Valerie Vogrin (vvogrin@siue.edu)

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Southeastern Medieval Association, October 2006

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

Breaking Up With Realism

I. Magic Mushrooms Expose Me

In June, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal reporting on a study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers on psilocybin—among the first of its kind in 40 years. Over two-thirds of the participants administered psilocybin—97% were college grads, 56 had advanced degrees—reported the effects as being among the five most meaningful experiences in their lives, effects that included lasting increases in their sense of well-being and satisfaction. In the journal Psychopharmacology, prominent neuroscientists heralded the study and called for further research directed toward potential therapeutic uses as well as “a science of spiritual experience.”

A bit more web research led to my discovery of several well-funded international non-profit organizations dedicated to the support of psychopharmacology research (i.e. the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and the University of Hawaii’s Psychoative Biotechnology Project. It lead me to the wacky, erudite world of the late Terence McKenna, social critic and outspoken proponent of psychedelics who believed, “reestablishing channels of direct communication with the planetary Other, the mind behind nature, through the use of hallucinogenic plants is the best hope for dissolving the steep walls of cultural inflexibility that appear to be channeling us toward true ruin.”

This flurry of research left me flabbergasted, as though a troop of flying monkeys had just swung by my second-story office window, for here were respected scientists and other academics taking very seriously something I had definitively relegated to an intellectual category akin to Childish Things. When had I become so closed-minded, so rigid? (I’d ignored the role of psychedelic drug use in at least five millennia of spiritual practice; I’d disregarded my own profound, if distant, personal experiments.) Since when were the National Institute for Drug Abuse and the FDA more forward thinking than I? Why would I so thoroughly discount something one of the study’s reviewers thinks “may hold the key to understanding the very nature of consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to introspect, and the properties of mind that set us apart from other species”? Doesn’t this speak to the heart of what I believe is the enterprise of the fiction writer—to explore, expansively and insistently, the question of what it means to be a human in this world? Another occasion for self-rebuke soon followed.

II. The Short History of the Dead

A few weeks later I read a novel that fell on me like a sack of hammers, The Short History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It tells a two-stranded story. One is set in The City, inhibited by the recently departed; the other is on Earth, where a mutant virus is rapidly decimating the human population. My first reaction was emotional, deeply personal: to a statistically significant level, reading the novel alleviated my fear of death.

The trouble was intellectual. This book didn’t fit into my category of “suitable ways for fiction writers to go about their business.” Since junior high, when I abandoned mischievous cats and ghosts in favor of a virtuosic but ragged flautist riding on a Chicago bus, I’d clung to the idea that fiction grounded in “the real” was necessarily more meaningful than work relying on unreal or surreal elements. Because I’m not a complete idiot, I mostly kept these opinions to myself. And I made exceptions in my reading. Magical Realism got my secret stamp of approval because, I rationalized, it had a different cultural provenance. Other writers’ work I accepted because they were so undeniably good, and in the case of writers such as Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison, their oeuvres were packed works more strictly realistic works than The Handmaid’s Tale or Beloved.

However, in June, I was forced to recognize that for some time I had been granting an increasing number of exceptions in response to an increasing number of published works that have all the trappings of realism yet veer sharply into the fantastic, including recent favorites such as Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place (in which a girl has the ability to reanimate the dead)and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (which features a magic ring and a superhero).

Such hypocrisy! Worse, I could see that my position was akin to fundamentalism. Just as fundamentalists believe the story told in Genesis of Adam and Eve to be a factual historical document rather than an ambiguous mythic text posing interesting philosophical questions about knowledge and innocence and sin, I seemed to have forgotten what a story was. And likewise, I had been insisting that there was a preferred method for seeking the Truth.

Had I not nodded appreciatively as I read Lethem’s claim that his work wasn’t radical? Lethem states, “…metaphor and symbol and linguistic experiment are not so very different from a ‘fantastical element,’ or a magical intrusion on the lives of the characters in the story. All of these—metaphor, symbol, and magical intrusion—are different ways in which reality and dream come together. In fact, this is basic to literature. All stories are collisions of reality and dream. Language itself is a fantastic element.”

It wasn’t as though I thought I was mimicking reality. I understood that I created literary experiences. If I thought of my work as mimetic, I understood it to be more than an imitation of the world. As philosopher Crispin Sartwell reminds me, “the act of mimesis, more broadly, captures and presents the world. Mimesis represents things, manifests them, brings them to presence.”

Did I not see that I played fast and loose with “reality” in my own work? What about “Izard McAdoo, high school English teacher, divorced weekend father, albino, heir to modest fruit-spread fortune”? What about the fact that in my novel I killed off an entire clan in a series of accidents in order to isolate my protagonist and her teenaged nephew? That all the accidents I created had some basis in fact—the tale of a grizzled hard-drinking cropduster in Pullman, Washington, a grisly boating accident that occurred weeks before I arrived in Tuscaloosa for grad school—doesn’t make this plot device any less a fantastic coincidence.

III. In My Defense

I could recount the strong influence Raymond Carver’s short stories and John Gardner’s Art of Fiction had on my work and my psyche (along with the arm’s length list of realist writers whose work dominated much of literary fiction when I was coming of age as a writer). But is that how I want to portray myself—as a droopy-lidded hypnosis subject barking like a Chihuahua at the snap of the hypnotist’s fingers?

Or I could summarize the track record of realism in American letters since Theodore Drieser had the gall to suggest that hard work and sticktoitiveness weren’t the only paths to success. I’d note how, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, literature—and daytime television—gave voice to those long-silenced by bigotry and convention and narrowly defined taste, how realism yanked a lot of unpleasantness and grit out from beneath the carpet of “best not mentioned.” By now, though, we’re accustomed to unvarnished portrayals of ourselves and society; we’ve seen the warts, genital and otherwise.

Or I could ally myself with realistic painters, as expressed by Sartwell: “Realist art…acknowledges the limits of imagination. It is a kind of resolution to humility in the face of the infinite richness of the world…Realist art…forms a way of expressing the dearness of the world, a way of showing our love for the actual…Realist painting amounts to a kind of pantheist teaching: implicitly, it argues that the world itself is the most important thing, something to which you could devote a life to finding, exploring, understanding, and explaining.”

And I do love the world. But that alliance reeks of hubris. I am no Rembrandt.

IV. “Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine…”

“…he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes.”

Now that I’ve come clean, I can say it straight out: these lines thrill me. Especially when I come upon them in the middle of a scrupulously detailed description of the protagonist’s obsessive home remodeling efforts (Cory Doctorow, A Stranger Comes to Town, A Stranger Leaves Town).

I’m reminded of words from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech: "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us” and “Your playing small does not serve the world.” Why bow to the limits of the imagination, when I’m quite certain I haven’t come within 20,000 leagues of the periphery? I sit before you in a giddy state of freedom and anticipation; my nose is tickled by champagne bubbles rising from a just-poured flute, only my nose is as tall as the Empire State Building, the bubbles as big as Volkswagen Beetles. I can’t predict how my fiction will change, but it can only be a good thing to be reacquainted with the thrilling impulse that led me to start making things up over 40 years ago.

One of my favorite contemporary stories to teach is Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” which begins: “I never can quite say as much as I know. I look at other parrots and I wonder if it's the same for them, if somebody is trapped in each of them paying some kind of price for living their life in a certain way. For instance, "Hello," I say, and I'm sitting on a perch in a pet store in Houston and what I'm really thinking is Holy shit. It's you. And what's happened is I'm looking at my wife.”

The reader learns that the narrator fell to his death while spying on his wife and watches with bemusement as the wife/widow purchases the parrot and takes him home with her. My students and I admire how Butler uses detail to convince us of the man-as-bird’s new life: “That dangling thing over there with knots and strips of rawhide and a bell at the bottom needs a good thrashing a couple of times a day and I'm the bird to do it. I look at the very dangle of it and the thing is rough, the rawhide and the knotted rope, and I get this restlessness back in my tail, a burning thrashing feeling, and it's like all the times when I was sure there was a man naked with my wife.”

We chuckle over his sly humor, as when, from the vantage of his cage, the narrator confronts one of his wife’s actual lovers, naked except for his snakeskin boots: “I take one look at his miserable, featherless body and shake my head. We keep our sexual parts hidden, we parrots, and this man is a pitiful sight. 'Peanut,' I say.

But it’s more than artfulness, cleverness. Fast forwarding a bit:

“And since I've had success in the last few minutes with words, when she comes back I am moved to speak. 'Hello,' I say, meaning, You are still connected to me, I still want only you. 'Hello,' I say again. Please listen to this tiny heart that beats fast at all times for you. And she does indeed stop and she comes to me and bends to me. 'Pretty bird,' I say and I am saying, You are beautiful, my wife, and your beauty cries out for protection. 'Pretty.' I want to cover you with my own nakedness. 'Bad bird,' I say. If there are others in your life, even in your mind, then there is nothing I can do. 'Bad.' Your nakedness is touched from inside by the others. 'Open,' I say. How can we be whole together if you are not empty in the place that I am to fill? She smiles at this and she opens the door to my cage. 'Up,' I say, meaning, Is there no place for me in this world where I can be free of this terrible sense of others? She reaches in now and offers her hand and I climb onto it and I tremble and she says, 'Poor baby.' 'Poor baby,' I say. You have yearned for wholeness too and somehow I failed you. I was not enough. 'Bad bird,' I say. I'm sorry.

So he’s a parrot. I don’t know that I’ve read a more poignant evocation of the failure of communication in a marriage, of the loss of trust and the poison of suspicion.

Similarly, I consider The Brief History of the Dead. What better way to interrogate both our fear at the prospect of pandemics and ecological disasters, what better way to sit with our mortality, than to imagine both an afterworld and a post-apocalyptic world? Why not imagine what animals or ancestors or aliens or the deceased might have to tell us about ourselves? What would your dead grandmother whisper to you from beyond? What would my dog, Daisy, tell me about how to live? Can we afford not to listen? These aren’t new ideas, certainly. Monsters and golems and ghosts and gods and resurrections—storytellers have always known their power. That this hasn’t been lost on contemporary writers and readers is a blessing I’m happy to report to you, as well as my return to my senses.