Kurt Vonnegut famously said that fiction is so much hot air, and that fiction writers’ opposition to the Vietnam War proved this. ‘We dropped on our complacent society’, he said at a PEN meeting in the early 70s, ‘the literary equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. I will now report to you the power of such a bomb. It has the explosive force of a very large banana-cream pie – a pie two meters in diameter, twenty centimetres thick, and dropped from a height of ten meters or more’.
‘However’, he continued, ‘we have reason to suspect that we have poisoned the minds of thousands or perhaps millions of American young people. Our hope is that the poison will make them worse than useless in unjust wars’. I assume that a banana-cream pie might be something like our pavlova. But the statement still holds.
Well so it goes, Kurt and Hi ho. It didn’t pan out that way. No-one had their minds poisoned and the Vietnam War is starting to look like it was just a practice run for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still the idea of a work of fiction as a kind of poison that makes the reader into someone unable to function in a particular way is an intriguing one. What that fiction might contain to make us into people unable to pull a trigger and shoot a child, for example, or even make us into people who can remember that a child is a person, someone worthy of thought and of thoughts of their own, is worth discussion. Perhaps at a writer’s festival, or at 2am in the morning somewhere in some café of lost souls when your brain is too fucked with tiredness or too drugged or drunk to think about anything more useful.
I think I’m coming back to something I wrote in my first post for Overland, about the act of writing, and what it means to do such a thing in these unbelievable times. So perhaps my posts are starting to go in circles. Anyway, it seems to me to be a question that won’t go away.
I could make a long list of the highly praised novels I’ve started this year that I wanted to compost. And some of them have been. Many years ago, when I was living in a house crowded with people tripping over each other’s hearts and plotting improbable dates with destiny and so on, a friend of mine said ‘How come I can never find novels about the kind of people that I know or the things that I think about?’
In the same way I find myself thinking, Am I on Mars? Have I had an accident and woken up in 1973?
The sea appears to be turning to acid, there’s a hole in the sky as big as a continent, we’ve now got more species extinction since a meteorite the size of Paris hit the planet 65 million years ago, the solution to any international disagreement seems to be war and murder, western societies are awash with an epidemic of depression and mental illness and all we seem to be able to do in response is make more and more banana-cream pies.
I realised a couple of days ago looking at the books by the side of my bed that the books I have read in the past few years that have meant the most to me have almost all been non-fiction (with the happy exception of Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids); Bill Neidje’s Story About Feeling, Jacqueline Rose’s On Not Being Able to Sleep, Saree Makdisi’s Palestine Inside and Out, pretty much anything by Edward Said, Juliet Mitchell’s Madmen and Medusas, Gaston Bachelard’ s The Poetics of Reverie, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and so forth. I quoted Michael Wood a few blogs ago, who said that we tell stories that are not true, because the stories that are true aren’t enough. But perhaps the stories that aren’t true aren’t enough now either, but are causing a kind of further panic as what we are pleased to call our imaginations disappear into the perplexity of our futures, pursued by the sinister spooks of the past.
To this end I have started reading non-fiction – and writing it to some extent – as though it were fiction. It’s a strategy that is working well for me I have to say, in a whole range of different ways, and it means I can inhabit that weird interior space we set aside for reading in an even more hallucinatory way. All kinds of elisions and bleeding and bizarre collisions between worlds can take place. For example, Freud finally makes sense to me because I read him as though I were reading his contemporaries Conan Doyle and HG Wells.
Anyway, last week I came across Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a kind of alternative history of World War II. Human Smoke is basically several hundred pages of catalogued entries, beginning in 1914, proceeding chronologically, and ending just after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941. An entry can be just half a page, and each recounts a documented historical anecdote and then dates it. We get to see Churchill’s virulent anti-Semitism and racism, Roosevelt’s repeated refusal to allow the desperate Jewish refugees of Germany into the USA – there’s no room; they might be spies and Nazis – and so on. Human Smoke reads like a work of fantastic eerily topical fiction. It reminded me a little of Kurt Vonnegut – and I’d be surprised if Baker didn’t have some Vonnegut-esque cadences in mind when he was writing – and brought to mind, by chains of association, the books of WG Sebald.
Both Vonnegut and Sebald were concerned with war and cataclysm – Vonnegut also with climate change and ecological destruction and so forth – and about fiction as a kind of fact, and they both made fiction interesting for me – and even critical – at times when fiction seemed like the last thing in the world able to be of help in the disasters of living in which I found myself. And often was the last thing.
I’m guessing that Sebald and Vonnegut had both thought deeply about the very act of writing. Vonnegut’s graphing of the narratives of western literature meant more to me than any book of literary criticism I ever read.
Sebald was haunted by the reverberations of the Holocaust and the German experience of World War 2, and once wrote a book about the Allied carpet-bombing campaign, something that Vonnegut experienced at Dresden. I suspect they are both writers that may still be read a hundred years from now by anyone who wants to work out why the twentieth century was so fucked up and was such a horrific nightmare, a nightmare from which we have yet to awaken. Vonnegut and Sebald asked questions that might be roughly summarised as: What does it mean to write after Auschwitz, or after Dresden? Note, this is not the question, ‘How can I write a novel about the death-camps’, or ‘How can I write a novel about firebombing’, but a question about the very act of writing. Vonnegut and Sebald weren’t writing in the belief that they had answers. The questions they are writing through won’t go away, and are still not answered. And we now have questions of our own to deal with as well.