detectives in a hurry to solve a case.

Stylistically speaking, Flynn’s novel moves at steady pace that is in keeping with the fundamentals of standard novel writing, though it must be stated, that the final reveal was out-of-step and awkward. Flynn offers insight into the writing process in her “Acknowledgements,” in which she states that she had “whittled” the book into shape. Multiple readers and readings were involved, along with law enforcement and medical consultations. The ending in this light seems to indicate the desire she had simply to finish the book.

At its heart, Sharp Objects is a “page-turner,” the craft of which is an important one to learn for the aspiring writer in this day and age, for as Stephen King once put it, loosely quoting, “literary fiction no longer sells.”

In the case of this novel, the introspective edge allowing for a glimpse into the darker behaviors of humankind render it something of a unique addition to the genre canon, for make no mistake, Sharp Objects is dark reading. Its tantalizing depiction of rural American Midwest evokes sensations of wariness as to its inhabitants, prompting Flynn herself to remark concerning people she knew in Missouri, of whom she was happy to say “were absolutely no inspiration for the characters in this book.”

Sharp Objects, most pointedly (pardon the pun), draws attention to one of the more confounding of teenage defense mechanisms against the world which traumatizes them. It’s no spoiler to highlight how the protagonist Camille Preaker is a “cutter,” someone who cuts themselves in superficial fashion so as to block the pain of a particular reality. Camille’s distinct style of cutting involves the inscribing of words into her flesh, providing a curious linguistic tension to what is already harrowing authorship. But when we consider the thought of one of our young loved ones taking a razor or a knife, or any “sharp object” to their flesh, it forces us to register, in all the wrong ways, just how painful certain experiences can be for young people. Sharp Objects lays bare what the world can do to the teenage mind, allowing us to consider more thoughtfully how to respond to someone who is young and experiencing trauma.


The Voyage Out (1915)

December 15, 2018

If any one sentence could describe Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (originally entitled Melymbrosia), it might read, “It’s the book with a protagonist that doesn’t realize it has a protagonist.” I attribute this description to the writing style Woolf applies to her debut narrative form, a kind of specialized version of the third-person omniscient that is observed by one encyclopedia, “While Joyce and Faulkner separate one character’s interior monologues from another’s, Woolf’s narratives move between inner and outer and between characters without clear demarcations” (Source). It is an odd way of writing, but something to be appreciated for its drive to break the so-called “rules” of writing.

The Voyage Out, I must admit, sat on my bookcase for nine years. I bought it believing that I was going to dive right in, joining the ranks of those who’ve been enlightened by the majestic insight that precedes Woolf’s reputation. And then my undergraduate courses began, where I was charged with the task of reading Mrs Dalloway (1925); although it was homework, I simply couldn’t finish it. And after racing through To the Lighthouse (1927), I realized The Voyage Out might be shelved unattended to for quite some time. Woolf’s literary accomplishments may be fascinations of genius, but are nonetheless an acquired taste.

The day finally arrived, however, eight years later, when I sensed that I would have to give The Voyage Out some attention, and I’m glad I did. As it turns out, because it was her first novel, it’s been dubbed the simpler of her works (remarkable in and of itself since it went through seven drafts). As Pagan Harleman tells us, since “Woolf was still writing under the shadow of E.M. Forster and the traditional novel, she was not ready for new terrain. One can see her experimenting, slowly honing the style that was to become her hallmark, but where later she was fearless, here she is tentative, depending on plot, not style, to drive the narrative” (XIII). For this fact I am grateful. I was able to experience the beauty and power of Woolf’s ingenuity and prowess with something like a standard narrative to carry me through.

The surprise came when I discovered how the story does not take place in England, which contributed to my enthusiasm to continue reading. Of course, Woolf’s characteristic style stood out immediately, the intricacies of human behavior, emotions described with such poetic clarity, all replete with commentaries on the conditions and idiosyncrasies of English life at the time.

But the story initiates with adventures at sea, the described intensity of the experience intermixed with character activities and reactions that read with a subtle realism that made it hard to believe the authoress had never actually traveled on a ship. When we reach the fictional town of Santa Marina, South America, her descriptive power intensifies, with every conceivable detail attended to with visceral prose that is remarkable to absorb; there is something oddly otherworldly in the notion in how The Voyage Out stands as her “simpler” work, yet requires such keen perception to comprehend the profundity of the writing present within its pages.

The young Rachel Vinrace is the centerpiece of the story but as mentioned, Woolf’s version of the third-person omniscient kept the form from focusing tightly on her. We’re met with an assortment of characters and with them, Woolf brings forth their behaviors and emotions with every mention, distracting us from Rachel’s plot line. The form is so very unusual, abstract and yet revealing for the multitude of ideas Woolf desires to impart, aside from simply telling a story. Luckily for the readership, she is so gifted that the style is not bothersome, much to the extent that the joy of reading is not hindered at all. She even manages to employ that traditionally English writing habit of inserting epigrams, for example telling us that when matters pertain to love, how “That, of course, was what came of looking forward to anything; one was always disappointed” (Woolf 271).

The temptation stands to try and identify the downsides of The Voyage Out, but there are none; great writers often begin their careers with works that are subject to the arrows of criticism (though hers was met with a fair amount of praise). For instance, the English characters are followed throughout the narrative with great avidity while the native peoples of Santa Marina take a serious backseat; the primary peripheral characters are many and they drift in and out so that it’s sometimes difficult to discern them from one another when conversations and descriptions are taking place; and for as thick as the book is, what we learn of Rachel is borderline deficient — but not to the detriment of the novel. To be sure, the novel’s defects are what seem to be the very attributes which render it an exceptional work of literature, its “downsides” to be wholly forgiven.

This may be in addition due to its most peculiar aspect: interwoven throughout its shifting panoramic form there flows a love story. Rachel has been described with the appropriate amount of characterization so that when the moment arrives when we learn how she feels, we find our spirits moved with a sense of intrigue. She’s naïve to the world because of her upbringing, but she is a prodigy at the piano; she’s vulnerable enough to allow the actions of certain people to overwhelm her, but she holds her own when the time comes for intelligent conversation; and she’s old enough to know how marriage is that daunting institution of the unknown, yet her youthful spirit endows her with the inspiration to explore what it might be all about for herself. Rachel’s character development is truly a marvel, because we learn just enough about her to feel that she could be a person taken from the pages of real life.

The finalizing factor that bolsters the novel’s integrity rest not entirely in how the plot line concludes (no spoilers here), because that would’ve been a drastic cliché. It’s in the emotive type of nonchalance that fill the many pages that follow these climactic circumstances that do the grabbing. Where the distracting shifts between characters had once been something of an authorial curiosity, the form appears to have been a strategical maneuver all along. People have to go on with their lives, and of these feelings we are shown. It seems that in reality, we can never tell how people truly feel under such conditions, but with the natural gift of Woolf’s writing, we get as close to the real thing as can possibly be imagined, given especially that such realities can be both heartbreaking as they are unsettling in a disturbing kind of way. With this kind of writing, we can look across the room at someone we love and not only want to reach out and hug them, but we can come a touch closer to understanding them so that we can love them even more.

Harleman, Pagan. Introduction. The Voyage Out. Barnes & Noble, 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. The Voyage Out. 1915. Barnes & Noble, 2004.


Matthew Gregory Lewis on the Nature of Writing and Criticism

December 14, 2018

“I was going to say that you cannot employ your time worse than in making verses. An author, whether good or bad, or between both, is an animal whom every body is privileged to attack: for though all are not able to write books, all conceive themselves able to judge them. A bad composition carries with it its own punishment – contempt and ridicule. A good one excites envy, and entails upon its author a thousand mortifications: he finds himself assailed by partial and ill-humoured criticism: one man finds fault with the plan, another with the style, a third with the precept which it strives to inculcate; and they who cannot succeed in finding fault with the book, employ themselves in stigmatizing the author. They maliciously rake out from obscurity every little circumstance which may throw ridicule upon his private character or conduct, and aim at wounding the man since they cannot hurt the writer. In short, to enter the lists of literature is willfully to expose yourself to the arrows of neglect, ridicule, envy, and disappointment. Whether you write well or ill, be assured that you will not escape from blame.”

– Matthew G. Lewis


Publishing Memories: The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

November 15, 2018

Cigarette ads in the middle of a book, ah the good ol’ days…


A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

August 27, 2018

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

One shouldn’t read Dickens quickly, rip-roaring through the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. To do so is to lose out on the pleasure of the experience, and the track of what’s happening, fast. Dickens constructs his narratives so that readers are to become immersed in the story, and his language is so ornate and complex that plot points can easily be overlooked. And so it is that the magic of Dickens is in the absorption of the text, savoring each paragraph, each line, for the rich symbolism and the imagery he seeks to convey.

On that note, there seems a strange irony that occurs when considering a novel like the A Tale of Two Cities. University English departments are filled with reasonable people doing reasonable things, studying the art of storytelling, learning about language and critical thinking, all the while furthering themselves as human beings, a rather peaceful affair. But how contrasting it is, the subject matter? The term “French Revolution” comes off nowadays as a modern catchphrase that recalls a certain period in history, but can anyone truly realize the terror of which it was comprised?

The Massacre at Paris. 1792

I imagine members of the notorious 1% of our age reading this book, anxiety meds on hand lest the topic be taken to heart, as some terrifying thing that could happen again. Thank goodness for modern technology and how it protects properties, right? Think Louis XVI and his lovely young wife Mrs. Antoinette would have been brutalized by the common populace had their palace been wired with cameras and lasers, and electric fences and traps, and automatic guns and drones, and whatever else billionaires can afford to protect themselves?

Food provision programs may contribute somewhat to the prevention of uprising in the modern age. The revolutionaries were hungry (though it was only part of the problem). Well, what may be on the horizon for the future of Planet Earth may well have been prophesied by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where the flying city-island of Laputa hovers safely in the sky.

Consider the potential modernization of cities in which skyscrapers are connected at heights where the poor cannot access. People could live and work at elevations far above the street for their entire lives while the situation at ground level, its rapidly expanding tent cities, turn from bad to worse.

But I digress. What about the novel? It is most certainly one that has been scrutinized to all eternity, the critical commentary spanning volumes, speaking to the power of Dickens and his imaginative capabilities, with room for plenty more commentaries as the years press forward. It is a novel that couches a domestic story within one of history’s most unimaginable phenomenons, and begins with literature’s most famous opening lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Apart from other notable themes and occurrences, the Carmagnole is a thing difficult not to notice. The “collective behavior” of the revolutionaries is chilling, a paradoxical rampage of irony in which the success of the revolution’s onslaught is bound up in a frenzied rage conducted by “demons,” as Dickens terms them. The scene is so frightening because the onlooker is not certain whether to applaud or abhor the group, the picture of humanity as grey as one could possibly imagine. But there is no point in trying to describe what the author describes best:

“But, he was not far off, for presently she heard a troubled movement and a shouting coming along, which filled her with fear. A moment afterwards, and a throng of people came pouring round the corner by the prison wall, in the midst of whom was the wood-sawyer hand in hand with The Vengeance. There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. At first, they were a mere storm of coarse red caps and coarse woollen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped.”

“While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way. Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport — a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry — a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child’s head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time” (Book III, Chapter V).

No cursory glance at a A Tale of Two Cities is complete, however, without honorable mentions to one of literature’s most dastardly villains, the insidious Madame Thérèse Defarge. Having read the novel, the name is enough to send chills up the spine. She is vicious. She is cold-blooded, beyond vindictive. She is cunning and she is hateful. She holds onto her pain as though it were her life-force, the opposite of love in every capacity. We know she is a product of vengeance and the problems of society, where empathy should rise somewhere in our hearts, but her actions leave us no room but to marvel at the nature of her spite. Humanity has passed from her spirit so that she has become the embodiment of evil.

When she is not knitting the names of those who will come to learn the score, her thinking is stoked by the implements of her vengeful desires:

“‘Eh, well! Here you see me!’ said madame, composed as ever, but not knitting to-day. Madame’s resolute right hand was occupied with an axe, in place of the usual softer implements, and in her girdle were a pistol and a cruel knife” (Book II, Chapter XXI).

Our understanding of femininity takes on skewed shapes when we observe the ease with which Madam Defarge is able to commit heinous forms of murder:

“In the howling universe of passion and contention that seemed to encompass this grim old officer conspicuous in his grey coat and red decoration, there was but one quite steady figure, and that was a woman’s. ‘See, there is my husband!’ she cried, pointing him out. ‘See Defarge!’ She stood immovable close to the grim old officer, and remained immovable close to him; remained immovable close to him through the streets, as Defarge and the rest bore him along; remained immovable close to him when he was got near his destination, and began to be struck at from behind; remained immovable close to him when the long-gathering rain of stabs and blows fell heavy; was so close to him when he dropped dead under it, that, suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife — long ready — hewed off his head” (Book II, Chapter XXI).

Dickens couldn’t have known the effect his choice of words would have on readers 150 plus years into the future, but it was probably just as harrowing then as it is now:

“‘Well, well,’ reasoned Defarge, ‘but one must stop somewhere. After all, the question is still where?'”

“‘At extermination,’ said madame” (Book III, Chapter XII).

A Tale of Two Cities ends with what is intended to be a thought-provoking denouement that has us contemplating noble actions, what it means to sacrifice for others, and does well at achieving that end; yet the events of the revolution are too difficult to shake. On setting the book down after completion, how one side of human nature has treated another, the aristocrats to the peasant classes and vice-versa, seems to outweigh notions of a happy ending. Instead we are left to ponder how relevant “group think” processes are as the ages come to pass, the relation to and the effects it has on the individual. Without care, the future takes on a sense of unpredictability, and we come to thank the power of literature for opening our eyes to the world around us in ways that the mere documentation of history cannot.


Auto-fiction: The Novel Comes Full Circle

July 15, 2018

Alex Clark of The Guardian penned an article that I came across in a manner that was entirely coincidental. My blog post about Daniel Defoe had been up for only a few days when, lo and behold, I found myself reading about a new kind of writing called “autofiction.” Clark provides a definition as he discusses the new genre:

“Suddenly this kind of ‘autofiction’ – fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development – is everywhere” (Source).

As any person of the writerly type would do, I kept reading to find out what was going on, my curiosity leading the way, and that’s when I connected the dots as to what was happening in my mind. I saw that I was recognizing the characteristics of this new form of writing, and realized that I’d seen it before, very recently, and it had everything to do with Daniel Defoe.

In Defoe’s time other writers had published fictionalized narratives about life as it unfolds, from the perspective of a single person, sans the aspect of organized artistic form. Defoe elaborated on the style to produce what he termed the “private history.” The result of his efforts brought us a voluminous collection of breakthrough novels:

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
The The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe​ (1719)
Memoirs of a Cavalier​ (1720)
Moll Flanders​ (1722)
Captain Singleton​ (1722)
The Journal of the Plague Year​ (1722)
Colonel Jack​ (1722)
Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress​ (1724)

The funny thing about recalling these works is how their content resembles the first two words of Clark’s definition, because they are, indeed, “fictionalised autobiography.” With regard to “traditional elements of the novel,” well, in Defoe’s time, such elements hadn’t come to exist yet.

When I found Clark discussing Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo (2018), in which he describes how “Crudo slips sinuously between ‘Kathy’ the pre-millennial icon of the American counterculture and a 21st-century woman on the brink of multiple life changes,” and that the “action slides from a luxurious holiday in Italy to Korea, Grenfell, Steve Bannon’s resignation, [and] a priest giving a sermon in Italian ‘in which the word WhatsApp was frequently discernible,'” I couldn’t help but to observe parallels to Defoe’s work.

From Defoe’s time, writers leading up to the current age, from Richardson and Fielding, to Burney and Austen, to Hawthorne and Melville, to Dickens and Collins, to Brontë and Eliot, to Hardy and Wilde, to Woolf and Joyce, to Ellison and Lee, to Nabokov and Vonnegut, to King and Gaiman, and so forth and so on, the novel has been shaped into what we come to expect in today’s reading market.

And yet it is the “market” that concerns us here, because as Clark tells us, according to the frenzy of the internet-driven, social media age, in which publishing professionals are faced with notorious slush piles, comprised of ongoing novice attempts at the literary tradition, “Writers, then, need strategies to meet the darting eyes of those too powerful, or otherwise occupied, to listen to them.” In short, a new trend has developed in which writers are abandoning the classic structure of the novel — character development, plot, etc. — in favor of blending aspects of memoir-styled nonfiction with fictionally created characters to produce a reading experience that feels fresh and different, enabled by the power of its introspective traits.

The quality of introspection is the factor that drove Defoe’s novels into trail-blazing success (though he didn’t live to see much of the rewards). Introspective writing satisfies an innate need lurking within the human psyche, not only because people want to feel like they’re not the only ones experiencing life on life’s terms, but because the nature of introspective writing projects the opportunity for discovery. Imagine, for example, stumbling across your aunt’s diary from a few decades past, a document she may have meant to have kept hidden. Are you not enticed to find out what she went through? It is the subliminal element of attraction that underscores autofiction, to learn the experience of life from a personalized, lived-in perspective.

When the Internet came into the mainstream, not only did the publishing industry change, but we witnessed the curious onset of experimentation, from novels written on Twitter (micro-novels) to among others, the community-driven novel (collaborative fiction), staples in the abandonment of the literary tradition. As we are learning, however, it seems the writer’s ego never truly fades, never wholly recedes into the background. And so it is that they continue to seek that comfort zone in the cabin by the lake, the quietude stimulating as they seek to tap out their masterworks amid the fragrance of coffee as it wafts through the air. On this note, though the stylistic traits of autofiction will come across as modernized, much more intriguing and energetic, in comparison to the olden form that is the private history, it seems that from Daniel Defoe to Olivia Laing — almost 300yrs to the day — the novel itself as a species of writing has somehow managed to come full circle.

To view the matter from this perspective is to contemplate why the elements of character development and plot came about in the first place. There is a reason why Defoe’s private histories are recognized as fundamental novel writing, and so it is that with autofiction, a new kind of writing that is, according to Clark, nowadays to be found “everywhere,” the pleasure will be in not only coming to marvel and enjoy this new literature as it flies off the bookshelves, but to envision where the phenomenon will take us next.