Notes on a Novel

I posted this elsewhere recently, but I was discussing it with a friend today and realized that much of it has some debt to ideas that emerged while reading Dan Barber’s On Diaspora. I’m thinking here in particular about his articulation of reverse causation. These days I’m far more interested in novels & poetry than I am philosophy, but I don’t think this latter day interest comes at the expense of philosophical influence. Perhaps the following post (in the form of a letter to a nameless recipient) bears this out.

* * *

Dear __________,

I apologize for the gaps between our correspondence. And though it will serve as no adequate excuse for such silences, your informant told you correctly: I am currently writing a novel. Or, if not writing, dwelling on the writing of a novel. Or, if not a novel, something whose ambitions are matched only by its remaining largely unread.

I’m holding out hope I can make my minimalistic plotting work. As you know very well, I’m far more interested in consequences (and the responses to consequences) than I am plots, which tend to be too forward-focused and linear for my taste. Consequences realign not simply our perception but our experiences of the past, as much even as they create an imagined future. Dare we go so so far as to say that the present is spent mostly negotiating the indistinguishable boundary between responding to these things past and anticipating those things to come? If this is so, could it be said further that consequences are a violence in & against the occurrence of the moment?

Once we get into the language of violence, and thus of conflict & of tension, we’re into the territory of story. If that is the case, how does one “tell” a story? We may tell of a story, much like we might read or write about conflict or violence, but I’m less sure our plots are up to the challenge they set for themselves of capturing (even as a journalistic snapshot) the experience to which it lays claim. This might be a more convoluted way of reiterating the idea that realist fiction is never as real as it claims.

Story, I am suggesting, is not told; it is experienced – and the only means of this experience, in writing anyway, is through the occurrence of language (which is to say, style). This is all quite abstract, I admit, and one’s stylistic efforts tend to require a bit of compromise if you wish actually to be read, but I firmly believe that when one’s reach too often meets one’s grasp, one’s efforts are likely not worth the time of others.

For my story, I’m interested in conjuring the Gothic South I never so much lived as I read & heard about while growing up in the domesticated suburbs of the New South. I’ve been re-reading Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner for inspiration in this regard. The tale at present consists of three brothers, with all their unspoken rivalries and inarticulate animosities. Each brother, though, separated in a variety of ways and degrees, are incorporated in & by the consequences of his siblings’ actions & inactions (those real & imagined, interpreted & anticipated). This tension between separation and incorporation is sharpened by a sudden act of physical violence with, at least in my present telling, no immediately discernible reason or meaning, to which the brothers must agree in their response. This agreement, I might note, is what we tend simplistically to identify as “effect”.

Is, though, the one(s) who commit violence (in this case, one of the brothers) necessarily the cause of their violence’s effects? Vengeance, arguably, is no more or less an effect of violence than forgiveness. Or, for that matter, death is no more or less an effect than survival. Effects are born of agreements, broadly understood, and my story will be “about” such a coming to agreement. This “coming to agreement,” however, though certainly a part of the plot is also the very stuff that cannot be circumscribed by plot. As in my claim about the depiction of violence, this agreement, because it too is a kind of violence, is one that I hope readers might more readily experience in the language of its arrival rather than in its narrative depiction.

But I’m sure I’ve said too much. For you & me alike on the matter.

Yours,

B.

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2 Responses to “Notes on a Novel”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    When I was asked for an elaboration of on the idea of agreement, I added the following in the comments.
    In terms of plotted action — which I distinguish from non-narrated moment-by-moment existence — “effects” are negotiated and decided upon by those who participate, wittingly or not, in the plot as it unfolds. So, for example. A person is shot. In the moment, there are inevitable physiological effects — blood loss, tissue damage, etc. Now, it is possible one might die instantly with such a shot, that does indeed happen; and while I’m suspect of any story that overly atomizes such an effect and places in it a priority over the fallout of such a death (e.g., the revenge plot set in motion, the alcoholism that results in a drunken crash into a birthday party, etc.), I’ll grant this all the same. More often than not it seems that in the event of such a shoot-out, though, survival or death is the result of the situation in which it occurs (is anybody around who cares to help; do you have a phone; is the 911 dispatcher competent; etc.). In that case, the life-or-death effect is not set in stone, but is in fact built on the back of a whole series and complex of consequences, some that you, the person with a bullet in his belly, have no way of ever divining or appreciation. All this may sound like an introductory lesson on David Hume, and he is swirling around in the background, but I’m less inclined to describe any of this so much as skepticism (which implies an inevitable resignation to objective reality, A leading to B) as it is complexity (which implies a participation in the processes by which objective reality becomes inevitable). This “participation” I call “agreement,” for a variety of reasons, but mostly because it seems to lend itself better to drama.

  2. David U. B. Liu Says:

    I am quite sympathetic to your notion of narratival “agreement,” which I elaborate in my own philosophical work – though not identically – as “interaffectivity,” my substitution for being, cause and effect (viz. Affective Metaphysics, ProQuest/Barnes Noble, 2011). This concept also comprises what Dan Barber calls “reverse causation,” which Pavel Florensky had also discussed in ch. 1 (which I had not read till a few months ago) of his Iconostasis, where he talks about (the narratival construction of) dreams.


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