This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by David Barringer

Among others, Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel has spurred lots of Internet discussion about post–modernism's impact on the form of the novel. But isn't pomo dead? Where is the novel really going? David Barringer thinks he knows . . .

16 May 2005 — Imagine this: a novel about a single decision. A character mulls over a single decision for an entire novel. I don't mean we watch the guy prowl the urban streets in cinematic reverie. I mean we're inside his head, the whole time, his consciousness being the setting, his thoughts the characters, the time in which he makes this decision (five minutes? five seconds?) stretched out over 500 pages. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the future of the novel.

Why am I thinking about expanding a single moment of dramatic choice (to kill or to kiss) into a novel? Two years ago, I read Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, and I'm still thinking about the implications of his opinion about the future of the novel.

Barzun observes that over the decades, following and at times foreseeing the advances of science and technology, the novel has gradually slowed down time and increasingly explored the interior realm of the human mind. The novel of the future will persist in slowing down time so that we may enter the mind and observe its workings.

In my view, here's the trick. A novelist has to find artistic means to slow down time (Proust), to get inside a single consciousness (David Foster Wallace), and to express thought without language breaking down completely (Joyce).

Charlie Kaufmann seems willing to venture into the depths of mind–travel and has returned with screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, he's going at consciousness indirectly, obliquely, rendering our consciousness as vertigo, surreality, or near madness. He isn't trying to directly represent consciousness, and anyway he's dealing with image, not language.

So the novelist still has a wide open field here. But there are so many obstacles to creating this work of art that it's (oh, hell) mind–boggling (sorry). The novelist must make an astonishing number of judgments before a single word is written, and any of these judgments can threaten to undermine the project.

How do you enter an individual consciousness? You have to be inside looking out looking back in. Or maybe you're inside a Level 1 consciousness looking deeper into a Level 2 consciousness and so on and so forth until you're tempted to resort to an allegory in which Id, Ego and the Holy Ghost have a sit–down.

Moving on. Must the consciousness necessarily be your own consciousness? If it's not your own, then you must invent a character whose imagination you may inhabit. The problem is your imagination contains this subimagination, and so the whole thing is an artificial laboratory mind from the get–go.

Moving on. Once you're there, inside the landscape of this consciousness, you have to observe. We know the presence of an observer affects what is observed by changing the environment (adding an observer causes ripples, affects gravity, warps perception, etc.). A self–conscious novelist must somehow recognize the effects of the intrusive observer.

But wait. Can the novelist be an intrusive observer in his own mind? Isn't he there already? It's going to sound weirdly false to announce to one's own consciousness, "Hey, my own consciousness, I'm here, like always, except today I'm here in the capacity of a novelist. Are you decent? Hello?"

Plus, what exactly can be observed? You can't get your eyes into your own brain, and even if you could (tiny camera mounted on a wire), your perspective would be an outside one, the doctor's camera's, not your own, the inhabitant's. Reporting from the photographs of a gross–anatomy book, you could describe the structural world of the brain, but these descriptions would hardly advance the art, rehashing instead descriptions of the flora and fauna of our objective world. Can you see a map of the brain as frontispiece, just like a map of Middle Earth in The Hobbit? Literal cartography is not what we're after.

Do you describe flashes of communication, glints of chemical transfer, the transition of energy in the sulci of the brain? Maybe you admit this neuroanatomy but then leave it to consider our thoughts as thoughts, that is, not the form of our thoughts or the vessels in which they are carried, combined and disposed of, but the content of our thoughts, the images, phobias, memories, lusts, etc.

If so, then you have to create some way in which to frame them, because that's what the brain does, frames them somehow so that we can tell the difference between remembered images and the images entering through our eyeballs this very second.

And where do those images go? Onto what hard drive is the streaming video of our consciously observed world stored and time–stamped and labeled with an expiration date? At all costs, the novelist must avoid turning the cavities and wells and structures of the mind into a recognizable city or office or mall, all of the mind's organic ambiguity scaled to suit an animated feature rather than the airless polymorphic nightmare consciousness can often be.

Perspective. What perspective to take? Close your eyes and look inward. Try to ignore the paisley lava–lamping tapestry swirling in the dark liquid scrim over your eyes. Now what? Alice plummets down the rabbit hole. Or are you floating? Are you even there at all? Is there such a thing as perspective in one's consciousness? Memories are preserved in the perspective in which they were seen, but glimpses of these memories in your mind flare up, float away, twist and curl and warp and bubble and overlap with sounds and smells and touches and emotions and the double–helicoid strands of language itself. They don't call the mind the novelist's next frontier for nothing.

Don't forget the language barrier. Once you delve deeply into the conscious mind, you find a world of phenomenon beyond or beneath capture in words. Elusive. Ineffable. A swarm of fragments, clipped phrases, half–thoughts, dreams, hallucinations. Whole arguments go nowhere, trains of thought you've tugged along since you were a child, adding car after car headed for destination unknown and unknowable. Fears, desires, associations, lusts. It's a madhouse.

And yet, it isn't. We can control it. We can assert authority over our own rambling disorder. The novelist must investigate the rambling disorder as well as this authority, recognizing that this authority may coincide with the identity of the novelist doing the investigation (around and around we go). Somehow, we impose a linear order upon our multilayered nonlinear battleground of consciousness, and, if the novelist wishes to remain a novelist and not a screenwriter or some other artist, the novelist, working in a linear medium, must do the same.

Here lies hope for the brain–spelunking novelist: somehow, we possess a governor, the capacity to let our minds wander where they will and in the next instant to control this energy, manage it, follow a thought, spin out a consequence, imagine an argument, address another person, act in the world. We judge. We choose. We act. It's very nearly a miracle, one we do not yet have the scientific ability to reveal in all its wonder.

I imagine a novelist portraying a single consciousness at work on a single judgment call, a slow–motion dramatization of the process of one character coming to a decision, a dramatization that promises to be epic in scope, given the grand unexplored vastness of the human consciousness.

And so the novelist must dare to tread into this purgatorial limbo, knowing all the while that there is no guarantee of success in the excursion, the immersion, or the artistic outcome. Observation is easily stymied, and the experience is liable to be fraudulent. Novelists risking the unknown may return long–haired and mumbling, surrendering to the creation of some lesser work out of sheer humiliated frustration.

But I hope one—all it takes is one—will return with the future of the novel.

David Barringer is the author of the nonfiction book, American Mutt Barks in the Yard, co–published by Emigre and Princeton Architectural Press. His first novel, Johnny Red, was recently published by Word Riot Press.

©2005 David Barringer

Previous columns:
BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL . . . After his mainstream publisher didn't want his second novel, Larry Baker got an idea about how to sell his second book himself when a flash of inspiration came to him in the local grocery store.

ANATOMY OF A HOAX . . . When Paul Maliszewski heard Michael Chabon tell a false story about a real writer, he wrote about it. So what led the New York Times to cover Chabon's hoax with an attack on Maliszewski featuring testimony from Dave Eggers?

EXTREMELY MELODRAMATIC AND INCREDIBLY SAD . . . Steve Almond explains in a guest column that he really wanted to like Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, but something about his use of 9/11 eventually got to him. And is it the beginning of a trend?

FOETRY SPEAKS! . . . By revealing that the winners of some prominent literary contests had ties to the judges, has made some bitter enemies. Why do it? The anonymous editor explains in a guest column.


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.