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Finch Holes: Literary Matters

Not Quite a ‘Manifesto of Sensationalism’: Some Thoughts About Some Terms that Might Describe a Novel I Wrote

The first thing Adam did when presented with a splendiferous world, uninhabited by anyone else, was start naming shit. Later his descendants grouped everything that had a name into categories. As far as I know, no other animal on the planet categorizes every element of existence. It’s one of the things that makes us human. We come to terms. Per Darwin, we evolved from amphibians into something like apes until we became humans capable of posting brief responses online about the novels we’ve read. I’ve done this since 2007 on Goodreads. I’ve left a trail of thoughts to follow whenever I feel like I’ve forgotten every book I’ve read over the past seven years. Now that Atticus has made my novel The Shimmering Go-Between available for human categorizing pleasure, I’d like to see what I mean by a few literary labels that, more often than not, might be slapped upon it.

As in an eighth-grade geometric proof, it’s important to acknowledge the given upfront: labels are bullshit — that is, they limit natural glorious complexity for the sake of convenience. Language streams from fingertips or pen before it’s transcribed for easy reading online and in print. Sometimes this language takes the form of an essay or a poem or review. Ennobled, it takes the form of fiction — and, if feeling ambitious, a novel. Pages upon pages of language accrue until the word count function attests that the manuscript has reached a certain length (50K words at least, per E.M. Forster’s definition of a novel). But for these 2500 words I’m less interested in talking about what makes a novel than how novels are talked about.

If anyone winds up talking about The Shimmering Go-Between I doubt they’ll call it a Great American Richard novel. It’s not in that tradition – I mean, the centrist dominant literary tradition, the serious sort of straightforward realist lit that appears in the Best American Short Stories, for example — despite the novel’s narrator residing in an area I envisioned sort of like Wyoming, with steppes and plateaus in the distance. Terms most likely to apply to the novel include “surreal,” “magical realist,” “absurdist,” and “fabulist.” (Plus two others I’ll make up toward the end that might be more apt.)

The Bee-Loud GladeSurrealism seems more about sliced eyeballs and melting clocks. By sliced eyeballs I’m referring to the short Luis Bunuel film “An Andalusian Dog.” By melting clocks, I’m referring to the famous Dali painting, “The Persistence of Memory.” Surrealism seems more about striking images emerged from the subconscious to “shock the bourgeois” and trigger a reaction that turns people on — forces the pineal gland to excrete a little dopamine or whatever, which ancients used to call opening the third eye, surrealistically portrayed as blue skies and clouds (I’m thinking of the Magritte painting, “The False Mirror,” used on the cover of Steve Himmer’s novel, The Bee-Loud Glade). In lit, I feel like “surrealist” can describe the language but not a novel’s plot. Usually I tend to get a little irritated when surrealist tendencies overtake the language of a novel. It rarely turns me on. It makes me think that the writer is showing off, since exotic phrases rarely suddenly enlighten readers. Instead, they lean back on their heels and appreciate the wordplay.

Magical realism is solely exported from South America, I think. It’s a South American subcategory of imaginative writing that incorporates elements of fantasy, fables, and mythology, but doesn’t invent new worlds for settings. It’s usually lushly written, somewhat disorienting (the author doesn’t lead the reader by the hand), and it often involves simultaneous occurrences on multiple planes of reality. It was most famously advanced by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it was championed early on by Borges.

The preceding sentences seem to me to apply to The Shimmering Go-Between, except that I’m not South American, and when such elements appear in a novel originating from elsewhere, it’s usually called something else. For example, if a Czech Jew writes a story in German in which one of the characters is a bug, you don’t call it magical realist. If a Russian writes a story involving a giant nose running around town, you don’t call it magical realist. If a German writes a novel involving a little boy who never grows up and plays a drum around WWII, you don’t call it magical realism. Or maybe you do. A quick search reveals that people call The Tin Drum and novels like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children “magical realist” all the time.

What about absurdist or satirical fiction? Those terms are maybe sort of limiting? When I hear the word absurd I think of Beckett and Ionesco. Satirical fiction makes me think of Voltaire. These terms seem to reduce a work of art to a single reason: demonstration of the meaninglessness of life or cultural/political critique. I’m against the idea that a novel or work of art should be about one thing. At best, a novel is an experience, a world — and therefore it’s various. It’s not about one thing in particular; it is a thing itself.

The larger category, at least as I understand it, to encompass all these terms is Fabulism. I first heard it when I moved to Boston in the winter of 1996. I was sleeping on my future housemate’s couch, reading a Boston Phoenix article about the postmodern fabulists of the 1960s and ‘70s (John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and maybe Thomas Pynchon) providing context for a recently published mega-novel called Infinite Jest. I read 100 stories in the two Barthleme collections of 40 and 60, especially moved by the clouds of chicken fat in “Paraguay,” an image I lifted appropriated for The Shimmering Go-Between. My housemate worked at the same bookstore (Avenue Victor Hugo Books on Newbury Street) as a writer who would eventually turn out to be Kelly Link, whose Magic for Beginners became a new fabulist champion. A few years later in Brooklyn I heard Arthur Bradford read from Dogwalker a bunch. His stories always seemed to involve characters undergoing some very natural mutation. The language was clean and simple, almost child-like, which gave the odd twists in his stories some wriggle room. I remember reading another story in “J&L Illustrated,” a great short-lived lit journal, by Hunter Kennedy, whose name I’d recognized from a letter of his that appears inside the double-record gatefold of the seminal “Hey Drag City” compilation that came out in the early/middle ‘90s. The story was called “Unleashed” and, from what I remember, it involved a guy out drinking in New York at night transforming into a dog. There was a lot of shape-shifting in the air at the time, and it always seemed a little symbolic. There was some meaning to it, if not a ton of overt significance. In most cases, it literally dramatized figurative language. For example, a promiscuous man called “a dog” becomes an actual canine. In a way I rarely registered as off-putting at the time, the unexpected storytelling twist seemed more important than its significance.

I also remember being attracted to the word “fabulism” because it seemed related to “confabulatory,” which is a word I had heard in relation to my grandfather when he was in the nursing home thanks to hydroencephalic dementia, reeling off impossible and often paranoid fabrications purportedly about his past. Fabulism involves non-realistic elements acting upon a realistic foundation. The term suggests fables that often involve talking animals and tests of courage, with a moral in conclusion. It suggests myths, which often involve shape-shifting and unrealistic events such as a father eating his young, the children living inside him and then breaking out to become the gods of Mount Olympus. It suggests miraculous biblical stories (creating the world in seven days after saying let there be light, parting the Red Sea, turning water into wine, resurrection). It suggests ghost stories informed by Shakespeare, Dickens, Gogol, Poe, and a few thousand others. Really, the more you think about it, imaginative/inventive stories have been told as long as people have told stories. Talking coyotes seem to always appear in Native American myths and legends. Stories we read as children and, later, read to children thrive thanks to their imaginative elements. Cartoons. The Cookie Monster. On and on. But serious adult literary fiction resists this sort of play. Far-fetched products of the imagination may be present in metaphors, similes, dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations, but they’re never presented literally. The talking poo in The Corrections is a delusion, not a central character.

A year or two before I started The Shimmering Go-Between, there was a well-publicized exhibit of young British artists at the Brooklyn Museum called “Sensation” — it included, most famously, a tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde. A few years later, I workshopped an excerpt of The Shimmering Go-Between in which the main character, a recently widowed wreck of a man, discovers the wonders of autofellatio. A few days before she won the Pulitzer for Gilead, I workshopped this excerpt in Marilynne Robinson’s class. She threw her hands in the air and called the excerpt “sensationalist.” In her note, she said something like we’re coming up against sensationalism again, the idea that prose that goes where no prose has gone before justifies the endeavor. I took this critique too much to heart at first. But over time, particularly now with the publication of the book, I feel like it can be flipped around and used more positively, as a descriptive term.

Let’s look at the meaning of sensational, as defined by Merriam-Webster:

  1. of or relating to sensation or the senses;
  2. arousing or tending to arouse (as by lurid details) a quick, intense, and usually superficial interest, curiosity, or emotional reaction <sensational tabloid news>;
  3. exceedingly or unexpectedly excellent or great <a sensational talent>.

A blend of these three, with the second definition potentially intended semi-satirically, seems to fit the book nicely. Thanks, Marilynne!

I could try to found a literary subgenre, stridently delineate the tenets of Sensationalism in a manifesto-like spiel intended to hype The Shimmering Go-Between. I could say the engine of sensationalist storytelling runs on a succession of unexpected events, impossibilities presented as fact. In Sensationalism, there’s a sense of glee, of zeal, of play, of joy, of humor infused in the plot’s proceedings, even if the characters themselves at times suffer. Sensationalism involves racy and potentially controversial elements, sure, but they’re not necessarily only intended to titillate or satirize. Sensationalism is marked by a hesitancy to direct interpretation in any one direction. Sensationalism presents a series of engaging open symbols, compelling active readers to create associations and thematic significance.

All of which sounds like complete and total bullshit. Because, mostly, it is.

When I wrote The Shimmering Go-Between I found its peculiar elements funny. I was amused by the idea of autofellatio as a literal physical exaggeration of solipsism: the act of a limber navel-gazer. All its many other peculiar elements delighted me. There was joy to its composition. Humor was embedded in its conception. But in retrospect it was a dark time. My heart had been broken by a breakup in June 2001. Once I started to get over it, I watched the Twin Towers fall from the Williamsburg Bridge, everyone around me saying “I can’t believe this is happening,” an unexpected twist in everyone’s story that seemed totally significant. It was a rift in the fabric of reality. It couldn’t be real but Blackhawk helicopters and F-14s overhead, the smoke streaming toward Brooklyn, lower Manhattan closed for weeks, commemorative T-shirts for sale in Union Square that said “I Survived the Attack” — all of it was clearly real. Much of the novel was written in Brooklyn (Greenpoint) while thinking at any moment we might be vaporized by a dirty bomb that blows up the United Nations across the East River. I was unsettled financially, having quit a telecommuting editorial job in May 2001, thinking I’d write that summer and get another job in the City in the fall. But all the jobs were gone in the fall. Everything seemed like it was in ruins. A little later I wound up spending a lot of time in Iowa City thanks to a long-distance relationship. Iowa felt airy and protective, like a lofting comforter, and that sense of restoration is embedded in the book, too, particularly toward its end. All the while, I worked on a lit site, Eyeshot.net, and couldn’t believe it when, a lot like Hannah in “Girls,” I returned one fine day to my Greenpoint apartment to discover an acceptance letter from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Unlike, say, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the multi-volume literary autobiography that tries to get as close as it can to the author’s life, The Shimmering Go-Between expresses the core of my life at the time of its conception/composition if that core were exploded in a series of forward-flowing transmogrifications. Oddly, when I read the novel recently in beautiful bound print, it struck me as a sort of abstract autobiography. The title comes from a Nabokov quotation in “Good Readers and Good Writers” about the birth of literature: it occurred not when a boy crying “wolf, wolf” was followed by a big bad wolf behind him; it occurred when he cried “wolf” and there was no wolf to be seen: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story, there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.”

So: the beam of white light I lived during the first half of the first decade of the 21st century refracts through the prism of lit and emerges as a wolf of many colors?

If we need to come to terms with the terms that may apply to the novel, let’s go with “Lupinism,” which suggests the transformation of writer into werewolf (Lycanthropism), which suggests the transformation of real life as lived into abstract autobiography rendered in text (untamed, with great big teeth, ideally). But who am I to say? I wrote the damn thing. I should get out of the way and hope readers find it, read it, react to it.

Surrealist, fabulist, sensationalist, whatever! Wolves don’t give a damn about wonky categorization. In the end, all they care about is the fact that most readers, myself included, tend to lump books they finish into the following straightforward functional/fundamental categories:

  • Hated it
  • Didn’t like it so much
  • Sort of have mixed feelings about it
  • Liked it
  • Loved it
  • Holy freakin’ hell you must read this now ‘cause it’s a goddamn masterpiece.

Should you read and react to The Shimmering Go-Between, we hope you experience one of the latter three categories in the bulleted list above.

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