Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Me and Mrs Brown's Anatomy

I have become, of late, one of the couple-of-hundred or so people in the UK to buy contemporary poetry – small volumes from Picador, Faber, Seren, and some small presses. I’ve been concerned that my interest in poetry is part of a drift away from the novel that I’ve been experiencing for a few years; though, to be honest, the novel of high realism has never been to my taste, and I’ve long preferred more experimental or disrupted fictions. (This is why I gravitate towards New Wave science fiction, I think.) My antipathy towards realist or mimetic fictions is also, I suspect, why I have very little feeling for fantasy fiction; as critics such as Christine Brooke-Rose have suggested, realist fiction and (certain kinds of ) science fiction are proximate in their techniques, and in particular their investment in world-building, concrete materiality through redundancy of detail (Barthes’s ‘reality effect’), and causal transparency (closeness of histoire and recit, or narrative structure and underlying chronological ‘plot’). Fantasy fiction, it seems to me, is still more invested in these techniques than sf.

A couple of articles – one old, one new – have set me thinking about the issue of ‘character’ in sf and fantasy. I’m not personally that interested in ‘character’ in fiction; I’m with Tom McCarthy, author of C, who said in interview:

'I'm just doing what I think the novel should do, and trying to achieve the things the novels I most admire achieved. I don't necessarily want to be contrarian, it's just that in order to do what needs to be done you need to reject a certain set of assumptions, certain models of subjectivity – for example, the contemporary cult of the individual, the absolute authentic self who is measured through his or her absolutely authentic feeling.'

I recently re-read Ursula Le Guin’s well-known article ‘Science Fiction and Mrs Brown’, where she takes Virginia Woolf’s figure of Mrs Brown – encountered in the corner of a train compartment, small and shabby but doughty and with a life story – as a means by which to interrogate what she sees as the failings of sf. For all its ‘wonders’, Le Guin suggests, sf contains very few memorable ‘characters’; she cites Mr Tagomi from PKD’s The Man in the High Castle, and Thea Cadence from Compton’s Synthajoy as rare exceptions. This, Le Guin argues, is an unalloyed failure on sf’s part, and in her (rather mystificatory) description of how she conceives of her own work, she writes of characters ‘talking’ to her or of preceding the narratives of her books. Now, I don’t read prose fictions for ‘character’, but I know I’m anomalous. The Man in the High Castle works perfectly well for me without me being invested in Mr Tagomi as a ‘round character’ (the use of Forster’s binary from Aspects of the Novel revealing the fundamental (liberal) humanism that underpins Le Guin’s strategy here). I enjoy the scenario, the metafictionality, the wonderful imagination of Japanese cultural nostalgia for pre-war American pulp commodities, the vertiginous reveal (Mr Tagomi’s vision). But I don’t have to believe in him as a ‘three dimensional’ character to enjoy the book.

Most of my recurrent (re-)reads in prose fiction – Borges, Ballard, Burroughs, Sinclair – similarly lack ‘characters’, but I don’t think that undermines them as texts. They are simply doing something other than the techniques of mimetic or ‘realist’ fiction, and perhaps encode a rather different conception, as McCarthy suggests, of subjectivity.

My thoughts turned to fantasy, and my lack of appetite for the fantasy genre and for contemporary sf, on reading John Lanchester’s recent review of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, and the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. I’ve neither read the books nor watched the series, and don’t really intend to, but Lanchester’s analysis (really, a kind of critical boosterism: he is ‘addicted’) is largely based on ‘character’. Writing about these fatal protagonists and antagonists, Lanchester notes:

'These are not peripheral figures but richly imagined, textured, three-dimensional portraits of central characters: the kind many writers couldn’t bear to kill off. Nobody needs to give Martin any advice about how he needs to slaughter his darlings.'

The pleasure of these particular texts is clearly based on ‘character arcs’, surprising narratives, the willingness of the story to take risks with these storylines. Game of Thrones is clearly a richly-imagined world, just like Lord of the Rings (cited with approval by both Lanchester and Le Guin), just like the worlds of Dickens or George Eliot or Tolstoy. (Lanchester wonders about ‘an unbridgeable crevasse between the SF/fantasy audience and the wider literate public’, but I wonder whether there’s much crossover between the audiences of Game of Thrones and classic tv drama; a friend has suggested that this might have something to do with gendered audiences, if not. The pleasures might not be dissimilar.) The proximity of contemporary sf to fantasy – often remarked upon by Ian Sales in his blog, for instance, and part of the discussion generated by Paul Kincaid’s now well-known negative review of some sf anthologies last year – is another reason why I find it uncongenial, and why I am drawn to Modernist fiction, and to poetry (of certain kinds).

In one of my favourite sf critical acts, John Clute’s review ‘Scholia, Seasoned With Crabs, Blish Is’ (from New Worlds 207, 1973), Clute suggests that James Blish’s sf often seems ‘radically deficient’ because it fails to fulfil the criteria of the roman, a term taken from Paul Hernadi, suggesting representation of events, linear time, and evoking of a ‘psychological present’; instead, Clute suggests, taking another critical cue from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Blish’s best work should be understood in terms of the ‘Menippean satire’ or ‘anatomy’, characterized by stylization, dislocation, abstraction, ‘a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern’. The problem for Blish is that he has ‘immersed himself in a field – science fiction – whose generic forms cater to the heated iconicity of the romance’.

Increasingly, I find that this is my problem too. Wondering whether I’d lost my taste for fiction entirely, I took up Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and literally cried laughing at some parts. I was happy that I found it so congenial; but then, Shandy is a classic anatomy. I fell in love with Frye’s own Anatomy as an undergrad – literally ‘a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern’ – and it has helped me understand my own inclinations this Spring. It’s not that I don’t like prose fiction; it’s that I find the roman uncongenial. I’m a Menippean satire kind of person.


  1. This is perhaps a predictably (tired) canonical suggestion, and perhaps you are bored of (perhaps teaching?) it, but it's about the last fiction I read, other than PKD - Wyndham Lewis's 'The Apes of God'? It would fit in to both your Menippean satire & modernist areas. I found it was quite a battle to get through, just because of its length and density, but it is often very funny and highly recommended if you haven't read it already.

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