never-let-me-go-16

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First, what this is not: an essay about commercial fiction versus literary fiction, as those two labels are subjective binaries that are also ultimately reductive — they distract from a conversation about narrative craft in the same manner that Donald Trump distracts from a conversation about anything.[1]

What this is, instead, is a few thoughts on the notion of aftermath in fiction, set against the notion of situation. These thoughts are intended for people who consider themselves literary writers. Hopefully the thoughts are interesting. As with many well-intended ones, they’ve come from writing, reading, and thinking about a wide range of good books, specifically works quite recent — Bryan Hurt’s collection Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France (2015) and Claire Vaye Watkins’s collection Battleborn (2012) — and some less so: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935), and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877).

Before I get to the idea of aftermath, I should define what I mean by situation: for me, simply, it’s the way a story’s stage is set, the parameters of a piece, its orientation. Plentiful examples of situation can be found on jacket covers. Green Hills of Africa, to give a specific example, features a months-long African hunting expedition undertaken by Hemingway along with several other enthusiasts, including his wife. Anna Karenina is even simpler: a husband cheats on his wife which indirectly leads to more love affairs in (then-contemporary) Russia.

These two novels are fairly simply situated: Tolstoy’s set-up has complex repercussions but it’s still quotidian, while Hemingway’s expedition, though slightly exotic due to its setting, is also fairly simple. Both situations are realistic and contemporary, and the conflicts are of a generally familial and interpersonal nature.

A far different approach to a novel’s situatedness can be seen in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This book is bifurcated: it is half mundane in the style of Tolstoy and Hemingway, as a caregiver recalls to us her schoolgirl days. But it is also half bizarre: the care-giver happens to be a clone created to donate organs to non-cloned humans.

It is speculative fiction combined with memoir.

It is, in other words, slipstream.

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From Wikipedia: “The term slipstream was coined by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in SF Eye #5, in July 1989. He wrote: “…this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Slipstream fiction has consequently been described as “the fiction of strangeness,” which is as clear a definition as any of the others in wide use.”

Contemporary literary authors that have been marked as “slipstream” are almost too many to name. Kelly Link, of course. Kevin Wilson. Lucy Corin. Aimee Bender. Charles Yu. Kevin Brockmeier. The reason the label has been applied to so many writer is because it’s so sweeping in its vagueness. Look again at the ‘clearest’ definition anyone can agree upon: “the fiction of strangeness.” Certainly strange fiction predates 1989. Donald Barthelme comes readily to mind. William Burroughs. Virginia Woolf: see The Waves. Viewed in a cold light, even Agatha Christie’s fictional concoctions — consider Hercule Poirot! — are entirely and utterly bizarre. Few novels outstrip, for sheer strangeness, Tristram Shandy. The easy point here is that ‘slipstream’ is a catch-all label, one that tells little more about a work than, This is (particularly) strange.[2]

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In their recent collections, both Claire Vaye Watkins and Bryan Hurt frequently foreground situation simply by creating unusual situations. Watkins’s story “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past” begins with readers learning that a young Italian vacationing in Las Vegas has had a fellow Italian vanish during a desert hike; soon the Italian begins spending his nights at a brothel. Here we are far from the normal quotidian of Anna Karenina. Too, other of Watkins’s Battleborn stories are uniquely situated: in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” the daughter of a Manson family member has another Manson family offspring move into her Reno apartment complex. In “Man-o-War,” a hermit finds a near-dead girl in an empty playa. “The Diggings” dramatizes the history of gold mining brothers. For his part, Hurt situates his stories far more strangely: lab techs test Google’s self-driving cars, zombies attack an arguing couple, we’re given a cheeky history of arctic explorers, time travel in a DeLorean, human sacrificing CEOs, and so on.

Rather than slipstream, I prefer to think of these stories as situational, and that’s because they have such unusual premises. My definition, then, of Situational Fiction: it is fiction that is detached from reality, or set in a historical time, or in which the opening drama hinges upon an extremely rare or unlikely event.[3]

Because of my own writing experiences, I’ve become wary of writing Situational Fiction.[4] My own creative energy can get so agitated in thinking up either a vivid premise or an intriguing research topic that I almost feel finished before I’ve started; without writing word one, the pitch is complete, the jacket copy printed (in my mind). The idea, essentially, shines so brightly that execution becomes almost boring. With an especially unique idea, it’s tempting and even necessary during the writing process to get caught up in pursuing and explaining the strange action of the conceit — rather than, say, striving to create more resonant elements of fiction.[5] And so with Situational Fiction, both the writer and reader are left with, too frequently, is what they began with: a story with a strange set-up but little else.

This doesn’t apply only to slipstream works: while slipstream works certainly fall within the umbrella of Situational Fictional, so do many canonical literary works: Lolita, Pedro Paramo, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1984. And as with the latter two, novels of ‘big ideas’ are almost always Situational Fiction, likely because the authors are seeking metaphorical systems — strange surrealities — to convey their various philosophies. Nearly the entire catalog of David Mitchell comes to mind. David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. Similarly, David[6] Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a novel very constrained by the situation he’s created: a narrativization of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and Wittgenstein’s concerns about language as a tool for communication.[7]

At its worst, Situational Fiction reads like an essay. Far more commonly, Situational Fiction reads like the result of a fun and strange and memorable premise that is ultimately a little shallow, not as good — not as moving — as it ought to’ve been.

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Back to Never Let Me Go. Though Ishiguro’s novel is disguised as a speculative novel about cloning, it’s really just a simple (fictionalized) memoir. The cloning plot is so lightly laid on that it seems of little interest to Ishiguro as author. He’s created a piece of Situational Fiction, but he moves on from it and goes instead into the recollections of the narrator about her childhood and, as much, into her reflections upon her childhood. For me, this is better fiction. Because it’s the thinking about experience — the internal impact of experience on a character — that interests and affects me as a reader.

That impact of experience is, to me, Aftermath.

I tell my writing students that what makes great literature is impact. That the question we should ask of our best fiction is not, Is this interesting?[8] or Did I like it? Rather we ask: What does any of this matter? And just as I’m wary that Situational Fiction might sacrifice emotional resonance in place of thesis-driven narratives or overly strange premises, I’m becoming more inclined to think that approaching fiction with the forethought of Aftermath — with a considered plan to include within a narrative the articulation of how the narrative has impacted its characters — will create more moving fiction. The literary works that I consider the most impactful answer the question What does any of this matter? very emphatically. We know well, when we finish Anna Karenina, how Anna feels about all that has happened. The impact on her couldn’t be clearer. And the impact of the narrative isn’t confined to Anna: we know how Vronsky has been impacted. How Levin. How Kitty. The greatness of Alice Munro’s fiction comes from Aftermath: her stories are not only concerned with dramatic experiences but equally — or really more so — with the resonating impacts of those experiences, over years and years, upon the characters.

Carry it further: Macbeth is a Situational Fiction. It’s strange, memorable, weird.

But Hamlet, the far greater work, is Aftermath itself.

Simply put: if the characters aren’t impacted, the readers aren’t impacted.

And impact comes through Aftermath.

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Happily[9], Situational Fiction and Aftermath are not exclusive.

Now back to Bryan Hurt. His story “Honeymoon” is certainly an example of Situational Fiction: a grousing couple has a shitty honeymoon in France. While the honeymoon is rife with amusing problems (fights, anaphylactic shock, etc), it ultimately has little impact the couple. At the honeymoon’s conclusion they go home and think, basically, Well, now that’s over, and they move on, unimpacted, into their lives. The story, though lightly comic, seems to carry that flaw of Situational Fiction: it is constrained by its premise.

But the story doesn’t end with the couple going home. Instead, in the final two sections we get to, in turn, spend time with two Frenchmen with whom the couple crossed paths on their honeymoon, a nurse and a bellman, each named Laurent. It’s a beautiful shift: the situation comes and goes, but we remain behind, with Laurent and Laurent, reflecting upon what has happened. Hurt has literally written Aftermath into the narrative. (Best, he does it with a deft tonal balance: unhappy nurse Laurent recalls being annoyed by the couple while cheerful bellman Laurent misses them.)

Hurt creates a piece of Situational Fiction and then moves beyond it into — a surprising dimension — of Aftermath. A light story takes on depth. The events that have occurred have impacted characters within the narrative — and so we the reader are impacted as well, feeling what both Laurents have felt about the couple: annoyed but also surprisingly sad to see them go.

The experience — what happens in a story — is certainly important. But the meaning, when it comes, comes after, in the way that experience has impacted characters (and impacted readers); the meaning is what matters. Events in a story can be anything; the situation can be anything. But it’s the meaning that lingers. And by adding two characters who absorb the experience, Hurt has added Aftermath, and has given “Honeymoon” depth and meaning.

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My favorite thing to do after most any event — going to a baseball game, going on a trip, reading a book, watching a movie, eating a good meal — is to talk about it. To consider what it means, what was enjoyable about it, what wasn’t. I wonder if most other people lead lives with more motion; if they rush down rivers, bouncing along the waves. Luckily for them, a lot of contemporary fiction caters to them: much of it is Situational Fiction. It is easy to remember, easy to describe, easy to move both toward and away from.

Less frequent are the novels that weigh us down. That settle us on the shores and make us think or, better, feel the weight of all that has happened. That carry within them Aftermath. I’m one reader looking to find them and read them, and one writer, anyway, who is going to start trying to write them.

Sean Bernard teaches fiction at the University of La Verne. He is the author of the novel Studies in the Hereafter and the story collection Desert sonorous.

Footnotes!

[1] Sorry. I’m sick of Donald Trump, save maybe when viewed as a satirical exposure of GOP idiocy. The problem with that, of course, is that he’s not a satire.

[2] I like a better idea of slipstream, a more confined definition, and it’s this definition that is more frequently used: a work that elides, that exists in a slender gap between two defined genres, specifically sci-fi mixed with the literary. To me, then, Never Let Me Go is a defining example of slipstream.

Of note: no one calls it slipstream. It’s too slow, maybe. Or maybe no one realizes that a work by Ishiguro, by dint of his long literary track record, might merit such a relatively new label.

[3] Situational Fiction, and the stories mentioned above, is entirely fine; in fact, Situational Fiction can serve as an excellent hook: it can immediately engage readers by dint of its being so different. In the same manner the concept itself can engage the work’s author: Ooh, thinks the author, what if I write a story about leopards that start a motorcycle gang but get bogged down in petty politics? What a nifty weird idea, no one’s done anything like this yet, I can’t wait to write it!

[4] My first novel, Studies in the Hereafter, is situational: bureaucrats in the afterlife judge the living to see how they might best be placed once they’re dead. (That it came out last month might seem strange, but it was mostly written five years ago; I’ve more or less moved on from situational approaches.)

[5] Eg, character. I’m boring: I believe in character. More on why in a bit.

[6] Insert easy joke: basically anything written by anyone named David.

[7] Granting that this is subjective, I’d argue that Wallace, Markson, Mitchell, and Nabokov write more affecting works when they aren’t creating Situational Fiction. Give me Wallace’s essays, Markson’s Vanishing Point, Glory or Pnin, and Black Cloud Swan.

[8] A question answered by Situational Fiction, as Situational Fiction is created in response to that question.

[9] You probably you know this already/saw this coming.