David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: September 2005

John Crowley: Great Work of Time

In reviewing Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, John Clute points out that complex time travel stories (not simply going to some other time, but changing the past and having it affect the future, paradox, etc.) have evolved as such a genre into themselves that writing one is difficult: either a writer will retread territory already covered, or the writer will assume a background knowledge of time travel tropes that only a seasoned science-fiction reader will know:

Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.)

Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay on the architecture of time-travel stories, or rather, the two architectures of time-travel stories. It would need expanding today, but its fundamental premises have remained the same. And so I find myself wondering, in reviewing Crowley’s brilliant, monstrous (120 page) time-travel story, whether I should target the science-fiction reader or the general reader. And I wonder what Crowley thought when he constructed this story, because it comes a good way towards meeting each side halfway. Or so it seems to me; I was schooled on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “–All You Zombies–“, so I can’t speak for the novice.

At any rate, Crowley uses the time travel plot and its attendant tropes–characters meeting future/past versions of themselves, alternate timelines, the negation of the past–but mitigates it in two ways. The first is a long introductory section presenting a simple excursion to the past by a man who goes back in time and mails a rare stamp to his grandfather, followed by an explicit description of the time-travel model Crowley is using. In short, it’s the many-universes model; i.e., each change to the past simply causes a fully alternate timeline wholly divergent from the original. The second mitigating factor is that Crowley uses the entirety of time travel allegorically, as a metaphor for British colonialism.

The British entrepreneur and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes left money after his death for a secret society to work to preserve the British empire in all perpetuity. Crowley runs with this idea: the conceit is that the society thrived and, through surgically changing the past, has enabled the British empire to survive while minimizing certain horrors. World War I is made less tragic by preventing the invention of the machine gun. The second World War never occurs, and Jews are deported from Germany, not massacred. (A friend asks if this means that Crowley shares Daniel Goldhagen’s position on innate German anti-semitism.) The British Empire remains ascendant. The world is more pleasant and much more colonial.

The subsequent breakdown of this world, manifested in lizards, dragons, and an ironic vision of the Perpetual Peace Rhodes dreamed of, exists in tension with the allegorical structure of the novella. At the literal level, Crowley presents the colonial effort towards order as a nullifying force; in adjusting the past to create a preferable future, the secret society creates an ever-expanding explosion of chaotic degeneration. Allegorically, the message is that the attempt of the empire to exert control over fate has the opposite effect. Their hubris is polluted by tiny imperfections and variations, which unravels their own plans. The time machinations do not need to be compreshended precisely to reveal the thrust of the story: time and empire are not compatible; empire collapses under its own ever-expanding weight. It unmakes itself.

Crowley does not privilege the allegorical over the literal or vice versa; the story remains true to both to the very end, leaving an unresolved complexity when the two levels overlap but do not quite correspond. Like another masterpiece of allegory-telling, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Crowley uses science fiction tropes as novel analogies for history, and the result is far deeper than the often limited analogical vocabulary of science fiction, where the science-fiction content so often only allegorizes trite sentiments about love, power, and other conventional wisdom.

Marcel Proust: The Captive

No, the Proust project has not been abandoned, but as I’ve gone through the novel I’ve been less keen on writing commentary, as the text has become less inspired and more redundant. This is all relative, as even Proust’s worst writing is stunning. There are enough brilliant bits to almost constantly reaffirm Proust’s talents, but by the time of The Captive, the finely edited prose of the first three volumes has loosened and turned into a much more disparate, elusive text. Proust surprises the reader in this and The Fugitive by narrowing his focus almost entirely to two characters, Marcel and Albertine, and Marcel’s obsessive, paranoiac jealousy and doubts over Alberine, who, to be fair, is hiding quite a bit. They live together, Marcel controlling Albertine as best he can, and every time she leaves the apartment, it seems, Marcel becomes insane with worry, interrogating her when she returns. By the end of the novel, she inadvertently, finally drops a clue that Marcel picks up on (though he has clearly been at Charles Bovary levels of denial for quite some time) alluding to her lesbian tendencies and egregious levels of infidelity. Yet they still continue in their relationship, though not for long, as Albertine becomes “the fugitive” rather quickly in the next volume. The question, of course, is one of how Marcel and Albertine are both captives, and we see the former far more than the latter. Marcel’s obsessive reflections make Swann’s jealousies in Swann’s Way look comparatively restrained. It also makes Swann’s thoughts look quite concise and pithy.

And yet, there is one blindsiding moment of revelation in The Captive, though it is only so when seen in the greater context of the entire work. Francoise is now Marcel’s maid, and has a great distaste for Albertine:

On one occasion I found Francoise, armed with a huge pair of spectacles, rummaging through my papers and replacing among them a sheet on which I had jotted down a story about Swann and his utter inability to do without Odette. Had she maliciously left it lying in Albertine’s room?(372)

Note that this cannot be a piece of Swann’s Way itself, since Marcel has not yet started to write his magnum opus. Still, it is the first definite indication that Marcel has heard enough of Swann’s story to begin writing about it, as Proust does himself. And for all the implicit connections between Swann’s jealousy of Odette and Marcel’s jealousy of Albertine, this is where it’s made explicit that Swann has been influencing Marcel. And not only that, but Marcel is writing these words about Swann during a time of extreme emotional stress, and revising his mental picture of Swann and Odette in the process. What we get in the first volume, then, is a many-revised version of Swann’s story, one that was first heard by Marcel from his acquaintances, then fictionalized during his time with Albertine, then refictionalized later.

Under this view, The Captive is less an analogue than a partial stripping away of fictional artifice. The third person narrative of Swann (with many first-person narrative asides) has been replaced with the intimate, claustophobic first person, and yet we have to take them as the very same voice at different times. Moreover, we need to see Swann’s story through the lens of The Captive, and perhaps through later writing, if we are to understand the narrator’s state in writing Swann’s Way and the pictures of Swann and Odette that are there presented. If this is the case, it would make sense that The Captive is far messier than Swann’s Way and less conclusive (for it is), because the author is that much closer to the material and less able to tell it as a distant story. Remember this passage from “Combray” in the first volume:

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections [of people], impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…

(See the link for the full passage.)

It is only now that “Swann in Love” seems to be exactly that to which Proust refers here. Likewise, there is the blurring of Marcel the narrator and Proust the author, as we come to see that it must be Marcel (even if that is not his name) that is writing the whole book, and that real, opaque person, Proust, recedes from clear sight.

Agamben v. Beckett

I’m not actually here (I’m on honeymoon), but I thought I’d post a puzzler. Reading through Ann Lauterbach’s On a Stair, I see that she prefaces the book with two quotes:

The question “where is the thing?” is inseparable from the question “where is the human?” Like the fetish, like the toy, things are not properly anywhere, because their place is found on this side of objects and beyond the human in a zone that is no longer objective or subjective, neither personal nor impersonal, neither material nor immaterial, but where we find ourselves suddenly facing these apparently simple unknowns: the human, the thing.

Giorgio Agamben

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

And this led me to ask myself: why does the Beckett quote seem so acute, clearing away entire forests of assumptions with terse, razorlike words, while the Agamben quote reads to me like so much word soup? Personal preference, I suppose, but that begs the question. The Beckett quote begins a novel; I don’t know the source of the Agamben. They speak two different languages: Beckett’s forever prevents the idea of facing anything, while Agamben seemingly leaps towards immanence or transcendence. Some fly, others struggle to crawl.

And speaking of states of exception, here are a few Katrina links, first-hand reports preferred:

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