According to Jonathan Gottschall, a critical proponent of what has come to be called "literary Darwinism":
Understanding a story is ultimately about understanding the human mind. The primary job of the literary critic is to pry open the craniums of characters, authors and narrators, climb inside their heads and spelunk through the bewildering complexity within to figure out what makes them tick.
According to Sabrina Seelig, in an article on translated fiction:
. . .the works in The World Through the Eyes of Writers, while dealing with the same painful things that are covered in the news all the time, take the same hashed-out facts and gave them sense, potency, life. Reading stories that do this lifts a curtain: not on some generalized world or broad state of a country, but on specific realities about the ways people live.. There is a vast difference between reading about a killing in the news and listening to, getting inside the head of the mother of that victim. Not only getting inside her head, but picking through the rubble guided by a skilled author drawing out colors, textures, whispering names and prayers.
I bring together these at first only marginally related quotes--both writers agree that reading fiction is about "getting inside the head," but Gottschall is ultimately taking literary critics to task for their insufficient understanding of human nature, while Seelig is (admirably) calling for more English translations of "foreign" fiction--because in their assumptions about the ultimate purposes of fiction they perhaps reveal why innovative or "experimental" fiction is so often dismissed by both readers and critics. And, as it happens, the inadequacy of both of these views of what fiction is for is brought into sharp relief by a very provocative (and translated) novel I've just read, Vain Art of the Fugue (Dalkey Archive), by the Romanian author Dumitru Tsepeneag.
Gottschall's notion that fiction presents the reader (the critic being a more skilled reader) with the opportunity to scrutinize characters as if they were real people whose "craniums" can be opened to discover "what makes them tick" is no doubt widely shared. "Psychological realism" in the modern novel provides us access to "the Mind," which apparently many critics think is a very profound thing to do and makes the novel distinctive from the other forms of narrative art that have arisen to challenge the novel's hegemony. The Literary Darwinists accept that something like psychological realism is the novel's raison d'etre, but they feel that most literary critics aren't sufficiently knowledgable about the biological imperatives instilled in us by natural selection to be able to discuss "evolutionary psychology" intelligently. Only by understanding how these imperatives influence human behavior are we really able to understand fiction credibly.
Vain Art of the Fugue makes all of this utterly beside the point. There are characters in the novel, but they keep changing in their identities and behavior. In the first brief section, a man steps onto a bus, thinks someone has called out to him and so turns to look, sees nothing and moves on into the bus. The second section, at first still narrated by the man in the first, follows him on his trip to the train station but is soon interrupted by a third-person account of what happened to the man prior to catching the bus. He was apparently visiting a woman named Maria (or is she his wife or his mistress?), who urges him to go before he misses the bus. He leaves the house, passes a dog "with the mouth of a fox," as well as a man killing a pig, being watched by "several women in pink dresses." Getting closer to the bus stop, he also encounters a a cyclist carrying fish in his saddle bag.
The first-person narration begins again, as the man urges the bus driver to hurry. Now it seems he is going to the station to meet a woman named Magda. He imagines the confusion he'll find on the train platform and projects seeing an old man "dragging along a kind of box with a handle." The narrator continues to nag at the bus driver, who finally tells him to stop. He looks outside the bus window and sees a woman smiling at him. "If I hadn't been in such a hurry, I think I'd have jumped off the bus and gone after her," he tells us. At this point the imagery begins to repeat itself in different iterations, as it will for the rest of the novel: The man is at the station where the woman is now looking at him "vacantly"; the dog appears again, blocking his path; he walks along the street, where "a cyclist is trying to pedal along," the fish in his saddle bag now joined by a loaf of bread on top of it. The narration continues to switch from first-person to third-person as the man is back to the beginning of the story, racing to catch the bus. As the section comes to an end, we are introduced to other characters who will make subsequent re-appearances: the engineer, the conductor, the ticket-collector, an attractive woman with "tanned thighs."
These characters and their bare-bones actions are shuffled and reshuffled throughout the novel. This reshuffling is, in fact, the novel's fundamental structural principle. No plot beyond the effort to get to the station, no character development beyond what is added in each transmutation, which sometimes subverts and contradicts what we think we've learned before. We couldn't crack open craniums and "spelunk through the bewildering complexity" even if we wanted to (and the novel gives us no reason to want to) since the "bewildering complexity" is all external, in the mode of storytelling itself. The characters are the interchangeable bits, strips of narrative possibility, that make the storytelling possible.
The novel's title, of course, tells us that the specific formal inspiration for its unconventional approach is the fugue, the musical form in which an initial theme or "voice" is repeated numerous times through imitation and variation. As in a musical fugue, the effect of this strategy in Vain Art of the Fugue is to take our attention away from simple linear development (in fiction, "story") and to consider instead the way a theme or episode can be developed laterally, so to speak, through a kind of accumulation of slight changes. And the art of the literary fugue is "vain," that is, unapologetically aesthetic, without pretense to psychological enlightenment or social commentary (although the occasional image of a tank rolling through the streets of Bucharest does certainly evoke Communist-era realities). The primary interest in Vain Art of the Fugue is formal; it substitutes for the easy "entertainment" of story a delight in formal manipulation. The reader must give up an accustomed passivity for a more active alterness in the face of the novel's constant (and constantly inventive) metamorphoses, but is this really more onerous than relying on the critic-drudge who will "pry open the craniums of characters, authors and narrators" and reveal to us the secrets of human motivation? More boring?
Tsepeneag's novel also fails to provide the "news" that Sabrina Seelig thinks is the hallmark of translated fiction. Its focus is resolutely on the commonplace, the habitual, the universal elements of human experience. The "events" related in Vain Art of the Fugue literally could happen almost anywhere. There really are no "specific realities about the ways people live" except the realities about the way everyone lives. The novel does not act as a travelogue or newsmagazine, offers only a few ordinary names (that continually shift--sometimes Maria is Magda and Magda is Maria), whispers no prayers. The only thing that's "exotic" about this book--exoticism being what Seelig really seems to be after--is its aesthetic form, its challenge to casual assumptions about what fiction--translated or otherwise--is supposed to be like. You're not going to learn much about Romania as "other" from Vain Art of the Fugue. You'll just see yourself and your own immersion in the inescapable flux of existence.
Both Gottschall and Seelig are working with a conceptual model of fiction that sees it as a fixed form--in Gottschall's case a model that applies (partly) to the kind of fiction that was dominant prior to World War II but that has been shaken up and spun around in all the years since. It has recognizable characters whose psyches we can analyze (if we accept the Darwinist tools) and tells stories that "lift a curtain" on "the ways people live." Vain Art of the Fugue is one of those frame-breaking novels that demonstrate such a model only constrains the adventurous writer's imagination and encourages a dessicated understanding of fiction's still unexploited possibilities for aesthetic surprise. It's the sort of novel everyone who thinks he/she knows what novels should be like ought to read, and be utterly disabused of such certainty.