When you are a blogger, you (still) have to put up with an awful lot of old nonsense about how journalists are the prime movers and shakers in the book reviewing world, how they have authority and training that we hapless rank amateurs do not, etc, etc. And so when I come across a careless article like this one by Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal that attempts to pit episodic fiction against narrative fiction, I get a tad annoyed. As some of you know, I’ve been intrigued for a while by my sense that American literature is more episodic than British literature, and have been wondering what the wider implications of this might be. Perhaps it’s the approach of term, but my fingers itched for a red pen when I was reading Siegel’s account of the differences, which was an opinion piece designed to provoke an argument. Fine, I was in the mood to give him one. I’m also culturally confused: is the Wall Street Journal supposed to be a quality newspaper or would you not expect much from its arts coverage?
Briefly, Siegel is working on the premise that Huckleberry Finn is the granddaddy work of American fiction, a point at which all things narrative came together in a marvelous way and spawned a series of novels America could be proud of, as opposed to literature post 9/11 which has turned namby-pamby and mutated into a series of bedtime stories for adults full of reassuring character development. Anyhow, I thought I would pick out the main points of his argument and engage in a little critique.
1. In Which I Get Out My Scalpel
Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is “a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing”?
If someone should think they were a real wit by approaching you at a party and saying, ‘Do you believe your life tells a meaningful story, or do you just live from minute to minute?’ you could simply throw your drink in his face, or you could answer: both and neither. Experientially we live in a seamless present, but that doesn’t prevent us from continually making and re-making its meaning. And whilst it’s extremely hard to exclude meaning from life, it’s equally difficult to compartmentalise experience neatly into episodes, or figure out life’s grand overarching trajectory. As a way of distinguishing episodic narrative from other kinds, however, this opposition of significance vs. absence of meaning simply won’t wash. Many episodic narratives fondly think they are telling meaningful stories, and many other forms of narrative structure delight in pulling the rug from under the feet of their protagonists as they struggle to make sense of experience. So it’s just not that simple.
Picaresque novels define our national literature: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five”
Hang on a minute, does he mean ‘picaresque’ or ‘episodic’? Whilst the picaresque is certainly an excellent example of episodic narrative, it isn’t its only manifestation. The picaresque is something very particular. Here’s the definition:
Picaresque : Of or relating to a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
So the classic novel of this genre is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, undeniably episodic but certainly not ‘signifying nothing’. Voltaire’s Candide is another example, a story that loosed a whole series of stinging little arrows at targets near the heart of state, church and contemporary philosophy. If novelists working in this genre claimed that their writing was just a bit of a laugh, it was because they had such subversive things to say they feared the torturer or hit man turning up in the night. Probably not the case in America, but the desire to be satirical and to attack social mores would still have to stand. I haven’t read enough of these novels to know whether they really are picaresque or not. You might let me know.
Our most popular critically acclaimed novels are pure narratives. Their straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life. [The examples he cites include: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Joseph O’Neill’s Neverland, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge]
Their purpose is ‘to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life’? Has anyone else read these novels and considered them to be the answer to life the universe and everything? And since when has ‘straightforward storytelling’ been primarily and solely concerned with solving the riddle of existence? Most stories have far less pretentious claims. Let’s just say that if novels really had cracked the meaning of existence, then maybe things would look a little different here on planet earth.
As for these modern stories failing to reach the heights of good episodic narrative, I realized by the time I reached Olive Kitteridge and Gilead that he must be having a laugh. Olive Kitteridge is as straightforwardly episodic a narrative as I’ve ever read. It’s even written as a series of isolated short stories that have as their sole link the appearance (just about in some cases) of Olive herself. Apparently, Siegel’s accusation here is that it contains character development, ergo the novel cannot be episodic. Oh that’s just too many kinds of wrong for me to face going into.
Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux.
Forget star signs! Forget numerology! Clearly the way to get deep into personality structure is to figure out whether you are an episodic or not, and if you are, good news! You are morally superior to all other readers, having a firmer grasp of life’s realities and a weaker grasp on your own identity. You know, I’ve been having a great time with my son this summer holiday, watching Desperate Housewives on television every morning. Now there’s a bunch of women who know how to live life episodically, and I can’t tell you how often a chill has gone down my spine in recognition of their surer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. That’s a programme whose verisimilitude has left me gasping.
Well, evidently this is pure nonsense. Just because a plot structure is episodic, it doesn’t mean that the story will be more realistic. Rabelais’s Gargantua, anyone? About a fifty foot giant? Episodic simply means ‘separated into a series of episodes’, and it refers to comedy shows as much as to experimental novels.
2. In Which I Stitch It All Back Together Again
So, it strikes me that the problem at the heart of this article is that the terms of the argument are very unclear. There’s episodic narrative, which may or may not be confined to the picaresque in Siegel’s understanding, and there’s a nebulous mass of other stuff, lumped under the heading ‘pure narrative’ but left unexplained and vague. I think it actually means all the other novels that he doesn’t really like.
It might help, then, to be clear on just what we mean by ‘plot’. Plot in a story is when a problem is posed: something is posited as lost, missing, enigmatic or uncertain and narrative works to restore order and bring closure. Over the course of this process, meaning usually emerges. So the classic plot-driven narrative is crime fiction, which begins with a rent in the heart of a stable community, a murder or a crime that places its members at risk because the community no longer knows or understands itself. Narrative then has a rescuing function; it isolates evil in one individual, excludes him or her and restores harmony. One way of looking at it, is to consider that stories begin by breaking or destroying something, and then they work to put the pieces back together again in better ways. (And if those pieces don’t get fixed, what’s often at stake is a critique of society and a suggestion for what needs to change if harmony is ever going to be attainable). This is narrative in its healing function, rehearsing options, choices, patterns, that might make life more amenable to the reader once he or she has put the book down and is forced to deal with breakages in real life. It reassures us that all will be well, eventually. And frankly, Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of a story that wants to insist that all will be well, no matter what occurs. Episodic narratives are not necessarily in opposition to the spirit of plot; they might just embrace a series of problems that the story poses and then solves, repeatedly destroying harmony and then reinstating it in ever more creative ways.
But there’s another kind of episodic narrative that isn’t like the satirical picaresque, or the series-of-adventure stories at all, and which seems to get overlooked. And that’s the kind where it’s difficult to figure out what the main problem is that the story wants to tackle, or indeed, whether there is a central problem at all. Dawn Powell’s Dance Night was written in this mode; a narrative that seeks to evoke a place, an era, an atmosphere, and to explore it in all its nuances and paradoxes. A few things happened in the novel, but they weren’t enough to provoke harmony or closure, and in any case, that wasn’t what the novel was interested in doing. It was about conjuring up out of words an experience that felt vivid and authentic. It was a celebration of narrative voice, the eerie capacity of the human imagination, harnessed to the power of language, to create a world just like the one we live in, but condensed, crystallized, sharper, clearer, fiercer, its internal contradictions, its pleasures and its pains brought deftly out into the light. The situation is the story.
Now there is no moral high ground to be won here: it’s not possible to say that the episodic narrative, either in its picaresque or exploratory mode is quantifiably better than a story that takes one central problem as its organizing force. That would be to turn narrative structure into some kind of battle that required resolution – which would sound an awful lot like the basis for an adventure novel in itself, with the critic as Indiana Jones (ha!). And many novels aren’t easily classifiable in terms of structure in any case. No, but to write a really good novel, either by creating a voice so flexible, so compelling, so hypnotic that we can’t drag ourselves away from it, or to create a plot so neat, so intricate, so plausible, that we follow it with the fascination of an unfolding magician’s trick, well, that’s a beautiful achievement and one that should be applauded and held far away from the clumsy hands of newspaper journalists who want to pick a fight.
So what did I get out of all of this? Remember I came into it interested in American fiction and its episodic tendencies, and it does seem feasible to argue that there is indeed a distinct preference for the episodic. My question then is what this might imply for national literary tastes. What do readers like to see in their tales that can be readily found in the episodic? Or to look at concrete examples, what do we notice if we put Huckleberry Finn and Dance Night side by side for comparison? Well, we find in both cases a resistance to the notion of change. No matter what the protagonists of these novels do, no act has profound, far-reaching, quantifiable consequences. Instead there is an excessive insistence on continuity, on the same old same old, on everything reverting back to the norm. What if these novels had been written by a plot driven author like Thomas Hardy? Just imagine it; Morry and Jen in Dance Night would have undoubtedly had an illegitimate child, Jen would have been cast out of the community, she would have died in horrible suffering, the child would have returned years later to avenge its mother, etc, etc. And Huck Finn would have ended up on the gallows before thirty pages had passed. The difference between plot driven and episodic narratives lies in the embrace or rejection of the phrase ‘and nothing could ever be the same again….’ The more I think about this, the more curious it becomes. Could it be that the really intriguing questions about episodic narratives and American fiction are bound up in the relationship between story-telling and the possibility of envisaging deep and meaningful consequences? And if there really has been a tangible shift in narrative recently in the aftermath of 9/11, could it be that the issue of consequences, of cause and effect, has become more confusing, more pertinent and more urgent to American writers?