by James McGirk
Our brains are filled with the whispering of objects, the shrieking presence of things we lust after or despise or simply want to ignore but can’t for all the noise. It seems impossible to write fiction without addressing it but so little does. Part of this is the nature of the medium. The contemporary novel or short story is a ghostly place, a necropolis where memories are dissected and pinned to the page.
“Anecdotes don't make good stories,” the great Canadian short story writer Alice Munro once told an interviewer, “Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.”
Writing literary fiction is a bit like tunneling (minus the physical component). You gnaw a room out of the wall of the previous one, scaffold it with description and feed in a few disembodied voices, hoping the histories and hierarchies those voices are quibbling over create enough momentum to propel your reader into the next room. Munro takes this a step further, using the shape of those excavations to back engineer a second, deeper narrative structure from the first.
Hers is a second order of story, ideal for spelunking the complex residue of a lifetime of deep emotion, but one that seems to collapse the realm of the object. Unless an author like Munro is a pure technological determinist, a deep dive into character motivation seems unsuited to describing a world where the collective ache of consumer culture – and being left out of it – might manifest itself in something like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yet it is not impossible to use intricately rendered characters as a way to roam the realm of material consciousness.
George Saunders writes grotesques, mostly short stories and novellas that echo and amplify our material and marketing obsessed culture. He lets the language of capital and its bureaucratic and corporate brethren intrude into his characters’ consciousnesses. Abominations like advertising jingles and double-speak substitute for the emotions of the disenfranchised nobodies who populate his stories. His characters all but drown in this soup of gibberish, but rather than just let his characters sink, Saunders redeems them, letting odd little bits of mysticism, especially ghosts, seep through his stories and sometimes exact revenge.
“Sea Oak” follows this pattern; it’s a story of a passive but sympathetic father who earns a living as an erotic dancer but is failing at it and about to be fired. His family is saturated with the idiocy of television and consumer culture.
“My sister's baby is Troy. Jade's baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling. “Jesus freaking Christ!” screams Jade. “Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You're going to give him a really long arm, man!””
A shot at redemption comes from beyond the grave when the narrator’s spinster Aunt Bernie dies during a robbery, then returns to life as a macabre version of the ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, horrifiing the rest of the family into shaping up by giving them a glimpse of the macabre future they faced. Meanwhile Aunt Bernie tries to savoring all of the material pleasures she denied herself while alive, visibly decaying as she does this. It’s an acerbic maximalist style that is almost pungent with politics and agendas, yet for all of his contempt of objects and consumer culture, Saunders acknowledges the power and influence that this strange other realm of objects has in his stories.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that in his stories he tried to “get the feeling of the actual life across, not just to depict life, or criticize it, but to actually make it alive.” He deployed an austere style that he compared to a iceberg: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Tao Lin has pushed this minimalist ethos of Hemingway's into a sort of rolling laconic rumble, and although some critics view Lin as a sort of anti-literature art project (or self-promoting fraud) there is an undeniable accumulation in his sentences. Take this paragraph of “Relationship Story,” for example, for all its apparent rambling, each word of the following paragraph seemed too crucial to cut:
“In August they visited Michelle’s separated parents in Pittsburgh. Michelle’s father gave Paul his 650-page, self-published memoir. Her mother brought Michelle and Paul to a Chinese restaurant that was one gigantic room, high-ceilinged and low-lit as a natural-history museum. The next night Paul had a fever and Michelle gave him Tylenol Flu and cream-of-broccoli soup and, on her L-shaped sofa, holding each other, they watched a movie about a blind woman hanged for murdering a man who raped her after stealing her life savings. Michelle, who was staying home a few more days, dropped Paul off at the airport the next morning and he stood in line feeling both zombielike and feathery, like he might unidirectionally collapse, for about 30 minutes before learning that his flight was canceled. He called Michelle and she returned and he crawled into the backseat hazily imagining a heavily medicated version of himself holding hands in IKEA with an affectionate Michelle who was watching him sip an interesting, miso-y broth. “Can we go to IKEA?” he said, on his back, eyes closed.”
Tao Lin demonstrated his genius for self-promotion with a series of increasingly sophisticated juxtapositions. He emerged on the scene in 2007 by harassing Gawker, which was then a sort of haven for the New York literati; then having established himself (N.B. this process included winning literary prizes for his poetry collections), Lin began self-publishing novellas with titles like “Shoplifting from American Apparel,” which, of course, was immediately suspected of being a crass attempt at generating attention and sales. Since then, he has continued to play against his critics, naming a book Richard Yates, after the author, which again seemed like a stunt given Yates' reputation as the grandmaster of suburban ennui (i.e. Lin's metier), while writing columns for Vice Magazine and other vulgarities seemingly designed to drive his priggish detractors wild, yet maddeningly relevent to his own literary work.
Lin’s writing works through juxtaposition. There seems to be an enormous space howling around each of Lin’s sentences. The passage above echoes the bleak but prosperous existence of the separated parents, the emptiness of airports and strip malls, the bland food they eat and generic furniture they sit on. He knows his characters the way Hemingway ordains an artful omitter should, but he also knows the power of a brand like Ikea or Tylenol Flu and lets those objects cast their shadows into the text, and just lets them sit there and do their thing. It’s a bit like the poems in Charles Simic The World Doesn’t End or the carefully arranged contents of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, the ones Simic claimed to have been inspired by. Tao Lin's silent juxtapositions seem to be the syntax of the material realm.
Stories are a primitive sort of brain scan. An enormous amount of our neural throughoutput is devoted to the slightly morbid reenactment of old memories and the anticipation of new ones, which is probably the same part of brains that generate fiction. But our stories could also benefit by paying attention to the other media crackling our collective lobes. Computer games have an approach to objects that is almost diametrically opposed to most fiction writing. The acquisition of items, such as a weapon, changes the narrator’s relationship to his or her surroundings. In a story it is the narrative that usually changes the narrator. Research into messy desks and pathological hoarding suggests a link between organizing objects in our environment with memory, and projecting belief systems into our environment. Anyone who has ever dismantled an estate after a death of a loved one can’t help but assemble a sort of narrative from the deceased’s possessions. Which perhaps suggests that the best way to write about objects might be to do what Tim O’Brien did in “The Things They Carried” and list them and let the them speak for themselves.