Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fabricants and Fabrication

From "An Orison of Sonmi~451" in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas:
An ascending fabricant absorbs language, thirstily, in spite of amnesiads. During my ascension, I was often shocked to hear new words fly from my own mouth, gleaned from consumers, Seer Rhee, AdV, and Papa Song himself. A dinery is not a hermetic world: every prison has jailers and walls. Jailers are ducts and walls conduct.
Just barely into this section, but I'm sort of thunderstruck by Mitchell's ability to enter into this voice after having followed him through a pious notary, a sarcastic composer, a spunky girl reporter (through the eyes, apparently, of a whack-job novelist), and a smarmy old publisher. There's nothing I love more in a fiction writer than a penchant for trying on different voices; I like range, and more than experimentation with form or language or genre I tend to find myself fully entranced when a writer can convincingly experiment with someone else's voice in place of their own.

There's an extent, of course, to which every voice a writer takes on is made his or her own, but this seems to fall back on the kind of essentializing that happens when people talk about writing as a medium that exists for writers--that writing is for voices, for being heard, for preserving one's words. And its related caveat: that therefore nobody can write like Joyce. Nobody can imitate Toni Morrison. Well, maybe not, but what a depressing view for contemporary writers to hold as they try to write something as lasting, as great. The old idea of a writer as half painfully humble, half disgustingly vain helps explain it--how gratifying to view ourselves as outclassed on the one hand and scrappy underdog champions on the other!--but I think I'm happier to imagine myself as an utter fabricator from the start. A dramatist. Sure, it's my voice, but I don't have to worry about being "true" to my voice if the only thing "me" about it is that it's coming out of my mouth. As I see it, writing fiction is pretty much about putting on a show anyway, and the results for me are more satisfying the less they sound like me. One time a judge for a fiction contest said he thought my story was written by a 40-year-old man, and I was like, Amazing, This is what I want to make people say for the rest of my life. I didn't know it was you.

Range as a writer isn't lauded so much in the academy, in my experience. I can see why--it's not like the semester structure really supports the study of an author's full range, or even their development over time. The object tends to be to get good as fast as possible, preferably without taking on extra years and extra debt. The short story collection or the novel-in-stories is usually as close as it gets, and these, in my experience, tend to be selected more for their unifying aspects (their discernible, and teachable, patterns of form, language, characterization) than for their broadness, variety, or range. There have been two counterexamples: The Wavering Knife, by Brian Evenson, and now Cloud Atlas. They are both great, and I feel like I learned more from them than from, say, a collection of William Trevor stories, which I now look back on and fail to discern. There was the one with the guy falling down the stairs; did that happen after the dinner date, or in the same book...?

Range also can pose readership problems, I'm told. People who loved you for your book where you wrote like an 18th-century pirate might have a harder time falling in love with your 1920s speakeasy operator or your go-go '90s businesswoman. And genre set entirely aside, maybe literary audiences got to know you for your quiet, penetrating stories of rural life and now you're throwing them a curveball with your novel about a young woman's struggle to survive in the big city. Same deep understanding, same keen penetration into the mysteries of character, perhaps, but those readers thought they knew you, thought they were getting to some heart of you, and the fact that the situations have changed has necessarily changed the way you write about them. They opened their hearts enough to perceive you as an individual with a spirit and not just the invisible force that guides the pen. Now they don't know what to think.

I'm inclined to think these are fake problems. It seems like musicians encounter them and survive all the time. If you are a big Sufjan Stevens fan, for example, and you don't like the new Sufjan Stevens albums with its differences in character, then you don't like that particular effort and probably you try again next time, and if he disappoints you again, well, you're not a Sufjan Stevens fan anymore. But you still liked those first few albums, and somebody else really liked those next two albums. It could potentially ruin a career, but it wouldn't ruin any particular effort retrospectively. But I do know enough people who honestly feel as if they're reading the effort of a particular soul when they're reading that I'm wary of saying that it doesn't matter at all, that it's a fake phenomenon, and that all you're ever in love with when you read is whatever's been put there on the page for you. I mean, I think it's self-evident that you're never really "getting to know" the author as a person, regardless of how their work makes you feel, or how much you read of it. But personalities can matter. Kurt Vonnegut as a person, not just a writer, has profoundly influenced Mike's life. I like to think William Goldman as a personality, at least, and not just a writer, has influenced mine.

But still I appreciate and admire range in an artist more than almost anything else. We have the opportunity to masquerade ourselves--convincingly--as almost anything, and I think that's thrilling. Why consistently pretend to be someone who is in fact very, very much like ourselves? Aren't there more entities, more personalities worth "getting to know," even in the very limited sense--the very limited kind of knowledge I suspect we as writers are able to provide?

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