Novelists have been fossicking in the bag of narrative tricks since Don Quixote was a pup – or even longer! Yet when some novelist offers an unreliable narrator, or names one of the characters after him or herself, we haul out the postmodern or experimental label like Wow! As though this was the newest appliance since the microwave. This is what we forget for stuffing Jean Paul Richter in an oubliette, ladies and germs.
However, what is even more interesting to me is that that this bag of tricks is not something invented by writers. All of the writer’s narrative tools are taken from everyday life, because narrative is a vital part of everyday life. The unfortunate effect of the Program Era is to make writing seem like a specialization; but newspapers, blog sites, advertisements, street people, lawyers, bartenders and the whole of unwashed humanity deal in stories and lyrics, in jokes and pick up lines, in sales pitches and complaints. What novelists can do, in participating in the general mill and moil, is bring the dialectics. One plays tricks with the authorial voice in order to undermine, sneakily, the death grip of authority on our assent. Or… at least that is one variety of motive. Often, when the authorial voice is unquestioned, so is authority – in fact, the narrative of fear and terror that is the stock of cop shows and detective novels is precisely about how mad and terrible it is to ever say no to authority. Look what happens!
Modernism – and I’m a big camp follower – did encode a dialectical position in the socius. It did dally with the negative, tossed it up in the air, frisked it, and brought it indoors. The suicide of Madame Bovary is the suicide of the romantic movement in the rise of Napoleon III – among other things. The adventurer becomes the proto-fascist. The adventuress is doomed by her conditions, among which is the ruthless plundering of those adventurers among whom she falls. Moll Flanders is dead. Etc. Even though Flaubert buddy-buddied with members of the Napoleonic circle, this is still the case.
Too often the aesthetic sphere is given a phony autonomy, as if its history were solely inside itself. But – as Zola well knew – the birth of the department store was an event in the aesthetic sphere. However, it was a crossroads event – standing at the intersection of criminology, politics, economics and the position of women in 19th century capitalism.
So, there. These are the breaks/checkitoutcheckitoutcheckitoutcheckitout.