"Point of view" is an element of fiction that, it seems to me, is often invoked but seldom really appreciated. In our haste to get to the "story," or to ascertain what the work in question has "to say," we acknowledge that the narrative is presented in "third-person" or "first-person," but don't appropriately consider how both of these modes of presentation--as well as their many subtle if less recognized variations--affect the terms of our encounter with both the story told and what is said. This goes well beyond the usual distinctions made between "reliable" and "unreliable" narrators (although this distinction remains important), "omniscience" and "central consciousness," or stories told by the main character and those told by a secondary observer. My reading experiences convince me that point of view is not simply a flourish added to the underlying "content" of fiction, nor a way of establishing "voice," not just a way of providing stability while the story unfolds, but fundamentally conditions our perception of all of the other "elements" of fiction we otherwise might think take precedence: plot, character, setting, etc.
The centrality of point of view in determining the nature of the fictional "world" we are entering in a particular work of fiction became only more obvious to me while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, a novel I had not previously read because I had assumed, mistakenly I must now say, it was written primarily to become a movie, as is the case with so much current "literary fiction." I both admired and enjoyed the novel, and mostly for the same reason. I admired the way in which Eugenides was able to maintain his experiment in first-person plural narration--"we" rather than "I" as the origin of the narrator's voice--and I enjoyed the collective invocation of the Lisbon sisters and the story of their early deaths that the narrative embodies. Much of what I enjoyed in the novel--the detached view of the sisters, the baffled way in which the stand-in narrator attempts to comprehend both the sisters' behavior and the love-trance induced in him and his confederates by their charms, the ultimate mystery of the sisters' decision to do themselves in--have been singled out by some reviewers and commentators as flaws, however, and it does seem to me that this results from an unwillingness to allow the novel's adopted point of view to create the sort of effects it is most naturally inclined to produce.
It is true that we don't ever really get very close to the Lisbon sisters, so that as characters, indeed, as the ostensible protagonists of the story, they don't quite come into focus as much as we might like. They remain wispy, uncertain figures in a novel that inevitably leads us to seek more definition, more certainty. We are just as bewildered by the Lisbon sisters, and just as unclear about what might be going on in that house across the street--the perspective we are forced to assume--as the narrator, but this is not a problem with "characterization." Since there is no satisfactory answer to the question "Why?"--not even the narrator's assiduous efforts to compile "evidence" and interview the Lisbon parents can provide such an answer--or since Eugenides wants to suggest that getting to "know" the Lisbon sisters by taking us inside their heads will leave us no more enlightened, their role as characters in this novel is necessarily limited to the external observations given. To complain about this is to deny the novel its enabling source of expression in the inquiring "we".
It is tempting to say that the narrator(s) become the main characters, but this isn't quite right either. Only occasionally does one of the boys emerge from behind the verbal curtain to assume an active role vis-a-vis one of the sisters--most notably "Trip Fontane," who attempts to court Lux Lisbon--and the narrator's role ultimately is really to testify to the enduring spell cast by the sisters, to give us access to them through a concerted act of memory from which they have never departed:
Our own knowledge of Cecilia kept growing after her death, too, with the same unnatural persistence. Though she had spoken only rarely and had had no real friends, everybody possessed his own vivid memories of Cecilia. Some of us had held her for five minutes as a baby while Mrs. Lisbon ran back into the house to get her purse. Some of us had played in the sandbox with her, fighting over a shovel, or had exposed ourselves to her behind the mulberry tree that grew like deformed flesh through the chain link fence. We had stood in line with her for smallpox vaccinations, had held polio sugar cubes under out tongues with her, had taught her to jump rope, to light snakes, had stopped her from picking her scabs on numerous occasions, and had cautioned her against touching her mouth to the drinking fountain at Three Mile Park. A few of us had fallen in love with her, but had kept it to ourselves, knowing that she was the weird sister.
The Virgin Suicides could thus be called a novel without conventional characters (the closest to a rounded, "sympathetic" character might be Mr. Lisbon, who almost becomes compelling in his cluelessness) and, since the sisters' fate is more or less known from the beginning, not much plot aside from the filling-in of details. If plot and character are what you must have, these no doubt must seem to be irremediable deficiencies, but the narrative method Eugenides employs invites us to cultivate a different relationship with the characters, one that emphasizes wonder over intimacy, and assume a more relaxed attitude toward plot, one that allows for meditation on what happened, not just a serial record of what did happen. The point of view in The Virgin Suicides works to shape a particular kind of fictional space, one that accentuates distance and concealment. Narrating it from some other perspective would have produced a wholly different, in my opinion much more ordinary novel.
Many readers and critics approach The Virgin Suicides for its thematic implications, its depiction of stifling suburbia, a morally unhinged middle class, the decline of the industrial Midwest, etc., but I think even these concerns gain the prominence they do because of the way the narrative is related to us. The near-mythic quality the story takes on, its rendition of decline-and-fall, the implication of the whole community in the unfolding of its collective trauma provide the tale of the Lisbon suicides a heightened drama that substitutes for the lesser drama of mere plot and gives the tale a kind of allegorical resonance. A less well-calibrated narrative strategy would not have accomplished the same effect.
Justin Courter's Skunk: A Love Story (Omnidawn Press) is a gimmicky novel whose gimmick almost works. To the extent that it makes the novel consistently enjoyable to read, in fact (it if is appropriate to call a narrative in which the main characer lives with skunks and drinks their musk "enjoyable"), it does work well enough. But ulimately the bizarre behavior that motivates the story recounted by the novel's first-person narrator seems designed to signal toward some broader thematic relevance I, for one, was unable to fully work out.
The narrator himself accounts for his attraction to skunk musk by connecting it to memories of his mother:
My mother drank quite a lot of beer when I was growing up. She always drank McDougal's--an imported brand that comes in a green bottle and has a slightly skunky aroma. This was the first scent to greet my nostrils in the morning and the last whiff I sniffed before falling asleep at night. I awoke each morning to the clanking of beer bottles as my mother opened and shut the door of the refrigerator to get out her first McDougal's before starting my breakfast. Then I heard more clinking of empty bottles, as she cleared the kitchen table, filled a large garbage bag with the previous day's bottles and carried them outside to put in a can by the street.
One day the narrator, Damien, brings home a dead skunk, thinking his mother will be able to brew her own beer using this "raw material out of which beer was made." Suffice it to say that his mother doesn't appreciate his gift, and it is only a few days after this incident that the mother is put into a mental hospital, where she eventually commits suicide. Out of this noxious mixture of childhood associations and ultimate trauma emerges, presumably, Damien's adult fixation on skunk musk.
The adult Damien is a loner and something of a misanthrope, although his misanthropy does not seem founded in an excessively high estimation of his own worth:
. . .My eyes are as dark as my hair and are extremely weak. For this reason I have worn thick glasses since I can remember. When I worked at Grund & Greene, I still had the same pair of black frames that had served me since high school, though my prescription had changed many times. Despite the fact that I am quite capable of making my way in the modern world, I know what a miserably inadequate creature, despite my efforts, I truly am. My constitution is so delicate and my eyes so weak that I would not have survived if I had dwelt in an earlier era of history, say, in the Stone Age. I would have been one of the casualties of natural selection--either killed by a wild boar during a hunt because I could not see it coming, or maimed by one of the bigger, stronger boys of the tribe before I reached the age where humans begin copulating--and thus would have been unlikely to pass my defective genes on to future generations. Hence, the race would have continued to grow stronger, as indeed it should. . . .
Still, Damien's inability to come to terms with the modern world, and all of its ways of reminding him he is "defective," is reminiscent of John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly, although Damien's later experiences with what can only be called musk-addiction (he eventually learns to "milk" his skunks and drinks the musk), read like a farcical turn on William S. Burroughs, and Courter's depiction of Damien's retreat to a rural area to become a farmer seems to draw strongly from T.C. Boyle. Ultimately, however, Damien's voice is distinctive, and it is to Courter's credit that this voice has a kind of compulsive power that keeps our curiosity alive despite the fact that Damien Youngquist is in many ways a pretty repulsive character.
Early in the novel Damien meets up with a woman named Pearl, a rogue marine biologist who has on obsession with fish similar to Damien's obsession with skunks. Thus able to tolerate each other's fetish, the two begin a sexually acrobatic love affair that is interrupted when Damien's skunk house is raided and the skunks killed, and when he encounters Pearl's self-described fiance and subsequently embarks on his rural adventure. Later Pearl returns, but she is unable to prevent Damien's apparent ruin: A latter-day hippie neighbor begins using Damien's skunk musk to create a new recreational drug and is busted; to get a lighter sentence for himself, he fingers Damien as the drug ring's mastermind. Damien is carted off to jail and later to a drug-treatment facility.
One of the reasons I liked this book is precisely its skillful use of first-person narration. I have more or less come to the conclusion that the only way an otherwise conventional narrative (and Skunk is, depite its unconventional subject and eccentric characters, essentially a narrative-driven novel, without much in the way of purely formal experimentation) can succeed, post-modernism and post-postmodernism, is through first-person narrative. The third-person central-consciousnes mode of narration (sometimes called the "free indirect style"), which has become the default mode of storytelling, providing us with both story and "pyschological realism," is now so worn out and tepid, at least for me, that only first-person narratives can poke through the narrative haze emitted by so many indifferently-related stories to capture my attention in the first place. Much can be done with first-person narrative, starting but not ending with the manipulation of the reader's trust in the story being told.
Thus, Skunk presents us with a first-person account by a character we have every reason to believe might not be clear-sighted, both literally--Damien's poor eyesight continues to deteriorate throughout the narrative, but whether this is a side-effect of the skunk musk or just a natural decline, given what we've been told about his poor vision, we really don't know--and figuratively. Might Damien, like his mother, be prone to mental illness? Might the skunk musk have exacerbated this problem? How much do we trust Damien's narrative as the accurate account of what "really" happened? For me, the existence of such potential amibiguity only deepens the novel's interest, creating layers of "meaning" that the third-person method necessarily excludes.
Unfortunately, as the novel nears its conclusion, the events become increasingly contrived and its portrayal of addiction heavy-handed. It seems as though Damien's story of addiction and recovery (as comical as it is) is being offered to us as containing some essential "truth" about addiction. Are we being told that the modern world has become so alienating that we are all led to our own addictions in order to cope with it? That, if so, we should be left alone to indulge them? That we ought to rise above them and find a way to live a productive life? These seem rather pat and familiar themes for a novel otherwise so unfamiliar in its style and its cast of characters.
Nonetheless, Justin Courter has admirably succeeded in taking a character so odd and behavior so potentially repugnant you might think nothing can be done with them and creating from them a surprisingly engaging novel. If it seems that Courter is daring you to read on after learning about his protagonist's habit, you should take the dare because you might find yourself hooked on Skunk.
I've just re-read Jim Thompson's The Grifters, and the farther into it I got, the more apparent it became to me that Thompson's novels provide an especially useful illustration of the differences between third- and first-person narration in fiction. I still enjoyed The Grifters, which is narrated in the third person, but reading it a second time made me more aware of its limitations, as well as the virtues of the first-person narratives to be found in novels such as The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, and After Dark, My Sweet.
Here are a few paragraphs near the beginning of After Dark, My Sweet. The story is being told by "Kid" Collins, the novel's protagonist, and he has stopped in at a roadhouse for a glass of beer:
The bartender slopped a beer down in front of me. He scooped up the change I'd laid on the counter, sat down on the stool again, and picked up a newspaper. I said something about it was sure a hot day. He grunted without looking up. I said it was a nice pleasant little place he had there and that he certainly knew how to keep his beer cold. He grunted again.
I looked down at my beer, feeling the short hairs rising on the back of my neck. I guessed--I knew--that I should never have come in here. I should never go in any place where people might not be nice and polite to me. That's all they have to do, you know. Just be as nice to me as I am to them. . . .
We then learn that Kid Collins has spent some time in "institutions" (eventually that he has just escaped from one), but we really don't need that information to know that something's not quite right with the Kid. His very need to elicit a response from the bartender and those short hairs rising tell us what we need to know. And we wouldn't know it in the same way if the Kid himself wasn't telling us. The novel immediately plunges us into the world of Kid Collins as he is able to articulate it, and most of its melodramatic punch comes from being jolted by the Kid's direct verbal flourishes. (And he is, it turns out, an ex-boxer.)
The Grifters starts out pretty well, too:
As Roy Dillon stumbled out of the shop his face was sickish green, and each breath he drew was an incredible agony. A hard blow in the guts can do that to a man, and Dillon had gotten a hard one. Now with a fist, which would have been bad enough, but from the butt-end of a heavy club.
Somehow, he got back to his car and managed to slide into the seat. But that was all he could manage. He moaned as the change in posture cramped his stomach muscles; then, with a strangled gasp, he leaned out the window.
Several cars passed as he spewed vomit into the street, their occupants grinning, frowning sympathetically, or averting their eyes in disgust. . . .
This also steeps us immediately into the world as experienced by Roy Dillon, but in The Grifters he shares our narrative attention with his mother Lilly and his girlfriend, Moira Langry, and so the story involving the three of them will have to be told by a third-person narrator who has access to their thoughts and emotions but filters them through his own more distanced narrative voice. It's not quite full-blown "pyschological realism," but Thompson nevertheless can achieve his signature hard-boiled, scary/depraved effects only by fishing around in the characters' minds for their perceptions of and reactions to the inevitably untoward situations they encounter. The verbally-constructed "voice" of a character like Kid Collins is lost, and we have to pick our way through such vague verbiage as "incredible agony" and be satisfied that just "somehow" Roy Dillon returned to his car.
Thus, while the novel commences with a typical Thompsonesque bang, it's not long before we get a little bogged down in passages like this:
. . .He had looked around extensively and carefully before choosing Los Angeles as a permanent base of operations, and his capital was now reduced to less than a thousand dollars.
That was a lot of money, of course. Unlike the big-con operator, whose elaborate scene-setting may involve as much as a hundred thousand dollars, the short-con grifter can run on peanuts. But Roy Dillon, while remaining loyal to the short con, was abandoning the normal scheme of things.
At twenty-one, he was weary of the hit-and-get. He knew that the constant "getting"--jumpring from one town to another before the heat got too hot--could absorb most of the hits, even of a thrifty man. So that he might work as hard and often as he safely could, and still wind up with the wolf nipping at the seat of his threadbare pants. . . .
In my view, we're being given way too much "information" in a passage like this, information that is perhaps important for us to have but that would be less intrusive if it were parceled out gradually by a first-person narrator or if it was at least provided to us dramatically--through showing rather than telling. It would be better, for example, if we saw Roy Dillon "abandoning the normal scheme of things" rather than being told this was the case through an awkward inventory of the contents of Roy's mind. A secondary effect of this third-person technique is the fuzzy, flabby language: "He had looked around extensively"; "can run on peanuts"; "the wolf nipping at the seat of his threadbare pants". Not only does such writing lean heavily on cliche--which again might be more tolerable if it were issuing from a first-person narrator--but it helps to make passages like this themselves seem like just so much perfunctory "scene-setting."
Perhaps this is why I actually prefer the Stephen Frears movie made from The Grifters to the novel, something I would not say of the film adapted from After Dark, My Sweet. Frears's film is able to dispense with the third-person narrator and focus on the characters and their overlapping stories in a direct, unmediated way. We get Thompson's lowlife plot without his narrator's sometimes laborious attempts to move it along. It is also probably why I think Thompson's best novels are those related to us by his sublimely scuzzy first-person narrators. It's impossible to reproduce these novels on screen because their narrators are so inseparably a part of their appeal. Such is undoubtedly true of most well-devised first-person narrators, which is one reason I believe this method of storytelling is almost always more promising as a way of creating distinctive, aesthetically pleasing works of fiction than the kind of close-in third-person narration that has in most literary fiction become more or less the only available alternative (and that is probably often used precisely because it does lend itself more easily to screen adaptation.)
The premise of Heather McGowan's "Duchess of Nothing" seemingly is not the most promising material for a novel, yet McGowan has fashioned an engrossing, entertaining book. She accomplishes this not through plot but instead through a stream-of-consciousness narration that beautifully characterizes her unnamed protagonist in in a voice that is by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious.
Later in his review Scott echoes this claim about "stream-of-consciousness narration," suggesting that McGowan presents us with an "unadorned reality filtered through an unstable mind." But The Duchess of Nothing is not really a "stream-of-consciousness" novel, at least not as the term has been used in the critical discussion of this technique that has accumulated since its introduction by novelists such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Dorothy Richardson. In the work of these writers, stream-of-consciousness is a variant on, an intensification of, third-person narration. It is more or less the culmination of the movement toward psychological realism in fiction, which might be said to have begun--at least in English language fiction--with Henry James's use of the third-person "central consciousness" approach. James's fiction helped to bring about the transformation of the omniscient narrator--knows all, sees all--into the much more limited narrator essentially restricted to the vantage point of the character whose experience is being related. But the narrator is still of the third-person variety, originating from outside that experience and telling us the story on the characters' behalf.
Stream-of-consciousness takes this a step farther and attempts to provide a window of sorts on a character's experiences as they are being processed through that character's mind. Such narration is frequently fragmentary and discontinuous, in an attempt to mimic the way such processing actually occurs, or at least to mimic it as closely as written language is able to do so--it is, like everything else in fiction, ultimately an illusion created through prose. If reality ultimately exists in the mind of the beholder, then the stream-of-consciousness method is an effort to have fiction reflect what is really real.
The Duchess of Nothing is a first-person narrative, so, however much we are made to view the world through the constructions of its protagonist, it can't really be said to consist of her stream of consciousness. While I certainly agree that McGowan portrays this character through "a voice that is by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious," it is a voice, a garrulous and idiosyncratic one, in fact, a voice that in many ways works in a manner that precisely reverses the effect created by the stream-of-consciousness strategy:
Across the cafe Toby stands at the coffee machine gazing into a silver jug. His lips move, to some terrifying soliloquy, I imagine. Behind him well-dressed citizens sip their coffees, quietly content being Italian. If you could understand the strength it takes to sit here quietly, I tell the boy, If I had the power to describe how it feels to do exactly the opposite of what I'd like. I wish you could see the storm that rages beneath my surface. I was never meant to sit quietly, I tell the boy, This sitting quietly was never my idea. I flick my skirt idly, exposing my knee. It stares up at me, a hilly rebuke. I want to leave everything behind as soon as it is a minute past new. Every night after supper I'd like to drop the plate I'm washing, turn, never see any of it again. And yet I remain. I swallow my coffee, I remain.
Although it is Toby who is described as engaged in "some terrifying soliloquy," The Duchess of Nothing itself is an extended soliloquy, its narrator's overflowing monologue interrupted only occasionally by a word or two from "the boy" (her sole companion through most of the book). The narrator may feel there is a storm "raging" inside her, but it's really the storm of words she releases that manifests her inability to "sit quietly," her desire to "leave everything behind as soon as it is a minute past new." Whereas stream-of-consciousness tries to direct our attention to the internal drama unfolding in human consciousness, the narrative strategy in this novel externalizes everything, articulates explicitly in the narrator's own language what in s-o-c would remain half-formed and implicit. It's as if the narrator literally can't resist translating into comprehensible speech every thought that comes into her head.
In his review of the novel, Richard Eder accurately notes the protagonist's "grandiloquent self-proclamation," but I cannot agree with Eder that she is an example of an "unreliable narrator." Eder believes that her reticence in fully disclosing the particulars of her past (or even of her present arrangement with "Edmund," brother of "the boy") creates an incompleteness of context that suggests willful manipulation on the narrator's part. While it is true that the novel is somewhat short on expository detail, I would argue that this is simply the consequence of the narrative method McGowan has chosen and to which she remains faithful: no "infodumps" if that would make the narrative voice ring false. I would argue further that it is this method that otherwise invokes the somewhat misshapen world and off-kilter perspective that, to me, are a large part of this novel's appeal. For the narrator to be "unreliable," we would have to believe she is deliberately presenting us with a false account of herself, her actions, and her background (and that we would be able to tell, ultimately, that the account is false), but that she is in effect working out as she goes what she thinks about her situation does not, in my view, make her unreliable. It makes her, as Scott puts it, "by turns tragic, farcical, pathetic, poignant and hilarious."
Eder is ultimately rather contemptuous of "the woman," as he chooses to call her. She is "pitiable," guilty of "track-covering, the shame that flickers beneath the arrogance." She has a "skewed and inflated vision of herself and her life." She is "cold." And indeed the narrator does seem frustrated with her situation, unable to square her sense of her own worth with the increasingly desperate circumstances in which she finds herself. She is certainly impulsive. More than anything, however, she is instinctively unconventional and incapable of settling for "normality"--confronting the possibility of accepting a normal life at the novel's conclusion, she instead lights out for the territory: "Then I go out once more, slamming the door behind me. I like the sound so much, I open the door and slam it shut several times." I suppose one could feel contempt for a woman who doesn't behave as she ought, who turns her back so decisively on domestic bliss, but I just find her a very interesting character quite unlike most protagonists of most literary fiction. Both she and The Duchess of Nothing itself are much more convincingly "transgressive" of established norms--of female behavior and of conventional "psychological realism"--than other novels sometimes accorded that label. In short: Anyone interested in a refreshingly different kind of reading experience should read this book.
Dara Horn's The World to Come begins with these two paragraphs:
There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will.
Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to hs, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother--dead six months now, thought it felt like one long night--hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.
No doubt this seems thoroughly unexceptional to most readers of fiction (which is actually one of the problems with Horn's novel), an expository passage that begins to acquaint us with the themes the book will explore and introduces us to the character whose present actions and experiences provide the hinge by which the rest of the novel moves. But that we have become accustomed to this kind of discourse, all but take it for granted, suggests it has hardened into a convention we simply accept as the strategy appropiate for a certain type of third-person narrative, which itself has become more or less a default setting for our sense of what narrative discourse should be like. I would submit that this strategy has outlived its usefulness and often inhibits the discovery of fresh, genre-expanding aesthetic approaches to fiction, even approaches to the representation of consciousness, which in a novel like The World to Come is carried out in such a perfunctory way that it becomes harder to appreciate some of the novel's other virtues.
Although the reader's attention is first of all directed by the Tolstoy-like opening to what presumably will be the novel's overarching theme, the encompassing context within which the story (as it turns out, multiple and intertwining stories) will proceed. To me, the real work being done by this paragraph is in the way it settles the reader into the novel's discursively shaped world, begins to evoke a particular kind of relationship between narrator and character. Are these generalizations about "family" being offered by a hovering, all-knowing narrator, or have they been filtered through the consciousness and specific experiences of Benjamin Ziskind? The second paragraph confirms that it is the latter, and we are thereafter comfortably placed as readers inside Benjamin's awareness (and, later, several other characters' awareness) and way of thinking about things.
I say "comfortably" because by now this mode of psychological realism, by which the depicted world in a work of fiction comes to us not through omniscient description but through the perception of that fiction's characters ("Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead"), has become so thoroughly familiar that it acts as a kind of narrative machine, spinning out sundry versions of what Henry James called third-person "central consciousness" stories in what has admittedly become a very efficient manner. In order to provide a little variety in what is otherwise a rather uniform approach, one can include multiple or alternating centers of consciousness, as Horn does in The World to Come, but even here readers are ultimately encouraged to regard the storytelling as more or less transparent, if anchored in a particular character's version of reality, and the style as unintrusive, if sometimes decorated with a suitable figurative flourish. It is precisley the expecation that the reader will be satisfied with this mechanical, mass-produced variety of storytelling that makes me unable to read a book like The World to Come with much enthusiasm, even though I can acknowledge that Dara Horn does have some narrative imagination and that the novel weaves together its various strands--which include both invented characters and real historical figures, occurences in the present interlaced with episodes from the past--with admirable skill.
In his Editor's Note to the latest issue of Agni, Sven Birkerts describes the mindset with which he approaches the submissions the magazine receives:
Basically—short version—a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case, and the writing needs to embody this—through sentence rhythm, tone, camera placement, or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop. Now, this last is a tricky assertion and it will be very hard to make clear, not to mention binding. I don’t mean for a moment that the world as we know it cannot be invoked, or used, or dissected. Of course it can. But it cannot be taken simply on faith, as unproblematic, treated as a natural signifier; nor can it be cashed in as if it were a treasury bond from the literature of a former era.
I agree entirely with Birkerts, and if I were an editor beginning to read The World to Come for potential publication, I would almost immediately conclude that it "assumes a basic condition of business as usual," that numerous "tired assumptions remain in place," that while the novel does attempt to "create its own world," this attempt comes not from the "threshold," but from a place where fiction is regarded as a set of fixed assumptions and techniques from which is chosen the one that will most efficaciously carry the narrative burden to be placed on it. In this case, Horn doesn't so much lean on the "literature of a former era" (she actually takes this as part of her subject, and her examination of Jewish artistic/literary traditions is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel) as on this set of presently-established conventions, themselves a product of "modern" storytelling practices but, as I have been contending, now urgently in need of reexamination. In invoking the "world to come," Horn's novel is, of course, endeavoring to capture something essential about this world, about our longings and frustrations, but it is impossible to read such passages as the one quoted above without thinking that this is at odds with its very prosaic language and method of character creation, which do depend on customary "props."
As if the author herself recognizes that this method lacks dynamism, especially when confined to a single character over the course of an entire narrative, she presents us with multiple characters and their interconnecting stories and makes of the larger narrative of which these are a part a kind of mystery tale embedded in recent history. These are Dara Horn's efforts to embody a "full creative effort of imagination." The result is entertaining enough, at least when I am able to ignore the listless "sentence rhythms" created by Horn's adherence to the central consciousness-style of narrative exposition. (And all too many other novels require that I similarly put aside any expectation of stylistic vigor, narrative innovation, or formal invention, novels that aren't even going to manifest to me the intelligence and skill with which Dara Horn shuffles around the conventional elements she has chosen to use, or won't manifest anything more than such skill with the conventional.) But, ultimately, I don't want to put these things aside, and I'm increasingly uncertain why so many writers--especially among "emerging writers"--think its appropriate to ask me to do it. There are far too few original stories and arrestingly portrayed characters around to justify losing interest in new ways of telling them and uncommon means of summoning them up.