What I’m trying to articulate here is a particular urgency. A particular urgency fueled by my anxiety that people may approach narrative to not only reassure themselves by confirming their view of the world but that they read in order to shield themselves from actual engagement with the world and to think less. And I believe that this happens not on the level of content, but at the site of our interaction with language and within the relationship we have toward story. Easy reading isn’t a threat just because it breeds familiarity and complacency with how things are but because it teaches that understanding and meaning are easy, that they demand nothing of us but the barest attention. It absolves us of the responsibilities of choice and action.
One of the beautiful, unsettling effects of Brian Evenson’s ‘Father Unblinking’ comes from the narrative refusing to establish the reader in a definite relationship toward the story’s particular context. The narrative does not instruct the reader on how or what to feel. The details are specific, descriptive, alive, but they resist the emotional reassurance of instruction.
The story opens:
“He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open. The day had been a bright day, without clouds. He had found his daughter facedown in the sun-thick mosquito-spattered mud, by the back corner, where the dark paint had started taking air underneath and was flaking off the house now and falling apart at a touch like burnt turkey skin.”
Evenson’s prose asks us to pay attention to the specific details of the body and the physicality of the scene; the brutality magnified and made more complex and uncomfortable by the beauty and precision of the language. The world of the story comes at us vivid and unfiltered; the narrative voice gives us no instruction or commentary as to our intended feelings toward the situation. We are alone with the story, with no narrative holding our hands and walking us through, pointing at what we should be paying attention to, telling us how to feel or react.
Can we talk about trust for a moment? I’m having an intensely reflective sort of morning, one of those days where instead of focusing on my work my mind keeps insisting on this imaginary dialogue wherein I explain to someone I know but who doesn’t yet know all my stories how I developed a particular way of thinking about the world, or other people, or, on this particular morning, how I came to need words in the specific, particular way I need them. Does anyone else do this; have these imaginary conversations with people? I do this all the time. I’m not quite sure what the aim is, or why my mind uses this particular mode of thinking – why it transforms the thoughts into imagined speech rather than expressed by images or simple memory. This phenomenon probably goes along with why I write; the need to imagine someone else participating – not as witness or observer but as active listener, thinking, hopefully grabbing up threads or picking up on what I, in my distraction or close proximity, am unable to see. It’s an exchange – however I present the information, they will see it in a different way and the wonderful moment is when they go, aha, yes, I see exactly, it is this – and they see precisely what it is that I have seen but they see it with a different mind and in how they bounce it back to me, I see it again, true, from an entirely new perspective, and I no longer have to only see it in the one way, the way that I do, but can maneuver and jump around the thing. It doesn’t make the thing bigger it makes my comprehension of it more whole and complex. I could make up some sort of sports analogy involving a ball and probably a net of some sort, but I think you get the picture.
I don’t want to hand over anything that is already dead. There is no reason to give people something already fully answered and explained. If it causes no bother, why take the trouble?
At one point in my life, while I was having a nasty spell of anxiety, for no particular reason that I remember, imagining the conversation I would have explaining it to someone else was one of the few things that made me feel better. I’m sure actual conversation was helpful as well, but conditions are not always appropriate for conversation and people are not always available. I always have specific people in mind who I imagine speaking with. They change. I will not tell you who they are. That is a secret.
But this is what is going on this morning: I have been imagining the conversation that will never take place between myself and a specific, unidentified person in which I explain why I need words, and the particular function these words serve and the way in which these words need to exist in order for them to work. I’ll cut the suspense and tell you right now that I need the words in order to trust. Partially this trust is in terms of belief, the aha, yes, the words laid out in this way say something that is true and this exists in the world and I can believe in them and in the thing they say about the world. But the trust is also in terms of my own mind and the lack of faith I have in it.
There is a moment in a Zach Galifianakis dvd where Zach has just exited a crowded elevator because he is intensely claustrophobic and had started to feel as if he could no longer breathe. The cameraman asks him about the sensation of it and his thoughts about it and Zach explains that all he can think is that he’s going to be trapped in this box for the rest of his life and he’s never going to get out, not ever, for the rest of his life he will be in this box. And then he asks the camera “Can you really trust your mind? Really? Can you really trust your mind?”
One of the memories I would be explaining to my imaginary conversation friend is a particular romantic relationship that fizzled to a rather uneventful end and then turned around and gave me a rather abrupt, horrifying shock. I’m not going to get into the details of the story because they are beside the point and would only detract from the main point I’m trying to make here. What you should know: I was in my early twenties, out of college, the relationship lasted for seven or eight months, dissolved uneventfully until a week after the severance when I was informed of several, extensively unorthodox betrayals that I had not, in the least, been at all suspicious of. I did not see them coming. I had no inkling, throughout the seven or eight months, that anything of the kind was occurring. This is the problem, see. Not what had occurred or whatever fallout and consequence that came of it. Traumatic, I assure you, blah blah blah. The issue here is that I had no idea.
Since I was a wee little child, I had prided myself on an intimate, acutely perceptive knowledge of the world and of people. I was quiet, well-behaved, hard-working, eager to please those in authority, especially teachers, but I was never the smartest or the prettiest or boldest or the most fun. But I could see through people. I could peg them down with a glance. I knew their secrets without them saying a word. I could get at the heart of a problem. I knew how people felt; I knew what they were up to. I was intensely empathetic towards friends (and stuffed animals and pets) but I was also interested in figuring out strangers. That was the key, that’s what I had: I understood the complex depth of things. So, I get this, I have this gift, it is easy for me I have confidence in it: let’s be a writer. I can explain the heart and the longing veins down to the bone of people who would otherwise simply exist as flesh passing flesh, this is valuable. I might still not be the smartest or the funniest but I see and understand and take the time to feel what it is and I can show this to people who otherwise wouldn’t be looking. I read ‘Crime and Punishment’ and it was then, yes, right there, that sunken heart soul crunched despair and longing and beauty, that is what I want to do to people. So this is what I do, this is my life. And I go about my happy way thinking I can do this whole writing thing because I have this ability and it is worth something, it can get me there.
Time moves forward, I go about my life learning and doing; forming, shaping, and adjusting my knowledge of humanity; honing the skills, etc, believing that whatever might happen, whatever might come up in a life, even if it’s terrible, even if it’s the worst of things, I will have the insight and the perception and the knowledge and skills to understand it. I never cracked and had some hissy fit because some kid stole my ice cream because I knew that kid’s soul and the weakness and the pitiful self-importance that gave him the itch to steal in the first place and that was better than punching his face. I really should have known better, considering there had been plenty of life not making any sense or having any reason, but pah, I was young. Understanding was strength, it would get me through anything.
Ah, but then. Life threw this crap in my face. And this crap assured me that a) I did not know people b) I was not only not perceptive but idiotically blind and c) I could no longer rely on my perception to tell me anything true. My perception was wrong. Now, sure, there were some personal issues to get through and whatever existential crisis, but what was most horrifying was that I no longer trusted my perception of the world. It wasn’t about what someone else did to me – there was gruff from that but that shit falls off, it was that my mind had failed me. And my mind was what I was good at, it was what was getting me through. It was the source of my confidence that I had anything legitimate to say to anyone else, because I could notice things that other people hadn’t but that they would recognize as true. Losing faith in other people was never that big a thing; other people had always been suspect. Losing faith in my ability to see and perceive the world around me was . . . problematic.
If we zoom forward in time, several years after this little episode but still several years from now, we can imagine me walking through a Diane Arbus exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Black and white portraits, white walls, angular hallways, letters and correspondences framed and hung alongside the photographs. Yellowing, crimpled paper under glass. Wide-spaced typewriter script.
“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus.
For a fiction writer, I was perhaps incorrigibly stubborn about being right. Because my job was to seek truth, right? There is a faith, between you and me, that whatever form I may present the subject, whatever narrative distortions or tricks, all live and breathe in service of a higher truth, un-communicable by any other means. Whatever game I might throw at you, in order for you to agree on playing, I have to show you something you believe, that you recognize as true but somehow had also been seeking, that you hadn’t thought of quite yet, or in that particular way. The words on the page in their particular order resonate because they are true, and had, up until that very moment, remained elusive.
There are, of course, those immensely intoxicating theories and textbooks and essays and novels deliciously wrapped and revolved around ‘subjective truth.’ And I did spend a lot of time among those authors and their words, the spectrum of known reality and its limitations, our limitations, from the close approximation of objective truth to the pits of a completely singular, individual universe. The consequences in believing one or the other, the reassurances, the pitfalls. What is truth, what is reality, what could these concepts possibly mean and what impact could they possibly have and meow meow meow meow meow. That’s all super. Great. Whatever you want. While it was essential for me to realize that my job was not to seek ‘absolute truth’ and that there could be value in communicating the way that I saw, rather than placing the value entirely in the realm of what is seen (like Diane), this faith-building exercise was simply part of the process of a mind approaching. This gave permission, it whispered in my ear that I didn’t have to be correct in order to be useful.
I still invoke the quote when I sit at a blank page thinking I have nothing useful to tell anybody. I tell myself to never mind all of that truth business because it is lofty, old white man blubbering nonsense, god in his clouds, white tower chin-stroking bestowing wisdom bullshit thinking that hasn’t been useful to anyone over the age of four or five for centuries. I have a way of thinking that is instructive for the very reason that it is organized differently from the way that anyone else’s way of thinking is ordered. We each pay attention to different things, notice particular and specific details. We can all love ourselves for this specialness. This, in itself, does not get words down on the page and this is not what makes those words matter.
At this point in my imaginary conversation, we would make eye contact.
Now, what if I tell you that the conversation is dimly lit? What if I say there is no overhead light but there is natural light coming in through a window? What if I say that the window is the entire length of the wall and that the room of which the window belongs is in a coffee house? What if I told you beverages sat on the table? What if I described them as steaming black coffee in white porcelain cups? What if I told you the table at which two people are sitting was the size of a chess board and difficult to cross your legs under? That the chairs were all wooden but different sizes and shapes? What if I told you that the fingers of the person across from me curled around the porcelain cup and that the edge of the nail on this person’s right hand moved back and forth along the side of the cup where the cup dipped toward its bottom? What if I told you that the person across from me bent their head down to blow on the coffee rather than picking it up to blow on it?
When do you picture it? When does it become a precise moment that you can see? When does it become more than your standard, hazy image of a coffeehouse or a coffeehouse separate from the one in your memory you always think of when you think of coffeehouses? When does it become something you picture specifically?
A test: Read each group of sentences. Circle the sentence that stirs the most interest.
The girl was unhappy.
The girl stood looking out the window twisting her hair around her finger.
The girl bent her forehead against the window, squinting her eyes into the dark, twisting her damp hair around her finger.
A man loses his daughter.
A man’s daughter dies from fever and he is upset.
He had that day found his daughter dead from what must have been the fever, her swollen eyes stretching her lids open.
Now what do you imagine comes after these sentences? Which sentence has a sentence following it that you cannot even begin to imagine?
It’s not just detail. The more specific and precise, yes, the better we can see it, the more we believe, the more it lives in the imaginative space between us – not just you, not just me but as ours – but the best, most precise description in the world, while it allows us to see vividly and thereby convince us, it does not necessarily make us care. We need to be leaning forward at a particular angle toward this vivid life, and that angle is controlled by voice. Like a photographer handling a face for a portrait, the voice makes all these minuscule adjustments, imperceptibly arranging the angle from which we see and perceive information while at the same time, in taking the picture in this particular way, the photographer makes a promise. The promise may not be overt or direct but if we are to continue to read, the way we see the story has to secure our interest in seeing more. The voice is after something. We can have our heads perfectly arranged and still not care if we do not also care what the voice is after.
In my dark, unloosened days when I had thrown in the towel and adamantly insisted I didn’t know a thing, I could still see prose and recognize something described truthfully. And when that happened, the world returned as an accessible thing. If I can touch it or see it or smell it, I can believe it is there and that’s about as far as I’m willing to go. If it is good or bad, ugly or beautiful, is beside the point. This is not how you or I feel about it but whether or not we believe it is there and how well we can see it. Tell me what beauty looks like. If I say ‘bad’ can you picture anything at all? The degree of trust I have in prose directly correlates to the specificity of described objects and actions. If we see a particular image, if we can picture it specifically in our minds, we don’t need to be told about it, it doesn’t need to be explained. An author can write “The man was very upset over his daughter’s death” and we can feel sad about it, we can empathize with the father, we can be sorry for his loss but what does this tell us? What do we actually picture when we read “the man was very upset over his daughter’s death”? Do you have an image in your mind? Is it something you’ve seen or called up before? Is it based on anything you haven’t seen before?
Why should I trust an author who tells me how things are? Why would I trust my own notion of grief to apply to this character? How does depending upon my already well-developed sense of the world to fill the gaps of what the author’s not showing benefit me in any way?
Taken to the edge of this question is a narrative voice that refuses commentary. It refuses to tell the reader what the world is but shows the world in its intricate, visceral, complicated and unpinned wonder.
I apologize for not quoting more of the story, but it really feels like a betrayal of it to do so – you really do have to encounter it on your own and me rambling about the story itself would end up killing it. Literary criticism’s just a bunch of nonsense anyway.