Multiplicity, red hands, and what fiction can (and can’t) do with explosions



The reading assignment for my advanced fiction-writing class last week was eerily well timed. When I first put William T. Vollmann’s story “Red Hands” on the syllabus for the week of April 15, I couldn’t have known how perfectly it would be tailored to current events. “Red Hands”–a strange and gorgeous piece reprinted in the equally brilliant fiction-writing craft book Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell–has as one of its main characters an Irish Republican Army fighter who helps plant a bomb that kills innocent people in a department store. The story tells of the guilt-haunted, solitary life he leads in self-imposed exile in New York.

In the new media course, meanwhile, we are wrapping up our reading of Six Memos for the Next Millennium, having arrived at the last chapter, “Multiplicity.” In this final lecture, Calvino talks about novels that aim for the encyclopedic, the loose and baggy, even the infinite–that aim to become “a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world.” We see Borges riffing on such concepts in his stories, and we see them exemplified in works such as Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi and, more recently, David Foster Wallace or Roberto Bolano.

How does this relate to “Red Hands”–or to red hands in general? In light of the Boston bombing and its aftermath, I was thinking about the ambitiousness of stories that seek to explore evil from the standpoint of the individual human, that seek to remind us that the evildoer is a human, and, in the precision of their structure and articulation, perhaps also seek to offer some kind of consolation. “Red Hands” tells of two different killers, asking the reader to compare the respective killings according to moral scale. But perhaps most relevant to this point is that the story shows the bomber as haunted in the aftermath of his crime, driven forever from the comfort of companionship with others even as he tells his story over and over to all he meets.

And–more–because he was an IRA member, the “message” that his bomb sent was decipherable. The “language” it “spoke” was translatable. Put that against the real-life welter we are now confronted with in Boston, in which the surviving suspect cannot speak and in which that’s just one of a host of reasons why we may never find out a coherent message which the killing and the maiming was supposed to send.

What can fiction do in response to such a welter? Can the fiction of multiplicity help–a fiction not of precision, order, and careful calibrations of scale but of encyclopedic inclusivity, chaotic complexity, and even incompletion (see Calvino on Gadda, page 106)? What if the best purpose of fiction wasn’t–as we always learned in workshop–to impose shapeliness and order on events but to respond to the incoherence of life (even the violent incoherence) in kind?

And, of course, what does it all have to do with new media? My assumption has been that digital media offers even more opportunity for the embrace of multiplicity, for the forging of an endless network of connections, than Calvino’s print media would. But are there arguments on either side?

This has, in itself, been a somewhat “multiplicitous” blog post, so respondents should just address whichever portion of it most resonates with them. One question is what we expect and want of fiction in times of chaos and crisis: shapeliness and order? Or an artful plunging into the very chaos? (Or, if these are two points on a spectrum, some mid-point of the spectrum?) Another question is–as always–what difference the medium makes.


By cloppj (from scanner) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By cloppj (from scanner) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a page from the Corriere dei Piccoli, a popular weekly magazine for children in Italy in the 1920s. Italo Calvino remembers, as a little child, “reading” the comic strips in it before he could read words. He says he in effect learned to tell stories by poring over the series of images and connecting them in his mind.

What was one of the first stories you remember reading? What were the images in it?

And what do you think of Calvino’s worry that as “prefabricated” images proliferate in culture, humans might lose the ability to imagine their own images, and stories? And if this is indeed a worry, what further effect might digital media have? Could the fact that it opens up so many opportunities to be producers as well as consumers help humans to recoup a sense of their own imaginations, or not?

Workshop and Mystique


We just had the first formal workshop in the digital-media creative writing course, and the “brand-new” feeling I always have about that course led me to reminisce about the first workshop I ever had as a student.

It was Fall 1984 at Oberlin College. The way the intro course was run there in those days, students met once a week in a large lecture hall, where they were addressed by professors, and then once a week in small sections of eight, which were each led, in TA fashion, by a senior creative-writing major.

The TA for my small group was a lanky, unassuming young man whom I’ll call Tom. I was nineteen and terribly excited by the mystique of creative writing, which the lecture professors (mostly, the creative writing program director and, sometimes, special addresses by that semester’s visitor, the glamorous and famously badly behaved Mary Robison) did little to dispel. Au contraire, they viewed the imparting of mystique as a key part of their job description. There was much talk, in the lectures, about concepts like innate talent and ineffable magic.

Tom, as I recall, didn’t do a lot of wisdom-imparting in the section meetings. He was a shy person; since I was as well, I gravitated to him immediately. He stared at the desk when he talked, pausing first for what seemed minutes on end. He was soft-spoken to a fault. When Mary Robison came to visit our section, she remarked to me later on the rudeness of one kid who sat near Tom, drawing a sketch on a rather large notepad. For my part, I hung on every one of Tom’s mumbled words. I was looking for anyone to be my writing guru. (As a matter of fact, I still am.) Tom was respectful and interested in my work, and that was enough for me.

A year later, I was in the intermediate fiction-writing workshop at college, still hanging in there despite no special encouragement on the part of the professors. Already I had such a powerful sense of vocation about writing. One day, on some impulse I went to the alumni office and found an address for Tom. He was living in Boston now, like at least half of the graduates of his class and later mine.

I wrote him a letter of thanks for his attention to my work. Within two weeks I got a letter back from him. It is hard not to realize that the strangeness–indeed, the mystique–of this experience would not have been the same today, when I could have easily found him on Facebook. He would not have been so surprised to hear from me; his letter would not have seemed to me so much like a missive from a pilgrimage to an exotic, unimagined land, the mountain passes of adulthood.

In the letter, written on lined pages in the hand I remembered from his comments on my stories–neat, slanted, a little cramped–he told me that the semester during which he had taught us had been the worst time in his life. He had been entangled in a painful breakup with his longtime girlfriend, who had herself been dealing with the aftereffects of a terrible trauma. He said that on some of the evening meetings of our class, he would have been just minutes out of an afternoon of crying with her. The idea that anything he said or did that fall could have helped someone else, he said, was unbelievable. He believed it enough to thank me for thanking him, though.

I have been extra concerned of late with my own shyness and lack of polish, not to mention my newness to the world of writing for non-print media. The chance to teach a class in which I’m learning the material as well is exciting, but I worry whether the students wouldn’t prefer a course that was more of a finished product than a work in progress. At such times I would like to keep in mind the courage of a young teacher like Tom, who felt almost crushed by the burden of the obligation to his students that he felt he couldn’t fulfill, yet who contrived, through his gifts of kindness, restraint, and emotional honesty, to impart lessons about writing and living that, like the best lessons, aren’t paraphraseable–that partake, perhaps, of some of that so-called “ineffable magic” after all.

Quick and Flat and Viral?


The course has been an adventure so far, and dare I say a fun one. The class made creative responses to Calvino’s “Lightness” chapter, and I found these brilliant and surprising. Several people wrote letters to Calvino–one in the form of an intriguingly solemn podcast, another in the form of a playful print letter, still another in the voice of a fictional persona–a troubled but whip-smart teenage girl who writes to Calvino’s “advice column” asking how to explain to her too-young parents that lightness is the best possible response to the irony of their infertility problems now that they actually want to plan a baby. Another student wrote a monologue in the voice of a boy and his ultra-involved coach (or maybe it was a horse with his jockey); another a story about a fiercely independent blind woman; and another posted on her blog an episode in the life of a chaotic family in a tiny house facing the onset of a tornado. The quality of “lightness” in this last example was felt not least in the fluidity with which the narrative glided from one point of view to the next.

Last week I went to a talk co-sponsored by the SMU English department, given by Northeastern professor and digital scholar Ryan Cordell. He talked about his project to use digital tools to track texts that “went viral” in the 19th century. Back in those days, virality happened most often by means of reprints in newspapers. His key example was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad,” a satirical story that got reworked–often, indeed, reshaped for sentimental purposes–every time it was reprinted, which was thousands of times, in newspapers, magazines, and tracts.

It made me think about this “new media” class and how paradoxically old-school we may be in many ways. One of those ways is that we’re not especially interested in virality, are we? That is to say, in our writing and our plans so far, we’re not especially aiming for our pieces to “go viral.” We hope for an audience, but would we be delighted to see the audience suddenly multiply thousand-fold, our pieces zipping from point to point all over the web uncredited? Or would we be as horrified by that as, reportedly, Hawthorne was by the fate of his “viral” story?

Bringing it back to Calvino, remember what he said in the “Quickness” chapter about the flatness of the speedy new media. The very quickness of the new media, he says, seeks to flatten difference, and he wants to see literature in the new millennium strike a stand against this flatness. He wants to see the new literature, quick as it may be to share it, preserve the possibility of strangeness–make readers more aware of difference, not less.

Respondents, what do you think of any of this? Why is it important when digital texts go viral? Do you, personally, have any favorite viral texts? (Did “Gangnam Style” work for you?) Do you agree with Calvino that the tendency of such texts could be to flatten out difference, or could a sense of profound strangeness adhere even to a text or an image or a video that’s been viewed more than a million times?


The First Memo: Lightness

he only knew...

“I would therefore like to devote these lectures to certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart, trying to situate them within the perspective of the new millennium.” –Italo Calvino

One of the things that is most beautiful about Calvino’s SIX MEMOS is how each chapter seems to enact its own quality. This opening chapter on Lightness is, indeed, “light” in the sense that, as Calvino would have it, “subtle or imperceptible elements are at work.” The ideas, in other words, are abstract. He does use a wealth of examples from literature. And yet, much like the image of Guido Cavalcanti leaping over the fence to escape the bullies, the possibility of paraphrasing the chapter’s main idea can seem elusive.

Given this, I’m wondering what “lightness” means to the chapter’s various readers. One quite interesting possibility is that the concept could cause us to trouble the seemingly easy distinction between abstract and concrete–a bedrock concept of creative-writing courses, especially introductory ones.

But what does it mean to you? Are there works online that strike you as especially “light” in the way Calvino is talking about? Or what do you think of the “abstract vs. concrete” binary that I mentioned above? Have you ever been told to write more concretely? How did you respond? Did reading some other writer help?

Here goes–something!

Welcome. In this blog, I’ll report on the journey I’m about to begin with four SMU creative-writing students as we experiment with writing creative pieces for digital publication. Our unlikely-yet-hopefully-somehow-perfect guide: Six Memos for the Next Millennium by the great Italo Calvino.

May the blog bring a larger audience to our efforts, and may we all read, and write, things we might not even be able to imagine right now.