Monday, March 9, 2015

No Maps: Finnegans Wake and Fiction

Is Finnegans Wake a novel? This was the subject of a discussion I had a couple of weeks ago, and my initial response was perhaps a little weak: if it’s not a novel, what on earth is it?

It’s tempting to see the Wake as a complete literary outlier. I mean, let’s face it, it’s pretty weird. But it uses all the same techniques as any other novel; it’s only the way they’re applied that’s unique. That’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s like the Centre Pompidou: it’s a novel with its insides turned out.

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The author Julian Barnes has said that the working title for his first novel, eventually called Metroland, was No Weather:
 ...because I was going to put absolutely no references to the weather into it, having long held a readerly prejudice about “significant” weather (storms, bright spells, rainbows) in fiction. 
I respect Barnes’ contempt for what he sees as an intolerable cliché. However, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of significant weather, which I think demonstrates what the dream-world of Finnegans Wake shares with even the most apparently banal of realist fiction. A character is sad, and it rains. She becomes happy, and the sun comes out. The connection is obvious, but it’s worth spelling out. In a fictional story, even a so-called “realistic” one, the boundary between the physical and the psychological is a permeable membrane, in which the emotions of the story infect its characters’ external world.

A less meteorological example that always stuck with me was in The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The protagonist, Nick, receives a postcard from Gerald, the man in whose house he lives:
He had a sign-off that could have been “Love” but could have been “Yours” or even, absurdly, “Hello” – so you didn’t quite know where you stood with him. 
But Gerald has not purposefully developed an ambiguous way to sign off his letters. Nick’s anxiety about his relationship with Gerald has infected the postcard: his superficially realistic world is shaped by his own emotions. In a novel like this, it’s easy to overlook the proximity of fiction to dreams, but Finnegans Wake makes it impossible, because it breaks down the barrier between reality and emotion altogether, creating a fictional world in which nothing is stable and everything is significant.

The director Alfred Hitchcock famously coined the theory of the “MacGuffin”, an object of desire for the film’s protagonist, whose specific nature – state secrets, letters of transit, a mysterious briefcase – is arbitrary. The same law applies to all the other details of the fictional world: the setting, the period, the nature of the characters, and so on. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about how he toyed with setting his new novel in Yugoslavia or post-war France before settling on a mythic Arthurian England. In conventional storytelling, we respect the accidental properties of the story’s reality as if they were both true and necessary. Readers of unaccountably popular nerd fiction go even further, fetishising those details in encyclopedic wikis and world maps as if they were the actual point of the story, and praising authors for their skill in “world-building.”

Finnegans Wake, on the other hand, plays delightedly with the arbitrariness of fictional details, frequently altering a thing’s incidental qualities from one paragraph to the next. Over the course of a few pages in chapter three, the narrator makes reference to a single object as, in turn, a bottle, a fender (or fireplace guard), a letter, a girl, and a coffin. Joyce the former Jesuit turns transubstantiation into a poetic device.

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Personally, I’m not very interested in world-building. If I write a novel, its working title will be “No Maps.” For me, the most interesting fiction, whether it be experimental, genre, or realist, always treats its reality as something as malleable and subjective as a dream. Marilynne Robinson, whose excellent novels are strictly naturalistic, describes her writing this way:
When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon a culture, memory, conscience, belief, or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire – a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense.
It’s that second half of her process, “reshaping them both as narrative,” that unites Robinson and Joyce, revealing them as colleagues with a common purpose. A great story is never really like life. Reality is just the raw material for an intellectual-excitement engine whose first model is, as Finnegans Wake shows us, the dream.

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