Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

Histories and analyses of science fiction are often fragmentary. Like histories of rock’n’roll, there are just too many different facets to be meaningfully comprehensive. That is not to say there aren’t excellent works that manage to deal with essential elements of science fiction, only that inevitably something will be left out or overlooked or, now and then, misunderstood.

I recently read two books about the subject that represent the poles of such analyses—those done from the inside and those done from the outside—and between them a clarity emerges about the fundamental misunderstandings that abound about the nature of science fiction.

Brian W. Aldiss’s almost majestic Billion Year Spree was published in 1973, a good year to attempt an overview like this, which covers precursor works as well as traces the development of the specific qualities of the genre through the 19th Century and then treats the major corpus of what we have come to recognize as science fiction from the 20th Century. Aldiss is very smart, very savvy, and his wit is equal to his intelligence in putting things in perspective. It is in this book that the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first genuine science fiction novel was presented. Most dedicated readers of science fiction may be acquainted with this proposition, which has gone viral within the field, but may not have read Aldiss’s arguments in support. They are worth the time.

The second book is very recent. Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, which does not purport to be an overview like Aldiss’s work. Instead it is a very personal history with opinions and judgments. It covers Atwood’s association with science fiction and showcases her take on it as a genre. In some ways it resembles a memoir. On the question of what the first SF work was, Atwood is much less rigorous and far more concerned with SF as myth than Aldiss, so we find allusions to Gilgamesh and several other works along the way, which she does not specifically name as the primogenitor.

Which makes perfect sense by the end of the book because—and she pretends to nothing else—she doesn’t know. She doesn’t seem to know what science fiction is as practiced by those who work mainly within the field, nor does she seem to understand the nature of the particular pleasure of SF for the dedicated fan. And as I say, she never claims to.

This would normally not even be an issue but for the fact that Atwood has been committing science fiction for some time now. But it’s not her primary interest, as represented by a long and successful career writing and publishing what is generally regarded as mainstream literary fiction and commentary upon it. It’s not her sandbox, even though she is clearly attracted to it and likes to come over and play.

The different focus of her appreciation of science fiction highlights aspects of the longrunning and disputatious relationship between the so-called literary establishment and the declassé realms of genre fiction. Especially after having read Aldiss on science fiction, the bases of mutual incomprehension across the fictive divide becomes clearer.

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

No true understanding of science fiction is possible until its origin and development are understood. In this respect, almost everyone who has written on science fiction has been (I believe) in error—for reasons of aggrandisement or ignorance. To speak of science fiction as beginning with the plays of Aristophanes or some Mycenean fragment concerning a flight to the Sun on a goose’s back is to confuse the central function of the genre; to speak of it as beginning in a pulp magazine in 1926 is equally misleading.

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy…I realized that I couldn’t make a stand at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction means anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way?
…sci fic includes, as a matter of course, spaceships and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong…

Then later, this:

In a public discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin in the fall of 2010…I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.”
…In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”

There are harbingers in this which emerge meaningfully later in the book.

My own definition of science fiction is less specific than Aldiss’s and far more rigorous than Atwood’s—science fiction is at heart epistemological fiction: it is concerned with how knowledge (and subsequently technology) forces change on humans. You might argue that any good spy novel would meet that criteria, and certainly many spy novels (and movies) contain large dollops of science fiction, but only as collateral concerns. The change in a spy novel is earnestly resisted and often successfully so—the status quo is all important. Science fiction usually starts with (the authorial) belief that any status quo is an illusion and goes from there. Again, any surrealist novel might meet that definition, but I said epistemological, which is the tell-tale, because we’re talking about knowledge and knowing and acting, which is a communal experience, across society. And so the Federation of Star Trek qualifies as an epistemological proposition while the Isle of Avalon does not. And of course the second important condition—force—is essential in this regard. If there is a classical myth at the heart of SF it is Pandora’s Box. Open that lid—which is an act of will—and then deal with the consequences of uncontrollable environmental change.

I take it as read that there are other definitions of science fiction. This one is mine. It has the virtue of being completely independent of tropes—those spaceships and Mad Scientists of which Atwood speaks. Which brings something like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi into the fold quite plausibly while leaving something like Allen Drury’s Throne of Saturn out.

Aldiss proceeds in chapter one to make his case for Frankenstein and he does so adroitly. For SF to be true to itself, a change must be apparent that can be prompted and shaped no other way than by the conceit of the Sfnal idea. Dr. Frankenstein has learned how to reanimate dead tissue. The change this causes in him is to be faced quite unmetaphorically with the responsibility of being a god.

What separates this effectively from a straightforward horror novel is the utter humanity of Victor Frankenstein and the absence of any hint of either the divine or the demonic. What unfolds is a human drama anyone would face under similar circumstances. Frankenstein is not “mad” but becomes so. The Creature is not supernatural, it’s a construct. The questions of soul and moral responsibility permeate the drama—unresolved and unresolvable. Frankenstein has made a change in the world and has to figure out how to deal with it. He fails, but it’s the wrestling with it that brings the book into the fold of science fiction, because the change is both external and personal and depicted as humanly possible.

The rest of the novel is a Gothic—namely, it partakes of the tropes that define the Gothic: lonely castles, empty landscapes, isolation, darkness, and a kind of vastness that seems ponderously empty (but may not be). In that respect, Aldiss is correct about SF being in the tradition of the Gothic. It deals with vastness, isolation, the alien as landscape—and moral conundrum.

Atwood seems to think it’s all about utopias, which is why she seems unable to locate a definable beginning to the genre. There is a palpable reluctance throughout her book to deal with the subject directly, in a way that addresses the particular history of the stories that comprise the principle body of what we call science fiction, as if by searching around the perimeter she might find the point where it can all be subsumed into the larger, primary literary history of the last couple of millennia.

Aldiss talks throughout Billion Year Spree about the writers who informed the genre ever since it split off into its own distinct digs in 1926 with the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback, who Atwood barely mentions in passing. In Aldiss we have complete discussion of Gernsback, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Leigh Brackett, A.E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov—names which are oddly absent from the Atwood even though it is hardly possible to discuss SF meaningfully in their absence.

The writers they do cover, both of them, are Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell. Aldiss talks about them as what they are—literary writers who found useful tools in the SF toolbox, but who in most ways barely acknowledged the existence of the genre. (In Swift’s case, obviously so, since the genre did not exist in his day. But this itself is telling, since Swift is excluded by Aldiss as a precursor SF writer while Atwood sees him as primary.) Aldiss is remarking on how the same observations led to writers of quite different dispositions to do work recognizable to the main body of SF in its own day. To be sure, such writers are often used by the genre in a kind of reflexive self-defense, as if to say “See, serious writers do it, too!” But while Aldiss shows how these are basically one-offs, Atwood seems to think these writers represent the central goal of the genre—that all SF writers might be aspiring to the level of Huxley and Orwell. Perhaps in matters of craft and even art, but not necessarily in terms of theme or subject.

Atwood begins the biographical parts of her association with the genre in an understandable but curious place—in comics. (She also read H. Rider Haggard as a child, which left a distinct impression on her.) The trouble seems to be that she did not move from comics to the major magazines, and so what she shows is an attempt to make whole the literary connections between the superhero motifs of the 30s and 40s and classical myth. A valid and fruitful analysis, certainly, but it leaves one of the principle distinguishing features of the science fiction of the same period unaddressed—technology. Greek myths care not a fig for how Zeus generates his lightning bolts. They are super natural, beyond such understanding, as befits the divine. Science fiction is all over those bolts and how they are made—and, consequently why.

I would argue that while he did not create the first SF, Homer gave us the first SF character in Odysseus. In his own way, he was a technophile and a geek. He did not believe the gods were utterly inscrutable and unchallengeable and spent the length of the Odyssey figuring out how to beat them. He was a clever man, a man of reason, who clearly believed there was something to be understood about everything.

The mistake many literary critics make in their regard toward science fiction is in consistently assuming SF is all about its gadgets—i.e. its tropes—when it is really about the people who make them, understand them, use them, and all those who are changed by them.

Aldiss clearly understands this. He rarely argues for less science and tech, only for better human depictions. Because SF is about the world those tools are allowing us to make.

The question that springs to mind while reading Atwood’s examination is whether or not she ever read anything “of the canon,” so to speak—like Sturgeon or Herbert or Niven or Brin or Cherryh or even Butler—or if, having read it, she simply found it not worth discussing in the same breath as her token SF writer, Le Guin, and the others she selects to dissect, like Marge Piercy. Even in the case of Piercy, the work she chooses to examine is the one that can be read differently, Woman On The Edge Of Time, rather than the less ambiguous He, She, and It. In the closing paragraph of her examination on Piercy’s time travel-cum-woman-under-pressure novel, Atwood says:

Woman On The Edge Of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.

Even in praise, there seems to be a reservation about the work in question. Not literary, then, but a moral work. In this regard, Aldiss would seem to agree with her:

The great utopias have better claim to our attention, for utopianism or its opposite, dystopianism, is present in every vision of the future—there is little point in inventing a future state unless it provides a contrast with our present one. This is not to claim that the great utopias are science fiction. Their intentions are moral or political…
The idea of utopianists, like our town-planners, is to produce something that is orderly and functions well.

One of the chief drawbacks of utopias is this achievement of function. Basically, the whole point of them is to end history. They are “nowhere” because once attained there is theoretically no further need for people to change. In fact, they must not change, lest they destroy the perfection. As Aldiss goes on to say:

The trouble with utopias is that they are too orderly. They rule out the irrational in man, and the irrational is the great discovery of the last hundred years. They may be fantasy, but they reject fantasy as part of man—and this is a criticism that applies to most of the eighteenth-century literature…

Given this, one wonders what it is that Atwood is attempting in implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—treating SF as utopianism without a nod toward the thing at its core, namely the embrace of inexorable change. Because change is the driving fascination in science fiction and for it to have any valence in the imagination or utility in its constructs, it must present as something other than metaphor. Let me give you two quotes from a pair of SF writers, one of whom seems to be Atwood’s choice of exceptional ability:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition is doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities) different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures, and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving, and exciting story.
Samuel R. Delany, The Necessity of Tomorrows

If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.
What science, from physics to astronomy to history and psychology, has given us is the open universe: a cosmos that is not a simple, fixed hierarchy but an immensely complex process in time. All the doors stand open, from the prehuman past through the incredible present to the terrible and hopeful future. All connections are possible. All alternatives are thinkable. It is not a comfortable, reassuring place. It’s a very large house, a very drafty house. But it’s the house we live in…and science fiction seems to be the modern literary art which is capable of living in that huge and drafty house, and feeling at home there, and playing games up and down the stairs, from basement to attic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Escape Routes

Taken together, these point to the disconnect with traditional literary forms, traditional literary expectations. Science fiction contains utopias, certainly (and dystopias, clearly) but it is not in the main about them. Nor is it about some desired escape from the present into an alternative world that may offer some kind of release for a mind at odds with itself, which seems to be the basis of so much neurotic fiction. The focus is on the wrong point here. It is about living in a changed milieu.

The problem with utopias was summed up concisely by Virginia Woolf “There are no Mrs. Brown’s in Utopia.” Like all superlatives, counterexamples can be found, but in the main this is a self-consistent criticism of the form which Atwood seems intent on using as her functional definition of science fiction. There is no room for ordinary people in Thomas More’s Utopia—if they are ordinary, they aren’t people, they’re memes. If they aren’t ordinary, Utopia doesn’t stand a chance of surviving.

And most ordinary people, when you get down to it, are not ordinary.

Which seems to be the major concern of most literary fiction—ordinary people. Which, by a tortuous logic of taxonomic reassessment, means, since Atwood seems to believe SF is principally utopian, that science fiction cannot deal with ordinary people and therefore, though she does not come right out and say this, cannot be considered relevant to mainstream literary concerns.

Welcome back to the ghetto.

In a blatantly dismissive review of Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake, Sven Birkerts asserted that SF can never be [true] literature because it “privileges premise over character.” In other words, the world at hand is more important than the people in it—which, of course, would make it utopian.

Henry James famously claimed “Landscape is character.” (Of course, he then criticized H.G. Wells for dealing more with “things” than characters—in other words, his landscapes.)

Birkerts and Atwood are on the same page, it seems, though Atwood is striving to come to terms with a form she clearly likes, even while misapprehending it. Perhaps had she found a stack of Astounding Stories instead of H. Rider Haggard and comics in the attic as a child she might have understood where the divergence happened and SF split off from two millennia of myth-driven fantasy. Novelty can overwhelm truth-seeking and a great deal of SF falls into the pit of self-involved gizmo geekery, but at those times when the work rises out of that pit to deal with the future and science and their immanence within the human soul it is unfair to not see its true worth. It’s like comparing Sherlock Holmes to the Hardy Boys and dismissing Holmes because he comes from the same stock.

It’s interesting that Atwood chooses Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time as her example, because Piercy worked a further subversion, perhaps unwittingly so, in the scenario she examines. Connie is regarded by everyone around her as insane. But she knows she isn’t, she’s dealing with a real situation, the future. But the world she lives in, the given world, her context, insists of denying the reality of that future and treating her involvement with it as symptom rather than legitimate experience. The parallel to the way in which the science fiction writer and his or her work is treated by those who see themselves as the keepers of context is remarkable. This is a metaphor which Atwood overlooks. The question of whether or not Piercy is writing what Atwood thinks she is or has understood the nature of the form she’s indulging is open.

The misunderstanding is simple but with complex consequences. Most genre fiction—mystery, western, war, spies, even romance—takes advantage of altered context to set mood or establish a range of possible action. Done well, these shifts target different thematic concerns and aim at specific moral (or telec) points. But in all but science fiction (and to a lesser extent the related genre of fantasy) the context would seem to be more attitudinal than material. Except in westerns, but we tend to treat the context of the western as “our” world insofar as it is historical and therefore, legitimately or not, we see it as familiar. The differences fade into background and the metaphor run out of our sight, almost as window dressing.

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

Which makes it a very uncomfortable place, especially for the writer who has spent his or her career writing from character rather than from landscape through character. Instead of seeing the world as a consequence of character, in science fiction the world is a character and must be dealt with concretely, as if to say “Here’s your new reality (context), now learn to live in it.”

It is precisely that discomfort that is the drug of choice for the reader of SF.

Attempts to corral it into a more familiar tradition run up against what must often seem like a perverse and intractable exoticism on the part of the writers.

Of the two books at hand, the Aldiss is the more taxonomically useful as well as æsthetically relevant. Aldiss, after all, is a science fiction writer. He has lived within the genre, knows it to its marrow, and, while critical of its excesses and irrelevancies, clearly loves it for itself, redheaded stepchild though it may be to others.

Which is not to say the Atwood is a failure. She is just as clearly fond of science fiction and has done considerable grappling with its conventions and conceits. But for her, it feels as if SF was an important love affair that last a summer or a year and then ended, leaving her with good memories and an impression of something missed, a road not taken. Nothing she regrets but it might have been nice for it to have lasted longer. She doesn’t know it the way Aldiss does, but she doesn’t fear it the way some of her colleagues have in the past and may still. So while her observations may seem coincidental, there’s worthy insight, if only of the tourist variety. Taken together, the two books give one a view of SF both from the inside and from the outside and the distinctions are telling.

Way back in my youth, when rock’n’roll had muscled its way into the serious attention of people who, not too many years earlier, once derided it as loud, obnoxious “kid’s stuff” I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music. He would take Sinatra or Como or Crosby or film themes or light jazz and turn them into quasi-classical pieces. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was “accurate” but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn’t define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said “rock’n’roll” and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts. He’d taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable for the inspection of people who did not understand rock music but may have been curious about it. Unfortunately, he missed the point and the result was “interesting.”

I often feel that way about attempts at science fiction by people who do not understand it.

More importantly, however, is the dialogue between those who get it and those who don’t and in this respect Atwood has written a very useful book with considerable care and insight. It is, ultimately, less about science fiction than about her attempts to alchemically transform it into something familiar to her own early impressions of magical and dissociative fictive experiences. This is underscored by the Aldiss, which is about the heart and soul of science fiction. Reading them in tandem clarifies the ongoing misapprehensions and perhaps shows us how and why SF seems to be infecting much of today’s literary fiction. There must be a good reason why someone like Atwood now writes it, even if she doesn’t seem entirely to embrace it for itself.

 

The Visceral and the Vast

One of the ongoing struggles with what might be called epic science fiction, of which “space opera” has been a mainstay for many decades, is finding the balance between the plausibly human and high-tech melodrama.  Science fiction was born out of a passion for innovation and event which often overwhelmed or even shut out attempts at telling human stories.  It was a genre of heroes, villains, and grand conflict.

In the wake of the New Wave movement of the 1960s, certain forms diminished in prominence for just this reason.  Writers wanted to connect with their characters, tells stories that mattered on more than an adrenalized level, do work that might attain to the standards of literature, which meant more modest scales, closer scrutiny of the human heart, and a muffling of melodrama.  The lesson, unwelcome as it sometimes seemed in certain quarters, was learned and work produced after the 1970s reflected a shift in focus from the grander to the ordinary, at least in the treatment of character.  But to manage that the scope of the work suffered constraint.  The vast scope that made so much science fiction so much fun diminished, occasionally to claustrophobic dimensions.

With the resurgence of space opera in the late 1980s, beginning with Iain M. Banks’ and his Culture stories, we have seen the gradual humanization of the form to terrific effect.  (To a large degree, C. J. Cherryh had been doing this all along, but she had occupied her own niche, as it were, for over a decade before space opera itself enjoyed a renaissance.)

Suddenly we had the wide stage of interstellar space, many different alien species, the concomitant politics, and the kind of characterization one might expect from any competent novelist in any genre.  Occasionally, we saw superior examinations of the human, utilizing the surgical theater of the future and great distance to open the characters up to unique experiences which reflected back new insights.

Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice , is the latest example of what is possible in this revitalized format.  In a way, she has even given us a bit of a metafiction in that the story is about reducing the vastness of form into a cramped human scale—and then letting us see the former scale from this new perspective.

Breq is all that remains of a huge starship, Justice of Toren, one of the proud ships of the immense fleet of the Radch, an expanding human empire.  The Justices are troop carriers, among other things, main components of invasion forces—which the Radch call “annexations”—doggedly increasing the human sphere in the galaxy.  An act of betrayal from the most unlikely source of all has caused the destruction of the ship except for this one component, an ancillary which now works toward revenge, a shadow of her former self.

To describe the betrayal would give too much away and one of the chief pleasures of this novel is the onion-layer unfolding of the levels of plot and counterplot.  Aliens are involved, codes of conduct, and a class structure that is quasi-aristocratic and mercantile at the same time.  In some ways it reminds one of France’s ancien regime.

Leckie has done a number of clever things throughout.  The class structure is taut but not impermeable, although its rules make advancement agonizingly difficult and fraught with traps.  She has turned gender on its head—the preferred pronoun is feminine: everyone is “she,” even the males.  It makes little difference until Breq finds herself having to deal with societies that are more rigidly structured along gender-role definitions.  The ancillaries themselves could be virtually sexless and maybe they are—they are one-time humans taken as prisoner, their personalities overwritten and replaced by the sentient AI complexes of the ships.

The ships are aware.  And through their ancillaries they are ubiquitous.  The ships also have complex emotions.  Although Leckie never says, it is likely the ships have feelings because of their ancillaries.  The interface goes both ways.

Loyalty is both to the Radch and to individuals within it.  Ships have their favorites.

And in this instance, a favorite has been made a pawn in a much larger game being played by the absolute ruler of the Radch herself.

This game leads to the destruction of Justice of Torren—at least as a starship.  Breq, its last surviving ancillary, maintains loyalty to the cause it adopted in the wake of the betrayal and intends doing something about it.  Breq complains occasionally of its truncated memory, its limited resources, its smallness especially in the face of what it has to do, but it becomes clear that Breq retains enough of its former self to do the one thing it thought it could never do again—be human.

Leckie plays ends—several of them—against middles—more than one, it seems—to great effect, and manages to convey it all through the limited perspective of a single character.  This is a remarkable achievement, especially set as the story is against such vast backgrounds.  The driving problem of the action turns on a bit of political philosophy which we deal with today: what happens when the government turns on itself over a difference of opinion about policy?  While this may sound trite, the repercussions are anything but, elevating the book one more level.

Ancillary Justice is itself a consequence of a turning inward or against over a question of direction, and it answers the challenge well.  There is nothing expected about this book.  It goes in seemingly familiar directions, to apparently familiar places, but then leads the reader to nowhere he or she has been before in quite this way.  A wholly subversive work in the best sense of the word.

A sequel is promised.

Knowing Who To Follow

Choosing the right character to carry the story is one of the essential jobs of constructing a solid narrative.  Often that character will seemingly do the work for the author in the telling of his or her story.  Everything follows from viewpoint.  If the wrong one is chosen, the work can still be finished, the story told, but it can be an arduous task and, except in the hands of the most skilled, the effort shows in the finished product.

From certain writers we expect the right choices as given.  It never occurs to us to question them the way we might question a less seasoned author.  Reputation is based on the repeated nailing of all the important factors.  Such respect can be so ingrained that when a mistake is encountered, a wrong choice made, and the narrative doesn’t flow as it feels it should, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves.  We’re not reading it with sufficient attention, we’re not getting all the cues, we have failed to pierce the caul of metaphor and see into the purpose of the work in hand.  We are deficient, not they.  If we are bored, it is because we are boring, never that the author to whom we grant such status has bored us.  We are philistines, unworthy of the temple secrets.

Sometimes, this is true.  There are such works that are so densely construed and meticulously articulated that they require superior attention, often more than a couple of readings, and demand that the reader bring something substantive to the text before page one is even begun.

There are also works which pretend to be like that.  They can be difficult, opaque, and on the surface pointless.  Often, rather than admit the possibility that the work is flawed, we may find ourselves inventing the nous and telos of such a work, doing ourselves what the writer actually failed to do, or at least failed to get right.  If nothing else, the elegance of the sentences, the lexicon and vocabulary alone, convince us that this work must be good.  We couldn’t write anything so self-evidently beautiful, concise, lush…artful.

Doubt is also an essential element in literature.  The writer doubts in the act of writing, because there are many choices that must be continually made, from the macro to the micro.  There are doubts the reader has as the story unfolds, questions to be asked and, we hope, answered.  But also the basic doubt—is this book worth our time?

The work must earn our trust, assuage our doubts.  Being kicked out of a narrative, something we’ve all experienced, even with the best work, is an aspect of unanswered doubt.  The writer loses us when the work fails to keep interest high and doubts low.

With some writers, those with Reputations, this process gets reversed, and a work that might otherwise be set aside had it been written by a lesser light then consumes us in a quest to find the flaw in ourselves that causes us the discomfort of entertaining the possibility that this work is not what it should be.

In a recent piece in Salon.com, Robert Lennon tackles this idea.  We are told certain works are worth our time because they are the epitome of what we should aspire to, both as writers and as readers.

A case in point—with regrets—is William Gass’s new novel, Middle C.  The prose are fine, there is a playfulness with language reminiscent of Pynchon and Gaddis and, occasionally, Fowles, and some passages are beautiful.  The whole does not live up to the potential of its components.

This is a difficult realization.  Gass is one of those with Reputation.  His essays are acknowledged masterpieces, his novel The Tunnel is considered a 20th Century classic.  Middle C  is his self-professed Last Novel.  The conceit that launches the narrative—a man who changes cultural identities in order to survive the coming catastrophe of World War II, and then continues to drag his family from one set of personae to another, trying to stay one step ahead of those who may force him to conform to moral conditions he cannot abide—is fascinating, and the stage is set beautifully.  Distantly reminiscent of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, fraud and imposture inform the lives of his family throughout.  The attempt to find a place while simultaneously seeking an identity with which they can comfortably live, set against the backdrop of a post-war America that seemed to change both its sense of self and its expectation with each passing fad should have produced an electric work of neon clarity.

Instead, the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is so intent on passing unnoticed through everything and among everyone that he never becomes his own Self, but remains a potential buried within the layers of subterfuge and fraud he uses to get by.  If it was Joey’s intention to keep everyone out, Gass allows him to succeed, and we are left with a skilled cipher who never engages with anything.  His passion is music, but, presciently, one of his early instructors tells him flat out that he pretends to play well, that he does not let himself know the music, and so will remain a talented mediocrity.

Gass seems to have chosen the wrong character to follow.  We know everything we are going to know about Joseph Skizzen by page 50.

Now had he gone with Joey’s father, we might have had a narrative with some unadorned vigor.  Rudi Skizzen took chances, acted, moved, and seems to have possessed a moral center that, while manifesting in rather unexpected and abstruse ways, drove him.  Had Gass followed him when he abandoned his family to head for Canada…

But we don’t have that book.  We have the careful examination of the near wreckage of his family as they try to get by.  Not succeed.  They don’t try for that (except the sister, Debby, who embraces the plasticity of America and seems to become a Happy Suburbanite—not much a choice, perhaps, but wholly hers and made without apparent regret) but turn inward to self pity and a constant fear of being found out.

Joey Skizzen—Professor Joseph Skizzen—does not wish to be noticed.  When people notice you, he suggests, then you are expected to do something, to live up to their criteria.  This is well and good if you have a set of criteria of your own and work to live up to them,  but Joey’s phobia removes from him any desire, apparently, to have any expectations at all of himself.  He just wants to pass through, get by, be left alone.

The reader doubts, especially when confronted with a book by someone we are expected to appreciate, that his or her reactions have any merit when those reactions are negative.  At best, this leads to a bit of wasted time spent muscling through a novel searching for what we are told to expect.  At worst, we take our inability to gain intellectual purchase in the novel as proof that our intellect is wanting, that our taste is lacking, that we are ourselves the philistines at the gate.  It is hard to realize that sometimes even a great artist produces flawed and occasionally fatally flawed work.

I was reminded of another work while going through Middle C, namely James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, which also told the story of people trying to change identities and pass as other than they were and dealing in various moral frauds in order to achieve questionable short-term ends.  The difference was that in Cain’s work all of them had something to lose, all the way up to the end, which made the work a first-rate tragedy.  In Middle C all the loss happens early, nothing is regained, and instead of tragedy we find farce.

There are some fascinating passages in this book, and the ideas with which Gass is playing are rich.  But the path he followed seems to take the long way around and doesn’t go where the beginning would suggest it should.  No one ought to feel inadequate as a reader in the face of such a work.