Saturday, July 05, 2008

Some notes on fiction or for the cognoscenti: meditations on what Bart Testa and Frank Kermode were on about

Life ends while time goes on. There is no natural concordance between events. We are always in the middle, so we become anxious.

We have a natural inclination to make the moment make sense although we know it does not.

Stories are a human invention, the ease with which we narrativize our lives belies a hidden complexity. The satisfaction of fiction is, at least partly, found in how elegantly its greatest illusions (beginnings and endings) are constructed.

Just as in a stage illusion, the effect of a beginning (more so, an end) appears wonderous, explained through magic, isn't it remarkable? We recognize something we have never experienced in life, for we do not remember our own beginning nor can we witness our own end.

Upon examination, whatever calamities and triumphs we have labelled 'beginning' and 'ending' in our lives proves to be false; there is always a morning after, until there isn't.

If finding a beginning or an end were easy, I wish someone would tell the phenomenologists.

In the meantime, the anxiety caused by living in a chaotic world (with little reason and no order to the shape of events) can be alleviated through a good story.

To be good, a story must suspend our disbelief and the average reader overlooks the two greatests feats of suspension a story offers, its most salient benefit perhaps, it begins and it ends.

Moreover, it's a beginning and end you can point to. Literally put the beginning under your thumb. Page 1.

A book, its very structure conspires with the author to create the illusion. Even when the author attempts the opposite: A book without beginning or end?

Finnegan's Wake begins with a sentence fragment and ends in a sentence fragment and if start with the last one and continue to the first one then the two fragments form a sentence. They join the end to the beginning and the narrative becomes endless.

Clever, but it doesn't satisfy my craving for completion, it does not relieve my anxieties.

If you lack any, allow me to help:

10 Reasons to be anxious about life and crave stories.
  1. You don't get to find out how your story ends but you'd still like to.
  2. All the great movies that'll come out the summer after you're dead.
  3. All the great music bands that you'll never hear about.
  4. All the great books that'll be written too late for you to enjoy.
  5. All the new sports and leisure activities that won't be invented in time.
  6. All the parties your friends will enjoy after you're dead.
  7. All the vacations.
  8. All the summers.
  9. All the winters.
  10. All the morning sunshine.
We know these things but we wish for distraction nevertheless. This does not argue that fiction cannot address real issues or examine society, for its role as examiner is well established. Insoluble problems are the meat of a good story, it is precisely the satisfaction of insoluble problems through the magic of beginnings and endings that delivers the anxiety-smashing punch.
Until the next time, until there is no next time,
The end.

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