Countenancing the Contrary
Here are a few comments that might well sum up metafiction. "After Mallarm the struggle to renew language became a given for the writer." "The reader is not listening to an authoritative account of the world delivered by an expert (Faulkner on Mississippi, Hemingway on the corrida) but bumping into something that is there." "I don't want the reader filling in anything behind the language." "The word daffodil is much more interesting than real daffodils." The first two remarks are from Donald Barthelme, the latter pair from William H. Gass. Alongside John Barth and Robert Coover, these American writers are amongst the most famous of the metafictionists, even though the term has been used so broadly that it can incorporate anyone from Salman Rushdie to Vladimir Nabokov, Julio Cortazar to Italo Calvino. But by situating metafiction in a national, historical and a theoretical context generated by the writers themselves, we can narrow it down without insistently closing it down. The term comes from Gass's 1970 essay 'Philosophy and the Form of Fiction', and by locating it precisely in history and the American literary milieu, it means we don't have to confuse it with the Nouveau Roman that came out of France in the fifties (Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor), Oulipo, an early sixties French movement whose key practitioners included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud, or the much more general term, post-modernism.
Metafiction is partly a reaction to successful writers of the fifties and sixties in the States like John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and William Styron, figures who might question their status as realists, but who would all be inclined to see the daffodil as a word that exists on the page all the better to generate a series of resonances, reminiscences and reflections beyond it. The reader would seem much freer to interpret the words on their own terms and not only on the writers'. This is exactly what a 'realist' figure like Grace Paley proposes in an invigorating round table discussion in 1986 with Gass, Paley, Barthelme and Walker Percy. Gass and Barthelme defend more or less the metafictionist stance; Paley and Percy are more inclined to realism. When Gass says he would prefer the reader didn't fill anything in; Paley responds: "Right, that's what's wrong with you, You don't leave him enough space to move around."
Paley seems to suggest metafictional literature is a system, closer to maths than to art, and indeed Gass invokes the comparison. "I think we ought to abandon truth as an ideal as artists. I think it's pernicious. I think it gets in the way all the time. That sounds sort of odd to some people but actually you'd say that to a mathematician. Mathematicians aren't interested in truth, they're interested in formal coherence. That's how they develop their systems. That's the way poets work I think." But if poetry is nearer to maths than fiction, this still leaves even poetry far away from the mathematical if we think of the interpretive freedom we possess, the affective possibilities available. When a writer speaks about a dog he might have one dog in his mind when he is writing the story, but the reader will have a completely different one in theirs. No matter how descriptive the writing, no matter how determined the writer happens to be that the dog he describes is his dog, no matter if he describes it as a terrier, offers its colour and its temperament, there will be other dogs crowding out the description. Where Gass would see in this weakness; Paley sees in it strength. In the round table she mentions hearing a story about two boys on a raft and a risky journey they take. Initially she believes this has nothing to do with her experience, then recognizes similarities between the raft story and one that she wrote about four boys on a subway train that shared basic principles concerning youth and risk. Where Gass would see a failure to read the absolute specifics of the story, Paley sees the importance of our subconscious generalizing from the particular. We understand fiction not just on the basis of the specific symbols on the page, but also by imposing upon those symbols various levels of consciousness which make the story our own.
Barthelme appears less adamant than Gass. In a piece, written shortly after the round table and late in his career in 1987 (he died young at fifty-eight in 1989), he says: "The aim of meditating upon the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension". ('Not Knowing') He invokes Upton Sinclair, a realist, even a social polemicist, best known for The Jungle: a book about the meat packing business in Chicago. It is as though Barthelme acknowledges for all the metafictional conceits he practices as a writer, the material is always going to escape one's control however much one wants to play up the fact that these are words on the page. This escape can even lead to an impact on the world beyond the prose. After Sinclair's novel was published, he was invited to discuss working conditions with President Roosevelt. (Constitutional Rights Foundation) The degree to which a writer is irritated by this imposition of the real (as Gass happens to be), or insists upon it (as Paley proposes), helps us understand something of the metafictional process.
Barthelme's acceptance of this tension rests often on the facetious and the rhythmic, on the humorous tone and the spring in the sentence. He can't pretend that the words he uses are singular symbols, but neither will he deny that literature takes place initially on the page. This might be stating the obvious, but it is the obvious vaguely stated that often irritates him the most. Reviewing Graham Greene's The Comedians he says, "Pseudoprofundities struggle with worldly wisdom of a Somerset Maughaumish sort." (Not Knowing) He gives as examples, "Like some wines our love could neither mature nor travel" and "death is a proof of sincerity." Greene appears to assume we will take the aphorisms as deep and straight, while Barthelme's observations we should take lightly and ironically. When he offers a Greene-like remark in 'Opening', ("freighted with the sadness of unrecapturable time"), his central character then realises it is an Oscar Wilde quote. Barthelme asks us to question its validity not just as a statement of depth but also of originality. In 'Jaws' he offers the philosophic within the deadpan. "I don't believe we are what we do although many thinkers argue otherwise. I believe that what we do is, very often, a poor approximation of what we are - an imperfect manifestation of a much better totality." It isn't that either statement oughtn't to be taken seriously; more that the seriousness has to go through the self-reflexive to achieve meaning.
If Barthelme has problems with Greene's style, it is partly that Greene expects his homilies to be taken with a stiff gin rather than with irony. Not only is the prose humourless, it also doesn't countenance the contrary. When Barthelme writes a story defending the importance of the sentence, for example, he does so in one lengthy six-page paragraph. The story, 'Sentence', opens: "Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom - if not the bottom of this page then of some other page - where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think about the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence...", this isn't the long sentence as writerly signature (as it is for great writers like Laszlo Krasznahorkai or Jose Saramago), but as a toe-tapping exercise in stylistic experimentation. When he says in 'On Writing' that he avoids the semi-colon he insists, "Why do I avoid it as much as possible? Let me be plain: the semi-colon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly. I pinch them out of my prose. The great German writer Arno Schmidt, punctuation-drunk averages eleven a page." Absolute dismissal contains within it a perspectival defence. From his point of view it is an abomination; from another, it is acceptable, even stylistically necessary. When we talk of countenancing the contrary, this resides in a curious case of certitude meeting malleability. As he says of 'Cortes and Montezuma' "My Montezuma and Cortes are both possibly nobler figures than responsible historians would allow, but I hope not implausible. There are conflicting versions as to how Montezuma died. I have him killed by a stone flying through the air, presumably from the hand of one of his subjects. The alternative is that the Spaniards killed him. I prefer to believe the former." Perspective and generosity of interpretation are evident.
There is a double-jointed dimension to Barthelme's work and it perhaps rests on the authoritativeness of his sentences, and the nuance in his world view.He might be suspicious of such a formulation, suggesting that Greene's worldview is part of the problem. But there is a writerly insistence that editorialises, and a writerly insistence that edits. It makes sense Barthelme talked of his work as a creative writing teacher as one of editing: "At City College, where I teach a graduate workshop, the writing students are fully the equals in seriousness and accomplishment of the other graduate students. Maybe writing can't be taught, but editing can be taughtprayer, fasting and self-mutilation. Notions of the lousy can be taught. Ethics." (Paris Review) Here he doesn't present the ethical as a position to be argued for. It is instead a stance to be argued against, questioned. The sentence might be assertively offered, but it also has to be strenuously wrestled with.
In the short story 'Concerning the Bodyguard', he does so by the consistency of the question. "Does the bodyguard scream at the woman who irons his shirts?" the story opens. "Who has inflicted a brown burn on his yellow shirt purchased expensively from Yves St Laurent? A great brown burn just over the heart?" When the narrator says "will the bodyguard be relieved, today, in time to see the film he has in mind - Emmanuelle Around the World?", we might ask that if the narrator knows what is going on in the bodyguard's mind can he not also know whether he will make it to the film or not? Barthelme's playfulness rests on the assertive and the tentative working in conjunction. Even in the round-table discussion, Barthelme's stance is much more pliable than Gass's, though their position is a similar one. Where Gass can assertively announce the need for a more mathematically inclined literature, Barthelme "suggests that there might be something ineffable. And I believe that's the place artists are trying to get to and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it; my painter friend for example, reaches an area somewhere between mathematics and religion, in which what may fairly be called truth exists."
Often an assumption underpinning the metafictional is that truth doesn't exist. As Gass says: "the problem with saying that art is in some sense a special form of knowing is that in order to make a knowledge claim, a number of conditions have to be met which art rarely does meet." If a journalistic article states that three hundred people were laid off at a factory, one can ascertain the truth of the statement by comparing it with other newspapers, the original source, the factory management and so on. There might be some space for disagreement, but the very fact of contrary positions will still make us wonder who happens to be telling the truth. We cannot say in the same way that Fitzgerald's books are more truthful than Hemingway's without offering a judgement rather than a fact. Whose criterion of truthfulness is being applied? Three hundred jobs are three hundred jobs. One reason why metafiction calls into question the very process of the work being created is because it is being created. If a journalist says three hundred jobs have been lost without any statement from the factory because they haven't laid off three hundred workers, and he did so because he had to write a front page story, we wouldn't only say he has made it up: we would also say he has lied.
The fiction writer makes things up too, but we don't accuse them of lying. Here we can see how the metafictional openly acknowledges its distance from the world of fact and yet of course most fiction utilises the factual to emphasise the fictional. It is exactly what Barthelme says: "the world enters the work as it enters our ordinary lives, not as world-view or system, but in sharp particularity." ('On Writing') But he also adds shortly afterwards, "we do not mistake the words the taste of chocolate for the taste of chocolate itself...words have halos, patinas, overhangs, echoes." How much of a halo the word should have, and how much of a factual resonance it should possess, will, of course, depend on the writer. But the more metafictional the exercise the more likely the presence of the halo.
If Barthelme's work is interesting it rests on this tension; one that doesn't want to rid itself too completely of the fact or the halo. "How is William to prove to Natasha that he still loves her", 'Jaws' opens. "That's the problem I'm working on, mentally, as I check the invoices, and get the double-parked trucks from the warehouse unloaded and deal with the people bringing in aluminium." He wants the story to draw attention to itself, but not quite away from hard realities. It was one of the problems Barthelme had with the Nouveau Roman and what he saw as the move towards pure abstraction. "I understand the impulse - toward the condition of music - but as a common reader I demand this to be done in a masterly fashion or not at all." Barthelme elides the problem but nevertheless his remark reflects this notion of the pragmatic and the aesthetic.
He can see, perhaps as Gass does not, that there is both the halo in the purity a word like daffodil, with its lovely lilting musicality, and its existence in the world where words stand for things. There are beautiful things and beautiful words, and sometimes we might find the word more beautiful than the thing or vice versa. A rose is a nice word and a beautiful thing. A table appears a plain word to describe a practical object, but couch can also be sofa, with the former with its haloed echo of soft more comforting than couch, which sounds like a harder word. According to Wikipedia sofa is more upper class, couch more middle-class. Yet Harveys Furniture did a survey and found thirty-nine people went for sofa, only seven called it a couch. A writer might also want to incorporate into the halo the problem of translation. In French sofa and couch would both translate as canap, a word that can also be used to describe a couch in English. In Spanish you can say sofa, but in German it is liege. Once we start thinking about the problem of language where does it end? There we are writing a story and you want to say someone is sitting on something, and all these options became available.
If Joyce is so admired by metafictionists (as well as almost everybody else) it rests on this linguistic texture. "The ultimate case being obviously Joyce," Barthelme says, "who wrote every sentence in three languages and four times and left the reader the least possible space for participation." (Not Knowing) The words increasingly moved in Joyce's work to becoming things in themselves, with Barthelme saying "it has been argued that the ontological status of the literary work has always been just this, that Pilgrim's Progress is an "object" in this sense just as Finnegans Wake is. But such arguments ignore the changed situation that ensues when the writer is aware of and exploits the possibilities of this special placement." (Not Knowing) In such an approach the daffodil becomes more and more literary, and less and less representational. Its significance lies less in its meaning than its sound: in linguistic/semiotic terms in its status as signifier rather than signified. Or, as Barthelme himself says, quoting Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.
This is where the emphasis can be on wordplay over story, the ludically linguistic over character exploration. In Paris Review Bartheleme says he once wrote a story called 'Bone Bubbles', "which consisted of blocks of phrases which rubbing together had a kind of irritating life. I wouldn't claim that it was a great success; Henry Robbins, my book editor at the time, wanted me to leave it out of City Life, but it was included, as a sort of lab report." For all Barthelme's talk of experimentation, he can see also that when the medium becomes the message, the object can easily become arbitrary. The Paris Review interviewer even suggests it is literally inhuman, saying a computer could make this sort of combination, and Barthelme replies it would, however, miss out on the humour.
It is often the humorous that gives Barthelme's work its perspective, and the wordplay that takes the polemical sting out of the tale without leaving it anodyne. In 'The New Owner', the titular character "was slipping little rent bills into the mailboxes, slip slip slip slip. In sixteen years we'd never had rent bills but now we have rent bills. He's raised the rent and lowered the heat." Near the end of the story we hear, "the new owner has informed the young cohabiting couple on the floor above us (rear) that they are illegally living in sin and that for this reason he will give them only a month-to-month lease, so that at the end of each and every month they must tremble." This is social realist subject matter but the tone is constantly amused. "The new owner has informed the old people in the apartment above us (front) that he is prepared to prove that they do not actually live in their apartment in that they are old and so do not, in any real sense, live, and that they are thus subject to a Maximum Real Life Estimate Revision, which, if allowed by the City, will award him their space. Levon and Priscilla tremble." In this two-page story eight of the thirteen paragraphs begin with the words the new owner, and there is the repetition of tremble ending two paragraphs in a row. This is writing that asks to be read self-consciously, but we would be unlikely to assume that doing so negates any truths contained within it.
In her memoir, The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Helen Moore Barthelme talks of Donald finding a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village, and this would remain his Manhattan home. The story reads as a formalist play on language, but also works as an angry dismissal of property greed. The tone doesn't undermine its 'message', but it stops the story becoming a maudlin account of the poor. After all, the story contains a broad social and ethnic demographic living happily ("this wondrous street where our friends and neighbours have lived for decades in christian, Jewish, and, in some instances, Islamic peace."). Rent control might not be much a phrase to the ear, but it has an optimistic ring to it for those who realize how much it can improve their lives, and ruin it when removed. Most metafictionists agree that words are things, but Barthelme believes as well that words can affect things too.
Indeed, for one of metafiction's most famous practitioners, Barthelme doesn't have much enthusiasm for it, as though it can't quite account enough for the reality that still interested him. "Wouldn't 'metafiction' be 'fiction about fiction'?" Barthelme says in an interview (Not Knowing). He adds "I don't have any great enthusiasm for fiction-about-fiction", even if he admits occasionally to writing material that has drawn attention to itself. What often appears to interest Barthelme is a respect for the everyday world and the everyday reader, whilst an equal respect for the language that details these experiences and that demands words to turn them into a medium the reader comprehends. This is from a certain angle a question of ethics. For example, if a friend were to tell us that the rent in our block of flats has gone sky high, it would be insensitive simply to point out the incontinent pun they had made over the rent increase and high rise they are living in, but almost linguistically irresponsible not to point out in the process of offering sympathy that it is horrible play on language that would be missed on the rent extortionists: sky-high rent in high rise. Good writing surely often exists by neither ignoring the problem of the content, nor taking for granted the language in which the problem is contained. Barthelme says, "I listen to people talk, and I read. I doubt that there has ever been more jargon and professional cant - cant of various professions and semi-professions - than there is today. I remember being amazed when I was in basic training, which was back in the early '50s, that people could make sentences in which the word "fucking" was used three times or even five times." (Not Knowing)
Barthelme is talking about his period in the army, and a writer might want to make the profanity a fundamental aspect of the writing partly because it is 'true' (evidently used by many in the military), partly because it is a linguistic question: how do you make a word like fuck do so much work for you in a sentence? It can be used as a noun (you fuck), verb (to fuck), an adverb (fucking), to split the infinitive (to really fuck). If the writer cares about the reality of military life he might want to include fuck for verisimilitude, but little more, where the writer fascinated by language is interested in the wordplay available. But for the first to avoid predictability and the second to avoid fatuousness, the complex use of the word explores the given milieu; the given milieu demands an exploration of language. Gass's insistence that the word daffodil is more beautiful than the thing itself surely comes close to the abstractions Barthelme finds so stultifying in the Nouveau Roman. This isn't to attack the Nouveau Roman, nor especially Gass's fiction, merely to use Barthelme's take on the French movement and some of Gass's remarks in the roundtable discussion, to work through a position that lets us understand the metafiction Barthelme writes.
He is chiefly interested in metafiction as linguistic attentiveness to reality, as a means by which to tell stories without falling into cliches, with exploring situations without succumbing to documenting an incident. Of course, there are stories that are more surrealist than others: 'Cortes and Montezuma' allows limousines into its historical telling, for example, where 'The New Owner' instead reads almost like an autobiographical fragment. Yet there is generally a tonal consistency that indicates a writer interested in giving the reader a good time rather than a hard time, though accepting hard times are part of the good times. "Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art." (Not Knowing)
Much of Barthelme's work was published in the New Yorker, and though Barthelme reckoned when he was writing for the magazine there was no such thing any longer as a New Yorker story, "not with Borges and Singer and Nabokov", nevertheless Chris Power says, in a Guardian profile, "his fiction resulted in more letters of complaint being sent to the...publication than any other writer." Power sees this as a sign of Barthelme's originality; others will see it as the basic conservatism of the magazine. It might be one of the best-paid writing gigs in the world, but it was also well-known for its genteel familiarity. An article in New York magazine quotes someone who went along for a job. "when I was interviewed to be hired I was told I must be a good writer because one of my in-laws at the magazine had been a writer at the magazine. A family tie is a sign to them that you are familiar with and share their sensibility and values." There is a civility to Barthelme's stories and interviews that would appeal to a New Yorker readership, but there is also a formal vacuum, rather than vacuousness, he sees and admires so much in Beckett and that might have played havoc with New Yorker readers' assumptions. "Beckett, as you know, rejects what can be accomplished "on the plane of the feasible" he seems to be asking for an art adequate to the intuition of Nothingness. I don't want to oversimplify his aesthetics, about which I know nothing firsthand, but the problem appears to be not one of announcing truths, or that truths do or do not exist, but of hewing to the intuition, which seems central, and yet getting some work done." (Paris Review) That idea of getting some work done is like a nod and a wink towards the New Yorker, while the rest of the remark is a world away from the urbane New Yorker's "'sensibility and values".
We may finally wonder whether Barthelme's importance while he was alive and relative insignificance now that he is dead rests on an indecision within the playful. Power says "He is now more referenced than read, but at the time of his death from throat cancer ...Barthelme was, alongside Raymond Carver, the most emulated short story writer in America." Carver, another writer who died relatively young, is surely better known now and more widely read. It is as though Barthelme was caught between seeing literature as a game and a broader social, even philosophical problem. "Writing should be playing you know" he says in one interview, but adds in the same piece, when the interviewer suggests that the satire he practises "has a definite sort of commitment," that "it would be to Sartre if it could be located anywhere" (Not Knowing) We might thus be reminded of Sartre's remarks in What is Literature? Here he talks about work that has a subject first and then finds a form in which to contain it and compares it to literature that starts with a form and then finds a subject for it. Sartre thought that good literature could only come out of the first approach, while also acknowledging that "one is not a writer for having chosen to say certain things, but for having chosen to say them in a certain way."
Now if the writer is attending to questions of the void, as Beckett and the great French writer Maurice Blanchot for example, were doing, then the vacuum needn't lead to the vacuous. Yet Barthelme's skill as a writer, his pleasure even as a writer, nevertheless suggests a figure caught between the vacuum and the vacuous, between writing for the sake of getting something done, and exploring a space that acknowledges that nothing canbe done. He countenances the contrary, but also seems a writer hovering over the periphery rather than excavating dead centres. Barthelme was well aware of his failings, admitting that "I don't offer enough emotion" and that "I can't resist making jokes". Sartre's insistence on the importance of working from what one has to say while acknowledging that what one has to say is shaped by the way one says it, leads to writing that is constantly aware of the tension between the words on the page and the world to which they refer. One of the dangers in not taking language seriously enough as a system of reference while attending to a play of signs is that the self-conscious replaces the sub-conscious. As Barthelme says "I particularly prize, but can't often produce, a kind of low-key emotional touch that speaks volumes." (Not Knowing) Carver had a genius for this, but was it because he refused to take the language more seriously than the feelings the words could invoke?
Barthelme remains a pleasure to read, a writer in whose company one feels both relaxed and linguistically stretched, and yet also sometimes left wishing for more. One book reviewer once proposed Barthelme was "like Mark Twain, only not as good" and the ever modest and generous Barthelme "wanted to put it on a book jacket, but they wouldn't let me." (Not Knowing) Perhaps one could equally say "like Beckett only not as good", while wondering what sort of writer could invoke comparison with two such disparate figures as Beckett and Twain. More than most writers in the US Barthelme appears to have been pulled in two very different directions at once. He was caught between his love of the Beckettian void into which language becomes horribly hard work and the pleasures of Twain who could say in 1889 letter to Andrew Lang that he wrote so that he could be understood by the common people. Barthelme represents the problem of the word and the deed very well, but we can't pretend that it isn't one common to many writers and that some, like Carver, resolved it more successfully.
© Tony McKibbin