A LITERARY LOOK AT I-STATE LINES
The fundamental tenet of "critical studies" or post-modern literary analysis is that the text itself is the only worthy object of study. This worldview has taken firm hold in literary circles and has been spreading to other text-rich fields as well. It is thus a small rebellion to state that the author's intentions have as much meaning as the text itself.
It is also a small rebellion to claim that I-State Lines is a consciously post-post-modern work.
The post-modern critical worldview began in the late 60s and early 70s in France, a nation whose language, culture and philosophic literature lend themselves to obscure analysis. The basic critical method is to conduct a meta-analysis of the text to parse out meanings and reflections of culture which lie beyond the author's intentions, the story and indeed the characters themselves.
While this critical technique has merit--all literature necessarily encapsulates hidden cultural assumptions, limitations and obsessions of a particular time in a particular society--it does not map all ground or explicate all mysteries. For critical studies holds a paradox at its heart: it is not only literature which is imprisoned in a time and worldview, but criticism itself shares those same inescapable limitations.
If we turn the post-modern method back on itself, then we see its true nature in the meta-reflection: it is a deeply naive intellectual strutting, a vainly self-conscious attempt to escape the very limitations it so deftly finds in other texts. If man is a useless passion, then critical theory is a useless reductionism, an intellectual narcissism claiming to open up meaning even as it shrivels in its own gaze to a circular absurdity.
Can a method which claims to "totalize" all text escape a further totalization by a less self-conscious and more sure-footed critical worldview? It cannot.
The post-modern worldview that text must be broken down to extract the true meaning has led to a very self-conscious era in fiction, an era in which the structure and form of the novel is seen as the "real story." As a result, structure and form have been very self-consciously manipulated into all sorts of puzzles which are designed to speak directly to a meta-analysis.
The classic form of characters engaged in a plot with a purpose or stake and a beginning, middle and end, is viewed as old-fashioned and hopelessly dated; no one "enters" a story unself-consciously any more, or at least not in "serious" fiction. The representational novel, that is, one which aimed for a naturalistic realism, was seen as no longer possible; literary criticism (or dare we say fashion?) had rendered such artifice as obsolete.
The only form of fiction which could hold up under such an acutely self-conscious analysis Is itself acutely self-conscious. The traditional (and therefore naive) view that a book's telos or goal was to encourage a reader to suspend belief and enter a fictionalized world as if it were real was jettisoned in favor of a purely presentational one which rendered reality though a strictly controlled interpretative voice and structure.
The reader, then, was to be guided through a meta-analysis by the structure of the novel itself, rather than the story. The result of this overthrow of representation by a self-consciously presentational structure was a literature built on a formal refutation of story.
The author, in effect, refused the reader the traditional comforts of a story, plot or character; the only method which met with approval was disassembly. The standard flow of time--from beginning to end--and the point of view were both carefully disrupted; only books which jumpcut through time and from character to character in a manner designed to confuse the reader are deemed "contributions."
One example of this might be Gravity's Rainbow, a post-modern opus from the early 70s still held in high critical esteem. Overlooked, it seems, is the fundamental unreadability of the book. For in post-modern literature, obscurity and confusion are the gods which rule, and the reader has to work, damn you, work, to hack through the well-watered jungle of obscurantism, jargon and purposeful chaos to some meta-meanings.
Thus we are told that there is no meaning per se to Gravity's Rainbow; the reading itself is the meaning, and the transformation of the reader is all the alchemy of working through a text which was constructed to make no ordinary sense.
This project has an irresistable allure for an intellectually-dependent critic; for these largely academic critics, the toiling of the reader through chaos and obscurity is the right and good path to a new, rigorously enlightened worldview--unsurprisingly, perhaps, one closely aligned with the elevated self-referential one held by the critics themselves.
This cosily intellectual transformation stands in stark contrast with literature which takes the reader on what is essentially an emotional or spiritual journey to a new understanding of being human. This over-intellectualizaion of the novelistic project explains its fundamental failure to engage readers beyond the incestuous royalty of academia and a fringe of insecure intellectual sychophants who faun over cerebral pap to show they "get it."
As a result, the exhaustion of the novel in what is essentially a supremely self-conscious academic cul-de-sac is now complete; as even Norman Mailer recently complained, "serious fiction" no longer plays a role in our culture, and no longer engages readers. We do not read novels to gather beads of cerebral sweat on our brow as we reach for some intellectual understanding that the world is chaotic, contingent and absurd; we read it for precisely what Melville, Zola, Dostoevsky, Twain, Soseki, Ellison, et. al. provide, an engagement with a place and a time and a mind and a heart.
If you think this strained, then consider what Nabokov said about literature:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster.That, it seems to me, is an apt description of the entire semiotic project.
The other critically approved avenue for fiction is a magical escape from representation; books in which the main character is dead and speaking from Heaven are viewed as clever or ground-breaking, and any sort of absurdist discontinuity which breaks down or disrupts narrative is met with approval--at least by critics, if not by the poor confused readers.
Any such intensely self-conscious art is doomed to a never-ending escalation of breakage, for only by smashing the last taboos and traditions can any artist reach the elevated status of "ground-breaking." One can see this dynamic most clearly in the art world, where the interpretation of the art must precede the art itself, lest the viewer have no idea why the art is critically valued.
Misshapen lumps of metal, random applications of paper, dreary blurred photos--all of these self-consciously non-decorative and non-beautiful objects meet with critical approval precisely because only the "priesthood" of critics and "those in the know" are privy to the profound (and by definition, the priesthood deals only in profundity) meaning of the jumble.
And so it is with literature. "Serious fiction" has become predictably unreadable as writers scramble to find "new ground" to be broken, when all has been broken and re-broken for 100 years. We now stand before a blank canvas which has a single spot of white paint in a corner, nearly invisible; it is greatness itself, this flaunting of self-conscious destruction. There is no representation, no narrative, no beauty, indeed, no art at all, for it is a text designed for a dwindling, tiresomely narcisstic priesthood.
There is one other beast slouching toward this ruined Bethlehem, of course, and that is a disheveled but not yet discredited victimhood. Can't lose categories here include the abused woman, the immigrant torn from a traditional world and thrown into the sordid maw of America, or the drug-addled youth raised in a laughably dysfunctional family--inevitably an unintended parody of American life--who finds renewal after a long and apparently entertaining wallow in the gutter of violence, drugs and criminality. Then there's the always popular subcategory of New York yuppie woman with everything but a baby suffering at the hands of a cruelly infertile fate. AIDS and random death are always welcome in these genres, as there can never be enough heavy-handed interpretation in a post-modern world.
If I may quote Nabokov again:
I presume there exists readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called "powerful" and "stark" by the reviewing hack.The world of traditional narrative is very much alive in the best seller lists, of course; people still want to read mysteries, romances, military thrillers and family stories, and the authors who have successfully industrialized the production of these stories--Steven King, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel and John Grisham--account for some 80% of all fiction book sales.
Laying in the fallow fields between these two busy metropolises, that of critically approved but largely unreadable books and the factory-wrapped fiction of the best-seller lists, lie the rest of us, the unknown writers who find no home in either city.
It seems to me that an author's intentions still bear on the meaning of a book, as do the reader's own interpretations. With these two attractors in mind, let me say that I consider I-State Lines a post-post-modern novel precisely because it rejects the demand that structure and narrative be torn up and rendered obscure, even as it refuses the demands of the traditional form for a plot which announces itself, works through a series of conflicts and then resolves itself neatly at the end.
The characters in I-State Lines have nothing at stake; they do not seek their long-lost father, or hidden treasure, or any other well-worn narrative goal. Theirs is a naturalistic journey bound by themes rather than plot or the artifice of a consciously disassembled structure. The voice is always that of Daz, and it is a naturalistic voice of a young man relating tales of his trip in the sort of not-quite linear way that humans relate stories to friends.
It is very much an invitation to the reader to enter the private world of Daz's mind and memories. Lacking plot points, it is not a traditional narrative; lacking "ground-breaking" excesses or the trussed-up artifice of structural tricks, it is not a post-modern attempt at finding meaning via form.
It is a book of character and themes rather than plot or structure, and for this it may well be savaged as neither here nor there. It may be a mediocre work of fiction; I am in no position to say. But it is a book which, beneath the standard first-person voice, moves consciously against the grain of both tradition and critical artifice.
If you would like to learn more about the themes, or at least those the author intended, please read the Afterword.
copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.