Who am I? How do I define myself? Of all the seething morass of components that make up my life, which ones survive every sifting through the filters of experience and introspection to become the things by which and in relation to which I think of myself – however much I may be right or wrong in such thinking, if it is possibly to be mistaken about who one is – as me?
I’m not going to enter (too much) into that minefield of defining what constitutes the psychological core of the novel, or try to make comparisons across the arts by saying the novel is the literary symphony, a unified, Hegelian, progressive, developmental narrative. Though the fact that people *do* have such discussions is a good enough segue into the observation that for me as a writer the novel, or longform fiction, offers a way of exploring characters’ sense of identity, the choices they make or rather the process by which they come to decide how they decide who they are.
In order to capture what it is to struggle to find one’s identity, the form of our fiction needs to embark on a similar struggle to attempt to mirror the form of that struggle for identity. The question for the novel is whether the traditional narrative arc can be an appropriate form.
Now, it would be very easy to suggest that the fragmentation of the modern world has changed the way that we define ourselves and in doing so has moved the goalposts for the novel. I think it would be truer to say our current experience of life has made obvious what was always true – that self-discovery is not a linear journey, is not a series of either/or choices or resolved conflicts. That model is a fiction that Platonism, Stoicism, Judaeo-Christian salvation-historical narrative, and ultimately and decisively for the novel, Hegel and Romanticism, have led us towards. As Hume and Nietzsche explain, the reason we have bought into this notion of self-discovery as questing journey is straightforward enough – it’s a convenient simplification of the complexities of life. If we didn’t simplify things by creating a “line of best fit” fiction for ourselves we would never get beyond the first step of the process – we would never progress (see how insidious that idea of progress is!).
It has never been that simple, of course, and we see partial recognitions of this even within the overarching religious narratives of redemption in the early modern world. Late sixteenth century Puritan thinkers, for example, talked at great length about the economies of life – the different spheres of being in which we find ourselves and the way to balance those spheres – the church, the household, the family, society – each of those is at one and the same time a closed system and yet a system that has to interact with all other systems in the life of the individual.
But religion ultimately allowed all those interesting questions to be put to the back of the mind, to be subsumed beneath the metanarrative of personal redemption.
It was in the early twentieth century that those questions suddenly came right back to the cultural forefront. Wittgenstein’s language games are the direct descendants of William Perkins’ economies, only by the time of the
Vienna Circle, Bloomsbury
and Modernism, the religious roof had been sliced off and what was left was
simply a sea of equal and competing categories, a giant hypermarket from which
we have to shop for our identity. Modernism fought valiantly to find forms to
offer some kind of mirror of this overwhelming choice. Broken narratives, new
syntaxes, expressionist art, Dadaism and Situationism – all to one extent or
another are answers to the question of what identity does – or doesn’t – mean
in a world that has no metanarrative. As previous generations had found,
though, the effort and complexity of these attempts proved too much for
Modernism to keep its head above the waterline of culture for long and the
subtle shift from equal but competing narratives to the equal but non-competing
narratives typified by Andy Warhol soon came first to deconstruct the question
of identity through Postmodernism, a rigorous intellectual attempt to advance
from Modernism that soon outgrew itself into the rather flabby shrug of the
intellectual shoulders that says “Why bother with the question of identity?”
not in an interesting but in a lazy way.
What the atomisation of modern communication has done is re-opened the case file that Postmodernism closed. We can no longer escape the fact that many of us find ourselves part of many communities each of which places competing demands on our time. Postmodernism has by and large stripped us of the conceptual equipment to deal with these competing demands and we feel that lack of mental structure as an acute anxiety, and in the not-so-dark hours when our neighbours sleep but our Facebook friends all over the world are waking we find ourselves once again whispering those questions about the balancing act of identity.
As writers, this reawakening of identity-anxiety cannot but confront us with a fundamental question about the forms our writing takes. How can we take ourselves seriously as writers and adopt the narrative arc? How can we deal in resolved conflict, character growth, obstacles overcome, beginnings, middles, and ends and still consider ourselves commentators on life rather than contributors to the opiate fug of self-deception that needs to deliver a bigger and bigger hit of implausible linearity with every iteration? We can’t. By all means we can choose to be part of the machinery of cultural anaesthetics. But I genuinely believe that it is impossible for a serious reflective artist to write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
We need to wrestle with form. We need to do justice to a notion of identity that is based on complexity, on the selection of a few seemingly random strands from a giant quilt, on matrices not polarities, on the non-linear, on the confused, on the unbeginning and unending, on world-building that is not closed but porous I every possible way. How we do that each of us will have to wrestle with on our own and maybe collectively.
In the novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, I took some tentative steps by having the central character realise the choices through which she had always considered her life (art vs industry, East vs West, city vs country, lover vs family, modern vs traditional) were simply props she held onto to keep her from stepping into life in its fullness. In TheMan Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, I went further and played with three unrelated narrative strands, one of them in the first person plural. There were points of connection and disconnection between them, and within them there were realities and unrealities, characters trapped inside smartphones, online personas, political and private faces of characters, masks, art installations that appeared from nowhere offering commentary on the places where they materialised, personifications of counterfactual desires, and an absolute lack of commentary on which aspects were or weren’t “real” – within “reality” or any of the realities within the unreality of the story. For the past year I’ve been wrestling with twentyfoursevendigitalwonderland, a book that takes things further still and tells the “story” of the last day of its protagonist’s life without using words – just numbers, a challenge to the notion that our identity is only formed by our conceptualisation it, in words, and has nothing to do with our raw experience of it. Using language at all strikes me as at least a partial capitulation to the hegemony of the fiction of narrative. Art had that moment of disjunction with self-representation with Abstract Expressionism. Literature has had its moments of doubt, its cut and pastes and automatic writing, but has never really cut the ties.
How you wrestle with the written form is a matter for you to decide. But wrestle you must.