Thursday, 13 January 2011

Transparency, Barthelme and Lahiri

I've been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection "Unaccustomed Earth" recently, along with "Donald Barthelme" (by Lois Gordon) and "Reading Network Fiction" by David Ciccoricco. First I'll mention some general language features, then I'll compare the writers. In some aspects they're opposites though I like them both.


  • Knowledge of, and skill with, words isn't a sufficient condition for understanding the world. In itself it's not even a necessary condition. We learn by doing, by writing. Learning leads to new instruments, new worlds. The Word and World inform each other. For writers in particular, words are not passive mediators.
  • The Self isn't a separate layer either. It needs to be added into the mix. The "World -> Self (Author) -> Word" pipeline is misleading. There are eddies and backflows. Authors write in order to understand.
  • The Reader needs to be added into the mix. The "World -> Author -> Words -> Reader" pipeline is misleading. There are interactions between the elements. The words that are read by the reader are given meaning by a world the author might not share, or an opinion of the author that the author might reject.
  • When these elements interact there are terms of engagement: rules, conventions, games. People can
    • make-believe that a layer is transparent, that in an interaction between 2 elements, one dominates.
    • swap layers. Metaphors can be taken literally; puns can be a factory for producing new items; a single Word (or Interpretation) can generate many possible Worlds;
    • switch between layers. Done inappropriately it may make a character seem schitzoid, or it may lead to humour.

Transparency and Immersion

  • Is transparency good? - "It is by no means apparent that medial transparency is or should be the measure of a successful narrative ... often a message is conveyed only through the interplay between a story and the story-producing mechanism" (Ciccoricco, p.118)
  • Is immersion dependant on transparency? - "Common to the discourse of immersion theory is the notion that the realist novelist and the virtual reality environment designer pursue the same goal - the disappearance of the medium [but this] conflates immersion in representation (as in a Victorian novel) ... with immersion in simulation (as in a VR environment)" (Ciccoricco, p.119)
  • Are there other forms of immersion? - "Ryan identifies three forms that fall under a 'poetics of immersion': spatial, where the reader develops a sense of being at the scene of narrated events; temporal, where the reader is caught up in narrative suspense; and emotional" (Ciccoricco, p.121)


There isn't much word-play in his work. Certainly he doesn't smash the words into letters. The words are tokens that may switch meanings (often by their context changing) but they don't lose their internal integrity. His pieces have structural variety though he plays few games with narrative (his pieces don't always have a narrative to play with). There are few multi-framed stories, mobius-band pieces, or circular works.

His characters don't say funny things though they can be wistful and resigned. His humour is more to do with tonal mismatches and juxtapositions of the ridiculous or fantastic and the banal. There are other shifts too, "from myth or old-fashioned fairy-tale prose to modern psychologese, or from mock-epic diction to comic-book slang - or from the inflated platitudes of political, philosophical, or academic jargon to hip advertising lingo" (Gordon). "Typically his work moves in and out of reality, from the concrete to the abstract, from moral characterisation, the allegorical and mythic, to the most extreme manipulations of metaphor and description, and the creation of new grammar and words." (Gordon). Different aesthetics operate within the same work. To take an analogy from art, imagine looking at a painting of a landscape. On the horizon you see what looks like a yellow rectangle. You wonder if it's a building or a lorry, but it could be a yellow rectangle, there to contrast with the shape and colour of the setting sun. In places the canvas has been left bare.

He foregrounds language rather than words. At times language becomes opaque, the category difference between "apple" and an apple dissolving. Words are his "real toads" in imaginary gardens. He "literalizes the metaphors of life as war and love as soap opera. His focus is not so much the precariousness of what is traditionally considered reality or fantasy, but [..] the way in which our lives are saturated and ultimately defined by the media" (Gordon). And yet, themes show through the flattened significance of signs - fatherhood, sad marriages (he had 4 marriages), the futility of war (he arrived in Korea on the last day of war).

Here's the start of "The Indian Uprising" - We defended the city as best we could. The arrows of the Comanches came in clouds. The war clubs of the Comanches clattered on the soft, yellow pavements. There were earthworks along the Boulevard Mark Clark and the hedges had been laced with sparkling wire. People were trying to understand. I spoke to Sylvia. 'Do you think this is a good life?' The table held apples, books, long-playing records. She looked up. 'No.'

Given the problems with identifying the place and era, I suspect spatial and temporal immersion is unlikely, though there's hope on the emotional front.

Gordon writes that later in the story "A key line, which occurs after three pages, establishes at least three different perspectives: "but it is you I want now, here in the midst of this Uprising .... It is when I am with you that I am happiest. ... 'Call off your braves'" This alerts us to the fact that (1) although up until now we thought the war real and indeed the subject of the story, (2) the lovers in fact may not only be witnessing or participating in the flming of of war, most importantly, (3) everything we have read up until now ... may simply be the speaker's reactions (in film terms) to his frustration ... only in his mind, ... he can only respond to experience as an actor on a [Hollywood] set"

Reading a Barthelme piece one has to decide to be an active reader or give up. The diction and genre of a section may not match the content. Lovers may be locked inside a discourse more suited to weather forecasting or art criticism. Readers need to keep their perspectives open and normalise at their peril - his pieces are not "really about" something else.


I think her language aspires to transparency, and I think the plotting does too. But sometimes cracks show

  • In the title story of the collection a daughter greets her father after an absense of several months. "He had not lost weight and the hair on his head was plentiful, more so, she feared, than her own after Akash's birth, when it had fallen out in clumps ... her bathtub was still filled with shampoos that promised to stimulate scalp growth, plump the shafts. Her father looked well rested, another quality Ruma did not possess these days. She'd taken to applying concealer below her eyes ..." (p.12).
    The character is having thoughts at moments convenient for the author who's hoping to bury an info-dump by interleaving the information. The spell of immersion is broken by the distant clatter of a keyboard.
  • Narration and plotting isn't crucial to her style; mechanisms tend to be kludgey or repeated. In the title story for example, we have a visiting parent (a topic she's covered elsewhere). College life and families are never far away. The idea of the child's garden seemed a little odd - a MacGuffin as much as a grandfatherly indulgence. The use of the postcard at the end works symbolically (the child wanting it to "grow") but would the child really have taken the postcard?

For me the transparency doesn't lead to immersion because there's too little interest generated (or maybe too few types of interest). Branches in the plot can be anticipated, following well-trodden paths, and they're well separated, giving time to guess what will happen next. Emotionally I'm told what to feel. I'm more spatially than temporally engaged - objects and interiors are carefully described and India/US differences are attended to. Big journeys mean big changes - any deviation from that pattern tends to carry significance.

Clear as ink

Lahiri's reliable. Like a lawyer she presents paragraphs of facts when making a point, hoping to convince by sheer volume of evidence. You'll know what's important because you'll be told and shown- "Why?" In her son's small face she saw the disappointment she also felt. "Daddy's coming back tonight", she said, trying to change the subject. "Should we make a cake?" (p.57).

Barthelme's more hit-and-miss, but that in the nature of the game he plays. He too cares about getting the words right (he re-wrote pieces even after publication), but he doesn't polish his prose so that you can always see right through it. Language becomes a character in his stories: moody, stubborn, playful - not transparent, not a cardboard cut-out.

I'm not asking for everything to be a symbol, or for stories to be difficult, or for writers to exhibit ability in several styles (I like Proust's work). But I think Barthelme plays his game better than she plays hers. I'm just glad I'm not a judge having to assess two such entries.

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