Last Month On November 28th and 29th Emu Students and the extended community invited Dimitri Anastasopoulos, Camille Roy, and Rachel Levitsky to read at the Bathhouse event on campus. The EMU students have written reviews of the event and the blog is only too glad to share this with you. The writers each read from either published works or work in progress. Dimitri read a short excerpt from Farm of Mute due to release soon by Mammoth Books. Camille read from a book of her poetry titled Sherwood Forest published by Future Poem. Rachel Levitsky read from her book, Neighbor, available from Ugly Duckling Presse.
On November the 29th each of the writers gave a short presentation or talk on work that concerned them. Dimitri has given the blog permission to re-post his essay about narrative and finance. Rachel conducted a short presentation on the Office of Recuperative Strategies, a way of intervening in the archive, among other things. Camille gave her opinions on community and what it means to be a part of one; as they may change in ways that are not aligned with the ways you are changing. After all the presentations, there was a Q&A session where the audience was invited to test more readily the various writers’ opinions.
Dimitri’s works are available below the cut.
From Farm of Mutes:
When he lay down to sleep later that night, Sam thought of the chorus frog and its defiance. Its croak meant a refusal to volunteer. A docile creature, its manner could not be taken as willingness to be housebroken, to be made into a pet—there was nothing timid about any of this. This is why, for a frog, a binary is as blank as analogy. What’s more, the thing let the boys know that it belonged to a chorale that would outlast their progeny.
As Sam reached to turn off a lamp, he glanced over at Suzy who was already fast asleep on her twin bed, flat on her back, an arm stretched over eyes. Hopefully, she would stay that way for once, he thought. She had been having nightmares for weeks, indeed had been having trouble sleeping for a long time, months or years, for as long as Sam could remember, and it only worsened after their father died. At first Sam did his best to soothe his sister, not only because he craved an unbroken sleep, but out of brotherly love: he tried singing, telling stories, but each night a song lead to another song, a story egged on more stories, and the nights became endless. Finally, he offered the sleeping pill of nursery rhymes, which he would repeat to her almost endlessly, twenty times in a row, the same words, thirty times even: lyrics of mind-numbing exactness, superficial motivations, dimestore morals, poems of diagrammatic predictability. The certitude of the nursery rhyme and the simplicity of its tale would eventually dull the senses of a frightened and energetic girl.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”
Suzy liked this one best not only because Sam often answered its call with a funny response, but because, even in winter, it reminded her of her mother’s summer garden, the strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes that little Suzy picked in the backyard together with the neighborhood rabbits that came for morning visits.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary …”
“By removing weeds until it bleeds,” sang Sam. “Oh, and seeds.”
The repeated rhyme on this night rose through Sam’s hoarse throat, then fell thinned out, muzzled, and whispered, floating to the open window and out to the stale humid nightheat. In Mary’s morning garden, the rabbit nibbled seeds as Suzy kneeled in the high grass, searching for strawberries in the undergrowth. Her enormous hand, pretty though it was, with purple and silver polish on the nails, reached down and threatened to smother Sam who took cover under a bed of moss. Peat, orange peel, hot wood chips, her index finger disturbed a breeze as it mercilessly tilled the earth in search of the brother. Gardens grow when weeds are pruned, leaving room for flowers and grasses to rise in the space of living, for the earth is replenished with the death of organic material and thus nurtures all that survive. But it was too late, the hand grabbed and lifted Sam, and slowly began to squeeze the air out of him until he croaked with a voice that was not the voice of a boy, nor the voice of a man. It was a croak that dispersed into a hundred thousand voices that decayed and reverberated back to the ears of the croaker with the distorted notion that it had never left the body.
Startled, Sam opened his eyes and saw Suzy huddled in a corner at the head of her bed, her legs pulled to her chest and her arms holding her shoulders, as though she were shivering. She’d had a nightmare, Sam thought, but he hadn’t heard her scream, as on all the other nights she awoke from her nightmares. A light sleeper, Sam was sure she hadn’t made a sound.
Rubbing his eyes, he arose from his pillow and propped himself on an arm. No answer from his sister, she kept shivering and shaking her head slightly. Sam glanced toward the window and wondered if the night had cooled off, if a breeze carried from the river. But the air stilled, the trees didn’t rustle, the heat still huffed into the room. Why did she shiver?
There wouldn’t be any sleep for either of them unless he sat next to her and rubbed her shoulders through her favorite pink sleeping shirt. She shook, he could feel it, her skin moist and icy to the touch.
“Do you feel sick?”
Glimpsing a light flicker, he saw their magic lantern glow bright for a second, then go dark. That had never happened before, the lantern light had been on for over a year. Suzy clutched his wrist tightly. When he saw the shutters creak inward, Sam stopped. He had a fleeting sensation then that his eyesight wavered, that everything shimmered, but in the dark, almost as though he were looking at the street through the imperfections in the bedroom’s century-old glass. But the window was wide open. There wasn’t even a screen.
The moonlight shone faint and white in the east. The neighborhood rested silent, and he could see from his position on Suzy’s bed that no one—no homeless person, no drunk—slept on the bench in the rotary park. No one dealt drugs. Across the circle, the stone church tower was lit up by the moon, and it seemed to sway in the light. Streetlights flickered, the air filled with the scent of cereal baking at a factory. But tonight something burned, a sizzle of electricity. The scent of ozone everywhere, the air heavy and dense, as though a god were pressing it down from above.
Sam looked out toward the empty nursing home adjacent to the church, and only then did he feel the night descend as a hazy cloud, a mist that settled onto the neighborhood and obscured it.
Suzy, seeing Ben tense, pulled away from him. On his back shoulder, he heard a slight buzz, like a fly flapping its wings. Then a whisper in his ear, and when he turned his head, he felt a whirring on his lips and eyelids, as though his eyes were taken over by vibratile monads, as though his lips were asleep, as though they had been blowing a saxophone reed for hours. He felt a cold breath come through the window and into the room. The whir turned into a drone and Suzy hugged him tight again, as the drone fed back, a controlled yodel, surrounding them even as its source cloaked itself. It grew louder, the pitch rose, until it felt like the room was being squeezed. First hint of a scream, not at all shrill, but strained and weak, a dissipated and dry lick on the face, smooth as felt, barely audible but a scream just the same, as though belted out by a tiny being. A high music but of limited frequency, a slide across tin, there was feeling behind it though, it carried panic and hurt, but it never overpowered them. It reposed in the middle of the room and undulated sweetly. And as Sam and Suzy listened, the scream finally turned into song.
Just then, both Suzy and Sam recognized what they heard. Earthy music, the kind they had once played themselves by blowing through a bone flute—a gift their father had given them a few Christmases ago. A flute richer than the plastic recorders they thinly tickled in music class. It was the sound of wind moving through a wild boar femur that had been carved into a musical instrument forty thousand years ago.
Mr. Pinker, a music professor, had unearthed the flute on a trip to study tribal songs. One day in an Amazon village, as he slowly built an acoustical hatch shell out of clay, he found the flute three feet deep in the ground encased in dirt and small rocks that crumbled in his hands. He quickly placed the femur in his pocket so that no one might covet his discovery.
This was how Mr. Pinker acted toward objects he wished to possess. His home was a shrine to his mission to not only master the production of music, but to catalog its evolution by collecting all manner of so-called exotic instruments such as rainmakers and didgeridoos, a carnival of sound that gave him an aura of being in the world, a thing to do with himself, and it seemed to him a respectable, but not elitist, hobby. Not elitist, that was important. The objects were not collector’s items, because he couldn’t afford things that others collected. He wanted to possess things that had hidden or secret value.
What Mr. Pinker didn’t know, however, was that this flute was more than ancient—a flute carved in prehistory—the first wind instrument ever made by a man. For weeks after returning home, the children sat and stared at the knobby bone which Pinker kept in a glass case on a livingroom endtable, next to a typewriter and a harmonica. It was a precious object, their father said. And its safekeeping relied on him alone. If the world never found out about it, he would be happy to die in the knowledge that it was still in his possession. That’s how he thought of it.
Sam and Suzy, of course, wanted to hear the flute being played, but their father knew the bone was brittle even if he didn’t know its age. He had played it himself one day when he stole into the Amazon forest, crouched under a hood of vines and blew. He described its music in his expedition notebook as a wheeze, a death rattle, the boar’s last gasps. He could not hear the high-pitch above the siss, a fleasong that was only audible to the ears of animals and children. Nor could he feel the femur’s tiny vibrations in his numb fingers, insensitive as he was to a world one might feel. Acoustics were his professional specialty, his pride, and this meant his ears were not only his tools, but the things that set him apart from men who might as well be deaf for all their lack of listening.
But Mr. Pinker himself was only marginally more evolved. An ear severed from the body is poverty. He didn’t explore the flute’s story, the way it had been fingered, holied and hallowed, and therefore couldn’t appreciate the profound change that this femur flute had made in the life of humankind. Having been carved out long before cave paintings were smeared at Lascaux, the flute allowed the expression of human consciousness to enter into language and sound. It was an age of music that would not give way to the dominance of the visual for many eons. An age of drumming and banging, of the throat’s power to jangle a knot of vocal chords, but until then never into words. Until then: the day a man fashioned a wild boar’s femur into a flute, after he had eaten the boar itself. Satiated and no longer hungry, that man felt his own steam and breath searching for words. The disappearance of the flutecarver from the face of the Earth was blamed on a hitch in evolution, an accident of genetics, but never on his poet’s soul.
As with all of the objects Mr. Pinker collected, he grew bored with the flute over time. His passion to possess not only the instrument, but the animal it had been carved from, and indeed all the wind whistle that had passed through it over time, all of this succumbed to an urge to keep adding to his kitsch and oddities. Merely six months after he returned from the Amazon, he took the flute out from the glass enclosure, wrapped it in a bow, and gave it to his children on Christmas morning with one admonition: “It’s brittle. Be careful.”
Careful they were, having learned from their father that things should be held finely, that one should prize special things in the world. Sam Jr. blew into the flute, but without placing it against his lips. The opening at one end had been carved like a canoe and only then rounded into a tunnel. The player guided his breath gently into the vessel, listened for its telltale breathing, and only then harkened to the voice of the homunculus that screamed from inside that hollow.
And that sound, which they played many times since that Christmas morning a year and a half ago, matched the tone now vibrating the room, sending shimmers of light cascading toward the hallway door like solar flares curling back toward the sun before shooting out again. But this screamsong grew louder than any ever made by the flutebeing, a round and wooly scream blown by a moist summerwind that carried the cool of Lake Erie with it. It continued for maybe thirty seconds more before echoing into the hall, its timbre rattling loose sconces on the wall, and then headed down the wooden creaky stairs.
The front door sprung open. Upstairs, Sam and Suzy still huddled and held each other tight. They did not dare move.
Paralysis is night’s answer to action without thinking. Out of fright, they stayed in the corner of Suzy’s bed pretending that everything they’d heard was just a hallucination.
Had they risen from bed, followed the shimmery light and soulful screaming down the stairs, they would have found their mother Mary, an able listener herself, awake, walking methodically, awake but almost sleepwalking, each step a beat of a drum toward the front door. Her fingers, hands, and arms shook, her knees wobbled, and she felt a ball of energy in her loins that pulled her forward, sucked her toward the door, with grace.
In the parlor, the drone altered as she moved, and she could hear herself alter it as she moved. Her body made waves. She attuned to the waves’ caress. And if Suzy and Sam had followed her downstairs, they would have heard the same drone under a scream that grew louder and louder, and it would have reminded them, perhaps, of their father’s stories about the hermit composer and the hum-canceling speakers he positioned in his living room. The drone was like that, stationed exactly, precisely, mathematically, to offset any other sounds: it planted itself in Mary’s body.
Had the children come down the stairs, they would have seen the open door shaking rapidly from side to side but only a centimeter with each oscillation. They would have seen Mary’s body step into her tennis shoes, as though she were going for a walk—a habit from when their father was still around. They would have seen her reach the door, stand under the lintel, turn around, put her fingers over her eyes, as her body began to light up, her skin glowing the way Sam and Suzy’s skin glowed when they beamed a flashlight through fingers: light through meat and bone.
They would have seen her disintegrate into haze and film as a scream filled the air, rising so high in pitch, above the frequency at which a child might hear it, that it sucked-in sound and opened a space for silence: a wet blanket tossed over the room. In the next instant their mother vanished, leaving behind only the burnt smell of hair, a singed swatch of nightgown, black powder on the floor. No ashes. Just a liquefying tennis shoe on the porch.
My talk today is about fictionality, economics, and the suspension of disbelief. Dave Kress recently wrote: “Where we live, everything is fictionalized: news reports both major and minor, pop star implosions, laundry detergent commercials, so-called creative non-fiction, memoir all more or less unself-consciously deploy narrative in their various modes of selling, leaving fiction more or less tame and perhaps unsure of what story about itself it wants to tell—or whether to tell anything at all.” Put another way: fiction’s stock is being devalued by the culture around it. What happens, I ask, when we write fiction in a world in which the weaving of narrative increasingly exerts a great deal of pull not only on public discourse but on the decision-making of our political and economic elites?
A quote from Nobel laureate economist, Robert Lucas, on the Wall Street meltdown of 2008: “the crisis was not predicted because economic theory predicts that such events cannot be predicted.”
Lucas’s economic genealogy begins with Adam Smith and runs through the Austrian School of Economics, which attend especially to the ways that “human actors” impact markets, by culling all the desires, whims, impulses and pieces of knowledge that reside in the subconscious mind of the consumer, the designer & the producer, boiling these down simply into a signifier: the price of goods in the marketplace. As a fiction writer, this is more or less what I try to do in the construction of character: creating consistency by flashing desires and knowledge into recognized universals and ready-made truths that will resonate, become intelligible, for the reader. In order for such a paradigm to work—a model based on the expression of desire as price and value—an economist simply has to attend to a range of human emotions, experiences, psychological states, that might impact action in the marketplace. From the producer’s point-of-view, desire is concentrated specifically into one passion only: making profits. In Ludwig von Mises’s theory of Praxeology, he attempts to codify and predict this concentration of passion in the marketplace. As he writes: “Human action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, which is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.” Or, to put it more simply: “Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.”
The problem with his approach to any market is that human consciousness is reduced to a limited set of desires, impulses and needs, and this set forms the basis of economic models. As I said, this may be similar to what fiction writers do when we construct characters. As the French critic and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet once said about the character: “the death notice has been signed many times, yet nothing has managed to knock it off the pedestal on which the 19th century placed it. It is a mummy now but one still enthroned with the same phony majesty… For the character must be unique and at the same time rise to the level of category, he must have enough individuality to be irreplaceable and enough generality to become universal.” I’d argue that for Robbe-Grillet, the terms “category” and “universal: are precisely questions of value akin to pricing in the marketplace.
When it comes to online gaming and the construction of digital fiction worlds—especially sci-fi and fantasy–these concerns, the relation of economic narratives to fiction and fictionality, mesh and overlap precisely. A Greek economist, Yannis Varoufakis, recently gave up his academic position to become a resident economist for a big online software gaming concern in Seattle called Valve software. Varoufakis was not a gamer himself, nor is he one now, but he became enamored with an online platform in which users spent and exchanged real money for virtual items that existed solely within the gamespace. Valve has millions of users the world over. Its online fictional economy is large. Varoufakis, the first economist hired, used his background in game theory (i.e. mathematics), evolutionary economics and complexity theory (a branch of economics that is highly critical of the Austrian School for its deterministic approach to multivalent phenomena) to create rules and limits for this new economy. Indeed, you might say that his study in this virtual space is a conflation of economic theories (or narratives) with that of the gameplay itself (in this case, fantasy games). Even better, the gameplayers have the power to create and alter the narrative space itself. For Varoufakis, this was an opportunity to study human behavior as it related to markets. Economists simply don’t have the power to manipulate market variables for millions of users in the real world, and then instantly receive data that analyzes user response. Varoufakis writes, “Consider, for example, the concept of arbitrage. Economic theory suggests that markets will usually tend toward equilibrium—if there’s an opportunity for someone to buy low and sell high, enough people will do it that these imbalances will disappear. This is difficult to track in real life.” At Valve, however, Varoufakis used data from a game to measure how often this actually happened. As it turned out, the Valve economy can veer very far from equilibrium. And it does so often. Furthermore, Varoufakis writes in his blog that “whenever he tries to run randomized control trials on different pricing strategies for Valve, the players will rapidly catch on and spread the word on online message boards. “They very quickly suss out what we’re doing. But Valve’s customers often enjoy reading about his experiments after the fact.”
Now, this is not to say that this fictional world is a precise simulacrum for real economies. It is indeed limited, as a virtual space, as fictional worlds tend to be. Yet Varoufakis found the various economic models tested in this space—for instance a decentralized banking system of the sort recommended by Libertarians—quickly run into trouble. In these game spaces, users sometimes set up virtual banks, which trade items, build up assets, lend assets for land at a cost to the user. The users are exchanging real money. Put another way: the virtual bank is lending real money to be used for virtual assets. For instance, in the game Eve Online, the highest-level spaceships, the Titans, cost $5,000 to $8,000. When, in 2007, in the online game Second Life, the software company banned casino gambling (virtual casinos were set-up by users, likely from the casino industry), the ban triggered virtual bank runs costing users millions of dollars. One of these virtual banks alone lost $750,000 in real money (i.e. its assets became worthless, as did its loans). Yet, as Magnus Torfason of Harvard Business School recently remarked: “It’s surprising that there’s not more cheating in virtual worlds—as when one EBank simply absconded with the bank’s funds. This reveals something interesting about how norms and trust shape markets. If you break these contracts, there’s not much that can be done to you so one thing I’m looking at is, why isn’t cheating more prevalent?” I’ll reverse his question a little bit. If someone steals, can stealing be considered part of the game? Is the stealing of real money in a virtual setting a fictional construct or a criminal action? The answers depend on your definition of fictionality, reality, virtuality, and “real money.”
The conclusion I draw is that when it comes to money, it’s clear that people have a capacity for spending in a virtual and fictional space, for engaging desires as virtual consumers, for trading knowledge, and for fulfilling needs.
In his just released book, Post-Postmodernism, Jeffrey Nealon writes about how we’ve moved beyond Postmodern concerns with Late Capital to an intensified version that takes the Japanese manufacturing model of Just-in-Time production as its cue. The virtual online gaming worlds I just described seem to fulfill the urges of the consumer to consume, even in a virtual space in which the only things that are produced, it might be said, are consumers themselves. But the virtual space, by virtue of its online economy, actually moves well beyond the consumerist commodity culture so ably critiqued by theorists such as Adorno, Jameson and Zizek. For Nealon, financialization or finance capital signals something quite different than concerns with consumer society. Rather than being invested in “the production or mass marketing of new commodities and services, speculative capital is wagered on a future of supposed or projected worth. In other words, the future of capital rests on a futures market based on capital itself, on a kind of gambling on the future worth of stocks and other speculation devices.” The future of capitalism rests not on the extraction of profit from commodities and services, but rather on the virtual production of money directly from money—making profit by wagering on future outcomes. The virtual online gaming space created by Valve Software fits this definition in part because users not only enjoy the fantasy or sci-fi gameplay, but moreover they engage in a virtual market economy that relies on the passion for profit-making through the exchange of money.
While Nealon’s Just-in-Time analogy refers to a production method that instantaneously responds to market demands, it also describes the dynamic through which the pure exchange of money for money’s sake is cut off from the more clunky and time-consuming endeavors of producing goods or developing skills into services. There is only a small interval between profit and loss, the results of human action are almost instantaneous, and indeed the results are predictable, their knock-on effects speculated on. Literally, this means that our policy and economic elites are taking part in an intensified game that relies on very reductive, and passionate, responses to the economic crisis.
I’ll pivot a bit here to draw a line between literature and fiction and the passions of our policy elites. If you recall, former Fed. Chairman Alan Greenspan testified in front of Congress after the economic meltdown in 2008, stating that much of what he believed during the previous two decades was wrong, and that furthermore, in repudiation, he said that most of his early influence in regard to economics came from reading the novels of Ayn Rand. Interestingly, economists such as Greenspan often resort to literature to explain economic problems to the public, but also to policy elites in debates. One of the most often abused fictions in this respect is Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” a story about lazy grasshoppers feeding off the hard work of the ants. I only wish more had cited James Joyce’s version in Finnegan’s Wake instead as Joyce valorized the writer-Grasshopper rather than his postman-Ant brother. The Minoan Minotaur is also frequently cited—you must pay homage to it if you hope to avoid being gored. I’ve also recently encountered some close readings of some rather dubious literary texts. For example, this past Monday, during a contentious and harrowing meeting between the Eurozone and the IMF about the fate of the troika bailouts in Europe, Herman Von Rompuy, the Eurogroup President, wrote a haiku and published it on Twitter. “Autumn end november: The night has fallen/The bare branches can be seen/Even more lonely.” The haiku ignited a twitter storm that impacted the markets, and analysts tried to read each line as a signal about the state of the meeting. Evidently, Von Rompuy frequently writes haikus and posts them on Twitter. However, no one noticed before.
Because of the very fast pace of events during the economic meltdown, a pace which even today hasn’t allowed policy elites enough critical distance to develop a concerted strategy, such crude reductions and analogies are quite useful in presenting a united front to the public at large and indeed to the financial community (which has run up prices in the world stock markets since 2008). As Financial Times columnist, John Kay, recently noted, the key to understanding the behavior of many elites today is how they emphasize credibility. He writes, “The behavior of companies and households depends on their expectations of the future. If these incorporate all knowable information, and governments lay out consistent fiscal and monetary plans for sustainable public finances and low inflation, the best course for companies and households is to adjust to a new equilibrium consistent with prudent budgets and price stability. The key is the credibility of the plan for price stability. Arguments based on faith are impossible to refute: if magic fails, it is because we do not believe enough in magic; if credibility fails to bring about the desired outcome, it is because our commitment is too weak to establish credibility. Since the only markets in which you can immediately see prices adjusting to economic events are securities markets, these markets’ movements provide the test of credibility. Even in the bond market, however, expectations are rarely formed with reference to all potentially knowable information: sophisticated market participants base prognostication not on a detailed understanding of future public finances but on conventional wisdom, and on what they have just read in the news or seen on television.”
Such a claim might seem wildly reductive, but Kay’s column arose out of an analysis of several articles in which the term credibility was bandied about as the ultimate measure of one’s seriousness. And by measure, here, I emphasize that credibility, as Kay defines it, is nothing more than a belief in the way that an assessment (preferably statistical) not only describes reality, but indeed forms reality. If a realistic outcome contradicts or does not conform to the predictive assessment then that does not necessarily imply that the measure itself is at fault, but rather the failure is in the lack of market participation, the failure of a needed number of participants to accord themselves with the logic of the measure, to give it the power to bring its predictions into being.
The very notion of credibility, in the sense Kay describes, is an idea fiction writers are very familiar with. More than a metaphor, it’s the very stuff of fiction. Kay’s so-called “magic” is simply what we tend to call the “Suspension of Disbelief.” One willingly enters the fictional world as a space of possibility: a space in which ideas are put into play, where models are formed, the very models that we may employ in the evolution of the story’s future.
In this respect, I find it curious that John Kay’s discussion of stock market participants seems to impute that credibility is somehow matched by the speaker’s insistence on his views. The more insistent, the more credible. And the financial community is well aware of this. This is precisely why psychologists are paid handsomely for their analysis of narrative and chatter surrounding the stock market. For instance, psychiatrist Richard Peterson at MarketPsych, a specialist at decoding investor sentiment, developed proprietary text analysis software that identifies and quantifies economically predictive sentiments such as optimism and pessimism, or tones such as uncertainty or surprise. “From the tens of thousands of newspaper articles, blogs, corporate presentations and Twitter messages being analysed every day, MarketPsych builds a picture of investor feeling.” The MarketPsych Data Feed provides real-time sentiment updates from sources such as earnings call transcripts, chat forums and social media sites. MarketPsych’s innovative software engine analyzes 2 million articles daily and normalizes the predictive elements of the text for quantitative research application. The data feed includes 400 plus sentiments, tones, and topics related to 30,000 global companies, 150 countries, 1,000 cities and states, 40 currencies, and 100 commodities.
One possible avenue for thinking of fiction as a literary genre that exists alongside such monstrous narrative machines is to track the various ways that narrative voice unveils itself in the unlikeliest moments and in unexpected spaces.
I think of Patrik Ourednik’s novel Europeana as I say this. Ostensibly it reads as a history of the 20th century, Ourednik says of his bookthat “the primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it.” Given Ourednik’s statement, the book seems concerned primarily with information rather than with cultural critique or historical narrative. In this spirit, the book’s many comparisons and contrasts of topics—from philosophy to psychology, the moon landing to Barbie dolls, the death of humanism to the ethics of Amish people and a rise in popularity of pets, etc.—produce either sheer information or else a rhetorical argument. The reader wonders: how does the work produce meaning? I think Ourednik is unusually adept at making his rather flat (though at times hilarious) language talk back, squawking between the margins if you will. Indeed, a passage in the book seems to presage the Wall Street quants who sent the banks over the edge in pursuit of profit: “Mathematicians invented the theory of information, and conceived of information as something that was unrelated to meaning, and they posed the question of whether the absence of significance in information had any connection with the absence of meaning in history.”
As self-fulfilling narratives take root in the culture, feed back on themselves, metastasize and distort, the reality that girds these stories, these simple models, tugs at them and in a way propels their movement. In this sense, Ourednik is oddly on this side of reality, while the history he describes exists in a fictional universe. The book’s narrator is situated in a reality quite distinct from the counterworld of the 20th century. His unfiction, for lack of a better word, mocks the historical narrative.
Finally, I think of other fiction writers who venture into the same territory. The Peter Handke of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is tortured by the difficult task of writing on his mother’s suicide, offering that suicide as he describes it as the most exemplary moment of her life. Handke writes that his task was to present his mother as anything but a literary type. He had to skirt particulars and anecdotes, anything that could be regarded as a formulation or abstraction, that could lift his mother into a protagonist in a story. Characters in a story become literary rituals, he writes, whereas the individuals that give rise to them are forgotten, they become mere pretexts.
“There are two dangers—one, of merely telling what happened, and two, of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—these dangers have slowed my writing because in every sentence I’m afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case. Consequently, I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways to formulate them. But I soon noticed in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach—starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience. From my mother’s life, I sifted out the elements that were already foreseen in these formulas, for only with the help of a ready-made public language was it possible to single out from among all the irrelevant facts of this life the few that cried out to be made public. I compared, sentence by sentence, the stock formulas applicable to the biography of a woman with my mother’s particular life; the actual work of writing follows from the agreements and contradictions between them. The essential is to avoid mere quotations even when sentences look quoted.
Handke’s difficult task is, in this proscriptive fashion, to tell his mother’s suicide story without letting it fall into story. And this brings me back to the question at the start of my talk. Since value is determined by the fulfillment, or lack thereof, of desires and needs: how much stock can a reader invest in Handke’s suicide story? It’s not a fiction, not biographical, nor does it posit suicide as a rational solution. Rather, the book accounts, as though entering transactions on both sides of a ledger, for the ready-made formulas that circumscribed his mother’s life, and in a meticulous fashion, Handke’s readers are left to consider how this most-private tragedy, transformed into a public narrative, extracts sympathy as payment from the reader while offering (or preventing, as the case may be) therapy for the writer.