Pick up any novel and we expect to turn each page, silently muttering, and then what, between Once upon a time and …..lived happily ever after. Who doesn’t love a good story? We each have one or more to tell. At the same time we know life doesn’t quite happen that way. We omit the boring parts and embellish the rest with each telling. Henry James said, ”There are no plots in life.” They are constructs; the illusions we create and cherish in order to sort out through the clamor and simultaneity . Over time we even get to believe our own consoling myths.
Something has been happening in all the arts for the past century. There’s murder afoot, as Sherlock would say, an assault on old forms to which we still cling. Poetry yielded its end rhyme but some can not accept blank verse even though it has been around since Whitman. The butterflies have fluttered by. There are still those among us who choose art on their walls to match the throw pillows. Impressionism, which we loved to death, is safe since it first offended sensibilities 125 years ago. Now we embrace it as we would a bedtime story.
James Joyce put a gun to the head of 19th century lyrical fiction with Finnegan’s Wake. But it was only a flesh wound. Even Beckett and Pynchon only scarred our taste for the straight ahead narrative. Perhaps the tidy tale set in a chronology is grounded in the receptors of our double helix. The paradox is that we really don’t think that way. Do we?
My head is swarming with digressions and ellipsis. I’m inhaling odors, looking out the window, scratching my back, hearing a car alarm, wondering what time it is, which reminds me that we’ll soon be setting our clocks back an hour and I’ll need to take my car in because I can’t figure out how to re-set the clock……
If literature, like any other art form, is meant to shake our perceptions shouldn’t it be at least faintly subversive? Not to lull us with a recognition of the familiar but to upset our complacency a bit. To wake our resistance and do battle with the new terms offered. What was Warhol about with his repeatable Campbell soup labels except to call attention to the broth of images we are drowning in?
Certain givens may be in for review….such as the belief that language can reveal truth, unravel the mystery and offer us the meaning of life. That authenticity of character can be revealed through deep probing into our psyche and old wounds. That a coherent childhood memory comes to us resulting in a great ah ha. That a perfect metaphor can be an essential key to unlocking the door towards resolution. Even though the cloud looks like Kentucky or my grandfather’s beard or a reaching hand it is just a cloud.
On the other hand what is left after stampeding our sacred cows over the cliff? Is there a literature of a wireless age for the generation whose eye reads a field on a computer screen easier than we read the linear sequential of a page? Can we even conceive of a new literacy that rejects the singular POV for the one claimed by Picasso’s cubism? Perspective in art or on the page suggests a dominant, singular eye. The Rashoman approach allows for infinite telling.
If you are disturbed by all this, move over. I can’t quite give myself over to the literary revolution either. But I know it’s out there and coming at us inexorably. A new way of saying follows a new way of seeing. Instead of epiphany, authenticity is achieved by accumulation of bits and scraps; by circling the subject as the Cubists did from shifting eyes including what is absent or unsayable. Characters, are hard to identify. They are more like blank screens on whom reality is projected from the material world. Ultimately, what connects us is a shared sense of bewilderment and a reaching, like Ahab, for the unattainable.
There is room and reason enough to welcome both forms. If change occurs it will be glacial and the reading public may be the last to notice.