The Present of Fiction

The Present of Fiction

R. M. Berry

Recent fiction by Curtis White, Alex Shakar, Michael Martone, and others read through the lens of Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein.

If there is progress then there is a novel. Without progress there is nothing.
- W.C. Williams, The Great American Novel

Gertrude Stein sees it first. What’s wanted gets lost in the having. And the loss turns out to be everything. For modernism this paradox becomes thematic. The hyperbolic denigrations of the past, Christianity, politics, capitalism, mass culture, convention, morality – nearly everything suggested by the word “civilization” – are so many attempts to express how deep, how pervasive this self-defeat runs. No action makes it other than worse. Every solution is already a cause. The only change that’s change would be annihilation.

We’ve almost forgotten how traumatic this all is for fiction. The novel arose through startling refinements in the procedures of representation. The 17th and 18th centuries taught scientific observation and description, the now familiar emphasis on making language concrete, detailed, specific, and then the Enlightenment critique of fanaticism and credulity made these new skills a problem for the novel itself. Fiction’s powers of illusion became its deepest subject, a continual effort to demonstrate fidelity by unmasking its pretension, acknowledging its limits. And for a time this seemed enough. By the end of the 19th century, the novel’s critique of narrative was in the main complete, making every narrator, if not essentially unreliable, then essentially a reader. Unlike the older arts, the novel appeared modern from birth. And so modernism almost bypassed it. When, in his 1937 introduction to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, T. S. Eliot remarked that “most contemporary novels are not really `written,’” or when, seventeen years earlier, Pound described fiction as prose movies “made with no loss of time,” they both were lamenting American fiction’s indifference to the radical problems confronting poets and painters. What modernism struggled to uncover – call it art’s conditions of existence or its material base or its medium or just itself – most American novelists, like most of their readers, considered either too obvious or too remote to worry with. Thank God for Stein.

When in 1907 she took what she later called “the first definite step away from the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century in literature,” it was in a narrative that radically reconceived the problem of modernity itself. In “Melanctha,” even perfect representation would not help. There’s a past and future Dr. Jeff Campbell wants to recount, the same past and future Melanctha Herbert wants to repress. Neither can tell why, but both can tell that, in their telling and not telling, all they want is being lost. The air of self-defeat is thick enough to parse. To imagine this as a problem of form is to fail to see that the problematics of form are precisely what “Melanctha” transcends. Jeff and Melanctha’s problems arise from Stein’s medium, from narrative representation as such. Their problem, the novel’s problem, has become its present.

This problem is itself represented in two opposed but complimentary modes in recent novels by Curtis White and Alex Shakar. Shakar’s The Savage Girl depicts a time, roughly ours, in which the present is continually deferred, displaced by its self-representation, a mock presence that can achieve material reality only where the future unfolds. Shakar’s protagonist, Ursula Van Urden, works as a “trendspotter,” an agent for a vaguely fantastic marketing firm that exists to identify styles, forms, manners, and fashions just before they occur. Along with her coworkers Javier Delreal, the maniacally self-parodic James T. Couch, and marketing guru Chas Lacouture, Ursula dreams of living “always one step ahead of (her) culture” (17), hoping “to read the future in the colors of ties and the flavors of snack foods and the lyrics to pop songs” (31). It’s unclear in the novel whether this longing for the future results from the present’s commercial mediation, its always already being packaged and sold, or from everyone’s always already living as though it were. As Ursula speculates, there may be just too much irony in the atmosphere. Pleasure always comes with a “smirk.” Nascent trends are, by contrast, what Javier calls “the pure dialects of human desire, the untrammeled expressions of the cultural unconscious, signs and symbols from the ideal world in which we hope someday to live” (21). Javier sees trendspotters as apostles for this life to come, representing unmediated desire back to its representers, the merchandisers, advertisers, media. Along with his mentor Chas, he envisions a future “renaissance of self-creation” (24), a cybernetic cornucopia in which the circle of desire and representation will finally close, making the only problem desire’s distance from itself.

If Shakar’s novel represents our present as radically postponed in this way, Curtis White’s Requiem represents it as already past. White’s novel is not so much a narrative as an anatomy; that is, an exhaustive assemblage of letters, interviews, email messages, scenes from dramas, meditations, and hallucinatory vignettes. Some function as commentaries on our pastimes, others as documentations of them. Together they offer an uncompromising diagnosis: we’re dead. Like The Savage Girl, White’s Requiem depicts the present as universally mediated. What we call food is the synthetic replica of food; what we call home is the prefabricated dispensability of home; what we call music is music’s sanitized digital reconstruction. It is unclear in the novel whether this death-in-life results from modernity, from capitalism and technology’s long erosion of simplicity and directness, or whether it results from our denial of modernity, from our refusal to mourn these losses. But either way, the present’s self-representation in Requiem is consistently regressive. It is an atavistic simulation of a past that, were it present, no one in the present would want. Michelle, a Silicon-Boobed-Material-Grrrl-Who-Fucks-Dogs-for-Money, is “of the moment.” Her bestiality website,, brings in $24,000 a month, despite uncertainty whether anyone, either viewer or participant, actually enjoys sex with animals. But as Greg, her webmaster tells her, she’s beyond pleasure, beyond perversion, beyond even sex: “post-all-that.” “(I)t’s as if you were dead, if you can understand not-human as the equivalent of dead for a human. And the saddest thing is that if you wanted to become human again, fuck [your fiancé] for example, inhabit your own body, you wouldn’t know how. You forgot to leave breadcrumbs” (136). Desire vanishes into its objectification. Ironic distance has become absolute.

There is an important sense in which both White’s and Shakar’s novels are narratively unsatisfying. That is, both leave us desiring something not provided by narrating, and both are at their most original in representing this. In The Savage Girl, what’s desired is what Chas defines as “postirony,” a condition in which culture begins “to doubt its own mode of doubting” (140). The question of what such a condition would look like, whether like consumerism’s Aufhebung or its apotheosis, pits Chas against his protégés, Javier and Ursula. Believing all essences are contradictory, Chas represents postirony ironically, as marketing’s absolute domination through every consumer’s seeming liberation, but Javier imagines that even this irony, pushed to its limit, will eventually transcend irony altogether, becoming…well, other. Back in 1957 Northrop Frye expressed a similar idea in The Anatomy of Criticism, representing culture as circular, a cosmic present in which every apparent dead end contained culture’s rebirth, but what Frye thought irony became at its limit was not economic liberation but myth, that is, religion. And maybe this is what Javier and Ursula think, too. They certainly imagine that what replaces our present dividedness must be sacred, and Javier’s faith is sufficiently wholehearted to stake his life on it. By the end he has, if not sacrificed himself to his future vision, then postponed his presence 500 years, an act that Ursula feels “displayed more love for life than she herself had ever felt” (243). But how seriously we are to take her deference seems unclear. In the final pages religion itself makes an appearance, but now ironically qualified, and as the rainforests are bulldozed, Ursula’s new hope is lodged in the marriage of art and consumerism. The ironies here threaten to become overwhelming.

Like Shakar’s novel, White’s Requiem has a visionary figure, Chris, the Modern Prophet, and just as we look to Javier for a representation of the life to come, we initially look to Chris, the Modern Prophet, for a revelation of former promise we’ve abandoned. In his interviews with madmen, murderers, sex-entrepreneurs, and parents, Chris seems possessed of perspective others lack. He questions what they accept, exposes commonplace lies, passes harsh judgments, evokes personal revelations, demands absolute candor, quotes scripture, and often speaks in a voice of Biblical authority: “You will not be allowed silence. Whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the `light” (69). However, unlike Javier, White’s Modern Prophet does not become, either by his words or actions, a representative of hope. On the contrary, by the end, Chris’s proclamations of “The Way” have come to sound increasingly cranky and nostalgic, as though his moral fierceness came down to demanding that young people “listen to boring classical music” (316). When in the midst of his climactic ecstasy of denunciations Chris passes out with a cyber-sex queen’s nipple in his mouth, she comments on how insubstantial and fleshless he has become, “like he’d turned himself into pure thought with all his crazy thinking” (317). The implication is that, far from representing a solution to our pastness, Chris’s attempt to represent us to us is itself symptomatic. Like other examples of self-defeat in White’s novel, Chris’s narration of our absence has absented him, posited his own body as other, and thus reproduced our doom. The moral seems pointed: Where the present has been displaced by its representations, no representation of its recovery will recover it.

That this impasse represents the novel’s modern predicament is precisely what Stein’s early writings make clear. In “Melanctha,” Jeff Campbell fears the open future that Javier Delreal envisions. Recognizing the pitfalls of desire and inexperience, Jeff endlessly repeats his life narrative hoping to ward off Melanctha’s present threat: “Dr. Campbell said he wanted to work so that he could understand what troubled people, and not to just have excitements, and he believed you ought to love your father and your mother and to be regular in all your life, and not to be always wanting new things and excitements” (81-2). For Jeff, knowing the future is the only condition on which he is prepared to have a present at all. Melanctha, by contrast, fears the past knowledge that White’s Modern Prophet represents. When it comes to her actions, “what she had said and what it was that she had really done,” she can never “remember right,” always leaving out “big pieces which make a story very different” (70). The purpose of narrating for her is to mystify events, to repress and forget. Because every present repeats her past, inevitably reproducing “trouble” where she seeks “rest and quiet,” Melanctha can experience presentness only so long as she forestalls self-consciousness. For this reason, when the present happens in Melanctha, it brings narrating to an end. This occurs in obvious ways twice in the novella, and arguably several more times, each time following the deepening of Jeff’s prostration, his utter helplessness before the enigma of Melanctha and his own inexpressiveness.

Jeff did not talk so much now about what he before always had been thinking. Sometimes Jeff would be, as if he was just waking from himself to be with Melanctha, and then he would find he had been really all the long time with her, and he had really never needed to be doing any thinking.

Jeff doesn’t wake from any dream or illusion, but from himself, a “before always” thinking and talking, and what he wakes to is no new self-understanding or realization, but simply to what he’s “all the long time” been doing – i.e., being with Melanctha. It’s as if Stein were describing as a disruption or annihilating event something no one else had ever imagined could be absent.

If Requiem, despite its representational lacunae, seems more satisfying than other novels, it is because the solution it offers is of a wholly different order than its narration. At an early point in the novel White, or perhaps Chris, narrates the story of how Mozart, on hearing the Lacrimosa section of his (Mozart’s) “Requiem,” began to cry. “He wept at the beauty of his own successful representation of universal tears. He succeeded in making those old tears, the tears of eternity, present again, as if for the first time” (32). The narrator then goes on to speculate that our current inability to be moved at a comparable depth, to weep at Mozart’s music, evidences our zombie-like state, our death-in-life. This passage sets the work for White’s work. To be present at our lives, we must grieve. However, unlike Mozart’s “Requiem,” White’s Requiem does not work by representing our grief to us. On the contrary, if anything seems plain in both White’s and Shakar’s novels, it’s that tearing-up at representations of ourselves has become our pastime, bearing the same relation to the losses we no longer feel that our computer porn bears to the desires we no longer feel. White’s job will not be to make us grieve, or even to teach us how, but to end the stories that prevent our grief from happening. When Greg informs Michelle the Silicon-Boobed-Material-Grrrl-Who-Fucks-Dogs-for-Money that she doesn’t exist, her rejoinder is to lift her sweatshirt and show her breasts. Why does this seem like an answer? It’s as though Michelle’s body were not her presence, but were her proof of presence, a continuous way of telling others and herself she’s here. Like White’s detective Hume, who unceasingly destroys his world by seeking its killer, Michelle fights her nothingness by embodying a fantasy. Dematerialized in this very effort to matter, her present is literally being narrated to death. Nothing needed to weep at this is lacking.

In displacing the centrality of its narrative in this way, Requiem aligns itself with other recent fictions–e.g., John Barth’s Coming Soon!!!, Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana, Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints & Madmen, Harold Jaffe’s False Positive, Heather McGowan’s Schooling – that perform their work in unsettling proximity to their readers. Such works regularly lead to narrative frustration: a trailing-off of represented action, a fragmentation of sequence, a preposterous self-mockery, or a foreseeable dead end. And about them different readers (or even the same readers) can at times feel very differently: exhilarated and/or bored, liberated and/or confused, delighted and/or annoyed. But such ambivalent reactions do not evidence failure, as in the case of traditional narrative. They merely relocate the novel’s present achievement. For if these works resist doing the work we’ve come to expect of fiction, their resistance continues the work fiction originally came into the world to do. They carry forward into the twenty-first century the novel’s tradition of self-critique, now deepened, continuously revealing the complicity of our ways of writing and reading in the outrages that provoke us to write and read.

When in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein remarks that “a picture held us captive” (“And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” [§115]), he hints at the depth of our collusion in conditions we experience as imposed. Like Marx and Freud, Wittgenstein believed our modern alienation could not be a historical accident, that its consistent reproduction required a deliberateness that our protestations of helplessness belied. And also like Marx and Freud, Wittgenstein believed that the first obstacle to overcoming our alienation was the invisibility of this reproductive activity to itself. But where Marx and Freud undertook to discover the psychological and economic mechanisms of our alienation, Wittgenstein investigated the problem of representing it. In his writings, every effort to overcome widespread error and illusion seems vitiated by conditions inscribed into reality itself: the metaphysical limits on certainty, the practical impossibility of fixed definition, the incorrigible polyvocality of words, the radical difference of one human from another. And it is by no means difficult to come out of the Philosophical Investigations imagining that Wittgenstein’s writing meant to tell us nothing more. (“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything” [§126].) But what seems like banality is actually the literary expression of a revolutionary departure. For Wittgenstein’s discovery is not that the root causes of our alienation are inscribed into reality, but that their inscription is taking place in our act of describing them. All that makes our captivity inescapable is our obliviousness to the ways we incessantly do this. “We predicate of the thing what lies in the method of representing it” (§104). “A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces a false appearance…” (§112). “One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing the frame through which we look at it” (§114). “(W)e lay down rules, a technique, for a game, and…then when we follow the rules, things do not turn out as we assumed” (§125). Again and again in the Philosophical Investigations, what appear to be confining conditions of culture or nature turn out to be confining conditions of our representations of culture or nature, confinements implicit in what has come to count for us as representation. Revolutionary praxis now turns to the medium itself.

All of which means that, unlike the great achievements of nineteenth century realism, the present achievement of fiction will not be located in the outcome of its story. Jeff VanderMeer’s transformation of his dustjacket into his novel, Kate Bernheimer’s framing of her story within the stories it frames, John Barth’s uncontaining of his life’s work, are all achievements characterized by an enigmatic immediacy and impalpability, a literalness and generality that exist in seeming independence from represented characters and actions. In such novels, just as in the Philosophical Investigations, a ghostly presence seems continually to insinuate itself between us and the subject matter, competing for our attention, distorting or complicating our vision, displacing what’s to come with something always already there. What to call these presences remains debatable: ideology, language, the reader, discourse, form, structure, myth, the unconscious, materiality, “pictures,” or simply ourselves. In general, our established critical vocabulary is itself too implicated in their repression to help identify them. But what seems clear is that acknowledging their presence will demand new practices of reading and writing, practices that are still poorly understood and that presuppose a fundamental reorientation of attention, feeling, commitment, and perception. For as Requiem and “Melanctha” both show, our problem is not that we need someone to tell us what we’re doing to ourselves. On the contrary, our problem is that we can’t need someone to tell us this, necessitating ever greater efforts of repression, even to the extreme of creating a fraudulent culture, just to avoid acknowledging what all already know.

In Michael Martone’s fictional travel guide, The Blue Guide to Indiana, there is a narrator but no story. Historical anecdotes peek through the cracks in the guide’s enthusiastic depictions of famous sites (“Annual Baking Powder Festival / Commemorating the Great Explosion of 1879 / The Landing / Fort Wayne”), but no organizing conflict ever emerges, and by the end, no overarching plot has been revealed. Instead, the only action seems to exist between reader and narrator, the former fighting to preserve her conviction of sanity against the latter’s increasingly persuasive insinuation of madness. (Why isn’t “pork cake” a dish? Is it less preposterous than corn dogs? Are we sure it isn’t a dish?) But coexisting with Martone’s static narration is a literary achievement that’s harder to describe. It reveals itself in our feeling that Martone hasn’t represented a fictional landscape so much as created a fictional object. That is, what makes The Blue Guide to Indiana fiction isn’t that no “mayonnaise pipeline” exists in Indiana, but rather that no Indiana exists (yet) to which Martone’s book will serve as travel guide. Its fictionality seems strangely external to it. And yet, The Blue Guide to Indiana is as materially real as The Blue Guide to Greece, or any other volume in the The Blue Guide series (whose publisher became so alarmed at the appearance of Martone’s fiction that he threatened to sue). On any bookstore shelf the real and fictive Blue Guides appear virtually indistinguishable. That The Great Gatsby exists in book form seems inessential. It can be read aloud or on a video monitor without significant loss, and changes in its cover or layout do not provoke lawsuits. But the Blue Guide to Indiana authenticates its madness, at least in part, like Borges’s encyclopedia of Tlon, by existing materially in the same world as its fiction. It’s as though Martone had invested extrinsic features of almost every novel – that it has a cover, that it’s portable, that its typography is formatted – with the value of the whole, making these material accidents into its expressive medium.

What seems most unsettling is simply that Martone’s fiction is a book. Did anybody ever not know this? And yet, if always already known, how can Martone’s frank acknowledgement of it seem strange? A fiction’s bookishness is like a human’s corporeality. Someone would need to be mad to dispute it. Such facts resemble toothaches or migraines in being too close to us, too unstinting and inseparable from the fabric of experience itself, ever to need knowing, and yet this proximity seems exactly what makes Martone’s “revelation” so uncanny. A writer might just as well try to “reveal” that we’re human, that the future isn’t yet, that living our lives isn’t narrating them, which is roughly the task White, Shakar, and Stein confront. These self-evident facts of our existence seem sufficiently “revealed” in any dictionary. Lacking awareness of them would be like lacking awareness that the sensation wracking one’s flesh is called “pain.” After all, if we didn’t always already know that fictions like Martone’s were books, what could we have imagined them to be? To which the obvious answer seems: stories. Only as Martone’s narrating persisted in story’s absence, without significant action to represent, did fiction’s material existence present itself. But such presentness can seem a small gain for so great a sacrifice as narrative. And worse still, even this small gain is nothing Martone ever tells us, nothing he narrates, no more so than “the aspects of things that are most important” but “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129) are anything Wittgenstein ever tells us, no more so than White ever recounts how we are supposed to weep or Shakar ever represents how irony is overcome or Stein ever gets around to narrating how humans are to be. In truth, fiction in the present never manages to tell us much of anything we don’t already know too intimately to tolerate being told it. But if this seems true, it merely underscores fiction’s present task. For if the whole world seems to have undergone an invisible captivity, such that what’s wanted gets lost in the having and every solution turns out to be a cause and action only makes matters worse, and if this imposed confinement reproduces itself with diabolical consistency, gradually detaching human beings from their own flesh, so that everywhere people are gleefully gobbling synthetic “food” and dwelling in dispensable “homes” and listening to sterilized “music” until, bedazzled and stupefied and narcotized and jaded, all of one’s contemporaries appear either spirited away by time-travelers from the future or just dead, then your problem will not be how to represent their absence to them. Your problem will be that, in representing it to yourself, you have disappeared too.


Barth, John. Coming Soon!!! (Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

Bernheimer, Kate. The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold. (FC2, 2001).

Jaffe, Harold. False Positive. (FC2, 2002).

Martone, Michael. The Blue Guide to Indiana. (FC2, 2001).

McGowan, Heather. Schooling. (Vintage, 2002).

Shakar, Alex. The Savage Girl. (HarperCollins, 2001).

Stein, Gertrude. “Melanctha,” in Three Lives. (Penguin, 1990).

VanderMeer, Jeff. City of Saints & Madmen. (Prime, 2002).

White, Curtis. Requiem. (Dalkey Archive, 2001).

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Second Edition. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell, 1997).