Aftermath and Visions in Contemporary American Fiction
What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher R. Beha (Tin House Books, 2012)
Enon by Paul Harding (Random House, 2013)
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro (Grove Press, 2013)
THE SPONTANEOUS and unremembered wanderings of an amnesiac are often called a fugue state. But the word fugue, from the Latin fugere, meaning to flee or escape, can be misleading. Fugue implies a kind of aporia, a “to be or not to be” soliloquy that savors its own confusion; it describes a wanderer who has no goal other than to become lost, to rove, as if her discursive self is a burden she casts off from time to time.
In actuality, amnesiacs are trying to return when they wander, not flee. It’s not freedom or flight they want but to recover their sense of place. By wandering they are hoping to overcome a sudden alienation from the familiar, hoping to stumble upon a semblance of home and follow it until it leads them back into a world they recognize.
In fiction, the forces acting on protagonists are similarly not centrifugal, “center fleeing,” even when they appear to be. They are more often centripetal, “center seeking”—a petere state of wandering. The tale of Odysseus, for example, casts a long shadow in fiction for the simple reason that it represents a mono-myth writers rarely manage to avoid. The story of a traumatic encounter followed by a long-awaited return, a wandering constantly interrupted by mirages that threaten and delay the hero’s journey back—that’s the kind of story that lives in us, in our blood, in our history, in our sacred texts.
Recent American offerings in fiction have especially made wandering—whether it manifests itself as intellectual, metaphysical, or literal—into a new theater of experimentation and variation. Characters make their way through worlds that are uninhabitable and unrecognizable because of some unspeakable trauma at the story’s opening or in the story’s background (I use the word “story” here to also describe novels). These are characters prone to visions and deep disorientation, and useful to writers for those same reasons.
The literary models of our generation have revitalized this trail. Ruth, who introduces herself to us in the opening sentence of Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping, lives in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. Her primary conflict is one of centrality. Whether she is in a fugue or petere state of being, eccentric or centric to an ordered life, whether she is fleeing or seeking home in the midst of her aftermath, all depends on our point of reference.
So every wanderer whose presence suggested it might be as well to drift, or it could not matter much, was met with something that seemed at first sight a moral reaction, since morality is a check upon the strongest temptations. And these strangers were fed on the stoop, and sometimes warmed at the stove, in a spirit that seemed at first sight pity or charity, since pity and charity may be at root an attempt to propitiate the dark powers that have not touched us yet. When one of these lives ended within the town jurisdiction, the preacher could be relied upon to say “This unfortunate,” as if an anonymous grave were somehow deeper than a grave with a name above it. So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us.
Ruth is a character capable of roving out to the margins of existence and perception in order to find something familiar, something she could call a home. In the midst of this wandering, visions call to Ruth like Virgil in the Purgatorio: “Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart…. If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve…but often she slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished.”
Consider how different this kind of aftermath is to what we might encounter in modern American fiction. In Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp” a young boy named Nick momentarily leaves the white civilized world and enters a Native American settlement with his father to help deliver a baby. The trauma of Nick’s experience in the camp is profound. He is forced to look away on several occasions. The violence he witnesses, inflicted both upon the woman, who is given a Caesarean section, as well as upon her husband, who commits suicide, would be enough to send a contemporary character into a shattered, medicated dream world for two hundred pages. But the story does not go there. The boy does not become a wanderer through the vivid aftermath of his trauma. He instead “felt quite sure that he would never die.”
In this way Nick subverts his own coming-of-age tale and is the perfect foil to our contemporary protagonists. Nick responds to trauma by rejecting the experience altogether. He will not give himself over to a fugue or petere state of being. Instead, he is emboldened by the traumatic experience. This rite of passage has made him immortal, and like Heracles in the myth of Alcestis, he is ready to meet Thanatos. In this way, though he doesn’t wander through an aftermath embroidered with visions, Nick is arguably even further from reality and in greater danger of becoming a tragic character than Ruth. Nick will not discover his own homelessness, and therefore will always be without a spiritual home. This difference between Ruth and Nick as archetypes exposes a tendency in contemporary fiction to rely on aftermath as a virtue, not a weakness. It is fertile ground, a starting place for narrative urgency, a chance for writers to utilize the fragility of a character’s psyche in the face of trauma as the source of anagogical movement
The tension present in modernism between confessional writers like Plath and Berryman and dramatists like Hemingway and O’Connor has given way to this solution on the other side of postmodernity: to stage a new drama in the place of visions, the psyche. To get there, contemporary writers must create worlds that force characters to let go of the familiar, to seek out new definitions of home. It is not surprising, then, in a society increasingly aware of and sensitive to unimaginable trauma, that aftermath would become a central technique of our narratives.
Paul Harding’s Enon is an extreme expression of a contemporary novel relying on the power of aftermath. The protagonist, Charlie Crosby (grandson to the clockmaker at the center of his Pulitzer Prize–winning debut Tinkers), has lost his daughter Kate in a tragic accident. He enters a petere-state of being so complete it renders the book essentially plotless. The lack of dramatic action is, in fact, the point of the book: to build a purgatorial space, to create an imaginary dialogue between the character and the reader, a dialogue about the mystery of suffering, of time, of history, and finally, of salvation.
The real visions begin for Charlie—as does his dependency on painkillers—after he breaks his hand against a wall. “I had a vision of all the versions of Kate I’d invented since her death lined up along a shelf on a wall, like old dolls in a dark, dust-choked room in the back reaches of the oldest basement in the village. They were made of rags and hay and grain sewn into little sacks, disemboweled by mice and rats. They had mismatched eyes of marbles or buttons. Their heads were scavenged gourds or cracked porcelain skulls that whistled in the drafty night.”
Charlie wants to move inward, he wants to return to a home he can recognize, and so he must wander around in the history and landscape of New England until he stumbles on something that will allow him to continue to abide. This narrative tactic gives Harding room to operate at the center of his gifts as a writer as he translates the past and the sweeping motion of time into the present through the power of language. These are moments of lyric upheaval. Visions of sermons being preached from famous stone monuments in New England become Charlie’s anti-Virgil, enticing him with the call to “put down roots” when he clearly cannot, “Dear Children, our righteous root has yielded fruit again! So long as our ground is good and the thorns do not choke it, the root shall not cease such yield, but each year become pregnant again with sweet bounty.”
Throughout the novel, meta-references serve to represent Charlie’s increasing suspicion of reality. This trope, like Macbeth’s famous soliloquy (“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage”), is intended to be a curse on reality. In moments like these the character takes an objective view of the world and, unlike God in the Genesis creation account, does not find it good but instead mere simulacra, fraudulent. By depicting his aftermath world as a cliché, Charlie arms himself in his grief with the greatest insult possible against the creative force behind his life.
Early in the book Charlie imagines that he and his wife are merely acting out a horrible tragedy. “What an awful thing then, being there in our house together with our daughter gone, trying to be equal to so many sudden orders of sorrow…. I felt like an actor in a play, the house a cutaway set, the first floor the living room and hallway and foot of the stairs, the second floor the bedroom. The husband stands at the foot of the stairs….”
Later in the novel, after Charlie’s wife leaves him alone in Enon, he recasts the cemetery as a set piece: “I spent so many nights sitting in, stealing through, crawling over, and sometimes passing out in, the cemetery…that I came to think of it and the hills and adjacent golf courses as a large, elaborate set, constructed on a rotating stage. The stone wall served as the hood for the footlights, and the putting green was the apron of the stage.”
If this imagery reminds you of the excruciatingly languid plotlessness of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, you’re not too far off. The difference is that in Enon we are submerged in Charlie’s narration, a point of view which never fully succumbs to oblivion or bitterness. Charlie strives continually to place himself in history, in the landscape, and in the story of suffering humanity. These are the finest moments of the novel, embodying the beautiful discursiveness Harding is known for while making the woefulness something worth passing through and out of: “Wasn’t the joy of those thirteen years its own realm, encased in sorrow but not breached by it? That is what I told myself.”
Christopher Beha’s debut novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder is in many ways a by-product of his memoir The Whole Five Feet. In the memoir, the author commits himself to reading the fifty-one volume anthology known as the Harvard Classics—which, if you haven’t guessed, takes up about five feet of shelf space. What Happened to Sophie Wilder harvests the reading undertaken in the memoir to beautiful effect, cycling through allusions and quotes that span the loveliest thinkers of western civilization, including Plato, Augustine, Marcus Aurelius, Henry James, Thoreau, T.S Elliot, and many others. These allusions aid in the development of the book’s primary motifs, one of which is the notion of being without a spiritual home in the world:
Thoreau offers the French sans terre as a root for the verb “to saunter.” A true saunterer, he said, is without a land of his own. Our own wandering had in it that element of homelessness. There was something desperate to the way we walked….
The “we” refers to the two focal characters, Sophie and Charlie. In the first few pages we intuit that Sophie and Charlie are caught in a binary relationship, orbiting each other while being separated by a strange flux. They are a pair of wanderers. Their relationship creates powerful arcs of suspense that allow for the development of symbolic resonance around them. Both are living and roving in aftermath. They have each experienced tremendous loss, mainly the loss of parents, and they navigate in the aftermath by their loss, as if to find in grief a kind of light and power. They are both fiction writers and their vision is the vision of writers, which makes for a complex layering of meta-references throughout the book. Unlike the ghostly visions of Harding’s novel, What Happened shows us characters who like to view themselves from above, a false reality that endangers them in the same way Nemesis threatened Narcissus with a pool of water.
I asked where she was headed, and I discovered that we lived in the same building, though I hadn’t seen her there before. I felt then for the first time that unsurprised feeling that returned…as if from then on whoever was writing us down would take care to keep us near each other, to return us to each other’s stories, even when all the forces of convention and plausibility spoke against it.
This meta-referential trope is at times pushed too far. By the end of the book the analogy of the writer as God needs a rest and unfortunately does not receive it. “He was her character now,” Sophie thinks of her dying father-in-law, “and she looked upon him as God looks upon all the benighted.” The meta-references do, however, prepare us for the book’s ending: the novel is a composite of two stories, each told from a different point of view, and we discover as the story closes—and diverges from its partner story in several points of fact—that the narrator of one is also the author of the other.
There are strong parallels here to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Both Sophie and Charlie call into question the mystery of capax Dei, the ability to experience God, in striking similarity to Waugh’s Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte.
Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism is sudden and mystical and leaves her “Dizzy with light.” The description of this moment is beautiful and appropriately laced with sexuality, calling to mind Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa: “It got closest to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied.” Her faith is soon truncated, however, by an obsession with hell and atonement. She becomes emotionally inscrutable as the novel develops. Despairing and gnostic, “Sophie kneeled alone beside the pile of flesh that Bill Crane left behind and tried again to pray…. He had died unrepentant, and there was no interceding for him now.” Her trauma is compounded by her theology, creating deep instabilities that finally lead to her death.
Charlie, in contrast, is the character of witness and indecision. He is not swept up into faith, but left standing on its rim. His aftermath incorporates this loss of Sophie and gives way to a retelling of her story, a vision of redemption, the end of her wandering.
Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More is not for the faint of heart (and if you blush easily, I wouldn’t read this book in public). In many of these stories the eschatological power of writers like Flannery O’Connor and François Mauriac takes on a new subversive form. Quatro undergoes a ruthless inquisition into the sentiments that pervade cultural Christianity in the American South. In stories like “Better to Lose an Eye,” which mimics O’Connor’s “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and “Sink Hole,” which centers on a boy who is seeking healing for a psychological condition, we are left dismayed by how deeply we feel for the characters in spite of how little we might have in common with them.
The trauma that transforms the worlds of many of the characters in this book is the realization that cultural Christianity has become unrecognizable and uninhabitable as a seat of mercy and wisdom. And yet, without another place to go, its loss becomes a spiritual and regional aftermath through which the characters are forced to wander:
The Presbyterians wouldn’t tell us for sure if Sam went to heaven when he died…. “But I can tell you that the scriptures are full of promises to children born into covenant families,” he said. “And you are a covenant family, so in all likelihood Sam is with the Lord.”
“Are we talking percentages here?” my father said.
“All I know,” the pastor said, “is that when I get to heaven and see every baby that ever died, I will say, God, you are so good. And if I get to heaven and see only some of the dead babies there, I will say, God, you are so good. And if I get to heaven and see not one dead baby there, I will say, God, you are so good.”
We found another church. It’s called Ethos. As in: the church needs a new ethos because the old one is screwed.
It’s difficult to speak about a collection of stories this diverse. Some are visions in and of themselves, reminiscent of the fable-like irrealism that made writers like Donald Barthelme seem prophetic in the seventies. Other stories have a clearly delineated aftermath, usually cultural Christianity and infidelity mixing toxically. Quatro’s characters often seek their center in sexuality, an indicting theme throughout the collection.
In “You Look like Jesus,” the cultural worship of sexuality is played upon in the conflation of two very different kinds of passion, the passion of Christ and the passion of sex, as is the instant gratification available in technology:
I didn’t keep the photographs he sent. At the time, deleting them felt like a way to esteem my husband.
I remember the important ones. A cell phone picture he took during a long run: waist-up, eyes squinting, face shining with sweat, rows of white tombstones behind.
Here I am, his text said. Please call.
The story that opens Quatro’s collection speaks most directly to the theme that unites all three of these books, that visions in contemporary fiction which may seem at first arbitrary and tragic are more like soundings, meaningful attempts characters make to locate the bottom, to seek out sanctuary. These opening sentences from “Caught Up” follow this pattern:
The vision started coming when I was nine. It was always the same: I was alone, standing on the brick patio in front of our house, watching thick clouds above the mountains turn shades of red and purple, then draw themselves together and spiral. Whirlpool, hurricane, galaxy…then came a tugging in my middle, as if I were a kite about to be yanked up by a string attached just below my navel…. When I told my mother, she said, God speaks to his children in dreams.
The narrator’s mother transforms the chaotic and unrecognizable world of the dream into an offering, a path. She encourages her child to wander, to linger in the strangeness of the dream in order to find a home in God. Whether the guidance is real, or only sentiment, as with all matters of faith, who can say? What can be said is that the desire for coherence, the love of the familiar, is transformative, and is itself a kind of fidelity that outshines absurdity and aporia. Here, as with Paul Harding and Christopher Beha, the visions signify an intense inner desire, a character waiting for the world to be made meaningful again. This is the paradox at the heart of literary fiction: to find in what seems to flee the world something that could not be more familiar, or central to our place in it.