Issue Seven (Omnibus)
Reviewed in this issue:
Dave Fitzgerald, Troll (Whiskey Tit)
Matt Bucher, The Belan Deck (Sideshow Media Group)
Martin Riker, The Guest Lecture (Black Cat)
There are no doubt fictional protagonists more reprehensible than the main character of Dave Fitzgerald's Troll (Humbert Humbert comes to mind), but most of these do not necessarily consider themselves morally blameworthy--they are often self-deceived or simply blind to their own shortcomings. The unnamed protagonist of Troll (not quite the narrator) knows very well that he is an impossible jerk; being an asshole is, in fact, at the very core of his identity, the condition to which he relentlessly aspires in order to give his life purpose. Although occasionally we get fleeting glimpses of the better person he might have been (but probably can no longer be), his role in the novel is to perpetually demonstrate his lack of concern for others or, if he does momentarily try to reassert some latent dignity, to inevitably revert to a fundamental boorishness he can't suppress,
This strategy of character development is a fairly radical move at a time when "likability" in characters has been elevated to an inviolable principle among readers (and too many writers) of fiction, even more so in a novel of more than 500 pages in which the protagonist is really the only important character. Fitzgerald should at least be given credit for chutzpah in this effort, but in fact the very audacity of his extended exposition of objectionable behavior is itself compelling and gives the novel its own kind of narrative drama ("will he ever wise up?). For those who value fiction that unsettles expectations of the form rather than reinforces the reader's self-contented comfort, a novel like Troll provokes us to reflect on the relationship between reader and character in fiction: can we hold the character in contempt and still enjoy the writer's way of creating the character? We would not likely want to interact with the protagonist of Troll in real life, but a novel is artifice, an illusion summoned through language, and to judge such a character by degrees of "likability" seems an unnecessarily restrictive perspective on the value of a work of fiction.
Often a novel featuring a morally dubious or otherwise unsavory character confronts us directly with this character through the use of first-person narration. (Again Lolita comes to mind, or Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.) Simple proximity to the character through extended, intimate acquaintance with the narrative voice can deceive us into overlooking the character's more deplorable qualities or to seize on those better qualities we think we perceive beneath the surface of the character's literal actions. We are in effect tricked into feeling some affinity with the character, perhaps to later learn the depth of our gullibility. Fitzgerald denies himself the use of this trick in favor of what seems an even more brazen one: Troll directly implicates us in the actions of its protagonist by adopting second-person narration. This presumably would imply that we should restrain our impulse to despise the narrator because we too might share some of his human flaws. Except that such an interpretation can't really encompass passages such as this:
Your attention to hygiene is close to laughable. You bathe only when you've accumulated a noticeable filth, deodorize only when you can actually smell yourself, and brush your teeth only when they start to hurt (a task which reliably makes your ill-defined bicep sore before you reach your back molars). Your razor makes but cameo appearances, usually after your beard has already overgrown your neck and invaded the softer allopatrics of your chest hair. . . .
This still seems to be the representation of a particular person, so particular that surely most readers would find it difficult to regard the character as a kind of Everyman figure close enough to themselves that they could be included as his shadowy surrogate simply through being addressed as "you." The better account of this novel's point of view would take it as a kind of internally split perspective: The protagonist addresses himself in the second person, perhaps to avoid fully claiming the behavior related, as would happen with a first-person narration--perhaps it is the protagonist-as narrator's only way of maintaining his moral scruples in the face of the evidence he presents of moral degradation. While some of the protagonist's errors--most conspicuously his immersion in the worst excesses of online culture (thus the most immediate derivation of the novel's title) and his slackerly wallowing in the mindless comforts of pop culture--are certainly shared widely enough by some in the protagonist's generational cohort, satire of our current cultural follies, although present, is not the novel's exclusive ambition. Its protagonist is finally not a cautionary figure only.
Is the online troll purely a product of the ubiquity of online culture, a creature summoned through the simultaneous visibility and anonymity it allows? Were these creatures always already out there, waiting for this opportunity to show themselves? Or has the internet in its assorted varieties simply created them ex nihilo? In some ways the protagonist of Troll is a quintessential troll, trollish online and off-, but while his behavior finds its specific expression in the forms promulgated by the wired world, surely it is not simply the product of those forms. Online culture has given him the opportunity to postpone adult responsibility, to waste whatever writing talent he might possess on a clickbait factory called GRUNDL, where he composes the lists of top ten this and top then that of the sort that blights online discourse, and to inhabit porn and dating sites where he might indulge his libidinal inclinations without ever much encountering actual women in person (when he does, the encounters work out terribly, especially for the women).
It seems unlikely that this character would have turned out to be an accomplished writer, or even a well-functioning grownup, if the internet hadn't screwed him up. We might say that Troll shows us exactly how current electronic media warps vulnerable personalities, or how easily it can do that, but at its core the novel is the story of a failed writer and would-be intellectual with poor social skills who really doesn't even seem to get much pleasure out of his self-indulgent profligacy. He might seem to belong to the line of modern antihero protagonists, except that there's really nothing "roguish" about his actions. He does stay true to his antisocial disaffection, but this is because finally he can't resist giving in to his worst impulses. Even after he apparently does come to a final reckoning with the fatuity of his life at the end of a long essay he writes as a farewell to his readers at GRUNDL, he can't avoid further perpetrating an entirely gratuitous offense against public decorum that nearly gets him killed.
The quality of thought and style on display in this farewell essay (the longest but not the only sample of the protagonist's writing incorporated into the narrative) suggest that the protagonist is capable of sustained analysis and not without writing skills. Indeed, the writing throughout Troll (which is wholly consonant with what we find in this essay, again suggesting the authors are one and the same) is fluent but colloquial and often pungent, and is finally the main reason why this long novel about an unpleasant character continues to reward our attention. It is part of the protagonist's dysfunction that he devotes his critical efforts to evanescent pop cultural distractions such as the tv show, Friends, but the accomplishment of Troll is to make this dysfunction artistically functional.
Glimpses and Asides
Is it possible for a writer to emulate an innovative technique developed by an important precursor, or is that technique necessarily sui generis, its attempted repetition by the follower a contradiction of the purpose of experimental fiction? At what point might this gesture go beyond mere imitation and become instead a legitimate expression of influence that in some way advances the literary experiment introduced by the predecessor? When is it simply derivative?
These questions likely present themselves to anyone reading Matt Bucher's The Belan Deck who comes to recognize (probably early on) the formal echoes of the fiction of David Markson, particularly the series of late novels that have come to be called The Notecard Quartet, in Bucher's novella. Beginning with Reader's Block (1996), Markson developed and refined a collage method that dispensed with plot, setting, and character (except for the implied character composing and arranging the discursive fragments), instead juxtaposing an assortment of short observations, quotes, and notations of facts, most related to art, artists, writers, and writing, that impressionistically convey a latent "story" about the narrator, variously called "Reader," "Writer," and "Novelist," as a kind of "Every Artist" figure pondering the conditions attending his art. Along with Markson's earlier Wittgenstein's Mistress, these books taken together arguably challenge the conventional definition of "novel" more radically than any other work of fiction by an American author, without finally escaping the definitional boundaries entirely. Our conception of what a novel might be is inevitably altered after reading them.
The Belan Deck is similarly composed of disconnected snippets of prose, although the disconnection is more a function of shifts in the narrator's awareness than the deliberate discontinuities imposed by Markson's method. Bucher's narrator is an identifiable character waiting in an airport to catch a flight out of San Francisco. He works for a tech company, and his most pressing current project is to produce a set of power point slides (the "deck") for his boss, the titular Belan. As he waits, he ponders his situation--he is vaguely dissatisfied with his job, and does not share his boss's enthusiasm for the development of AI technology. The prose fragments presented to us could not really be strictly described as the flow of thought, however. When occasionally the narrator suddenly interjects a kind of factoid--"A year after JFK's assassination, Canada named a 14,000-foot peak in Kluane National Park after him: Mount Kennedy. It had never been climbed"--it is difficult to take this as actually a representation of a thought--a part of the "stream." Surely the narrator is not carefully composing these passages in his head, and there is no indication that he might be writing them down.
It is this halfway status between the depiction of thought process and fully-formed expository prose--although some of the fragments do straightforwardly fulfill the narrative function of moving the story along--that makes Bucher's formal scheme both something more than an outright imitation of Markson and something less than a true extension of Markson's innovative approach to something equally new. Bucher is using the collage method as an alternative to linear narrative, to portray what is essentially a static situation (at least in terms of narrative "action") so that the focus of attention may be on the narrator's ruminations rather than on what happens during his layover in the airport. This is a perfectly legitimate strategy, and The Belan Deck is surely no routine rendition of "psychological realism." It shares with Markson the impulse to controvert the default association of "novel" with "story" and to focus the reader's attention not on the accoutrements of narrative but on language itself as the fundamental medium of fiction. In these ways Bucher's novella is manifestly a welcome alternative to the prevailing norms of most current literary fiction.
Still, the novella's effort to present its protagonist thinking makes what he is thinking about assume greater importance in maintaining the reader's interest. Mostly he thinks about work, but the work of course is also currently a subject of great concern among not just the tech community but also writers, artists, and academics, who worry that artificial intelligence applications threaten the integrity of intellectual life. Bucher's narrator shares this worry, although he never directly articulates a comprehensive position against the development of AI. His cumulative portrait of his boss, Belan, which is presented in the glimpses and asides Bucher's strategy affords us, suggests he is a relatively familiar sort of tech lord, interested in the technology to the extent it brings in profit but otherwise disengaged from the practical effects it might come to produce. While the narrator is not entirely preoccupied with his work for Belan, this episode in the airport clearly enough has the narrator taking stock of his circumstances, which gives The Belan Deck a thematic focus that is not far removed from what we might find in a more conventional novel featuring a similar sort of protagonist.
The collage method of course precedes Markson's innovative use of it, and it is perfectly well-suited to narratives that preserve an underlying unity of character, setting, or even of plot while still maintaining the surface fragmentation collage allows. If Bucher seems mainly to be influenced by Markson's version, this is mostly through the similar intermixing of discourse about the nature of art and the travails of artists. But Markson is really interested in performing a rendition of this discourse for its own sake, as an exercise in formal experiment. Bucher in effect pays homage to this previous innovation, but otherwise uses it for purposes that are more aesthetically restrained. There's nothing inherently wrong or misguided about this move. In The Belan Deck it results in a consistently engaging short book. Bucher doesn't merely imitate Markson, although neither does he push against many boundaries that Markson hadn't already breached.
A Lecture is About to Begin
A brief "prologue" in Martin Riker's The Guest Lecture, informs us that the entire scene of the novel takes place in "a dark hotel room somewhere in middle America," where a man, woman, and child lie on a "single king-sized bed." The woman is awake, and "inside her head, things are busy." Indeed: "A lecture is about to begin."
It would seem that we are being prepared to find out what is going on "inside" the protagonist's head, to encounter her in the process of thinking. And literally there is no physical action depicted in the novel outside of this character's ruminations both about the lecture she is scheduled to deliver the following morning and about the course her life has taken that has brought her to this particular moment. But we do not experience what amounts to an existential crisis the protagonist--Abby, an economics professor--is enduring as the processing of thought but instead as a fully articulated and dramatized account of the circumstances of her life, along with numerous passages in which she, for example, explicates the economic theories that have preoccupied her career. While Abby's story is not related as a chronologically continuous narrative (it develops associatively, in a way that is consistent with the movement of thought), most readers would likely find it a fairly recognizable sort of episodic first-person narrative.
Riker's purpose, then, is not to represent the operations of human thought, its "flow." Few novels, in fact, actually do manage to capture the act of thinking, at least in any consistent or sustained way. The mental phenomenon we call "thought" is, arguably, only partially verbal, and doesn't always occur in full-phrased sentences. Some writers have of course attempted to produce a version of this unprocessed cerebration in prose--most famously in the "stream of consciousness" technique whereby thought is approximated through discontinuous and unpunctuated language--but the success of this technique in leaving an impression of greater realism by introducing an internal perspective on narrated events led to the conflation of a literary strategy with the actual reality of thought. "Stream of consciousness" is unavoidably artifice, no less a device for creating specifically literary effects than any other figuration of language. Nevertheless, what was at first a modernist innovation in storytelling influenced many subsequent writers (and critics) to value psychological realism above all, leading to the widespread believe that the capacity to go inside human consciousness is one of the distinctive attributes of fiction among all other narrative arts.
Fiction may well be able to create the illusion of representing a character's mental state, but then creating illusion is one of the defining presumptions of fiction to begin with, so making the reader accept that a story's devices are providing access to "thought" is finally just one sort of illusion the writer hopes to produce. Moreover, The Guest Lecture demonstrates, it seems to me, that human thought is of value to writers for its content, not the form in which it might be expressed. To get the latter "right," even if it were possible to do so, might count as an achievement of documentary realism, but this in itself is not an achievement of literary art. Such art could indeed be made from a character's internal reflections and ruminations, but not simply by recording them. And in The Guest Lecture Martin Riker does not endeavor to record the thoughts of his insomniac protagonist, despite presenting us with a narrative situation in which thinking is precisely what she seems to be doing. The novel gives form to this thinking, but it is the aesthetic form that converts the raw materials of experience into the artfulness of literature.
Most immediately on Abby's mind is the lecture on John Meynard Keynes she has been invited to give the following morning, but this impending event seems to have brought her to a crossroads of sorts, an occasion that unavoidably compels her to contemplate where she has arrived, in both her personal and professional life, and to determine what comes next. The most immediately troubling problem she faces is that she has recently been denied tenure at her university and is uncertain if she still has--or wants--an academic career. We learn the circumstances of her plight: although she is a specialist on the life and thought of Keynes, instead of writing a conventional academic tome on her subject she wrote a more personal, general-interest book based on an essay she published online that attracted a wider audience. Not surprisingly, the senior (mostly male) faculty in her department did not regard this effort altogether kindly and declared her work unworthy of tenure. The speech she will be giving is for a popular organization, not an academic one, so that it looms, perhaps, as a portent of whatever scholarly relevance she will manage to retain following on from this debacle.
Keynes plays a larger role in the realization of Abby's story than as just the subject of her intellectual interests. The novel's formal conceit mirrors the mnemonic device that Abby uses to memorize her speech: associating each of the parts of the speech with a room in her house and then visiting each of the rooms in the appropriate order. Thus does Abby take us on a tour of her home, but accompanying her on the tour is none other than the ghost of John Meynard Keynes, who acts also as a kind of advisor to Abby as she tries to sort through not just her feelings about Keynes's legacy but also her general crisis of confidence in herself. In keeping with Abby's generally favorable view of Keynes as a historical figure, the ghostly version of him seems a rather jolly nice fellow who counsels Abby in her winter of discontent--but of course he is a projection of Abby's distressed imagination, so he is presumably fulfilling the role for which he has been invoked in the first place. As an economist, Abby is most interested in Keynes's optimistic speculations about economic prosperity in the future, perhaps reflecting her need to believe in her own future.
Abby needs a good dead of encouragement, as her sense of self-worth, while understandably damaged by her recent setback, seems always to have been fragile. Working in a male-dominated field, she has further isolated herself professionally by concentrating on Keynes as rhetorician rather than the hard date of economics (or even the economic theories for which Keynes is most remembered). She earnestly wants to belong to the world of serious intellectual discourse, but although her deliberations on various ideas (scattered throughout the novel) show that she is entirely able to hold her own in this world, she also has chosen an approach that emphasizes the direct incorporation of personal experience in academic writing. Abby struggles with these self-created dilemmas: she knows that her intellectual project is valid, but she also berates herself for failing to get official endorsement of her efforts.
Abby's mingling of the personal and the analytical is reflected in the sleepless reverie producing the account we are reading. She interrupts her rehearsal of the presentation she is to give, and her exchanges with Keynes, to recall important episodes from her past, those which played an important role in determining her direction. Many of these episodes end in disappointment or loss, for which predictably enough Abby often blames herself. She seems relatively content in her marriage to her sleeping husband, Ed, although she confesses that part of Ed's appeal is that he is reflexively supportive of her, which in her insecurity she badly needs. These very insecurities, however, make Abby not just the victim of an unwelcoming system but a recognizably imperfect character with whom we can all feel a vicarious sympathy. Her struggle to reconcile herself to her situation is really the only plot in the novel, but we do find ourselves compelled by her predicament: will she ultimately overcome her self-doubts and be able to move on?
It might still be accurate to say that the source of our interest in the novel's protagonist lies in the depth of her thinking, although this is not conveyed through direct exposure to it as depicted thought. Instead the author exteriorizes the substance of that thought in the form he has devised and the at times anxious but always articulate voice he has given the character. He has, in short, transformed thinking into writing. It is not the sort of writing that attempts to replicate the manner of thinking itself but instead shapes and organizes it into a manifest aesthetic order. If this gives us a first-person narrator speaking cogently to us about her life experiences, her narrative has more of the characteristics of a lucid dream than of waking reality, while at other times it blurs the distinction between narration and critical exegesis. In its way, perhaps it models the hybrid blend of imagination and intelligence that Abby will likely continue to practice in her writing as part of her new professional identity.
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