One day in the summer he was climbing a steep path toward a busy crossroads when, in an absent-minded daydream experienced by anyone walking familiar streets with only boredom and solitude to share, he saw among the cars and pedestrians the profile of a long-lost friend. It has to be a daydream, he thought, identical to the one back then, when they were still close. He had glimpsed her on the same street, except that time walking towards him and beside someone else. A shock enough for him to take refuge in the darkness of an adjacent shop, reeling from the revelation and hoping that neither had looked ahead, only to discover a few seconds later, as they passed, that it wasn't them at all, merely everyday strangers. So, he thought, it has to be an illusion, only now there is no need to hide. It wasn't her.
And what if it had been? No matter how well-attuned one is to the light, I think, life remains hooded by such fictions. They shadow the mundane present; stories overwritten mostly, sometimes flaring for a few hours, sometimes days, sometimes branded for years in a synaptic loop. Together they form a consciousness veiled by invention, hallucination and stupefaction. A good reason not to live, I think, if the alternative were not so much worse: a life exposed to the light. And then she turned toward me and smiled.
We chatted for five minutes, perhaps more. At the time, I knew it wasn't much. We exchanged small talk about work and health, queries about long-lost mutual friends and about our current activities; the usual stuff. It really wasn't much. We carried on to our destinations in opposing directions, slightly diverted, nothing more. What happened next is the source of what is written here.
Next is five months later, in the cocoon of winter. Late one night I began writing at the top of a blank page. Sometimes it is necessary to turn white to black. I began writing about that chance meeting. As I could not quite remember the conversation, I let the pen find the words. Except, rather than the words themselves, what emerged were memories of the physical shifts and gestures between us; the awkward corners and delicate pauses. Spaces grew around the words and resonated with the past we shared. Was this the person I had met, or even the person I knew back then? The questions staggered me. Was I imagining it? After one and half pages, the writing ended. I've written nothing like it since and perhaps never will.
[Moving beyond fiction]
This summer, the one and a half pages of notes became a fetish for me, offering the possibility of a more elemental form of writing, one which dissolves well-attuned habit and reveals an alternative life; not, that is, a different life but the one waiting to be discovered. Why else would a few hundred words scratched out in a brief, forgotten time stir me while all the intricate ideas, elaborate plans and laborious executions leave me blank and disconnected? On what does the appearance of its alternative depend? Chance alone it would seem.
While it would not be presumptuous to dismiss such writing as occasional autobiographical digressions carrying its charge in the singular impact it has on the writer, this would obscure what needs to be isolated as unique to writing. But how can it be maintained or codified into a public form?
I was reminded of these questions as Geoff Dyer and Lee Siegel added to the surge of voices condemning the worldly disappointments of contemporary fiction and instead advocating creative non-fiction. Both arguments rest on the notion of the novel as a means of narrating events in the empirical world and of engaging readers with company, information and meaning. The novel may be the apotheosis of "characterisation, observation and narrative drive" but now it has a more worldly equal. Given the examples offered, it's no wonder the war reportage Dyer celebrates appears more vital, exciting and relevant, while Siegel's call (couched in tabloid sneer) for literary fiction to be more commercial and realistic in order "illumine the ordinary events of ordinary lives" also seems fair if we assume that war and peace are the poles between which real life spins; a roadside bomb and a divorce spraying shrapnel into flesh and spirit. So how can the writing that stirs me – haphazard, unworldly – respond to these rousing condemnations?
First, we have to recognise the limits of the prevailing distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Both Dyer and Siegel appeal to cultural relevance to justify the relegation of contemporary literary fiction. For one, war is "the big story of our times – the al-Qaida attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan" that means "long-form reporting ... has left the novel looking superfluous" while, for the other, a fast-tracked biography of Barack Obama is "overflowing with sharp character portraits," has "keen evocations of American places" and is, moreover, "a ripping narrative". Both cite novels from the past as exemplary and now impossible because, according to Dyer, "the time has passed" when "human stories contained within historical events ... could only be assimilated and comprehended when they had been processed by a novel". Siegel makes perhaps the more telling observation that novel writing has become a profession rather than a vocation, thereby producing novels in which "carefulness ... cautiousness [and] professionalism" are considered desirable literary attributes rather than "existential urgency and intensity". Certainly these latter qualities are to the fore in war reportage and in Janet Malcolm's article cited by Siegel but, from the evidence supplied, they appear to rely on familiar techniques of genre fiction. The old-fashioned quest to tell a story drives these books rather than for anything beyond themselves, a connection, for instance, with what escapes the rhetoric of style and technique. Indeed, Dyer says one war book is "like a traditional third-person novel" giving "the chaos of events ... narrative shape" with "scrupulous observation and phrasing" spiced with "damaged lyricism" (a soldier's ruptured skull echoes an earlier description of the moon). In raising voices against the new type of book, Dyer first offers the straw man of an unnamed "fiction lobby" who say it's "too soon to tell" if the novel is out-dated, and, second, the fact-checking culture of the New Yorker. Deviation from the latter – a "willingness to digress" from strict factual accuracy – seems to be the only border war reportage shares with fiction. That's it. The "new" form involves arguing for this small creative licence. It is only right at the end of the essay that Dyer introduces a more challenging voice of opposition in the form of Martin Amis' thirty-year-old critique:
Amis claims that the non-fiction novel, as practised by Mailer and Capote, lacks "moral imagination. Moral artistry. The facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. There can be no art without moral point. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder – and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death." The essay is an old one, and the point can now be seen to contain its own limitation and, by extension, refutation. We are moving beyond the non-fiction novel to different kinds of narrative art, different forms of cognition. Loaded with moral and political point, narrative has been recalibrated to record, honour and protest the latest, historically specific instance of futility and mess.Dyer is right that Amis adds little weight to counter his argument. Moral point is an inevitable consequence of all writing. However, its lightness may be deceptive because Dyer's dismissal appeals only to taste over judgement and immediacy over vintage. I would suggest Amis is wrong, instead, only because the new books seek to eliminate art (if not craft), or at least our perception of it, and this would be, in its ambition, the very height of art and, thereby, the height of morality, even if it is a studied amorality. "Art always throws off the appearance of art" according to Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. We should remember who helped guarantee his art throw off its appearances.
Despite the respectable ambition, it's hard to see from what has been presented how these invariably America-focussed war books are in any way "moving beyond" anything or in any way different from the careful, cautious and professional fictions of which Lee Siegel is so contemptuous. Their "existential urgency and intensity" emerges first from their subject matter and then, more significantly, from a fiercely limited perspective. Death lurks around each corner; soldiers can live or die in the next sentence. Unlike in the novel, the author here has no control over life and death. In this – perhaps paradoxical – way, war reporting has erased chance from writing. Paradoxical because, while chance fills the lives of the soldiers, it is erased in the telling: everything is necessary, already written in nature. This is of course a particularly thrilling reading experience – the illusion of extreme chance while one is safely removed, at rest with a book. While these narratives may appear to represent a "different form of cognition", it is merely a symptom of the triumph of genre. The only essential difference Dyer offers between it and Kathryn Bigelow's fictional confection The Hurt Locker is in its credibility. One we know is fiction because it is presented as such even if, in the telling, we are persuaded to believe, while the other is presented as truth "with multiple layers of dreadful, unresolved irony". But how can we know which is credible and which not without first having been convinced of non-fiction? We have, after all, not been soldiers in the front line. The issue is one of trusting the sincerity of the author. What is happening here is the familiar trajectory of a loss of suspension of disbelief followed by a knowing cynicism eager to be seduced again. Except, the only thing that has changed is that the magical force of fiction has been renewed elsewhere, in light disguise. Behold, the Emperor has new clothes.
[A realm beyond light]
I began this piece with a run-of-the-mill story of memory and imagination skewing an ordinary experience and then how its reconstruction in words changed the perspective, enabling the writer to loosen the self's armour of habit, perhaps opening it to danger, perhaps to relief. While I recognise its banal nature, I think it offers an insight into a more worthwhile, time-independent distinction between fiction and non-fiction or, better still, between formal adventure and storytelling. Next I need to describe more respectable examples.
It is well known that after initially resisting the idea, Henry James used a notebook to develop plots for stories and novels. Often these ideas were taken from anecdotes heard in drawing rooms or salons. The Turn of the Screw is a famous example, taken from an outline given by the Archbishop of Canterbury who himself was only relating a story told by "a lady who had no art of relation". The notebook repeats the outline and adds that the story "is all obscure and imperfect" yet recognises "a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it". Such obscurity may have convinced a lesser writer to abandon the story or to develop it to the point where it becomes a familiar ghost story. Indeed, the editors of the notebooks insist this latter project is all the writer intended. Of course James does neither. He makes the decisive move to have the story told "by an outside spectator, observer", in this case the governess who takes a job in the house where the events unfold.
But why decisive? In his short essay on the notebooks, Maurice Blanchot uses The Turn of the Screw as an example to show how the development in the notebook of the obscure and imperfect aspects of the story led to its unique qualities. By deciding to place a step between the narration and the events in the form of the governess' letter, the plot of the story becomes the lucidity and obscurity of the governess' experience. James uses the distance between the real words and the real world to create the ambiguity of the children's innocence ("one of his most cruel effects"):
... an innocence which is pure of the evil it contains; the art of perfect dissimulation which enables the children to conceal this evil from honest folk amongst whom they live, an evil which is perhaps an innocence that becomes evil in the proximity of such folk, the incorruptible innocence they oppose to the true evil of adults.The complexity of this ambiguity may be easily correlated to the narration of writers embedded in an occupying army among the ghostly, recalcitrant servants of Afghanistan. The governess becomes the imperial force invading an alien land, seeing danger and evil everywhere except in itself. In fiction, however, the reader is astute enough to recognise the governess may not be reliable:
[from The Sirens' Song, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch]
It is she who talks about [ghosts], drawing them into the imprecise space of narration – that unreal beyond where everything is apparition, slippery, evasive, present and absent – that symbol of a lurking Evil which is, according to Graham Greene, James' subject matter and is perhaps only the satanic core of all fiction.The implications of these observations is that what we think of "plot" undergoes a change. From first being considered merely the thrilling sequence of empirical events orchestrated by a masterful author, plot is now the coercive presence of narration itself: "a presence seeking to penetrate the heart of the story where [the governess] is an intruder, an outsider forcing her way in, distorting the mystery, perhaps creating it, perhaps discovering it, but certainly breaking in, destroying it and only revealing the ambiguity which conceals it." The plot of The Turn of the Screw then is "quite simply James' talent", that is:
the art of stalking a secret which, as is so many of his books, the narration creates and which is not only a real secret – some event, thought or fact which might come to light – nor a simple case of intellectual duplicity, but something which evades elucidation because it belongs to a realm beyond light.James is a peculiar case in literary history because his fiction was written at the height of the Victorian era and then over the cusp of the outbreak of Modernism. He lived in an era, as Blanchot says, "when novels were not written by Mallarmé, but by Flaubert and Maupassant". Except Mallarmé was writing then and, as Peter Brooks has made clear, James was infected by his time amongst the radical artists of Paris, however long the virus lay dormant. The attractive question for us is: are we living through a similar shift toward "different kinds of narrative art"? If there are indeed "different forms of cognition", then Geoff Dyer and, most prominently, David Shields in his Reality Hunger, are merely outriders for a new literary epoch.
[Masters of war]
Of course, it could be that they're just unwitting conservative backsliders unable any longer to tolerate the perennial challenge of the imagination. But how would this manifest? Perhaps in one of the most notable aspects in Dyer's piece about war reportage: its circumspect phrasing; this passage in particular:
August sees the publication of Jim Frederick's Black Hearts, which investigates the disintegration, under intolerable pressure, of a platoon of American soldiers of the 502nd Infantry Regiment in Iraq's "triangle of death" in 2005-06, culminating in the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the execution of her family by four members of the platoon.The focus according this summary is on the soldiers exposed to "intolerable pressure" rather than the monstrosity of their crime; that is, it is much like the bigger picture of the war according to official inquiries and polite opinion: a tragic procedural error for want of better management planning. One or two of the commenters to The Guardian's website where Dyer's essay appeared have already pointed out the warzones featured in these books is "home" to many and books about them are conspicuous by their absence. What is their experience, what "intolerable pressure" leads them to defend their sovereign lands with armed and political resistance, just as they did with our enthusiastic support less than thirty years before? Isn't this also "the big story of our times"? The nearest we seem to get is a brief mention of Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower in which "complex and developing individuals" who bear "the weight of larger historical drives or circumstances". Except this is a history book, hardly a radically new kind of narrative art. So, then the issue becomes: how might a writer begin to approach "the enemy" with anything like the same embedded empathy as displayed for those with the "acronym-intensive argot ... worldview of the USMC"? It's a huge, intractable issue, perhaps necessarily so. For Dyer, however, "the biggest question mark about this [epic, ongoing, multi-volume work in progress] concerns the way in which it is illustrated".
[Shadows and shimmerings]
In these eye-level narratives, the moral point that Martin Amis sees as missing is the moral point precisely. Their evasion is as necessary to the books as it is to the military action itself. In their forensic attention to detail and narrative drive, they match the military's unflinching prosecution of executive orders. I'm reminded here of the standard efficiency and disinterested perception of Maximilien Aue, the narrator of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, as he pursues military orders. The reader of this book is forced to confront the contradiction of a deeply cultured and vigilant man with whom we are compelled to identify who also takes an active role in mass killings. Aue is aware that this is part of a necessary career path, even if he claims to find it unpalatable. Whilst massacring perceived enemies, he claims the alibi of the search for knowledge. (His modern, real life equivalent may be found in a character like General Stanley McChrystal for whom audiobooks replace Aue's Plato and Aeschylus). As The Kindly Ones is a novel, the narrative is able to implicate itself in its evasions by opening onto the consequences; the writing done by evasion. It has this in common with The Turn of the Screw: a luminosity terrifying for the shadows it casts.
The ambiguity of knowledge and ignorance, innocence and guilt, good and evil, plays its part in some of the great novels that Geoff Dyer, David Shields and others regard as supplanted by non-fiction. As I've described, Blanchot argues that the plot of The Turn of the Screw is the very stalking of a secret elucidated in a realm beyond light which, because it is thereby also beyond darkness, still irradiates each sentence. It means the story is potentially as evanescent as the ghosts haunting the governess. It takes a special writer to follow the chimera shimmering on the horizon without losing touch with it or his readers. Blanchot aligns such fragility with the plot of Kafka's The Trial, and includes a perfect formulation of the novel's soul: "The story of a man pursued by his own conscience as though by some invisible judge before whom, precisely because he is invisible, he cannot justify himself" which, he concedes, "can hardly be said to constitute a story, let alone a novel", yet it is for Kafka the essence of his life: "a guilt whose weight is overwhelming because it is the shadow cast by innocence."
Writing manifests both innocence and guilt; "a sweet and wonderful reward" he tells Max Brod in a letter, "the reward for serving the devil". Joseph K's adventures are then comical and disturbing in equal measure because the narrative moves between darkness and light without him or the reader being able to judge which is which. It is a story borne on its own anxiety for solace and closure. So, with this in mind, we can wonder again how non-fiction war reportage might partake of the apparently unique power of fiction to countenance the turning of the screw. Perhaps, if the genre in which they are constructed is, as Dyer explains, determined by a culture of magazine journalism in which "current events", the "big story of our times " and "characterisation, observation and narrative drive" replace the shimmering and shadows, it is a literary oxymoron and thereby inconceivable. If it isn't, then asking the question, merely wondering aloud, is perhaps the first step on the path.
Writing of the kind I have raised in contrast to war reportage also seems contingent on breaking certain silences and privacies. It often emerges from morbid isolation uncongenial to the security of public discourse to which Dyer and Siegel appeal. While we know about Franz Kafka's loneliness, Blanchot notes that James was like all artists in that he profoundly mistrusted himself – "Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task" – and wished only to be able to let go in order to enter that realm beyond light. Instead, distance became the necessary passion and in turn it generated the narration which enabled the cruel effects of The Turn of the Screw. It is also an effect of the "essential loneliness" James expressed in his letter to Morton Fullerton: a loneliness "deeper about me ... than anything else: deeper than my genius, deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art." Yet he also appreciated his notebook as a magical arena in which chance rather facts and experience enters the creative process. As he wrote in his little book, his became "the deciphering pen", and he experienced what Blanchot calls "the pure indeterminacy of a work"; a time full of possibility and hope; perhaps even an end to loneliness. For some, however, writing which enters and maintains itself in an abandoned space disturbed only by ghosts can no longer be justified. They turn instead to narratives "recalibrated" to accept the rewards underwritten by empire.