The Fundamentalist Reader — On Plotless Novels and the Meaning of Life
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by Scott Cheshire
I discovered Aristotle’s Poetics during a biblical literature class, years ago, at Queens College, shortly after my professor declined to tell me if he believed in God. That same morning, the young man behind me asked why it is we no longer live for centuries like Adam, Noah, or Methuselah. The professor didn’t answer him, either. I bought a copy of Poetics that day, the same version as his: a Penguin Classics paperback, translator Matthew Heath, a painted illustration of the Globe Theater on the front cover, secondhand, from the QC Bookstore. The books that shape us often come with a story of discovery, perhaps suggesting, or so we like to think, a casual providence at work: it came along just when I needed it, and I had no idea. I suppose it’s no accident the Bible starts with a “genesis,” and ends in “revelation” because the beginning of our relationship to any good book ends in what that book reveals about ourselves. The best ones, the books that last, lay for us a path toward some personal epiphany. This isn’t news, of course. Aristotle drew up the blueprint, in Poetics, more than 2,300 years ago, wherein story (or “poetry,” for him, epic, comic, and tragic) requires, among other things, a beginning, a middle, an end; and that story is purposeful, formally functional, and always on a path toward telos, “the end,” toward meaning.
Sort of how space travel well beyond the stratosphere is still determined by our limits within it, Poetics set the rules novelists play against. For modern readers, the beginning, the middle, the end of a story no longer need be in that order, or even look familiar — but they are there. Telos, “the end,” meaning, remains central. It’s the way toward meaning, and the place of meaning, for writer, reader, and character. Lately, I’ve been giving lots of thought to why, in recent years, a particular kind of novel, what I think of as the “not knowing” novel, so resonates with me. Why am I attracted? Why are others palpably not? And why, it seems, are these novels attracted to me? People keep pressing them into my hands. Just a few months ago I was given by a friend, insistently, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, because I simply had to read it, and I would absolutely love it, etc. My friend was right. Lots of white space, no clear “plot,” it read like a narrator thinking out loud, unaware I could hear every word. The reading experience was intimate, felt almost invasive on my part, like eavesdropping. It also felt familiar. I mean this as compliment. It sort of looked like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (also recommended by a friend), and reminded me, in parts, of Shelia Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Most of all, it brought to mind one of my favorite books: Montauk by Max Frisch. All of these books are intimate, and share a near shapeless close-to-the-bone rawness you don’t find very often in novels. But they also read like writers in search of self-knowledge, in search of meaning. They are books that do not yet “know.”
I then thought of my younger self and realized that version of me did not read books like these. In fact, nobody I knew, then, did, and aside from years alive on earth, what was the difference between “me” then and now?
Perhaps my attraction toward books that read like a writer “not knowing” comes from my religious fundamentalist rearing, a rebellious response, because it seems the longer I am away from the church — this also being a significant difference, I was raised in family of Jehovah’s Witnesses — for over twenty years now, the more radical becomes my taste in books. I do know the first time I encountered a writer poking up his head, out of the text, not because he “knew” (the essence of meta-fiction, really) but because he did not: it was thrilling. It was Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse-Five, calling out, but not in name — “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book” — once again disrupting the wonderfully melancholy contraption of that book’s plot, and sounding like a bewildered ghost trying to find his way home. Apparently, I liked this sort of thing. But why?
And so I revisited three books especially meaningful to me, not only in my reading and writing history, but during my extrication from the church — The Names by Don DeLillo, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson, and, of course, Montauk by Max Frisch. I re-read them, in that order, in order of discovery, to try and determine what it is and was about these books that remains so important to me. It was an experience increasingly intense and personal. If you can imagine a book as the lens through which a writer eyed the world, in search of meaning, The Names read like peering through a telescope, and Gilead a handheld magnifying glass. Reading Montauk, on the other hand, often felt like spying from the dark side of a two-way mirror. Telos was omnipresent. The search for meaning suffused every page. And that search belonged to Max the narrator, surely, but also Max the author, and somehow it was also mine.
It was 1991, and I was eighteen years old, still a Jehovah’s Witness, but religiously and spiritually confused. I bought a paperback copy of The Names at The Book and Record Nook, in Norcross, Georgia, the place where I discovered a strange and beautiful trinity: The Stooges, John Coltrane, and Don DeLillo. Having been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, but also unaccountably attracted to art — the two are rarely paired without detriment to the fundamentalist sensibility — The Names pretty much rearranged my brain. Here was a thriller about language itself, its ability to control, and distort, not to mention a secret cult that paired the alphabet with a killing hammer. I was changed. But more than anything else, I was introduced to a very particular point of view, DeLillo’s take on the world. While the characters might not be, every novel is utterly “him,” reflecting a man in a room making meaning from all the chaos and violence surrounding us. Years later, I bought my first copy of Gilead, in Seal Beach, California, just blocks from my apartment, at a bookshop run by a sweet old man named Nathan. He had long gray hair, hanging down his back, in thin watery lines like strands of rope. We used to talk about faith, and what to do with all its bait and tackle after you no longer had use for it. Gilead was confounding, at first. Here was a book expressly written about the Christian faith, about God, Heaven, and all in the voice of a Protestant minister. I should have buried my copy in the sand — but no. I couldn’t put it down. I never really have. I came to understand that a novel about religion need not be a religious novel, and that the Big Questions are essentially the same for both camps. Plus there was the wise and weary voice of John Ames, who at times reminded me of my father: gentle, loving, probing, deeply curious about the physical world, occasionally irascible, but always questioning the “why” and “how” we are here. Ames is telos-driven; but so is Robinson. There is a distinct space between those voices, yes (Ames is a man, Robinson is not, etc.), but there is a quiet and quivering energy throughout the book, as if two attracted magnets were prevented from touching. It almost feels holy, maybe because it feels so human, so “her.” The separating space between Robinson’s two voices always threatens to collapse. As for Montaulk, I discovered it just a few years ago, and I was immediately entranced. The book seemed to be a search, it wanted to know about itself, and had no separating space at all.
Max Frisch is best known for his 1954 “debut” novel I’m Not Stiller, generally considered a masterpiece of 20th century German literature. It’s certainly the book of his most read in America, and it’s a brilliant comic novel obsessed with identity. Famously, the first line shouts: “I’m not Stiller!” Thou doth protest too much, we think, and the remaining 375 pages consist of one Mr. Jim White, imprisoned, claiming a case of mistaken identity; that he is not Mr. Stiller. The rest of the world, an ex-wife, co-workers, etc., insist that he is. In fact, all of Frisch’s work is identity-obsessed — from his actual debut published some sixteen years earlier, dismissed (a bit unfairly, I think) by Frisch as juvenilia, An Answer From the Silence, on through his three fascinating Tagebuchs (daybooks, or diaries), and the novels, Homo Faber, Gantenbein, Man in the Holocene, Bluebeard, and the sort of unclassifiable and magnificent Montauk. The plot of Montauk (translated by Geoffrey Skelton) is simple: a brief love affair between a man in his seventies and a much younger woman, it lasts but a single weekend. But if I may use Hemingway’s metaphor, that’s just the tip of a large and life-sized iceberg. Montauk is really about memory. In fact the opening lines that place us specifically in space and time — “A sign promising a view across the island: OVERLOOK. It was he who suggested stopping here;” and from page two: “MONTAUK / an Indian name applied to the Northern point of Long Island, one hundred and twenty miles from Manhattan. He could also name the date: 5/11/74” — belie the real plot and setting. To be more precise, Montauk is about an older man sitting at his desk, with pen and paper, trying to write the story of a love affair, but failing, ever falling away in memory. Or as Sven Birkerts puts it, Montauk is a “book of retrospect, yes, but not of passive retrospect.” The older man is Frisch himself. Although it’s not until after six pages of relatively straightforward third person storytelling that his “I” makes a jarring entrance.
Obviously she is as astonished as he that he is here now, standing beside her…
His flight is booked for Tuesday.
At first I thought she was just the camera girl usual on such occasions, suddenly crouching down and clicking, telling one how to sit, and then, just as one has at last forgotten her, clicking again, once, twice, three times, four times. But she had no camera.
In Montauk, telling and recovery are bedmates. The involuntary act of Frisch remembering how he met the woman disturbs what he’s writing about her. He eventually returns to third person — but not for twenty-seven more pages. And this only after the memory of that woman reminds him of his ex-wife, a recent “domestic failure,” other ex-wives, other broken loves, of his mother, and the fraught relationship he has with his daughter, plus a long digression on a close but troubled friendship with a man referred to as W:
I feel that my friendship with W. was basically a disaster for me, but that W. himself was in no way to blame. If I had been less submissive, the outcome would have been better — for him as well.
…He realizes nobody knows where he is today, and that pleases him.
The book is filled with such switches in perspective. It wants to be both objective and subjective. It wants to be “now,” and “then” in time. “Literature cancels the moment, that is what it is for,” he writes. “Literature has another time…” Montauk wants to “know,” even as it imagines and remembers the “unknown.” The book embraces contradiction, attempting to exist in the in-between of memory and experience, of art and life, of meaning-making and just plain being. The book is alive.
If this sounds like some meta-fictional game, it’s not. Naming the narrator “Max” is not a device. It’s the opposite — there is no mask. He is naked. “It was a very personal book, which I wrote for myself,” Frisch once said of Montauk. “I did not know if I would ever publish it, and for awhile I thought I wouldn’t.” Plus the writing is always lucid and beautiful:
He leans against the wall, his back to the sea. She will approach over the deserted terrace, and he is prepared to be surprised, whatever she looks like, she comes up to him and is simply there. It is now midday. Everything is outside: a fluttering flag, a squat lighthouse, gulls, music from a transistor radio somewhere,
The gleaming metal on the distant parking lot, sun, wind —
Lynn is nearly 31.
And yet, all the while, Frisch is constantly probing, questioning himself. “Why this weekend in particular?” “Why am I telling all this? Who am I telling it to?” And who’s asking? It’s the “Max” of Montauk, yes, of course, but it’s also Max the writer, Max the ex-husband, Max the father, and he wants to know who he is, who he really is, who he has become, how he got here, and where on earth is he going? How many have I hurt? How will I die? And have I been a good man? The space between the two men has collapsed. And while these are fundamentally moral questions, they also happen to be the bread and butter of a religious search. A benevolent possession, we join Max on his, and so what meaning there is for Max becomes mine.
A writer sharing his name with a narrator also is not new. Consider Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, a “novel from life,” about a young woman named “Shelia Heti.” It’s a book I admire, and one that stylistically shares quite a bit with Montauk. Or consider Montaigne’s Essays of the sixteenth century, which might not be a “novel,” but neither is Montauk, strictly speaking. Frisch carefully subtitled most of his books — Homo Faber: A Report; Bluebeard: A Tale; An Answer From the Silence, Man in the Holocene, and Montauk: all of them subtitled A Story. The distinction is noteworthy. In German, the subtitle reads: Erzählung. According to a German friend of mine (a scholar and novelist), erzählung etymologically stems from erzählen (to tell a story orally) and is “defined” as a long prose text with no special requirements regarding structure. Montauk is certainly that, but so is How Should a Person Be?, and so is Montaigne’s Essays, which incidentally is the source of Montauk’s epigraph, ending like so: “…Thus reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Frisch, like Montaigne, is being coy. But name-sharing here is not the point. It’s the loose clothing these books have in common, barely covering the body of a writer. Italo Calvino’s eponymous “everyman” Mr. Palomar, for instance, feels much more personal than any number of meta-named narrators. And Jenny Offill’s actual marriage is a fine one, according to interviews, and she has stated she’s certainly not the narrator of the amorphously beautiful Dept. of Speculation, a novel about the evolution and dissolution of a family. But the book nonetheless feels incredibly personal.
In some ways the “real” plot of Offill’s book feels like that of Frisch’s: someone sits down (at a desk? beside a crib?), and tries to make sense of a relationship, only to fall away, again, and again in memory. The book is the experience of that fall, and we look for meaning within it, as does the narrator of the book, as does Offill. Dept. of Speculation is a search, and it’s a shaped record of that search. It is not a book that “knows.” A more proper novel would have been insufficient, too parochial a medium:
My friend who teaches writing sometimes flips out when she is grading stories and types the same thing over and over again.
WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?
WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?
But what do I mean be a “proper” novel? If Aristotle’s telos is central to every story, then how are these books any different? And what does that difference even mean? Perhaps a better question: why is it novels that look like this, and work like this, have a harder time finding large amounts of readers?
There is the old saw that some writers, even some American writers, are simply more “European.” This usually means a writer’s work is less “plot-driven,” fewer things “happen,” and more often than not these are books that don’t sell extraordinarily well and are deemed commercially unsuccessful. The problem with this assumption is the sand on which it’s built. The literature most often classically associated with the “American imagination” — not the American market — is entirely telos-driven. A thirst for meaning is inherent in that voice. Think of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville. Think of Henry James. Think of William James. All of them intensely personal writers, and all of them, it can also be said, were not particularly “religious.” This is not to say they were not preoccupied with faith, divinity, or transcendence. In fact, they all were, to some degree. But the work — the novels, stories, essays, poems, and lectures — was the conduit by which they considered the subject. The work did not “know”; it sought to know. This is the opposite of the religiously fundamentalist urge. The classically figured American imagination writes to better know a subject, to better know itself. The fundamentalist, and to some extant the very religious — a significant difference here being the degree to which a believer subscribes to a literalist reading of scripture — reads already having “known.” The difference is profound.
When I was a boy, pre-pubescent, I took the congregation stage several times. I gave sermons. This probably seems strange to outsiders, now, but within that world, it was not. I was just one of many young ministers. These were sermons based on dogma I already “knew,” which, in turn, was based on scripture I already “knew,” along with religious literature further confirming what I already “knew.” I recited those sermons to an audience, consisting mostly of people decades my senior, who all effectively “knew” the content of every possible sermon. I did this well into my teens, and sat for countless similar sermons delivered by men of all ages, from seven to seventy, all of equal “knowledge,” with respect, of course, to age appropriate vocabulary. We knew it all. I knew it all, and could have schooled the aging Mr. Frisch, when I was ten. I could have elucidated Heti, Offill, Calvino, and Montaigne, on any number of complicated subjects. I knew where we came from, why we are here, and what happens to us after we die. The meaning of life was easily digested, and always waiting ready, like a pill.
The difference between “American” and “European” writing is overly accentuated, I think. The difference depends, really, on why readers read fiction, why writers write, and the depth of a reader’s religious impulse, or how much a reader already “knows” or wants to know. This is not to say the religious do not read. Or write. Marilynne Robinson dispels both assertions, and is the religious ideal: a writer that is religious and does not “know,” not entirely, anyway. For Robinson there is mystery, and there has to be. From her essay “Imagination and Community”: “The locus of the human mystery is perception of the world. From it proceeds every thought, every art.” Relatedly, DeLillo says: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.” It seems appropriate his work, often a headlong search for transcendence, rarely delivers on epiphany. We get close. We reach. But we fail. The closing lines from The Names:
There was no answer that the living could give. Tongue tied! His fate was signed. He ran into the rainy distance, smaller and smaller. This was worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world. [sic]
And from a recent interview with Jenny Offill: “One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing.”
The genius of Aristotle’s telos is how it allows for the entire spectrum of readers. It’s not how much we know that counts first, but the action: “Most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action [translation H. S. Butcher].” Action, action, action — and thus we have Die Hard, The Terminator, and Dean Koontz. And thank goodness. But Aristotle follows with this: “Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.” Character? Happy? The reverse? Now we’re talking humanity, ethics, morality. We’re talking about the real fundamentals. We’re talking how should a person be, and what is the meaning of my life? The less the writer knows the answer to that question, and the more comfortable they are collapsing the space between themselves and the characters in search of that answer, the less likely the extra-religious will read. Certainly, the fundamentalist will not. Frankly, there’s just no point.
DeLillo’s take on writing, as “a concentrated form of thinking,” is also how I feel about reading. I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s personal struggles to better grapple with my own. I read the fractured vignettes of Jean Toomer’s genre-mixing Cane to remind myself how so many voices live within us. I read the long and winding philosophical monologues of Javiar Marías to light the unlit halls of my own head. I read Teju Cole and Annie Dillard to become a better seer of the world, and to remind me that to read the physical world is to read your self. Frisch said about writing: “What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself.” I read for that same shock. I read to undo what I think I know, and it’s a lifelong process. The real fear of the fundamentalist is letting go of their book, their only book, and to admit onto the stage other voices, other searches, other ways of meaning, variation, which is to say mystery and human error. The irony here is the Bible is in fact not a “book” at all, but a library. The term Bible, itself, means “holy books” (note the plural), and is comprised of 66 books so different the fundamentalist Christian must often spend a lifetime relentlessly insisting on their sameness and singularity of supreme vision and meaning. And they’re welcome to it. As a younger man I would have been uncomfortable admitting how closely run the paths of religion and literature. Now I embrace their shared mission, even as their ends can be totally contradictory. I still return to my copy of the Oxford Annotated Bible, as it helps me better understand Faulkner and countless others. Only, I wish more from the other path would do the same, and err toward mine, maybe even pick up some Frisch. They would certainly learn a thing two about themselves, and, maybe more important, about what it is to be other people. Incidentally, my first copy of Montauk was a gift, given to me by one of those rare friends you make as an adult. Alex and I were talking about the books that affected us most, the books that changed how we write and how we read and how we think. That next day, he gave me his copy of Montauk, the original American paperback, a painting of a lighthouse and the Long Island shore on the cover, published in 1976, its pages yellowed like a smoker’s teeth, a book not easy to come by. I politely declined, said I’d find my own. He insisted. He said, you have to read this, and he set it in my hands. It turned out to be the very thing I was looking for.