Alexis-Andre

At 11:11 on a Tuesday night in January, I called my own number and was slightly annoyed to find myself at home. I know it’s important to have these little discussions with yourself but, these days, I often find myself in a bad mood. (And vice-versa, of course.) The time before a book is published is a mild but constant irritation, like thinking you’ve left the stove on when you’re miles away from home. So, I struggled to be civil.[1]

– How are you? I asked.

– I’ve been better, I answered.

– Something on your mind?

– I can’t stop thinking about Harry Mathews and Italo Calvino.

– The usual thing?

– Yes. I still don’t know if it makes sense to talk about your work’s form or structure, or any of the things that went into making it.

– As far as I can see, you won’t shut up about your work’s underpinnings. Alana[2] constantly reminds you to keep that stuff to yourself, but do you? No, you don’t, even though you know that if you tell people about a book’s architecture they’ll judge the architecture instead of the book.

– Look, I know all the arguments. Harry doesn’t think a book’s architecture is anybody’s business but, maybe, other writers’.

– Like cabinet-makers sharing trade secrets with other cabinet-makers.

– Yes. And I used to be on Harry’s side. But now I wonder if Italo Calvino wasn’t right, even if it’s not for the reasons he gave.

– He thought the things that generate a work – its formal structure or the constraints a writer used to create it – were banal, like the code used for a computer game. So, why not talk about them? If you’re playing Doom and you start thinking about the code its programmers used, it means Doom’s not working for you. Same with a novel. If you’re thinking about the rules that generated If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, it means it’s not working and not knowing the rules isn’t going to help you, either.

– But there’s a difference between novels and computer games! Most people believe they could write a book of some sort, if only they had the time and patience. But very few are going to learn a programming language and then go out and write a new game for a particular platform. With novels and books, everybody’s an expert. So, when you tell the average reader about lipograms or mathematical constraints, they get defensive because you’re dealing in technicalities they haven’t thought about and they call you pretentious and, from that moment, they can’t read the book without thinking about the book’s constraints or structure. If this was all there was to it, I’d be on Harry’s side. One hundred percent. Shut up about the technical details and let the reader enjoy a book for what he or she gets out of it.

– We should all be like Tommaso Landolfi: no pictures, few words, just get on with it.

– Sure, if we didn’t live in an age when readers want “authenticity” above all. They want real this and real that. They want novels where the novelist is writing about this trauma or that trauma. The worse the better! They swallow traumas whole. They believe they’re getting the real. They completely forget that they they’re reading fiction.

– They don’t forget. They want to forget. What’s wrong with that?

– For one thing, it leads to pandering. It leads to writers like James Frey feeling they have to insist on the reality of the work in order to get the readership’s attention. We’re creating liars who’re ashamed of their lies.

– You think writers should be proud of their lies?

– No, I think the real should just go knit. I didn’t start writing in order to show some careless bastard my inner pain. Along with creating a generation of guilt-ridden liars, we’ve created a readership of vampires who’re interested in how well you can show their own suffering back to them.

– And this all started when, according to you, your highness?

– Things aren’t like that. There’s no specific time when the idea of authenticity and the idea of suffering suddenly coincided. Maybe they’ve always coincided, to some extent. But, for the first time since I began writing, it occurred to me to wonder if raw emotion or so-called raw emotion has become more important that rhythm, narrative, characterization, pace, diction. There is so much more to narrative fiction than the expression of “real” emotion or the whole “holding a mirror up to reality” business. Honestly, these days, where fiction’s concerned, I wonder if a graceful lie isn’t more revolutionary than the truth.

– And, so, the solution?

– Look, who knows? But maybe one of the things to do is to insist on the created-ness of the work. That’s why I’ve come around to Calvino’s thinking. Why not let people know how false, how created the work is. Force them to engage with the imagination.

– The imagination? Oh please. Telling readers about how a work was created is another way of insisting on what’s real. It’s like Andy Patton[3] said about colour field painters. When a painter titles a red painting “Red” he or she is being more truthful that someone who calls a painting “Sailboat” or “Ancient Castle”. A painting isn’t a castle or a sailboat. It’s a depiction. But a canvas with red paint on it called “Red” actually is red. When you talk about lipograms or constraints or whatever generated a novel, you’re insisting on the actual things behind it. You’re insisting on the real as much as anyone else, no?

– Sure, there are conventions of what’s called the real, but you’re missing the point. The imagination isn’t inferior to reality. It isn’t secondary. It isn’t gratuitous. It isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity and part of what makes it necessary is that it’s not real. Without the imagination, there is no real. To talk about the conventions of the imagination, about the ways the imagination is manipulated is to insist not on the real but on what makes the real possible.

– Why bother talking about it at all? Let others talk about what they like or what they want. Literature’s an endless skirmish between versions of the real or the genuine or the authentic and the unreal, the un-genuine, the inauthentic. In the end, Harry’s still right. Nobody needs to know how your work was made. It’s not your job to play that game at all. Write and then shut up.

– Yeah, well … Thanks for the advice.

– You’re welcome, I said.

But neither of us was comforted.

 

[1] I sometimes feel guilty about my inability to be civil when talking to myself but I take comfort in the fact that, in fiction at least, people almost never get along with alternate versions of themself. Take Ijon Tichy, in Stanislaw Lem’s Star Diaries or the character in Philip Dick’s Solar Lottery. They get angry when they meet past or future versions of themselves. In Ijon Tichy’s case, he even gives himself a black eye.

[2] My publisher at Coach House Press: blonde, reasonable, harried, and most often right.

[3] Canadian painter, friend to both André Alexis and André Alexis.

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ANDRÉ ALEXIS was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His other previous books include Asylum, Beauty and Sadness, Ingrid & the Wolf and, most recently, Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was named a Globe and Mail Top 100 book of 2014.

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