Monday, May 5, 2008

New Yorker Stories, Great Experiment: II. Generative process

I began this survey of short fiction with a question about process. When we write a review (and this question is only gradually becoming clear to me as I work my way through these stories), is it possible to include--even to recognize--the process that engendered it? Art, as I understand it, is a work of erasure and transformation; transformation by erasure; the erasure of its origins. That penumbra, that luminous shadow we encounter as its aesthetic reality, its very power to affect us stands in inverse proportion to the success of the erasure.
In the single chapter assigned to her in As I Lay Dying, Addie says of Anse: "He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack." When we were discussing this passage a few weeks in class, the word leapt out at me... "a shape to fill a lack." A lack! I'm sure it was the echo from Lacan that startled me, but Faulkner is not using the word in Lacan's sense. It would be tempting to hear lack as want, as need, but in another passage we see that this is not what she had in mind either. There are words, she says, where she hears "... the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in people's lacks."
A gap in a lack? A space in an absence--a word that is neither deed, nor lack of deed. An absence compounded by a void.
I thought about erasure. The lack, the absence of the origin... and how the word stands for both: the shape that is filled like a jar until the jar disappears and no longer has a name. We cannot have--that is, cannot experience both the shape and that which fills it, not at the same.
The word then is not only a replacement, a transformation of what has been erased, but a trace. When I think about how to write a review that touches on the aesthetics of process--how the poem was made, the generative process of which the story is the product, what need to focus on, to look for... is the trace. Focus, as the eye in focusing on what is distant loses sight of what is near at hand, in focusing on what is near at hand, loses sight of what is distant. We cannot see both the jar and that which fills it.
In Great Experiment I see two traces, two independent, mutually generative points of origin, one for each of the two layers: the environmental layer, the concept, in movie jargon--and the characters and story line which, as I wrote--does not so much represent that layer, as is itself a product and manifestation of it. Imagine the concept first: Toqueville's America and what has become of it... of us. To carry this forward you need to imagine the characters, the script and rolls they will have to follow to carry out--to make manifest--that concept. But how to make this more than a simplistic allegory? How to transform the concept to environment? We confront a limitation here: character and story, in order to manifest the concept, but be more than that, have need of an origin independent, yet consonant with their environment. I find that trace in the paragraph where Kendall compares the life he had with his parents with what he's able to give to his children.
Kendall had never wanted to live like his parents. That had been the whole idea, the lofty rationale behind the snow-globe collection and the flea-market eyewear. But as the children got older, Kendall began to compare their childhood unfavorably with his own, and to feel guilty.
There in that guilt, is a trace strong enough to engender the story that follows and all the links to the environmental layer and the generational theme: Toqueville to the present, father to son, son to child. "How had it happened in one generation?" he wonders. "His parent's bedroom had never looked like this." He's haunted by his father's "dresser full of folded laundry, a closet full of tailored suits, every night, a neat, clean bed to climb into." The coinciding links: for the story-line: to live as his father had lived, he would he would have to find the money. From this, the scam, his own "great experiment." To the historical, social layer: "It wasn't the only master bedroom of its kind in Chicago. Across the country, the master bedrooms of more and more two-salaried, stressed-out couples were taking on the bear-den atmosphere of Kendall and Stephanie's bedroom."
One can imagine it proceeding out from either point. Thinking of Toqueville--the historical contrast then-and-now summons the family history, the node of personal guilt that itself is manifestation of the economic and social conditions. Or from such a moment of guilt---an awaking to the realization that for the first since the end of the Second World War, children cannot claim to be better off than their parents--or to promise their own children a life better than their own.


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