As the year draws to a close, so I realise that I have not filled you in on Mister Litlove’s responses to his special selection of books. A while back you may recall, we put together a list of books for him and he’s been making his way through them ever since. One of the reasons I am reminded to do this is that, for Christmas, I gave him Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe (which, bless him, my husband refers to as The Enchanted Universe) and he has been absolutely loving it. This is probably the biggest hit from the list so far. It’s a popular science book about string theory, which Mr Litlove says is explained brilliantly, in such a way that it is (relatively – heh) understandable. Brian Greene has led the reader through the theory part and is now describing his own experiences as part of a group of scientists and mathematicians working at the outer limits of our knowledge. What my husband has particularly appreciated is the voice of the narrator, which is intelligent and clear and carefully marking a trail through highly complex scientific thought for the reader to follow.
It is interesting to me that he has loved this book unreservedly, but found the narrative non-fiction works – House by Tracy Kidder and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – left him with niggling uncertainties due to the style. ‘I felt I was being sold fiction as reality,’ he said of both of them, which is testimony to the tendency, originating with Capote in America, to relate an experience in the past with all the speech left in, transforming the incoherence of ordinary people into the smooth personalities of storybook characters and suggesting that there is ultimately one way to view events. I think narrative non-fiction is really interesting, because it is basically true that what you get is most certainly not exactly what was lived, precisely because it tries very hard to present the veneer of reality. It is the non-fiction version of fiction written in the present tense, which really gets to me as it’s the only tense that a story absolutely could not take place in.
In both instances, changes are made in order to engage the reader more fully in the story, to immerse them in something that feels like it’s really happening around them. Since the 1990s there’s been a tendency in cultural artefacts – movies, books, art – to give the spectator/reader an experience to take away with them. Previously, art (mostly) offered itself to a spectator/reader acting as a witness, who could sit at a little distance from the events, watching them go past, and reflecting on them. There is no value difference to extricate here, the approaches are just different: one more cerebral, one more sensational. For my own part, I can’t abide being forced into an experience I may not have chosen, and much prefer art that allows me to be a witness. But that’s just me. I do think, though, that it’s an intriguing litmus test to take, to figure out how much like reality you want your fantasies to be, how much you like art to show or hide its mechanisms of construction, how much you want to be carried away to an elsewhere, even one inside of yourself.
But I digress. The novels Mr Litlove has read so far are Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler and I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. He enjoyed both very much. Charlotte Simmons is about a reserved, hard-working young woman who arrives at university to find it a hotbed of sex and sport and scandal, and the painful process she undergoes in order to fit in. Saint Maybe is a family story, which begins with a tragedy: Ian inadvertently causes the death of his brother in a car crash, leaving three small children pretty much orphaned. Feeling responsible, he puts his life on hold to bring them up. ‘In a way,’ said Mister Litlove, ‘they are both about the difference between the way we think life ought to be and the way it really is.’ I thought this was an astute comment, although it takes us back full circle to narrative non-fiction, and the difference between the reality we live (confusing, bewildering and when seen through the perspective of string theory, truly bizarre) and the reality that certain kinds of art embody, all smoothed out with fantasies of comprehensibility and order and value.
We move forward through life with idealism and fantasy guiding our choices, we live in brute instinct and perplexity, and we look back with hindsight that allows us to extract meaning – meaning I should point out, that often changes the further in time we move away from the events themselves. These dynamics, forwards into the unknown, and backwards over reality, are so often at complete odds with one another, it’s not surprising that so much of art is about negotiating the disjunction. Perhaps that’s why The Elegant Universe is so satisfying to Mister Litlove; it brings together all the madness of temporality in a hugely sophisticated theory that proves we still don’t understand the half of life on this planet.