Autonomy, Individuality, and Narration: More Conjectures on Fantastika and the Sense of Self
Last week I discussed what I thought was a keen idea worth exploring: the notion, taken from Alan Palmer’s book Fictional Minds, that “[r]eaders create a continuing consciousness out of scattered references to a particular character and read this consciousness as an ‘embedded narrative’ within the whole narrative of the novel.” I found a useful contrast between the protagonists of two recent novels and discussed in broad terms the sense of self that emerged from each narrative and speculated about the implications for fantastic literature. In the comments, my friend and colleague Felix Giron brought up an issue that I had not considered in the piece. As she stated in her comment:
“What I am reminded of is, however, that this sense of self is still powerfully influenced by ideas of autonomy and, in many ways, self-sufficiency. This seems to synergize with the ideological concept of the individual and the social and literary context first connected to that idea. Thus the increasingly autonomous and distinct “individual” has a close relationship to “the novel” (whatever that is) and the narratives associated with it. My question is whether the connection you’ve made here between fantastika and the idea of the self is more open than that between the novel and the individual.”
This point, and the question connected to it, crack open the idea of what the sense of self is and its link to the sort of narrative that we call a novel. The more I think about this, the more I wonder about what fantastika has to offer in terms of creating distinctive, insightful, and compelling modes of selfhood within fiction. In general, fictional narratives work to create the boundaries of identity and the parameters of selves that undergird them. A novel is a narrative that is not just fictional, but a particular type of fiction. The form has a range of styles and possibilities linked to the general idea of “a novel” and to the specific productions of it, and what novels produce more than anything else are selves that the reader can relate to and dialogue with. Like ethnographies, novels “enact the process of fictional self-fashioning, in relative systems of culture and language.” What, then, is the link between a sense of emergent self and consciousness in that form, and what distinctive effects can fantastika employ to enrich or complicate both the link and the form?
The idea of the self is not self-evident or firm. There are a number of definitions for the term, including:
- A person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality:
- A person’s nature, character, etc.
- The total, essential, or particular being of a person; the individual.
- One’s consciousness of one’s own being or identity; the ego.
All of these definitions revolve around the idea of a central and discrete person, a singular entity explicitly separate from all others. What is fascinating about this is that the word self has roots in both notions of sameness and notions of difference. The Old English root means “”one’s own person, same,” while its pre-Germanic foundation is in a word that means “separate, apart.” This may seem contradictory but I think this gives us some insight into the word, as this makes a self a distinctive individuality that everyone possesses; we all ostensibly have a self that is like all others at some level.
When we coalesce all of those scattered hints and meanings into a consciousness, what do we make it into? In the two examples I gave last week, there were obvious candidates for that subject: the primary protagonists of each novel. Not only can the reader easily gather the inferences needed to create a sense of their selfhoods, but both novels are specifically about those characters, and both in their way work hard to demarcate them as the focal point of the narrative. In a sense, this makes them easily discernible examples for this discussion, because the reader is led quite explicitly to those characters.
To build on Felix’s comment, this is done by building and reproducing their individuality and their autonomy. The progress of both novels depends on these characters being developed and their actions provide the forward motion in both narratives. Avice Benner Cho tells the story of Embassytown‘s crisis in her own words, and that same crisis is essentially resolved by her. In The House of Discarded Dreams Vimbai is both the subject and hero of the story, and the narrative reveals more of her as she becomes more active and powerful. In each tale we have a clearly delineated person to identify with and to reproduce as the narrative unfolds. As we read each novel we assemble them as singular selves, as in the first definition above, and as that image/idea becomes more coherent we then infer qualities of self to them, as in the second and third definitions.
In both novels the cues and references are obvious and emerge quite obviously from the form. Both novels use the template of a heroic journey focused on a single character, and while both protagonists have assistance, each is the seminal agent of change in their respective stories. In Embassytown this is obvious from explicit statements that Cho makes about her role in the story, while in Sedia’s novel this is built up by thoughts, decisions, and actions taken by Vimbai. These are the sort of stories that novels tell most easily, of some form of quest for resolution of a conflict or mystery. Readers put together the sense of self for these characters through the autonomous actions of these very intensively constructed and revealed persons whose effects in the novel both structure and advance the story.
Both authors use the ideological autonomy of the individual, based on a sense of self that is both unique and internally-generated, as the basis for their novels. These work in different ways, based only partly on the point-of-view. These protagonists are constituted and deployed to reflect the themes of each text, neither of which are classical quests or journeys of self-revelation, but which do relate to very identifiable techniques from those types of novelistic narrative. Cho’s memoir is part confession, part exegesis, but not in the service of revealing her internal journey. In fact, one theme that I took away from Embassytown was that such a journey is essentially unknowable, since it has to be mediated through language and the interpretation of experience and this is always partial and positioned by the reader’s ability to understand what is being communicated. In the case of Vimbai, she herself has a growing revelation through Sedia’s novel, but her method of overcoming obstacles and conflicts subverts many of the cherished tropes of both mythic journeys and processes of self-discovery.
This is significant because the source of these divergences from the expected or routine come in large measure from the fantastical elements in each novel. Miéville’s novel is not just about language, but about the tenets of how we apprehend the world, how we make sense of it in our minds and in a dialectic with other speakers and forces, and how language shapes, but does not determine that. The device of the alien is used to establish a contrast of selves so stark that a nearly-impenetrable wall of interpretation is built against understanding, one that can only be destroyed by affecting its structure at the most basic level. This destruction has to occur not just within the language itself, but within its users, and until they are practically annihilated the opening to understanding cannot happen. Miéville combines recognizable tropes of alienness and space opera with destabilizing and enigmatic descriptions to create tension and layers of dissociation that push and pull the reader into and out of understanding, creating a sensation of uncertainty that is heightened by the ontological tensions in the central conflict of the book.
Sedia’s novel is even more subversive with its combination of mythic resonances, surreal disruptions, and mixture of conscious acts and subconscious eruptions that influence the fabric of reality itself. A tried-and-true coming-of-age story is complicated and enriched by the use of dream imagery, folkloric fashionings, and the proliferation of a mundane fantastic where the wondrous and the miraculous are commonplace, ambivalent, and as difficult and unfair as the most prosaic moments of “real life.” The central dilemma of the novel is the interference of the amazing and legendary with everyday life and a journey to, essentially, return to the normal world. Vimbai’s journey is less a triumph than a re-establishment of a sense of ordinariness that highlights both its contingency and it own illusory, strange nature. Vimbai does not triumph so much as have her eyes opened to a deeper comprehension of how the world works.
So, how does that answer the question Felix posited? My answer has to be that my initial formulation does not make clear the full potential of the fantastic (and the weird, I would add) to not just play with and give us new insights into the idea of the self, but to critically and lucidly engage these assumptions about the autonomy, distinctiveness, and monadic self-sufficiency of the individual. I think a number of novels have tried to do that (the first example that comes to mind is Nick Mamatas’ Sensation), but this answer needs more development to fully demonstrate that. As Felix points out, however, our very notion of what a novel is can work against this potential, and we need to not only play with tropes, conventions, and assumptions, but with the idea of the novel itself, of what we can express and fabricate through new forms of narrativity, configuration, and even purpose in the writing of long fictions, using the fantastic to see what we consider real and normal with more clarity and nuance.
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