The following is excerpted from Manifesto: Maximalist Expressionism, or “Shut/-/Up(!) Fiction”.
As to what transpires in my novel Flicker in the Porthole Glass, I’ve been asked point blank: Does anything happen in this novel? My answer: The novel happens in this novel. In his book of essays, For a New Novel, Alain Robbe-Grillet sums up prevailing notions about the “work” of the novel:
It is not enough that it [the plot] be entertaining, or extraordinary, or enthralling; to have its measure of human truth, it must also succeed in convincing the reader that the adventures he is hearing about have really happened to real characters, and that the novelist is confining himself to reporting, to transmitting events of which he has been the witness …. To tell a story well is therefore to make what one writes resemble the prefabricated schemas people are used to, in other words, their ready-made idea of reality.
I wholeheartedly agree with M. Robbe-Grillet’s wry observation. However, he goes on to say that “What constitutes the novelist’s strength is precisely that he invents, that he invents quite freely, without a model. The remarkable thing about modern fiction is that it asserts this characteristic quite deliberately, to such a degree that invention and imagination become, at the limit, the very subject of the book” [emphasis mine]. Echoing Robbe-Grillet, Paul West frequently cites the futility of positing a fictional work on some sort of exterior model of the world. As he sees it (correctly, in my opinion), the micro can never model the macro because the macro contains all micros and is constantly changed by the very addition of a new miros created to model it!
Using the wisdom of Robbe-Grillet as a theoretical launching pad, I would assert that the linear, plot-oriented, so-called mimetic novel comes least close to capturing the sense and wonder of what it means to be human. It ruthlessly systematizes, totalizes, and commodifies human behavior into a “product” for consumers—both the public at large (already “sold” a bill of goods, the ready-made reality fed them by privileged members of society—a ready-made idea of reality set up for the purpose of maintaining their status as privileged) and the scholars (perhaps a bit more astute than the public at large, they trade on the totalizablity of the plot-driven novel, and it’s really quite common to hear phrases like “the Melville industry”). Industry indeed. That sort of argument aside, however, I would agree with the move made by Robbe-Grillet in which he links the form of a novel with its content. The form is the content, he has argued. Again, I would tend to agree. In the case of Flicker, I’ve worked hard to sculpt a form that demonstrates the overarching principle behind the book, namely that of simulacrum. What plot there is is constantly being jeopardized by doubt and speculation on the part of the novel’s two narrative entities. What follows is a brief synopsis of the movement of the book:
Jack Ruineux, projectionist at a run-down movie theater in Philadelphia, struggles to reconcile Hollywood imagery with his dreary quotidian existence. Alienated from family, haunted by dark memories of his youth, Ruineux casts himself into an inner world where history, myth, memory, and nostalgia blend in whims of self-reinvention. These he obsessively documents, typing them up at his desk in the projection booth. Nostalgic for a life as yet unlived, Ruineux fixes on the idea of himself as an addled old man playing out his final days in the dilapidated Hotel Vendig. Jasmine, his lover, tries to cure Ruineux of the condition she calls “Complex 35,” a reference to the Simplex 35 projectors he operates. It’s a condition, she fears, that will speed him on his way to a future of isolation and loneliness. Frustrated, unable to draw Ruineux out, she attempts an empathic understanding, relating their story in a narrative that is at once of Ruineux and outside Ruineux. By “filling in the gaps,” she hopes discover the means to make whole a Ruineux with whom she can enjoy a profound connection.
A reader approaching the book from a traditional critical perspective will probably speculate about “whose” book the novel really is. Is it Ruineux’s, the Jasmine narrative that constitutes the novel’s second half being only a “projection” on his part? Or has it been Jasmine all along, mythologizing the man she seems desperate, but ultimately unable, to understand? And it wouldn’t really bother me that a reader would concern herself with such a question. I’ve included a large helping of the kinds of things admirers of the more traditional, plot-oriented novel crave: a love story, a little sex, a travelogue of sorts, humor, violence, childhood memories, psychology. I’m not without sympathy for those who just plain enjoy a “good read.” My trick, however, is to “suck the reader in” to the many passages of the book that seem to link it to an ostensible reality outside the book, and then, from time to time, slowly pull the carpet of his comfort from under him, periodically interrupting the suspension of disbelief. As an example of the kind of concessions the novel makes to the plot-oriented reader, I offer the following passage:
At 40th Street Station, a severely dressed black woman is pacing back and forth, Bible raised in an evangelistic right hand, screaming, “Born in sin we must be born again.” On the Bible, clearly visible, are embossed the obligatory cross and the words Holy Bible. She must be from The Radio Church of God, he thinks, remembering his initial flush of amused disbelief when first confronted by the neon cross and hand-painted sign announcing its Chestnut Street headquarters. She’s witnessing: is that the world they use for it? Coming through the turnstile is a sprightly giant with a coat rack slung over his shoulder. He shoots the Radio Church of Godder a disarming smirk that sets her spinning an about-face on the square heels of her blocky shoes. Nun’s shoes, thinks Ruineux. Coat rack is so tall, he not only has to remove the burden from his shoulder, but duck in order to board the train. On the train, in the seat behind Ruineux, one of the djellabahs that got on with him at 46th Street asks the other if they’re really letting him carry that thing on. A shrug, Ruineux assumes, makes the other’s response silent. A young girl, a toddler, drops her teething ring on the floor of the car and an older girl immediately picks it up and shoves it back in her mouth, quickly stifling shrieks that were about to fly from a grimace. Ruineux sighs. Human and other baggage safely on the train, the conductor blows his whistle and the car doors zip closed. As the cars pull away, he notices no stragglers on the platform giving half-hearted chase.
In the passage I present the reader with a fairly straightforward rendering of a subway scene. The subterranean tableau is bubbling with a number of colorful characters who Ruineux watches and about whom he thinks as they board the train. Once everybody’s on board, the train pulls out of the station and the reader, hopefully having been at least slightly amused by it all, is looking forward to the next stop. This whole subway business constitutes a large portion of the second half of the novel and I took pains to render it in a way that reflects a reality outside that of the book. Having hooked the reader with such passages, I pull the rug from under him (which he’ll realize if he’s paying a little bit of attention) by subtly casting the entire, long, subway episode as merely a prolonged speculation on the part of Jasmine (who is imagining Ruineux’s ride on the train as he makes his way to her apartment). Further, this imagining is problematized by Jasmine’s suspect nature as a character: introduced by Ruineux in the first half of the novel, the reader has to “take it on faith” from Ruineux Jasmine actually “exists.”
If I really wanted to be old fashioned about it, I’d sum up the overall composition of the novel in the following terms: the form of the book is contrived so as to call all of its characters into question. Indeed, it all but flat out states to the reader, “These characters are not ‘real’.” The content of the novel, however, is contrived to suck the reader into its “events,” to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader for the book’s characters, and to move the reader in spite of the reader’s overt recognition of the characters as merely/extravagantly the products of artifice. So, when I say, in answer to question “What happens in the book?” that the book itself happens, what I mean is that the book comes alive in terms of its own reality as opposed to relying on some, as Robbe-Grillet puts it, ready-made idea of reality (external to the book). Somewhat suspicious of the elements of plot, and their ability to produce in the reader the suspension of disbelief, I nonetheless deploy them in the service of the kind of work I want my fiction to perform.