The child sex abuse scandal that’s rocking the Roman Catholic Church guarantees that Linden MacIntrye’s The Bishop’s Man will continue to chart the bestseller list for a while longer. Winner of the Giller Prize last fall, it’s well worth the read, topical or not. In an interview last fall, in connection with his winning the Giller, MacIntyre talked about what draws him to the novel. As a journalist with CBC’s ‘The Fifth Estate’ he has covered the story of the church’s attempts to cover up incidents of sexual abuse. The novel allows him to do something that he cannot do as a journalist. It allows him to go inside the minds of his characters. It allows him to inhabit his characters and bring them to life as full human beings, with all their virtues and vices.
In his book This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, Noah Richler takes up this same question as to what makes the novel special and seemingly immune to constant threats to kill it off. “What sets the novel apart is the ‘imaginative leap’ that its author makes in order to create and then inhabit a character, and that its readers make in turn. This simple dynamic is what gives the novel its identity. … And in this assumption that readers make – that we are all, at some base level, alike – lies the magnanimity, but also the aggressive and even colonizing impulse of the novel. For the novel is a hegemonic thing, righteous on behalf of a certain conception of humankind’s place in the world.”
The novel does what other forms of storytelling (such as the epic and the mythic stories that we associate with “oral” societies’) cannot do. Again quoting Richler: “The novel says, ‘For me to know you and portray you in good faith, I must remember that you and I are fundamentally alike. Perhaps only circumstance is what has made us different’.” Novelists do their work by “putting themselves in their protagonists’ shoes and making that imaginative leap, no matter their creations’ extremities of character.” There is no absolute evil in the novel, as there is in the epic and in creation myths. The worst characters in a novel are still human beings, like all the rest of us. “This quality puts the novel close to be an ‘end of narrative,’ if you like – a form of story that is as versatile and enduring as the belief in human rights that it reflects.”
Others have less faith, or no faith at all, in the novel’s versatility and endurance. Books heralding the death of the novel are nothing new, and the latest is David Shields’ Reality Hunger. The novel as we know it, with its linear plot and defined character, is, Shields believes, dead – or worse, irrelevant. “Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though – standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the Web – flies at us in bright splinters.” Our reality is fragmented, chaotic, asymmetrical, elusive and noisy, and since reality is what we hunger for, the conventional novel is obviously inadequate for the task. It’s a throwback to a bygone era. We need something new. Shields’ prescription is what he calls the ‘lyric essay’ – based on the collage technique, the structural equivalent of our splintered reality.
This all sounds eerily familiar. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s manifesto, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, published in Paris in 1963, also declared that the conventions of the traditional novel (character, story, etc.) were “obsolete” and that the novel, to survive, had to move from “realism” to “reality.” Robbe-Grillet: “All the technical elements of the narrative – systematic use of the past tense and the third person, unconditional adoption of chronological development, linear plots, regular trajectory of the passions, impulse of each episode toward a conclusion, etc. – everything tended to impose the image of a stable, coherent, continuous, unequivocal, entirely decipherable universe. Since the intelligibility of the world was not even questioned, to tell a story did not raise a problem. The style of the novel could be innocent.”
It all began to change with Flaubert. “A hundred years later the whole system is no more than a memory; and it is to that memory, to that dead system, that some seek with all their might to keep the novel fettered.” For Robbe-Grillet, after Flaubert, after Proust, after Faulkner, after Beckett, “To tell a story has become strictly impossible.”
This is all very seductive, especially when it is presented in terms that could have been drawn from Frye. Here’s Frye: “The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.” And here’s Robbe-Grillet: “To speak of the content of the novel as something independent of its form comes down to striking the genre as a whole from the realm of art. For the work of art contains nothing, in the strict sense of the term. … Art endures no servitude of this kind, nor any other pre-established function. It is based on no truth that exists before it; and one may say that it expresses nothing but itself. It creates its own equilibrium and its own meaning.”
What’s missing in Robbe-Grillet and in Shields, though, is an understanding of our hunger for story, for creating order out of chaos, for finding meaning in the fragments of everyday life. It seems to me that any theory that says that plot, story, the narrative impulse, coherent characters are no longer relevant to our ‘reality’ is bound to fail, because the desire to tell a story is part of our genetic make-up. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s part of the reason we have survived as a species. To tell a story, to inhabit well-defined characters is the imagination at work, creating “out of the society we live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”
The novel is big enough to encompass many ways of writing. To say that there is one way that’s more relevant, or authentic, or better able to reflect reality, or whatever, is to create a sort of mafia, an inner circle, a ruling council, that wants to dictate and say, Yes, this is the way we must now write. If it’s not this ‘lyric essay’ – if it doesn’t use the ‘collage’ technique – it’s no good. It’s not ‘where it’s at’. It’s not dealing with the ‘reality we hunger for.’
Here’s a quote from Frye that Michael posted on the blog the other day that I like very much: “The capacity to merge with another person’s being without violating it seems to be at the centre of love, just as the will to dominate one conscious soul-will externally by another is the centre of all tyranny and hatred. John Donne uses a beautiful figure in this connection based on the metaphor of an individual life as a book. The spiritual world, he says, is a library ‘where all books lie open together’.” In a literary universe where no one is trying to dominate and force his way to the top, to dictate the terms of acceptance, all kinds of books, all kinds of fiction and non-fiction, would lie open together. The ‘lyric essay’ could lie down with the ‘conventional’ novel, like the lion with the lamb.
These thoughts are gathered in anticipation of the annual gathering we call the Frye Festival, which goes from April 19-25. Our website, with list of authors and full schedule, is www.frye.ca. We’ve scheduled two roundtables where these and related questions will be addressed. On Thursday, April 22, from noon to 1:30, Linden MacIntyre, Annabel Lyon (author of The Golden Mean), and Martin Winkler will talk about “Stories, and What They Do.” On Friday, April 23, from noon to 1:30, Noah Richler, Nino Ricci, Maryse Rouy, and Daniel Poliquin will take on the topic “Writing Lives and Afterlives.” What is the magic that happens when real lives are turned into fiction or biography? What are the ethics of using real people as models or sources of fictional characters? What happens when a novelist bring the narrative gift to the writing of biography?
Footnote: While working on this entry Thursday morning (April 1) I turned on CBC radio, and to my surprise there was Linden MacIntyre, as guest host of CBC’s “the Current,” interviewing David Shields about his new book. To hear this lively exchange go to www.cbc.ca/thecurrent and click on the podcast for April 1. MacIntyre, as the author of a ‘conventional’ novel (The Bishop’s Man), more than holds his own. Shields was set back on his heels, from a couple of strong body blows.