I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class. I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth. My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me. Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative? How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?
To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure. To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.” In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both. Still confused? (So are we.) In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut. Her husband is present, with a bloody hand. The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it? The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive. Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another? (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)
The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”). We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings. What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation. Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale. Who designed this class, anyway?
And yet, the question remains. For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.” Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?
Stay tuned, true believers. We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.