Reflections and Mirrors [Two Month Review: The Invented Part]
On last Thursday’s Two Month Review podcast we covered the first forty-five pages of The Invented Part, and coming up later this week we’ll be covering pages 46-98—the first section of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin.” As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.
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Even though it’s not directly related to what I want to focus on in the first section of the second part of The Invented Part (pages 46-98 of “The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”), I just have to point out this passage, which sort of hits close to home . . . It’s one of The Writer’s statements about literature that The Young Man and The Young Woman have been gathering:
“My surprise at how, all the time, less of what’s written outside the country is read inside it and that it’s only read when that foreign writer is published by a small local publisher and thus ‘discovered’ by some local critic or academic, no matter that the book has already been circulating there for years. As if foreign writing is only worthy of consideration after being appropriated and nationalized. And, sometimes, there are even discussions that establish absurd connections and comparisons—convinced to the point of fanaticism, insisting on impossible chronological influences of something written there on something written here—with some national writer, more a sect writer than a cult writer. Someone, generally, already conveniently and comfortably dead, and hence possible to manipulate. Someone who, no doubt, neither read nor knew of that generally far-superior foreign writer.”
But what I really want to start with are two other quotes from The Writer about the process of writing itself. Or, more to the point, the way in which writing represents reality.
Writing is a discipline that becomes more difficult every day. It’s like what happens with a camera lens. Or with the human eye. At first, everything appears upside down, head down, feet up. And it’s the machine and the brain that take charge of straightening it, righting it, and giving it some logical meaning. But it’s a deceptive meaning. An illusion. And so, at any moment, everything can come crashing down and expose the deception in all its clumsy obviousness.
Literature doesn’t serve reality. That’s why it’s fiction . . . But let’s get back to the idea of realism. To that whole fallacy of literature as reality’s faithful mirror . . . A lie, impossible. Reality doesn’t function like it does in supposedly realist books, it doesn’t respect such dramatic pacing, neat sequences of events, one after another in perfect and functional formation . . .
The idea of literature being a mirror of reality—and the corollary that follows about how literature is just an artifice pretending to reflect reality—is an idea that’s been around for essentially ever. Here’s a quote from Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma:
A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.
And although it’s not exactly the same, there’s also this bit from Stephan Dedalus in Ulysses (a book that pops up a few times in this particular chapter):
Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. [. . .]
Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:
—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.
I don’t want to suggest that Fresán’s approach in this chapter is a simplistic refutation of the idea that fiction should serve as a reflection of reality. The Writer more or less takes that viewpoint apart in his mini-rant about “logical irrealism” as the counterpoint to “magical realism” on page 65. That bit is brilliant—and pretty much defines the sort of books that I like to read—but The Writer isn’t Fresán, or not exactly. He’s a reflection of Fresán, a sort of fun-house mirror version of Fresán, in which Fresán’s more rational, muted views can be exaggerated and over-emphasized. (See the fourth part of the interview we’re running on Three Percent, which is an excerpt from The Dreamed Part in which The Writer unleashes a screed against our screen culture.) I think what Fresán is doing in this section is more subtle and interesting than a straightforward attack on the tenets of neo-realistic literature. Instead of mirroring “reality,” this section essentially reflects the book itself, creating a series of mirrorings, or doublings, that articulate a part of Fresán’s aesthetic approach and create a stronger sense of literary sincerity than a simple “reflection of reality” ever can.
Instead of trying to explain what I mean in some pseudo-academic, well-crafted, persuasive set of arguments, I’m going to resort to a simple list of observations and long quotes.
In the first chapter, we get The Writer’s near-death experience as a child, which serves as the origin, or birth, of all his future ideas. In this chapter, we see The Writer after he’s gone, all of his creations created, his body having left the Earth.
Now, The Young Man inhabits that terrible moment in the life of any writer, any prewriter. A zone without limits where everything seems worthy of being told, everything could end up making a good story, every horse looks at you with those bet-on-me eyes. But it’s all a dreamer’s dream. A desert of deceptive fertility where nothing germinates. Just titles, first sentences, endings, dedications, epigraphs (of which, like in The Writer’s books, there will be, for many people, too many), acknowledgements (which, like in The Writer’s books will be, for most people, too many; but The Young Man has been reconsidering their inclusion ever since The Young Woman told him that, “I don’t believe them, they’re false, they’re acknowliedgements”), and speeches, and even cover designs for editions with various publishers and in various languages.
So many epigraphs and acknowledgments—just like in the book you’re reading . . .
From all those hours and hours recorded in a variety of formats—from celluloid, to video, and even to digitalization for mobile phones and tablets—The Young Man and The Young Woman have selected a handful of what The Writer tended to refer to as “my minimal maxims,” which he repeated again and again throughout his books. So, a curious effect. An audio-visual effect. A kind of slippery passageway between fiction and nonfiction. Like someone who sounds—simultaneously, a twofer, a special offer—like the ventriloquist dummy of a ventriloquist. And The Young Man and The Young Woman are going to toy with it, splicing together similar sentences from different periods (like that timeless and constant and strange addiction to quoting Faulkner, a writer he almost never read), establishing an idea with The Writer looking young and more or less successful and finishing it off with The Writer looking older and more remote and, then, showing that same sentence, almost verbatim, appearing in the mouth and the role of one of his characters.
There’s also the fun aspect of this chapter—which has a lot of visual elements throughout—opening with The Young Man and Young Woman videotaping The Writer’s library, leading to a long series of reflections on the nature of libraries (or liferaries), on their importance, on the reactions people have to them, all ending with the Young Woman proclaiming, in disgust, “Ugh, I hope we don’t open by showing the books and desk and all of that.”
Speaking of the books The Writer is obsessed with, Tender Is the Night fits right in with this general theme, given its two editions that are similar to each other, yet not.
More arcane, but these two excerpts from The Invented Part bring to mind The Bottom of the Sky, another of Fresán’s novels (coming to English readers everywhere in spring 2018!).
The Young Woman talks in her sleep and says strange things, that she repeats the verb “fall” and the place “swimming pool” over and over again. [. . .]
And third, because then she read The Writer. And it’s not that she fell in love with him. But she did fall in love with the character of a woman who went in and out of his books, in different times and circumstances, in different swimming pools and cities and even planets—and that produced in her the irrepressible need to know more, to get a little closer.
Pulling in bits from the rest of Fresán’s oeuvre not only establishes a larger backdrop against which his books play out, but helps to reflect and recontextualize what’s come before.
The very phrase “bottom of the sky” implies a sort of reflection.
One of the more intriguing reflections within this chapter itself is the contrast between The Writer’s “minimal maxims,” which are all reflections on the process of writing or being a writer, and the imaginary writers that The Young Man has created. On the one hand we get the slippery pontifications of what it’s like to write (“So, that’s how I think about the writing of stories and novels. A particular balance of feelings and sound and phrasings and word games.”), and on the other, we get actual creations (“Cash Krugerrand, the literary agent whom everyone derides in public but dreams of having [and being possessed by] in private.”). Creative material versus more dogmatic pronouncements about writing.
One of the things I’m really enjoying about this slow reread of The Invented Part is how there are elements of traditional novels—great characters and characterizations (see the description of the Young Man and Young Woman on pages 58-9), enough of a plot to keep pulling the reader through (we get hints of the future of The Writer, and his interaction with the Young Man, in this part), and sentences and phrases that carry a weight of significance (“That’s why others exist: so that we convince ourselves that, for a while, we can stop thinking about ourselves when really, in that moment, we’re just thinking about what others think of us.”)—while also indulging in more playful, intellectual games that aren’t simply rehashed tricks of 60s metafiction or whatever, but seem to be something new.
I’ll leave off this week with one final quote to that sort of speaks to that:
Look at them: The Young Man and The Young Woman are literary animals. They live to read literature and dream of making a living off of a literature based in reading. And they know that modernism (when anything was possible), postmodernism (when everything had been worn out), and post-postmodernism (when, since everything had been worn out, anything was possible) have already passed. And so, now, they’re waiting for the new thing, for what’s next, for their own moment and the corresponding era that corresponds to them.