On the Experience of Fiction
Long before we learn the first things about books and specifically novels, we are already fully acquainted with the most sophisticated devices of narrative fiction. Books belong in libraries and bookstores, novels can be the stuff of rarefied criticism, but fiction is everywhere all the time, as permanent a feature of daily life as the air we breathe, as embedded in ourselves as our personal memories and hidden desires. Storytelling is no less natural a gift than language itself. Differences in the degree of proficiency cannot conceal the fact that most of us are born narrators, much in the same way that Molière’s bourgeois had spent his whole life speaking in prose without even noticing it. We tell stories and listen to stories, we trade them all the time with parents and friends and lovers, even with complete strangers with whom we strike up a conversation on a train. We brood over remembered stories; and through the act of remembrance, we modify them by suppressing unnecessary minor details or by picking out the most meaningful moments, exactly as a novelist does. Memory tells us stories, but so does oblivion. And sometimes we go as far as to make up a whole story on the spur of the moment, seeking to hide ourselves behind a shaky lie, or just out of sheer vanity to elicit in our listener a flattering image of ourselves. Some of our most cherished stories we bring along with us throughout our entire life, polishing them along the way, like that work in progress a reluctant novelist never finds good enough to submit to the editor.
We, relentless writers who may not write a single actual page, are obsessive readers nonetheless, even those among us—the vast majority of our fellow citizens in fact—who never happen to open a book, fiction or otherwise. We constantly read untold stories staring at other people’s faces, and our brains are quite proficient in the mysterious job of figuring out what is going on in their minds. Out of the odds and ends we pick up from their gestures or the intonation of their voices, we try to guess the part of a story which is veiled behind their silence or beyond the literal meaning of the words they utter. You are at once the writer and the reader of a mystery novel and the clever detective in search of the clue to the puzzle (and you may as well turn out to be the villain at the moment of the final disclosure). Quite often we beg to be told the whole truth of a story, but we may also be willing to listen to a lie rather than hear a frightening or unpleasant truth. “I’d rather keep on dreaming than learn the truth,” goes a Spanish popular song. “Tell me a lie” asks the melancholy gunman Johnny Guitar in Nicholas Ray’s film. And this shameless demand, foolish as it may seem, comes straight out of a human psychological trait as deeply ingrained in ourselves as its opposite, the urge to know the truth. Moreover, truths and lies are conveyed by the same means, words and sentences, the building blocks of stories. Exactly the same words can be used either to tell the truth or to lie; therefore it is up to us to decide what we believe and what we don’t. Either way, all information comes to us shaped as a story, and we spend our whole lives repeating over and over again the same request we made to our parents at the very onset of our command of spoken language. “Tell me a story.” In Spanish it sounds even more pressing, almost like an incantation, since the verb and the direct object, the “tell me” and the “a story,” are pretty much identical: “Cuéntame un cuento.”
Memories of my own childhood blend almost indistinctly at this point with those of my children’s upbringing. Cyril Connolly famously observed that there is no more dreadful omen to a young writer’s career than the sight of a pram in the parlor, but as a matter of fact, my first novels came along much at the same time as my first children, and very often I’d have to interrupt the writing of one to attend to the crying or to provide the feeding of the other. And there were also times when only after making up and telling one of my children a bedtime story, did I have the chance to return to my desk and take up the other, non-oral story I was in the process of writing. In the blink of an eye—between the moment my child would finally fall asleep and I’d left his room after tucking him in and turning off the night table lamp and entered my study across the hall—I would travel the distance that separates the primeval nights when our ancestors were telling the first stories by the fire from the modern craft of fiction writing, complete with ergonomic office chair and word processor. The long way from oral narrative to written invention, from the cave and the fire to the creative writing workshop, took thousands of years but can be fully retraced in less than a minute. You have the same feeling when you look at a goose masterfully carved out of an ivory tusk forty thousand years ago and then set eyes on one of those brightly painted wooden sculptures of birds usually found at American flea markets and folk art museums. The same talent, the same drive to render the visible world into permanent forms, has been constantly at work across the millennia. What the sculptor makes out of clay or wood the narrator brings into existence through the far more abstract means of words. And there must be some serious impulse running underneath, for even the poorest and most environmentally-challenged communities the world over seem not to do without stories or some forms of visual representation. I always bear in mind something I read long ago in Chesterton: “Literature is a luxury, whereas fiction is a necessity.” I might or might not have become a writer; so much in life depends on sheer chance. But I know for certain that I have always been and most probably always will be an avid reader and listener of stories. Also on those many occasions when I had to leave off or postpone my writing in order to tell yet one more bedtime story to a child, I was in fact doing the same basic job, putting into practice the same time-honored skills. Only one difference comes to my mind as I write these words: in telling stories to my child, I tried to lure him into sleep; by writing novels, I wish to keep my reader wide awake. In fact, as James Joyce put it, every writer is in search of an ideal reader suffering from ideal insomnia. I am sure Scheherezade would have agreed. But more of Joyce later.
Witnessing my children’s unquenchable thirst for tales brought back fresh memories of my own almost physical eagerness to learn new stories or, even better, to hear those already familiar over and over again. Children are supposed to be naturally gifted with unfettered imaginations. And yet they are in fact more rigidly conservative in their narrative tastes than readers of murder mysteries or fans of Latin American soap operas. As Umberto Eco pointed out many years ago, we don’t read murder mysteries in order to be surprised, but rather to be reassured by the exact repetition of the most worn out patterns. Would you ever allow Doctor Watson to outwit Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot not to name the murderer in the final scene? There will be no chance for Philip Marlowe to quit smoking, not be sarcastic or attend an AA meeting, or for Mike Hammer to sign up for a gender sensitivity seminar. Likewise children as listeners of stories get their kicks quite often out of sheer repetition rather than novelty or surprise. The thrill of a lurking and slowly approaching doom is not weakened but enhanced by the certainty of the final fall, by the careful re-enactment of each and every step, down to the smallest detail. “Once upon a time” actually means once again, once and forever: once again Little Red Riding Hood is about to take the same path in the forest that will lead to her fatal meeting with the wolf, and Jack is willfully climbing the beanstalk that rises higher than the clouds, never suspecting what the listening child is foretelling, that a human flesh-eating giant lives in the castle at the end of the stalk. Once again Hansel and Gretel will be foolish enough not to be scared off by the obviously dreadful old lady who begs them to stay overnight in her chocolate house. We would have liked to send them a warning. We uselessly cried wolf in the puppet theatre and cover our eyes in front of the screen or dread the voice of the adult drawing closer and closer to the most fearful moment in the story. And yet, we were mesmerized all the way by the very sound of these words and craved the same gloomy or gory particular that frightened us so much. Children will be children, but then we grow up; and even though we assume ourselves to have become far more sophisticated, we stick to the same gut reaction when it comes to our most cherished narrative highs, so to speak. If we love opera and drama, our eyes never fail to tear whenever the first light of dawn over Nagasaki harbor announces that Madame Butterfly is about to commit suicide. We know the music and the libretto by heart, and we know as well that the powdered-faced lady on stage will not actually die and therefore will not leave her little son orphaned. But we fall under the spell of the story all the same, over and over again, and every time we almost expect and hope life will take a turn for the better, so that we end up almost as bitterly disappointed and heartbroken as Cio-Cio San herself.
There seems to be only one substantial difference between the stories we tell our children and those we adults keep to ourselves: death is usually absent from children’s stories, or is at least not irreversible.
I find it interesting at this point to reflect on the fact that very early in life a child becomes aware of a subtle distinction that lies not only at the heart of literary theory, but also determines how the most obvious commercial books are classified on the bestselling lists. Some stories are fiction, while others are not. It is no doubt puzzling that something so relevant should be named after what it is not: nonfiction. It reminds me of an intriguing category of soldiers I became acquainted with when assigned to office work during my military service in Spain. Some of us were present in the barracks at a given moment, while others were absent on official leave, and you may think that was that. But some rich military imagination had devised a third category that as a reader of ghost stories I have found engaging to this day: “present-like soldiers.” Como presentes. [AWOL: Absent without leave.] In some cases, if you were supposed to have stayed in the barracks, but for some reason or other you had not, you were neither missing nor a deserter. If you had managed to get yourself an unofficial leave, or whatever, you could not be counted among the fully present, so to speak, but neither were you completely absent, even though you had vacated your bunk and did not show up for duty. Rations were still provided for you, and nobody else could handle your weapon. You were present-like, or half present; and when the sergeant cried out your name at roll call, some other solider would promptly answer: “como presente,” as if conjuring your presence in spite of the fact that you were nowhere to be seen. If virtual soldiers are regularly enlisted in something as genuinely real as an army, no wonder the boundaries between reality and fiction in books seem so difficult to grasp, as well as the exact nature of literary characters.
In my experience as a father, children at about five are already aware that some stories and characters are true, whereas others are not, and so they begin to question, somewhat uneasily. Does Superman actually fly? Did Little Red Riding Hood ever live, and could it be true that the wolf ate her up alive, but that nevertheless she came out of his stomach unscathed soon afterwards? It might be useful to go a little further at this point and explore an odd coincidence: the eagerness to tell reality from fiction comes at the same time as a far more serious discovery—the existence of death. Some stories happen to be true, while others are not. People now living will come to die sometime in the future, much in the same way as some of the unknown men and women in the family album were once alive and are now dead, absent, or, oddly enough, half absent and half present, como presentes—talked about in family conversations, their faces visible in the photographs, even at times their voices audible in family videos adults are so fond of playing. Like zombies in old grade B horror movies, these relatives are no longer alive, and yet they are un-dead. Moreover, there is another disturbing lesson to be learned from looking at old photos and listening to adult conversations: things will not remain the same forever in this enchanted kingdom where parents, grandparents, siblings, pets, seem to our mind’s eye as fixed and distinct in their age and appearance as if each of them belonged to a different species. Only when you become painfully aware of the appalling news that the people you love will grow old and frail and eventually die, when you learn little by little, with astonished reluctance, that all that you take for granted is subject to permanent change, only then are you in a state to marvel at the strange nature of an altogether different kind of beings, human or animal, who never change or die for the magical reason that they don’t exist and have never existed in the first place.
This is why we boys would get so upset at the movies on those rare occasions when the hero died at the end, especially at the hands of the bad guys. “That flick stinks,” we would say. “Can you believe that the hero gets killed in the final shootout?” Denial of change and death is the rock solid foundation on which most popular fiction is built, especially when it takes the form of episodes either published or broadcast at regular intervals, be it comic strips, a TV series or in the much older tradition of novels published in installments in the popular press or even as the serial cliffhangers that came into fashion in the first years of cinema. To put it in musical terms, popular narratives work on a system of themes and variations. The main theme, or the general pattern, is fully outlined in the first episode, and it repeats itself endlessly from then on according to a set of rules no less intricate than those of musical counterpoint. The hero, his sidekick, his house, his job, his friends, the problems he will be called upon to solve or the type of enemies he will have to face, struggle with and finally overcome, as well as the usually minor setbacks he will likely tackle along the way, everything is precisely predetermined. The sooner readers or audiences get used to the rules of the game, the faster they will feel attached to the story, in a way not unlike that of a mild yet pleasant addiction. The story may be as short as the three or four frames of a comic strip or as long and twisted as the murder mysteries cooked up by Dame P. D. James; a sitcom, for example may last and last over the years or flop after a few unfortunate episodes. But the same themes and the very same types of variations are always at work, sometimes despite the boredom and exhaustion of those who set the ball rolling and get trapped in their own success. Addictions are easy to take up but very hard to kick. Once we get hooked on a narrative pattern, or on a character, we want them to keep going, with the exact degree of novelty or repetition, even with no novelty at all. I can’t remember the number of times I have happily sat down to watch again yet another Seinfeld episode or treated my children and myself to any of the first three Christopher Reeve Superman movies. For many years I saw them grow up reading over and over again the same Tintin or Calvin and Hobbes comic books, and more than once I took up the habit myself. Perhaps, there are no characters in so-called serious fiction that we can grow as deeply fond of as those in popular series. We feel we have come to know them as intimately as very close friends. We can predict their reactions; we have learned to be patient with their quirks and little manias, even with their outright defects; and the places where they live are as familiar to us as our own apartments. Moreover, we know for certain that any disturbance that breaks out at the beginning of an episode will be satisfactorily dealt with and smoothed over in the end. Major changes will most certainly not take place, and no threat or promise of any kind of renewal or windfall will be serious enough to disrupt irreversibly the basic situation, including the marital status of the leading characters. George Costanza’s bride-to-be in Seinfeld will go so far as to poison herself by licking the envelopes for her wedding invitations in order for the wedding itself never to happen and thus disrupt the whole fabric of the never-ending story. To my children’s enduring outrage, Superman might lose his powers and become something of a bum and a pathetic barfly when the ever-cunning Lex Luthor discovers a way to tamper with kryptonite to his own benefit, but sooner rather than later the hero would be rushing back in the full glory of his omnipotence, newly ironed cape and shaven face included. At the very last moment, James Bond will save the world from an impending nuclear apocalypse nearly brought about by an evil megalomaniac.
There is one well-documented case in which the author of a popular series tried to rid himself of the unbearable boredom of churning out over and over again the same basic story, with the same characters and the same setting, with plots that seemed endlessly puzzling and rewarding to their millions of readers, although he had come to see them as stale variations on a long unendurable theme. We all know what happened when Arthur Conan Doyle dared to challenge the most sacred rule of popular fiction, the one banning all irreversible change, and especially the capital one, the death of the hero. Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes killed while fighting his archenemy Professor Moriarty—who is, by the way, the obvious ancestor of Dr. No and Lex Luthor, among so many others—hoping to be done for good with detective stories and free to resume writing serious historical novels. But his outraged readers would not let him have his way: they flooded his mailbox with hate letters and death threats; they called him murderer and scoundrel; they mourned and missed their beloved detective as if he had existed in real life. Yet, at the same time, they blatantly refused to accept that Holmes could have died, and in the end, they got what they demanded, winning over the poor author, who never managed to have his other novels read, and forcing him to bring Holmes back to life from the dead, mysteriously revealing himself to his mournful disciple and chronicler, good old Dr. Watson.
At the end of a set of variations, the basic theme is repeated exactly as it was first laid out, so that we get a reassuring sense of permanence through change, of return to the point of departure despite the time and the music gone by. In a story, as in a piece of music, there is a clear beginning and an ending that closes up the flow of events and gives them a direction and a sense of purpose. In order to make sense of the dizzying variety of the world around us, we try to build models of a scale simple and confined enough for our minds to comprehend. Scientific theories and fictional stories seem to spring into existence in the same region of the brain, and rather than describe reality, scientists figure out suitable models to explain how it works. They do it by picking out the data they find more revealing and then go on to try their hypothesis at the experimental level. Unlike a book of history or a memoir, fiction is by definition not subject to the discipline of fact checking. Still it must pass a severe test since it will not be considered worth retelling unless it casts a kind of spell upon its listener or reader, that peculiar state that has cleverly been dubbed as suspension of disbelief. Mark the nuance here: we don’t believe, we simply and conditionally suspend our disbelief. We pay attention to a story primarily because it matters to us, because from the very moment it begins, we feel attracted to it by a peculiar type of hypnosis. The symptoms are unmistakable: we simply want to keep learning more. We quickly turn the pages of the book or stay glued in front of a screen or lean forward shamelessly while overhearing a conversation between two strangers sitting down next to us on the bus.
We tell stories and listen to them out of an instinct of sheer curiosity deeply ingrained in our genes. We are born too weak to survive by ourselves, and therefore we need to learn from adults most of the skills other animals are simply hardwired with from almost the first moment they see the light of day. But if we need stories to make sense of the world, how is it that we are attracted to and happen to love so many that are blatantly untrue, especially those much better than the real ones? It would be reasonable to accept that children are naïve enough not to care too much about the degree of veracity or the outright absurdity of a fairy tale, or that primitive people, still living at a stage of intellectual development in which magic provides them with the only available explanations of natural laws, have no problem in cheerfully swallowing myths and legends. But what of us adults? Why can we be moved to tears by the suffering of people we know all too well do not exist? How come we are capable of developing toward some of them feelings of love, hatred, friendship, compassion, pity, that often turn out to be stronger and run deeper than those we bestow upon most of our flesh and blood fellow human beings? And why do some of us go as far in our commitment to fiction as to make it our lifelong calling, even our somewhat ludicrous profession? Here I go, at fifty, bearded and grey haired, sitting down on a park bench in midmorning like a bum, lost not in serious thought about the meaning of life or the outcome of the war in Iraq, but trying to plan the next step in a half-plotted story the point of departure of which came to my mind seemingly out of nowhere some days ago as I fumbled along a very narrow path that might well amount to nothing. And who will care if eventually I succeed at plotting and writing it all the way through in a world in which most people get their quick fixes in fiction by more technologically-accomplished means, watching computer enhanced action movies or playing violent video games?
The fact is we writers and readers are diehards not easily discouraged by the fear of becoming irrelevant or, even worse, obsolete. Storytelling has been going on for about thirty or forty thousand years, along with painting and dancing and some type or other of singing and music making. Nonfiction—history books, memoirs, newspapers, TV or radio newscasts—provides us with an ever-growing flurry of information. Fiction gives us models of understanding, patterns for gaining insight into the confusion of reality. According to neuroscience, our brain does not simply absorb the raw data supplied by the senses, it selects what is most relevant to our specific needs in every field of experience in order to build flexible and shifting models of the world, accurate enough for us to survive and thrive and, at some point, to pass on our genes to the next generation. In order to understand our environment, we require not only reliable knowledge of how things are, of what has actually happened, but also to figure out how things might be and even how they might have been. We need to understand what is going on within ourselves and, of utmost importance, to guess what is going on in other people’s minds. Empathy underlies all writing and all reading, but it is also a most useful survival tool since you depend on it to foretell what your foe or your possible mate is up to. Memoirs and books of history teach us everything about the roads taken; only through sheer imagination can we explore the roads not taken and therefore understand that fate is not inevitable and that almost anything in our lives and in history might have turned out otherwise, can be different from now on. As the poet Antonio Machado said, “No está el mañana ni el ayer escrito” (“Neither the future nor the past is forewritten”).
When I was a young man trying my hand at writing, the only thing I cared about was fiction. I lived entranced by novels and short stories and movies, not giving a damn about much else, even though I had been trained as an historian. I remember a statement a character made in my first novel, of which I was quite proud at the time: It doesn’t matter that a story be true or false but only that you know how to tell it. Fiction was my way in the world but also my way out of the world, all the more so. Very often real life seemed confusing and difficult to tackle, whereas the gifts of fiction were always there for the taking. I got so hypnotized by movies that I felt lost every time I practically stumbled out of the theatre, stunned by the bright daylight or by the night that had fallen while I was watching the movie. I loved novels about writers struggling to write novels and movies about existentially-troubled filmmakers, or old movies as far removed from the real world and real people as the luster of their black and white was from the seedy colors of the world outside. Reality was monotonous, unpromising, gloomily foreseeable; fiction was everything you would always be dreaming about and would never fully achieve.
This is obviously romantic, the old pathetic fallacy. Little by little I realized that I had written myself into a corner, and that after three novels, I seemed not to have anything left to say. As for my lust for watching movies and reading books, I was more or less undergoing a shift in taste. Hitchcock, whom I had so much worshipped, was now appearing to me as trite and predictable, his characters as stiff as store window mannequins. Now the films for me were early Fellini or Martin Scorsese or American documentaries. I began to develop a taste for photography over almost any other visual art and to feel fed up with novels and willing to turn my attention over to science or history or eyewitness accounts of some of the worst periods in twentieth-century history. To my enduring surprise, reality turned out to be far richer and more compelling that any fiction I or anyone else might imagine. At twenty and thirty my hero had been Jorge Luis Borges; at forty, it was Primo Levi. As a young man, I had found life more or less worthless unless it might be turned into literature. But now I was coming around to think that literature would only be worth writing or reading as long as it became almost indistinguishable from life itself. What was the point of making up invented stories since almost anywhere the world was teeming with real ones, unbound by the narrow rules and the worn-out routines of fiction, always unforeseeable, ready to be learned and told?
A whole new world unfolded before me. As a novelist, I had sadly suspected that there were no more clever plots for me to come by. As a reader of fiction, most times I opened a new novel, I saw through it almost from the very first page. But all of a sudden I was finding both within myself and in the people around me an unfathomable treasure of stories so thrilling in themselves that there was no need foolishly to try to improve them, only to tell them as straightforwardly as possible. And as a reader, science, history and memoir were offering me an endless supply of experiences and models with which no novel could ever compete.
It has taken me long years and a lot of brooding and self-doubt to come to terms with fiction all over again, although on slightly different grounds. When I was young, I thought that an experience had literary value as long as it could be used as the point of departure for a work of fiction. Now I say to myself that fiction is a kind of last resort; you should write a novel only when what you have to tell cannot be told otherwise. Let me give you an example. Last summer, I read with utmost pleasure Vasily Grossman’s dispatches from the Eastern front during World War II. No stories can be more compelling, no portrait of life and death in the middle of the apocalypse of war will ever come across as powerfully, with no frills, almost with no visible style. It seems there is no literature involved at all, only the keen eyes of a restless witness, someone who watches the most terrible events from up close and just tells them along the way.
But then I picked up Life and Fate, the novel Grossman wrote more than ten years after the war, in which he mostly reworked much of the same material he had dealt with to a point of mastery in his war chronicles. Why should he go back to those painful stories now in order to make them into a novel, moreover at a time when a novel such as that would almost certainly be turned down by censors as actually having happened? What was there to be gained or improved as a work of art?
A model, in the first place. A form that lends shape and purpose to the maddening confusion of war and gives names and precise identities to some of the thousands of anonymous characters that flash by in the chronicles, forcing us to understand that there is no such thing as anonymity. The novel is rich enough to embrace the sheer multiplicity of real lives, and yet it gives the reader the reassuring sense of a plot and, therefore, of a beginning and an end. The sound and fury of war and totalitarianism are made understandable by the subtle craft of storytelling. Characters appear and events seem to take place according to the randomness of chance, and yet they have been carefully selected to fit into a narrative that is as meaningful as folktales and myths. In his chronicles, Grossman is only an eyewitness, albeit a most committed and empathic one; but in the novel, the point of view switches relentlessly from one character to another—from infantry soldiers to commissars to scientists to generals to Nazis to Jews dying in gas chambers to Stalin himself—teaching us the most valuable lesson we can learn from fiction: that every person is unique and cannot therefore be ignored or spared; that history with a capital H is always enacted and suffered by real individuals and not by crowds or numbers. No one who ever walked into a gas chamber ever came back to tell what that ultimate hell on earth was like. But in a chapter almost impossible to read, Vasily Grossman dares to imagine what his own mother alongside so many other Jews might have felt as the doors of the chamber were locked behind her and Zyklon-B gas started to seep through the ventilation conduits in the dark. There was no other possible way for Grossman to get there but fiction.
Joan Didion has written that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. The great Spanish playwright Ramón del Valle-Inclán put it in almost the same terms: All our art comes from our knowing that we shall pass away. Needless to say, we are no less mortal because we read or write or watch or listen to stories, and yet they allow us a faint illusion of permanence, even of timelessness, that no narrative art form other than fiction can easily achieve. Have you noticed that we always mention historical figures in the past tense, whereas we unfailingly talk about fictional characters in the present? We say King Philip of Spain was a lugubrious bigot, or Martin Luther King, Jr., led the civil rights movement in the late fifties and sixties, or Stalin was a mass murderer, or Hitler a bloodthirsty psychopath. But with the same certainty we are most likely to declare that Don Quixote is mad or Humbert Humbert is insanely in love with Lolita, who is not even twelve at the time of her rape, or that Leopold Bloom lives in Dublin and is married to plump deceitful Molly, in spite of the fact that we are aware that most of the action in Ulysses is taking place exactly one hundred eleven years ago. It is taking place or took place or will take place again, since the very beginning, once and forever, as long as someone opens the book. Why do we always mention June 16, 1904 in the present tense?
At this point, popular fiction and modernist novel become one and the same as they both set themselves in a time out of time, in a never-ending narrative in which the past is ever present, and after the last page of the novel and the death of the hero, we need only go back again to the first page (or the first episode) to have the hero alive and well and willing to undergo the very same experiences. Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Captain Maigret, Tintin, Charlie Brown, George Costanza, Homer Simpson, Sam the bartender, Rick Blaine, Mrs. Dalloway, Gregor Samsa, they all dwell in the same enchanted kingdom, always on the move like bright colored fish in a transparent tank or shadows on a wall and yet always identical to themselves, sheltered in their bubbles of time and space, much in the way children love to picture their world up until the bitter moment when they find out that death will arrive someday and that everything they take for granted is subject to change.