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.