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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Plots and secrecy

When I used to review novels for Publishers Weekly, the form was dictated partly by the editorial limitation of space: I had 250 to 300 words to operate in. Conventionally, the review would either start out with or end with some elaboration of an adjective – basically, blurb territory. Then would come characters and plot – or telling what the novel was about. If I could find the room, I might refer to the writer’s reputation.
Now, this procedure relies heavily on the idea that a novel is about a plot, and that a plot is something that one can extract from the text that ‘moves’ the events and characters in the novel forward. Even if the novel varies “forward” – even if it is arranged chronologically so that it looks backwards, or it mixes up narrative patches that are in the past or future of the narrative’s present – the plot is the thing that makes the novel. The plot is to the novel what the plays are to a game – a plot encloses, in a determined field, the chances that the narrative rehearses in its serial plot-parts. If an orphan goes out one foggy afternoon to visit the tomb of his dead mother and discovers an escaped convict among the graves   which happens in the first chapter of Great Expectations – I expect that this will have a bearing on the entire action of the book, an action which involves numerous small actions over the course of twenty some years. The action, the plot, is a great maker of pertinence, that very English virtue that Grice made into a fundamental part of conversational implicature.
There is, of course, another meaning of plot, which refers not to the implicate order of fiction, but to the conspiracies or plans of human beings in secret coordination, one with the other, to bring about some event. A plot in this sense hinges very much on secrecy.
The plots of fiction and the plots of non-fiction have a way of converging – in fact, the latter seems, sometimes, to have almost swallowed the former, as though none of the stunted rituals of modern life present the interest to the reader that is associated with plotting in secret.
In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode brings together the narrative motive and secrecy as though, in reality, the plots of non-fiction have always been the secret sharers of the plots of fiction.  He usefully uses the notion of insiders and outsiders. A secret creates an immediate divide between those who share it and those who don’t. I itch to put the term “sharing” under scrutiny, here, since it seems to stand outside of the dominant exchange system and point to other systems of wealth and power – but I am more interested, here, in the categories of insider and outsider with relation to the form of narration.
Kermode takes the Gospels as an exemplary narrative. It is an inspired choice. From the perspective of secrets, the Gospels make the very strongest claims for the privilege of the insider. It is not that the Gospels unfold a conspiracy, although certainly some conspiring goes on to do Jesus to death. But the real secret, here, is in the double life of Jesus – on the one hand, a small time carpenter’s son, on the other hand, the beloved son of God. To understand the plot requires not only knowing that Jesus believed that he was the son of God, but believing it oneself. It requires metanoia, conversion.
Not only does the insider understand the plot, but if the insider is correct, the outsider can never understand the plot until he or she becomes an insider. The ritual of becoming an insider is not simply a matter of cognition, but of a special kind of semi-cognitive thing: belief. The belief comes not from the head – with its cognitive gearing – but from the heart – which understands that feeling is not subordinate to the world, but quite the reverse. And if this is true – death, where is thy sting?
To get away from the pull of the Gospel, Kermode’s point about secrecy and narrative is made in more general terms in a later essay published in Critical Inquiry: Secrets and Narrative Sequence.
“My immediate purpose is to make acceptable a simple proposition: we may like to think, for our purposes, of narrative as the product of two intertwined processes, the presentation of a fable and its progressive interpretation (which of course alters it). The first process tends towards clarity and propriety (“refined common sense”), the second towards secrecy, toward distortions which cover secrets.”

This does seem like refined common sense. And yet it shakes off, way too thoroughly, the insider/outsider categories that Kermode was using in the Genesis of Secrecy. I think that shaking off points to a retreat to a classically ahistorical project: salvaging the presentation of the fable. As though the presentation came all in a block. After which – and the after here signals, again, a certain ideal temporality, not an empirical one but a conceptual temporality – we find interpretation.

I’m thinking about this common sense presentation of the two elements of fiction at the moment because I’m writing a fiction. One of my readers asked me, when I sent her the fourteenth chapter, to write her a plot outline, because she has been receiving the chapters over time, as I write them, and she wanted not to have to go back to previous chapters to see what was going on. So I wrote the plot outline, and I was mildly surprised to see that the plot I wrote was, in a sense, impossible to infer from the chapters so far, which encompass more than half the book.

I have harbored Dadaist dreams of writing a novel which would have one surface plot for the reader and another for the author – and perhaps another outside of both the reader and the author. In this book, the plot that the reader thinks binds together the book is not the real plot, but incidental to the real plot, as it is understood and put together by the author. However, why not strain at that pitiable thing, the author? What if the real plot of the book is not understood by the author as well? As in the myth of Bellerophon, where a messenger carries a letter which, unbeknownst to him, requests that the receiver kill the messenger, perhaps the author of the plot could be considered a blind messenger, delivering a different plot from the one he or she knew? After all, there is a large degree of blindness in the world.

In a sense, such a novel would be an anti-gospel, because it would be closed, ultimately, to any access to its secret. The insider, here, would be defined by the fact that the secret he holds could not be shared. This would turn the world of the plot in a sense upside down. I don’t quite know how this kind of plot could even be constructed – a plot that resisted ever being known.

Surely, this is the great modernist temptation.  

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