The Story Ends HereComments for Writing Rogues on:
Dysfunctional Narratives: or: “Mistakes were Made”
The first essay in Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter, 1997 Greywolf Press
Baxter frames his examination of passive narrative in critique of the politically conservative. He points to Nixon’s use of plausible deniability as a catalyst for a cultural shift. Baxter states: “The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN, not the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability... they (public figures claiming deniability) create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.”
Putting aside the essay’s political framework, Baxter’s point surfaces in this last sentence. Storytelling suffers without clear villains. Without discernment or its coarse cousin, judgement, an author seldom delivers on plot or even character. Often I’ve heard writers, including myself, exclaim that our fiction is character driven when what we mean is; ‘I don’t have much of a plot and I really don’t want to offend anyone, least of all my characters.’ This failure to act coupled with paralysis of thought, limits the story and removes the reader. Protagonists and antagonists lose punch. Weak and fungible, these two character roles fade and a victim emerges. The victim has been put upon by a gathering of nebulous villainy without a face. A soft fuzzy glow surrounds the pedantry of the non-protagonist. Blug. According to Baxter, eventually blame is assigned and the story ends. What story?
Most of us writer types have been eviscerated for using passive voice in our work, so we remove it and grumble. Surely passive voice leads to deniability, but Baxter speaks of an umbrella passivity; a monster cumulonimbus pouring–scratch that. Way too active. A damp, tepid blanket of a plot coupled to moist, rotting fibers of character. The book may or may not use passive voice, but it employs deniability as its overall failsafe; as if we’re saying, “you won’t catch this author having an opinion. Un-huh. I’m as much a dupe as my lackluster story.”
Perpetual victims make for tedious tales. Baxter cites C.K. Williams’ discussion of narrative dysfunction as the process by which we lose track of the story, stating, “one of the signs of a dysfunctional narrative is that we cannot leave it behind, and we cannot put it to rest, because, it does not, finally, give us the explanation we need to enclose it... Stories about being put upon almost literally do not know what to look at. The visual details are muddled or indifferently described or excessively specific in nonpertinent situations.”
In a passive book, characters don’t make mistakes and muhaha-bad-guys don’t exist. Villainy gives a character and a book “largeness, a sense of scale.” Without accountability, villains don’t color the landscape of the story. The plot fails and the characters float in a hopeless sea, unmoored and hapless. The characters remain sketches unaided by mistakes or flaws without direction. Quoting Baxter, “There is such a thing as the poetry of mistake, and when you say, “mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel... And I suppose I am nostalgic–as a writer, of course–for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that an adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale that would give back to us our imaginative grip on the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.”
Baxter defines the novel employing dysfunctional narrative as an emerging artform in America. I would add, “but not a story.” In using what Baxter calls dysfunctional narrative, an author sketches a poignant scene, cleans his brushes then leaves the work unfinished. As my mother would say, “poor pitiful Pearl, just so forlorn,” after a doll from the 1950's (great blog http://seesaw.typepad.com/blog/2009/11/william-steig-poor-pitiful-pearl.html) And forlorn describes this artwork. Another word which recalls the original meaning of forlorn is Godforsaken.
Taking a tiny punch at Calvinism and later Protestantism, Baxter argues predetermination. I don’t argue that predestination, poorly constructed, accurately describes this artform, entirely managed and without recourse. I will argue that Calvin and Arminius were strong proponents of accountability in the form of confession, contrition and reconciliation, all of which make for wonderfully flawed characters and Tolkien’s famous story type, eucatastrophe. Baxter notes that the characters are fated in passive books, “all personal decisions have been made meaningless, deniable. It is a life of fate, like a character disorder.” Call it a book disorder?
The passive novel is a new concept for me and a delightful way to describe a type of book. Thank you Charles Baxter.
Enough for now. BEV