As a person, we are constantly creating the world, consciously and unconsciously stitching and unstitching the fibers that make up its weave.
As writers, the process is, we’d like to think, a little more deliberate. An ancient Greek philosopher once said that is it doubtful that a person thinks fully upon any subject until they have written upon it. Not an absolute dictum, mind you. But in the process of creating descriptions of the world for our stories, each time we recount to ourselves and our friends our adventures, we learn much about ourselves, about how well we pay attention to reality, and what we remember of it, what we make of it, what we take away with us. We focus in on what we do and do not know.
In training to hone my writing skills, I have learned that I know the world far less better than I thought. When asked for the definition of a word by our children, we often realize that we believe that we know what it means but can’t articulate it. A high school professor used to tell us that if you can’t give the definition of a word, you really don’t know it. You might know something about it, you might even use it correctly, but you wouldn’t make a life-and-death bet on it. So much of our worlds turn out to be impressionistic and nebulous, like (and here I am surely undeservedly flattering myself) a Monet painting. Something blotchy and a little messy when seen up close, but which gains perspective and artistry the more we step back, maybe squint our eyes a little, and if you’ve got a few drinks in you, so much the better.
The more detailed a painting — or a story — the more we see how sharp and observant the artist’s eye can be. But a lot in art relies on the magical and illusorily powerful strength of suggestion. A good deal of art is like Hollywood movie sets which have built-up facades that create the illusion of a modern city block, or an American cowboy town on the frontier, or the bridge of an interplanetary starship. But look close enough and you’ll see that, no, really, not only is that not Abraham Lincoln, but how could I have even been fooled?
Of course, a good artist will, like a master magician, keep you from realizing that you’ve been fooled, too occupied by the artistically aimed bombardment of data to see the strings and the superb manipulation of light and shadow. A good artist is a superb magician.
You can go too far, of course, like John Fowles in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” giving us paragraph after paragraph of the names and descriptions of the trees, plants and wild flowers covering a mountainside, or David Payne taking up page after page in describing a stained glass window in “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.” Story can drown in too much authenticity, and in the process, seem unreal at worst, or, like real life, stupefyingly boring.
All this brings up the question, however, of what reality is.
You can read Thomas Harris’ novels, and like Will Graham in “Red Dragon” never be able to rinse away the madness of true evil. The world through Harris’ pen is tricky, devious, populated by monsters not always easy to recognize until, like a fly caught in a spider’s web, you are their victim.
Or you can read the jaunty, deceptively light and delicious prose of Peter Mayle and believe in a world where humorous mischief and an appreciation of elegance and the education of the senses, and not evil and the tragically inelegant, reign.
There is, I think, no one literary genre that can give you a comprehensive and unified vision of life, any more than a single cuisine which will offer the definitive statement on what food is (as opposed to what it can be). Painting and art might best reflect a style or the current party line, but what unified theory of literature might encompass Sherlock Holmes, Shakespeare, the Three Stooges and Godzilla? It’s hard to imagine Hannibal Lector or the Tooth Fairy living in the same world as that of Garrison Keillor or of Jean Shepard.
But we look for reality — and often enough, some measure of reassurance about the world we inhabit — in fiction, in story. Schools of fiction are like organized religion; there are a whole boatload of them out there. Is it a matter of simply choosing one that pleases us most? Or is there some ultimate truth out there?
There’s an interesting and almost oblique observation in William Gibson’s 2010 funny and wildly inventive novel, “Zero History,” that touches on this question of what and how we perceive. One of the characters, Milgrim, finds himself inside the corporate headquarters of Blue Ant, a fashion conglomerate most closely resembling the Pentagon.
The lobby here suggested some combination of extremely expensive
private art school and government defense establishment, though when
he thought about it, he’d never been in either.
I’ve never heard a real gun shot, but I have plenty of ideas about what they sound like; I’ve watched enough programs running the gamut of The Man From Uncle through Sam Peckingpah and Clint Eastwood all the way through to the newest Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise and the Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon. I’ve lived a cloistered life, but hey, I know all about violence, espionage, duplicity, the New World Order.
So much of what we “know” is picked up tangentially through movies, magazines, television commercials, mass media. A lot of what we “know” is obtained not through direct first-hand experience, but rather mediated through various other filters. We get fed, like baby penguins, with partially chewed and partially digested food prepared by our penguin moms and dads. The message is the medium is the message. Is the medium.
Is the message.