Self-referential Literature: poetry and prose (part 2)

The greatest and grandest work of self-referential literature is probably Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. A heavyweight weighing in at just over 3,000 pages, this roman-fleuve concerns a protagonist whose struggle centers around his effort to become a novelist. A Proust scholar had this to say about it:

“Will the protagonist of the Search succeed in becoming a writer? God save us from another story about a sensitive young artist trying to find his way! Poems about writing poetry, novels about becoming a novelist, literature preoccupied with the life of literature– what form of narcissism could annoy a discriminating reader more than this aesthethic self-absorption?”

That quote comes from the first chapter of Roger Shattuck’s excellent book Proust’s Way. This passage might contain the only exclamation mark in his entire study. He goes on in that paragraph to describe the ways Proust mitigated the irritation factor that could be caused by the reflexive plot. Point granted: A writer who wants to avoid annoying her readers should take heed when tempted by the self-referential lure. If this kind of story was an “outworn plot” in 1909 when Proust started his masterpiece, then surely it is hazardous to employ nowadays.

And yet, as I thumb through the Collected Fictions of Jorges Luis Borges, and specifically the renowned stories from his 1944 collection called Fictions, everywhere I look I see “literature preoccupied with the life of literature.” How is it that Borges could write reflexive literature (literature preoccupied with the life of literature) again and again and manage to make the stories surprising, original, fascinating? Let’s look at one from Fictions and dissect some lessons.

Step one: create an atmosphere of exoticism that contrasts starkly with our mundane “real” world. One way to generate an air of strange otherness is through the use of names. The first story in Borges’ collection is Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.  Tlon refers to an invented planet, Uqbar to an illusory country, and Orbis Tertius to a massive encyclopedia surveying Tlon.  See? It’s strangeness. Or you could use a ready-made name that is already synonymous with exoticism, like Babylon. It’s the story The Lottery in Babylon that concerns us here.

Step two: add bizarre, yet plausible, details into the narrative that heighten the strangeness, the otherness, of your story world. The opening paragraph of The Lottery of Babylon does this with just the right touch of economy and wizardry. Here is the first sentence: “Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave.” Babylon, proconsul, slave. Even if we are a bit familiar with the place-name, and have an idea that a proconsul is some sort of leader, the meaning is strange. How can a man be president and slave in one lifetime? Moreover, how can every citizen in a country claim the same cycle? The second sentence emphasizes the point, “I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment.” And sentences that follow in that first paragraph give specific examples to make this strange world colorful and concrete: “Once, for an entire lunar year, I was declared invisible– I would cry out and no one would heed my call, I would steal bread and not be beheaded.”

Step three: begin to seed–slyly! subtly!–bits of information into the narrative which hint at the possibility that this other world, this fictional Babylon, might not be so different from our own. Borges begins this process–slyly! subtly!–with the first sentence of the second paragraph, “I owe that almost monstrous variety to an Institution–the Lottery–which is unknown in other nations, or at work in them imperfectly or secretly.” The rest of the story concerns how the Lottery came to be and what it consists of. We learn about The Company, the powerful, secretive organization which created the Lottery and supposedly still manages it. The narrator is knowledgeable but not omniscient. At one point we are told, “I have but little time remaining; we are told that the ship is about to sail– but I will try to explain.”

Last step: further blur the differences between that world and the real world until the reader concludes it is at least in the realm of possibility that they are us. The last paragraph collapses the two worlds until The Company is either eternal or extinct. Chance is providence. Contingency is by design.

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  1. Paul j Rogers
    Posted June 15, 2013 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    Thoughtful posts, Nick. The old adage ‘write about what you know’ can be problematic. When you spend so much time at the keyboard, there’s a temptation to get self-referential due to a lack of other stimuli. Without an interesting take on character, tone or stroryworld that would probably be a mistake. Picking up on your advice to ‘get strange’, the Coen brothers were obviously aware of the pitfalls of realism within this genre (if you can call it a genre) when writing Barton Fink. They created their oddball tone by giving the protagonist a memorable name and haircut, tossed in some neurotic quirks, and threw him into a storyworld inhabited by strange minor characters. Just to be sure, they set the story in the 1940’s to further distance the viewer from ‘reality’.

  2. Nick Cody
    Posted June 15, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    It’s been years since I saw Barton Fink, but I think you’re right. The Coen brothers were probably playing ironically with the whole metafictional strain in that movie. Hudsucker Proxy might have some of that going on as well. Let’s fire up the engines for the expectations-themed stories!

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