Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Beginnings of thoughts on Nina Allan's The Race

When after a couple of weeks of knowing her I asked her if she'd read through an essay I was writing on Matilda of England she said it was excellent and that I should get serious about my writing.
        "What do you mean, get serious?" I said.
        "I mean you should stop being afraid of getting stuff wrong and put your arse on the line. Say it how it is, how you see it. You have an unusual way of looking at things, Christy. Hasn't anyone ever told you that before?"
        I shook my head.
        "Well, you have." ...
        I wondered what Robyn would think of my Sapphire journals, if I were to let her see them, of the stories I told myself about an imaginary town. They were an unusual way of looking at things, definitely. I wondered if Robyn would think they qualified as telling it like it is.
One is reminded here, almost inevitably, of Samuel R. Delany's comments (where? I can't remember right now — but they're all over the place) to the effect that in his younger days, pre-Stonewall among other things, he had to write science fiction because what he calls "mundane fiction" offered him no way (not only no models for "content" but no structures) to describe the world he saw around him and the people in it. One is reminded, but things are different here: Allan is writing sf not so much to describe the world to us as to return it to us, or us to it.

A simplistic reading of The Race would assign the first and last of its four sections to the category "science fiction," while the middle two would be assigned to the "mundane." But in a counterintuitive (or counter-received-wisdom) way reminiscent of Delany's comments these middle two sections are not the least but the most fictional, the most interior — even physically, when you hold the paper book. It is in these sections that most commentators locate the novel's "metafiction," and it is true that they are "about" writing, possibly even about the writing of the novel at hand (though this is not nearly so straightforward as some would have you believe); but any suggestion that they somehow "pull the rug out from under the sf sections" (the first of which takes place in a town called Sapphire in a world that is not our own, the second of which takes place elsewhere in an extreme but recognizable distortion of the same world, featuring recognizable distortions of some of the same characters) is simply tone-deaf. The two interior sections do not provide the ground from which the sf sections launch their fancies: if anything it is the reverse: when objects and figures and events from Sapphire are reflected (in at least one case literally, in a mirror) in the "real world" they seem almost unbelievable translocations from the more...credible? sensible? places we've seen them already. The feeling on encountering moments such as these (and others) is not aha! this is why Christy wrote x y or z; rather it is something more like now here we are moving deeper into the heart of writing.

[And Christy did not write x y or z, and not only in the so-obvious-it-bears-repeating sense in which Nina Allan wrote it all and wrote Christy too (and though I know little of Allan's biography, even in the unlikely circumstance that it mirrors Christy's in every respect, Allan still is not Christy). Read attentively and any number of details — not to mention the overwhelming feel — will make this clear.]

Deeper into writing. Familiarity with Blanchot makes it tempting to compare the trajectory traced by The Race's four sections to Orpheus's journey into and return from the underworld, and though this may not be quite right (and may be a bit overwrought) I think it is crucial to understand that this trajectory is nonlinear and non-progressive. We are not given "the real world" (Christy's life, Christy's trauma, Christy's writing, Alex's trauma, the epiphanic resolution of both traumas in the intersection of their lives) followed by the "fictional world" it produces, nor are we given the "fiction" and then given an illusion-shattering "real." (Either of these would be, as they frequently are in other works, essentially a fraud.) Nor are we given a retreat from one to the other. If this novel is interested in the production of art, it is not in the vulgar biographical sense that believes in therefores ("Her brother is linked in her mind to a disappearance, therefore she writes about a brother and a disappearance"); if it is interested in epiphanies it does not mistake them for resolution; if it is interested in the shattering of illusions it does not simply replace them with another, the illusion that the illusion has ended (or, for that matter, the illusion that now we "know better").

In one of my many false starts in writing this, I wrote something to the effect that the nonlinear trajectory of the four sections, the sf sections at the beginning and the end, project us out of the novel and into the world. And I still think it is true that the motion of this novel occurs in at least two directions in time: that as we read we move toward its beginning just as much as we move toward its end, that as we finish the novel we leave on its first words just as much as on its last; I also think it is true that, if these kinds of distinctions can be made, the sf sections are closer to "the world" than the non-sf sections. But to suggest that as we follow these multi-temporal movements we move out of the novel and into the world of reality is I think incorrect, and a misunderstanding of what reading and writing are. Such a suggestion does not mesh with the feeling I get, for example, when turning the page and finding that I'm no longer in Sapphire with Jenna but now with Christy talking about inventing Sapphire: a feeling, again, not of having had the rug pulled out from under my feet, but rather of having moved closer to the mystery that is writing. It is not real, it is crucial that we remember it's not real; but a simplistic "gotcha" or "it's only a novel" would be — far from a bit of (respectively) cleverness or maturity — a panicked and embarrassed obfuscation of both the inadequacy and the genuine power of fiction.

At such moments — and at other less obvious ones, like Jenna's walk on the marshes at the end of her section, her world opening to us as it in some senses closes to her, or those occasions on which Maree's mind brushes against the truly alien (whether terrestrial or not, whether present or not) — The Race seems to recede into the infinite, the ungraspable distance, while simultaneously coming so close, opening itself so fully and revealing everything so freely: the same double movement carried out by all writing, though most writers (Allan, at times, included) and readers (myself, certainly, included) tend to be too alarmed by it to allow it to proceed honestly; the same double movement, indeed, by which the world presents and refuses itself to us.

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