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Last week, I went to Michigan, where I gave a craft talk about what I’ve been calling Character Vapor. I’ve tweaked it a little and put it here for you to consider, since some people wanted to know what I had said. I consider it the flip side to my previous essay about the “underdark” and the Freudian impulses of exposition, interiority, and backstory. In this talk, I’m exploring the Freudian impulses that lead us to tell narcissistic stories and to abdicate the physical for the interior. Anyway, these are just some thoughts.
A character with a body is a social creature while a character without a body, I believe, is a thought experiment. To some ways of thinking, it is perhaps more honest to write characters without bodies. After all, should fiction be striving for mimetic reality through exact physical recreation? This question has been central to art ever since the introduction of the printing press. The photographic camera. The record player. Etc. With our ability to generate better and better replicas of our exact physical worlds, what good is there in trying to capture the physical dimension of the world in fiction? I am being entirely earnest here. I do not consider the question rhetorical or resolved. I do not believe that there are ready-made answers to issue of the mimetic in art, that is the part of art that strives to be purely representational of the physical dimension. But I also think that this is just one dimension of art, and only one way of thinking about the representative quality of art, be it visual or narrative. After all, we come again and again to a piece like Ilya Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan not because we want to know what a particular rug in a particular room looked like or because the figures are recognizable to us, but because of that painting’s deep, profound ability to shock us into feeling. We come back for the seemingly ephemeral dimension of the encounter with something that exists, as D.H. Lawrence described, in a kind of “fourth dimension.” And also we return to the representative in fiction for that thing fiction can do that other things cannot do. I mean of course, what in another talk, I called the under-dark. That space where a story can think about itself through exposition, interiority, and backstory. Fiction is not merely a mimetic device. It is, as D.H. Lawrence once said, “The novel is the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered.”
Representative art, I think, is as suffused with this fourth-dimensional quality as non-representational art. Someone like Hopper paints with as much pure depth of feeling as a Frankenthaler. The difference is what each of these artists make of that feeling. How it is constituted in the composition on the canvas, the vocabulary of gesture and form, color and rhythm. What I mean is that the mimetic drive in fiction—the attempt to recreate within the constraints of the narrative or literary form the structures and objects of literal reality—is a means of capturing or (perhaps more accurately) summoning that deep reserve of feeling. The mimetic surface of fiction with its many objects traffics in signifiers and tableaux, yes, and those can be, in a mass culture, drained of their power to signify. They become cliché, rote, and the writer of narrative fiction yearns for fresh means of expression. It is why the representative gave way, after a fashion, to the non-representative. Why we set aside old forms in search of new idioms. Yet, I do think there is still much to be gained from the representative in fiction.
A few years ago when I was still editing a literary magazine, I was going through the stories that had been voted up by our team of readers. In three successive stories, there was a scene where someone opened a fridge and got out “salad ingredients” and pushed the fridge shut with their hip. I thought, oh, how interesting, “salad ingredients.” But then I also thought, well, why is this here? What does stopping to signify “salad ingredients” gain us here? Is it a moment of embodiment? Is it a moment of particularizing physicality? Is this detail actually a detail or is it just information? In my capacity as an editor and now teacher of creative writing, I often encounter scenes in which characters walk across rooms or shut doors or turn the knobs on their showers. Scenes in which characters are just kind of idling physically. The physical domain of fiction these days is filled with such trite physicalities. A literalness of physical representation that does not deepen or sharpen the reality of either character or story. These sorts of descriptions feel quite rote, dull, dead. They feel like a transcription of a visual event totally deprived of poetry or sense. There is this sense that we are being cinematic when we watch a character cross a room. Rather than cinematic, I think we ought to be more dramatic. That is, when a character crosses a room in a play, it means something. There is a deep rootedness both in the reality of the character who is crossing the room in the world of the play and the play itself. The action is paired to some sense of deep reality. This is what accounts for that feeling we get when we watch a movie when a character moves with the full weight of subtext and implication across a room to make a seemingly mundane gesture that is suddenly quite freighted with meaning. Yet in the short story with the salad ingredients, there is no subtext. There is just dry scene-blocking with very little attention to what it means to truly occupy space as a particular person at a particular time. This is not embodiment.
In fiction, when you just plop those physical acts into your story or your novel, you’re copying the surface but not the deep reality. In a story, each act should further ground us in the reality of the story. If it tells us nothing? If it modulates nothing? If it does not feel as though it comes from the character themselves? Why bother writing it? We attend so deeply to crafting the psychologies of these imaginary people because we have been taught that what matters is on the inside. This is an idea that psychologically acute fiction comes not from the careful observation of a character’s physical life but from the momentary illumination of the transit of their consciousness.
This description actually resonates nicely with Freud’s idea of narcissism, which sees a withdrawal of libido investment from the outside world and a reapportioning of those emotional resources to the inside. He comes to these ideas by stating something with a great deal of intuitive sense: “It is universally known, and we take it as a matter of course, that a person who is tormented by organic pain and discomfort gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering. Closer observation teaches us that he also withdraws libidinal interest from his love-objects: so long as he suffers, he ceases to love.” In formulating the way this impulse manifests in paraphrenics as pathology, he comes to the conclusion: “The libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego and thus gives rise to an attitude which may be called narcissism.” This has a great deal of utility in explaining a quality of contemporary narration I’ve started calling character vapor. Characters so beset and besieged by contemporary circumstances that the very narration meant to capture their lives has withdrawn all of its investment in the physical reality of those characters and directed it inward toward the acute, pulsing agony of their existential or psychological condition. This I believe is the “dysfunction” created by character to which Rachel Cusk is referring to in a 2018 interview that I will come to in a moment. What to make of this withdrawal of libidinal interest in the exterior world in which a character must carry out their lives. What to make of stories whose physical makeup have lost that fourth-dimensional quality native to all art? What to make of these pathological narrators of the contemporary fiction?
The slippery, fractured narrators of the last decade and a half of contemporary Anglophone fiction are not new exactly. They have their antecedents in the French symbolists and the English Modernist novel among others. Such narrators tend to be a reaction to a preceding era of obliterating force channeled upon the social surface: war, famine, terror, and the dissolution of old Gods—moments in which the comforting illusion of the consensus reality of social order shatters. Art, being always part of its time, changes as a result as artists bust up their forms in order to capture a fractured reality.
In fiction, this meant that the conventions of plot, setting, character, narrators, and what have you, needed to be remade in the image of a distorted era. For the post-modernists, of course, it meant questioning the very idea of fiction. And for the hysterical realists, it meant somewhat the opposite, a hyper-interpolation of artifice to the point of absurdity. And then, the glacial cooling of fictional temperament with the rise of the denuded and tranquilized autofictive narrators of the 2010s, reaching a peak of sorts circa 2017 with the enshrinement of Rachel Cusk into the literary firmament of modern saints.
In a NY Magazine profile of Cusk in 2017, the author Heidi Julavits wrote of the novels Outline and Transit:
Outline feels composed of voices in an empty room, without any “realist” set designing. But the bourgeois artifacts that so define conventional realist novels, and which Cusk, in a radical act of deaccessioning, gutted from Outline’s interior — those artifacts start to creep back into Transit. Every smelly rug is a means to a crushing revelation about humans, true, but I won’t deny that I was slightly crestfallen by the return of things. Outline suggested a future for the novel in which we might no longer need characters and, by extension, all of their crap.
This brief passage has haunted me for years, but more haunting still is an interview Cusk gave to The New Yorker in 2018, where she says that she doesn’t believe character exists anymore. When pressed about what she means by this, Cusk says:
I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. It’s not a sort of doomsday view. It’s one of the things that I realized had changed since the old templates, the Victorian template of novel writing, where character is a big thing. How much does character actually operate in a person’s life? I think it probably operates to create what we might fairly see as a dysfunction—not sticking to what you’re meant to be doing. So I think character is sort of a little low, and there’s a homogeneity afoot that I think everyone would accept in terms of our environment and how we live and how we communicate, and those things seem to be eroding the old idea of character.
There is that idea again—dysfunction as it arises out of character. Or the rigidity of the notion of character. There is some sense to this of course. In the novels of Proust, Zola, Tolstoy, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and on and on, there is a sense of great explanatory power bound up in the narrating intelligence to carve particular, specific characters out of what Trilling refers to as manners, that is: “the great hum and buzz of implication” of shared social life. Character is built up out of the shared points of reference and ideas that we might simply call culture. This tendency of character by way of reference to the broader culture existed in literature until relatively recently.
I think to Cusk as to many contemporary readers, there can seem to be a constriction to the way characters move and operate. They seem entirely bound by their social gravities, their station. Character arises by way of implication—they are from a particular place and have a particular job and so they move and talk and care about these particular sets of things. Character gets created almost from the outside-in. Or so it went in the old days. But then, you know, that idea was under attack even by a writer like Virginia Woolf, who in her seminal essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” makes an early forceful argument for the creation of character from the inside-out. That is, a focus on psychology. The individual as accreted from their specific mental and emotional weather. It is obvious to understand where this conception of character comes from: Freud. And it is easy to understand that Cusk has come through descent from Woolf to a similar idea, that one must do away with convention and fashion in order to capture the bright and hoary transits of the inner life. She is not interested in character, meaning some stable, outward projection of the self. Instead, she is interested in the quivering, false, ever shifting notional perception of oneself. The passage of the inner eye over the world as a thing that tells us as clearly and sharply about a character as a kind of coat and profession used to tell us.
There is a benefit to this, I imagine. The main benefit is that such an approach to character, ending as it does with the destruction of the idea of character, allows one to capture the sense of an individual. I think what Cusk calls “homogeneity” is really the totalizing aura of isolation and alienation in contemporary life. In such a landscape, what is individuating is not our outward lives but whatever crude or beautiful, elaborate or simple, dioramas of the mind. If character arises from the sweep and fall of our outward fortunes and the individual is only ever a ghost glimpsed in the upper window as we hurtle about our social business, then such a construct is of no use when everyone is more or less bound by the same pressures and behaving in much the same ways and talking with the same mouths, so to speak. With the internet, we’ve arrived at a kind of reverse Babylon, in which our outward lives have lost their capacity to signify. And so we turn inward by way of Freud, by way of priests and clerics, by way of our teachers prompting us to hunt for symbols and ideas, by way of the news, by way of Twitter, by way of Tumblr, by way of influencers, by way of the horrifying sonorous roar of contemporary life scaring us all down from the surface into our little dark caves in which we illuminate our faces with our phones, sending up little flares online and at the gym that we are someone, we matter.
The result is a fiction that is psychologically acute, but lacking some of the outward force of the old ways. Sometimes you open up a magazine to read a story, and seven pages go by before a character’s physicality appears in any significant way. I do not mean of course that contemporary writers have ceased to describe. There is a great deal of beautiful, tight, arid description happening out there. But what I mean is that a character’s physical, material reality has lost some of its primacy in fiction. I mean, the actual fall out of having a body in the world that looks a certain way and that people have certain attitudes about. There is an attention to the appearance of the physical in fiction, but it is also not unusual to read a story peppered with physical details that lack any real explanatory force. They’re just stuff. Mis- en-scene.
If your character has a physical form, then the matrix of the story must act upon it just as the body must act upon the story. If a character breaks a leg at the start of a story. It is not enough for them to limp occasionally. The pain becomes part of the filter of the story. It becomes not just fact to document here or there. There will be blood. Pain that is sharp, pain that is deep, throbbing, ever running like a river. They will make a familiar move because they cannot help it and find themselves brought up to the sheer cliff face of pain. They will slowly, perhaps, have to remap and reinscribe the dimensions of their circumstance and their world. There will be a fear of infection perhaps. Or bad luck. Sepsis. There will be many bad dreams. There will be crusty, achy bits. A stale odor that grows deeper and stranger as the days go by.
As a great example of the body in fiction is Alice Munro’s great story “Face” in which a man has a large birthmark on his face. The story opens not on the description of the face but a description of the world’s relation to that face: “I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once. After that, he knew what was there.” A few paragraphs later, we get another staging of that relation to the face: “I know what he said. Or what she told me he said. ‘What a chunk of chopped liver.’” It’s only after Munro has established the face’s secure attachment to the deep thematic machinery of the story that we get a physical description of the face in question:
One side of my face was—is—normal. And my entire body was normal from toes to shoulders. Twenty-one inches was my length, eight pounds five ounces my weight. A strapping male infant, fair-skinned, though probably still red from my unremarkable recent journey.
My birthmark not red but purple. Dark in my infancy and early childhood, fading somewhat as I got older, but never fading to a state of inconsequence, never ceasing to be the first thing people noticed about me, head on, never ceasing to shock those who had come at me from the left side. I look as if someone had dumped grape juice on me, a big, serious splash that turns into droplets only when it reaches my neck. Though it does skirt my nose pretty well, after dousing one eyelid.
His whole life, it’s the first thing people notice. This mark shapes his life and causes rifts and arguments. Later, he goes into acting but on the radio. But it isn’t a pitying story. The man is actually a beloved radio actor and maybe kind of a lowkey dirtbag. He has a full life. It’s an Alice Munro story after all. But the fact is that having grown up in a particular class at a particular time with a particular body, he makes particular choices. It’s not that his character is determined for him. But the way his personality intersects with the circumstances of his life (being partly material) gives rise to what we might call his character. Though I imagine to many people today, it might seem old- fashioned, being filled as it is with characters who have an outward, physical life.
But I think that the physical in fiction need not to be totally divorced from the interior. I think in the case of most great literature, they are in fact inlaid with real care and delicacy, and one becomes almost inextricable from the other. The physical carries the vibrations of perception and thought attains the kick and jolt of the physical. I’d like to think about two examples of physicality that is not opposed to interiority, where the two comingle as in life. The first, from Anna Karenina:
He felt that the mare was at her very last reserve of strength; not her neck and shoulders merely were wet, but the sweat was standing in drops on her mane, her head, her sharp ears, and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. But he knew that she had strength left more than enough for the remaining five hundred yards. It was only from feeling himself nearer the ground and from the peculiar smoothness of his motion that Vronsky knew how greatly the mare had quickened her pace. She flew over the ditch as though not noticing it. She flew over it like a bird; but at the same instant Vronsky, to his horror, felt that he had failed to keep up with the mare’s pace, that he had, he did not know how, made a fearful, unpardonable mistake, in recovering his seat in the saddle. All at once his position had shifted and he knew that something awful had happened. He could not yet make out what had happened, when the white legs of a chestnut horse flashed by close to him, and Mahotin passed at a swift gallop. Vronsky was touching the ground with one foot, and his mare was sinking on that foot. He just had time to free his leg when she fell on one side, gasping painfully, and, making vain efforts to rise with her delicate, soaking neck, she fluttered on the ground at his feet like a shot bird.
Note how carefully and fluidly Tolstoy moves between the interior and the exterior. “He felt that the mare was at her very last reserve of strength[...]” is a perception, exposition. It is narrated rather an experiential. We are being told that Vronsky feels something rather than feeling it alongside him. But then, joined to that observation, in the very next beat, we get: “[…]not her neck and shoulders merely were wet, but the sweat was standing in drops on her mane, her head, her sharp ears, and her breath came in short, sharp gasps.” Here we are experiencing with Vronsky the signs that he horse is tired. We are not told “Vronsky saw sweat on the horse.” Nor are we told “Vronsky felt sweat on the horse.” No, we are receiving direct sensory information as Vronsky sees and feels it. The channel is direct. Then, back inside, “But he knew that she had strength left more than enough for the remaining five hundred yards.” And then, the two joined, “It was only from feeling himself nearer the ground and from the peculiar smoothness of his motion that Vronsky knew how greatly the mare had quickened her pace.” Here, we have the narrated and the experiential right next to each other, one leading to the other. They seem to drink from the same reservoir of feeling. And then the great tumble of detail. The horse going down like a shot bird and that final, exquisite sentence: “He just had time to free his leg when she fell on one side, gasping painfully, and, making vain efforts to rise with her delicate, soaking neck, she fluttered on the ground at his feet like a shot bird.”
This is a body in fiction. This is a physicality that is in full contact with the total matrix of story. Can you imagine this scene if all we had was, “Vronsky was on his horse. It nickered. It ran fast down the several meters-long track. The other horses in their red and orange and gray and tan saddles were also fast. Mahotin, in a green smock and yellow hat, flashed by him. They went down.” This is obviously a trite and bad example. But you know the kind of descriptive writing I mean, in which we get a sense of how sweaty a character’s shirt is but have no sense of what this is meant to tell us except that it’s humid outside.
The second, quite different, from To the Lighthouse:
She folded the green shawl about her shoulders. She took his arm. His beauty was so great, she said, beginning to speak of Kennedy the gardener, at once he was so awfully handsome, that she couldn't dismiss him. There was a ladder against the greenhouse, and little lumps of putty stuck about, for they were beginning to mend the greenhouse. Yes but as she strolled along with her husband, she felt that that particular source of worry had been placed. She had it on the tip of her tongue to say, as they strolled, "It'll cost fifty pounds," but instead, for her heart failed her about money, she talked about Jasper shooting birds, and he said, at once, soothing her instantly, that it was natural in a boy, and he trusted he would find better ways of amusing himself before long. Her husband was so sensible, so just. And so she said, "Yes; all children go through stages," and began considering the dahlias in the big bed, and wondering what about next year's flowers, and had he heard the children's nickname for Charles Tansley, she asked. The atheist, they called him, the little atheist. "He's not a polished specimen," said Mr. Ramsay. "Far from it," said Mrs. Ramsay.
Mrs. Ramsay folds a green shawl about her shoulders. She takes her husband arm. And then she speaks. These things are narrated to us. The ladder isn’t merely leaning against the greenhouse, we are told “There was a ladder against the greenhouse, and little lumps of putty stuck about, for they were beginning to mend the greenhouse.” Here something that begins in the exterior world ends with exposition. Each of the physical objects in this scene belongs more to the current of Mrs. Ramsay’s interiority than the physical world of the story, and yet, we are with her, seeing what she sees, thinking what she thinks as her mind alights from thoughts of Kennedy to the greenhouse to flowers, to the cost of running their life, back to the social dimension of their time staying at the house. In the same way, we move from summarized dialogue into actual dialogue. The quotes appear as we move then into scene as Mrs. Ramsay leans in to look more closely at the dahlias in the flowerbed.
Note how in both examples, we move seamlessly from the interior to the exterior and back. We glide along a single channel of perception, changing only the surface upon we which we are channeling that perception. In Tolstoy as in Woolf, the body, the whole physical realm of fiction, is as crucial to the creation of story as the interior, as psychology. These passages remain resonant because they are so richly embodied. We are brought along with the narrator’s perceptive field into the story. They are experiential, not narrated. They unfold in quasi real time, a sure indicator of experiential writing rather than the summarized narration. The psychic distance is quite close. We feel as things happen. And the things that do happen feel significant. A horse falling over. Or, pondering the plight of one’s gardener. These things feel important because they are cloaked in significance by the narrating intelligence of the story.
I suspect that character vapor and its opposite, the trite physicality, come from an anxiety over embodiment. An anxiety over how much to narrative energy to invest in the external world a character must move through. This anxiety comes, I believe, from the fact that we live in a world where signifiers and symbols have lost their power to cast meaning outward. In an era of constant performance, our gestures mean very little. In an era characterized by a hyper-awareness of artifice, there is a real anxiety about the utility of seemingly artificial narrative conventions. People open a book and see a description of a tree and cast the book down because, like, I’ve seen a tree before. We all have such an ungenerous reader in mind when we sit down to write. A reader who has seen a tree before. Who sipped water before. Who has ridden a bike before. We imagine such a reader throwing our book out a window and therefore, our response is to either lean into the hypermimetic but emotionally description or the vibey spritz of narrating intelligence.
But I think the solution is to make peace with all this. To select better. The right detail. Not to make literal transcripts of the visual phenomenon of our inner eye, but to find the correct details. The correct, charged image or object. To lay these into our scenes with care and attention. To ask ourselves, as we’re writing, if we need to designate that a character grinned with his lips or twisted a door knob or woke up in the morning. Do we need to say that he looked out a window and saw a ladder leaning against a wall or is it enough to simply say, as Woolf does, that there was a ladder leaning against a greenhouse. Do we need these beat-by-beat breakdowns of walking or is it enough to begin with a character in a room, outside, by a river, on a boat, falling from the vast, open sky? Do need to evacuate the physical for the interior or should we simply just get better about rendering the exterior in ways that point to the interior?
As I said earlier, I believe that a character with a body is a social creature. I do not mean by this that they must like society. Or that we must write great party scenes. I mean simply that by virtue of having a body, a character is acted upon just as they act upon others. We have set this notion aside. But I think it’s time we pick it up again. I think we must return our characters to their bodies. And we must do so not through just slapping random physical facts or bits of information into our stories. We must do as all great fiction demands and select. Embody. Modulate physic distance. Eschew the narrated for the experiential. We must bring our characters close. And we must stay when they grow cold and uncomfortable. When the world demands of them a pound of flesh, we must watch them carve it from the fat of their thigh and offer it. We must witness them. Not look away. Not retreat into interiority or backstory. We must pay attention. We must observe. We must look. Not with our literal sense of sight. But with all the feeling and sensitivity that comes to us as writers, as fellow people. We must see not with our eyes, but with that delicate, shivering sense organ of the inner eye, the imagination.
also, I have a new novel out next year called The Late Americans. You can preorder it here: PRE-ORDER THE LATE AMERICANS
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I was just thinking it had been too long between Sweater Weather posts! Looking forward to your new book. I wonder whether this disembodiment you speak about is related to my pet peeve about unidentified settings in novels. I can't stand it when the author creates a generic town and won't tell me what state or region it is in, because for me that specific physical feel of a climate and subculture is important to my psychological understanding of these people talking in a room, the context of their embodied emotions, so to speak. I don't need a lot of description so much as the well-chosen detail, as you said.
Thank you. This is a writing class in one essay. News I can use!