The Novel at the End of the World: An Inquiry
Hilary Plum | November 2019
And what, these days, is the novel for?
The novel is a practice of attention.
Lately I marvel at any form of sustained attention. Lately the novel seems increasingly radical simply in its enduring long form. That it takes hours and years and centuries to read and reread; that it thus interrupts the distraction and hyped productivity of our buzzing online lives.
It used to be, for example, that when I was running and approached someone from behind, when on a trail or road I drew near to a stranger, they would hear me and turn, step aside. Hear is too narrow a verb: we sense significant motion and presence comprehensively in our immediate world. Almost no one senses me now, though I am a large animal coming fast at them. And in their position, am I too unaware? This story is about phones and cyborg life, an increasingly familiar and urgent question of what gets our attention.
Something like the novel occurs in the moment a stranger senses your approach, and although they may not know why, they turn, looking back for something. For you. Your eyes meet as you pass; you’re near enough to touch. You can’t say what claim you lay on each other’s knowledge. Like this, the novel is an intimate friction of attention, taking form with no firm telos beyond encounter, beyond the suggestion of a body in a landscape of time and strange sensation.
Each of my two novels was born of a practice of attention. Attention to years of daily reportage from the Iraq War, in the case of the first (They Dragged Them through the Streets, 2013). The second, Strawberry Fields (2018), attends to the positioning of reader, writer, and “subject” in journalistic writing: how this mediation of knowledge works, and how context is partially, erringly, vividly co-created when readers and writers encounter each other in texts.
Strawberry Fields considers the structures in which attention takes place and is given form, treated as a site of knowledge. For example, newspaper article; interview; public apology; testimony; novel. What eludes or exceeds these structures? How may they work differently? In a novel, attention bears witness to itself: there is the work of the “I” who subjectively attends and the work of the “I” who observes that act, that situation, that consciousness. The role of character; the role of narrator. A novel implicates you in this nonsingular formation of subjectivity.
Of course, many novels mute the self-awareness this duality involves, taking for granted our conventions of fictive realism, preferring to work within the artifice rather than investigate the workings of the artifice. These novels are less interested in postmodern questionings of narrative, more interested in the stability and development of lifelike characters in lifelike settings: characters speak as an “I” whom the reader may take for a recognizable person in a knowable situation. The artifice is efficient: the reader looks directly through a lens positioned by a narrator to see a character, a character who serves as a certain mirror for the reader. A clear line of sight; a hall of mirrors made to direct your forward-looking gaze.
Lately, the novels I prefer look instead at how looking works. These novels are about the lenses at work in narration; their questions begin here, or there, as soon as “I” write and “you” read. These books sweat and double back on themselves as they attend to structures of attention, as they get outside themselves, become multiple, try to know how we know what we know, or what we think that we know—without knowing yet who “we” may be. These novels move among genres and discursive modes, incorporating myriad cultural forms of narration and knowledge production, looking at how looking works through multiple lenses directed at scenes that know they are about being seen. Gazes refract and trouble each other. You begin to fail to know what subject position you’re in, which “you” you may be.
Such aesthetics aren’t new, and such binaries—this type of novel vs. that one—always collapse. Yet the inquiry helps me keep understanding acts of reading and writing, the intimately lived moment in which inchoate, contested knowledge emerges among multiple “I”s. In this encounter—shared history constituting a field across which something is moving—I find myself divided, decentered, turning toward the world I’m within. An inquiry takes form; a novel begins. I’m thinking of—to offer a very partial list—works such as John Keene’s Counternarratives, a work of historiography in fictional form, reconceiving the telling of North American colonization and the institution of American slavery. And/or Peter Dimock’s George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, which forces a prolonged engagement with the atrocities and literal materiality of the Bush-era torture memos, and asks how “a true reciprocity of equal historical selves” may yet come to be. And/or Stephen Graham Jones’s polyphonic Ledfeather, which places the self-mythologizing of a nineteenth-century Indian agent overseeing the starvation of the Blackfeet people alongside the forms of love through which one teen survives in the present day. And/or Roy Scranton’s War Porn, whose nested narration interrogates the genre of war literature and what readers want from its shock and awe. And/or Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky), which considers the possibilities and limits of empathy in an encounter between a retired classicist in Berlin and a group of men recently arrived as refugees from North Africa. And/or the short novels of Magdalena Tulli (translated by Bill Johnston), which seem to take as their subject the making of narrative, language like a city in which we uneasily live. And/or the intricate metafiction of Anton Shammas’s nearly indescribable Arabesques (translated by Vivian Eden), in which the storytellers of history keep melting back into their tales.
For a novel to hold and transform our attention, it must know what besieges our attention. Today’s reader picks up a novel on a subway, and/or she scrolls through a Twitter feed shaped just for her. The novel must say something that the barrage of news #fake and real—proliferating iterative formulaic commentary on each emerging event—cannot. The reader considers the news, for example, of impending sea level rise, which may soon enough bring an end to the subway on which she presently rides, presently reads. Lately it seems that a world is starting to end. (A world, our world? Amid the profoundly unequal distribution of the things of this world, who are “we”?) What do we use the novel for, at the end of the world?
The practice of attention that is the novel at the end of the world observes but does not complete itself; if its form is sacred, it is not whole. It is a passage that arrives back into itself in the reader’s hands. The best novels, as you know, never end. They dissolve again into your quaking life, your movement between horizons you can’t define. If the blood on your tongue tastes like metal, it is because you are living metal, a specific meeting of flesh and language and collapsed star. A novel is always coming between you and yourself, and leaving you here, where your ways of knowing multiply and divide.
I often run through Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland Heights, and lately this is where my questions about literature occur. In winter, the cemetery closes early and more than once I have nearly been locked in overnight. The orange light of winter sunset—over the dam with its lake view, beyond rows of trees and mausoleums, the stark disruption of obelisks—tempts me there late, and lately it’s harder to tell summer from winter, the seasons warming and softening at the edge.
I want a novel to help me look at how this change—seasons I can no longer quite recognize—has made me strange to myself. There are charts about the weather, graphic maps, but I mean the daily living of the failure of our ways of knowing, changes like the silence of insects, changes we sense but whose meaning we labor incompletely to describe. We turn away from the sensation and try not to know that we don’t know what it means. Simply we turn toward our phones in order to avert our eyes, in order to practice unseeing. We don’t want to perceive what harbingers of climate crisis keep breaking over the horizon of our late animal noticing.
I often find, for instance, that I have opened a book but I have opened Microsoft Outlook. I open a book but 2,000 times a day I touch my phone. There are gazes I fear to meet. I’d rather not know how to know.
Which came first, a lack of language for what I hardly perceive, or a perception that lacked a signifying form? What did I first forget? When did the geese come or go then? What hue was the ice on the lake? When were the trees bare? How many worms on the pavement after how many spring storms? What did a tomato taste like then, plucked hot from a plant in that July yard? When did you first hear of a farmer drinking pesticide to die his way out of debt?
Many stones in Lakeview Cemetery read simply Father Mother. Beside them perhaps Daughter, behind them perhaps Cousin. Husband Wife Our son. These are the terms in which your world ends: you are survived by, you are mourned as. My protestations are thin in the air: nowhere a stone reading friend. Nowhere lover. Nowhere reader or voter or worker. In this way the cemetery is a familiar novel, a form that attends best to the narrow bonds of the domestic, enforced even in death. This, too, is a city of small lots and single-family residences. What was first here was clear-cut.
When the dead are designated by role—father mother veteran our son—they belong to a larger story, in which we each are no more than a brief example of a single category. Reduced to one role, a lasting position, and yet marked with intimacy, each noun attesting to a form of participation, of relation, daughter or cousin to someone, known by someone. When the dead are proffered under their own names (Rockefeller, say, or Stokes), they retain the promise of identity, of a particularity whose vanishing is marked, is worthy of mark—though to most who pass it will mean only a nondescript formal gesture. This tension—between the structures in which we belong to the collective, are impersonally, publicly defined, of our role in the epic; and the structures in which we are individual, particular, private, of our speech in the lyric—is a vital tension in the form of the novel.
What do we attend to in the moment before each stone—lacking future readers—reads only earth earth earth earth?
What if you could write the last novel no one would read?
What if we could end the long history of the interchangeability of the dead, which keeps becoming the disposability of the living? What if we knew there was a point at which we will no longer be strangers, though we will not be the ones to see it?
Lately I think I have become worse at reading because I know now that the ways I am known will be lost. I hope the novel offers a form for that moment, some names for the lives streaming by here, for the instant in which one sees oneself among them, one who is passing into the many. I remain an animal who mistakes the meat of her mind for a fixed place, a singular residence, a mausoleum from which one maintains a point of view. In the novel at the end of the world, this mistake is understood as partial truth, partial error. This understanding is a form of mercy. It finds us where we are, in our incompletion, and works to make the text of the world more legible to us, labors to bring us into a world of infinite passing detail. A novel presents us with the moment in which we look up, our eyes meet. We may receive the knowledge that receives us.
For now, our role is to keep being readers of every unspeakable particular, without the consolation of the familiar, without the consolation of knowing what’s to come. To know the partiality of our truths and the partiality of our errors is the gift our time will briefly provide.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields; the work of nonfiction Watchfires, winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them through the Streets. She teaches at Cleveland State University and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center.
This essay is based on a talk given at the March 2019 AWP Conference on the panel “Revelation or Resistance? Form and Narrative at the End of the World,” organized and moderated by Roy Scranton, with fellow panelists Mark Doten and Eugene Lim.