I wrote a piece today and it's really just the beginning of something on narration. I've got time trouble because of overwork. You know: you're broke, and you take on too much work, and then you fuck up on everything. It's never ending.
So understand this is simple and it's the beginning of something. You know, it's totally open rather than anything else.
And I thought we were going to touch on two issues talking about narration. One is identity. That's an obvious issue, the business about who am Iyou know, this is all postmodernist shit. What, therefore, is real? Is there any real? And the other issue is raised by the quote from this little card that advertises this panel about writing for century's end. Constantly there's this trouble hovering in the air. The immediacy of all the danger we're living in, of the possible end of both humanism and of humanity, that we might all be going the way of the dinosaurs very fast. And that culture is going the way of? of whateverdinosaur culture. And when we talk about writing these two things, these issues hover there.
But let me start, since we're talking about narration, by telling you a story. Very simple. My story begins with my friend Bob Glück who one day, once upon a time, as story structure goes, told me that he has a certain habit. A habit of circumventing his own habits by asking his friends to give him a reading lesson. What should he, Bob Glück, read? Perhaps in order to improve himself, or perhaps in order to do the opposite. So Bob Glück goes to Kevin Killian, another friend, "Kevin, what do you want me to read?"
Kevin replies, "'The Killers,' by Ernest Hemingway."
Upon hearing this story, for this is a story, I replied, "Oh Bob, how weird, Hemingway?"
"Not weird" replies Bob. "All the English students at San Francisco State love Hemingway."
Two nights after this happened I had the following dream. First, I have to tell you a few details about my childhood and about before my childhood in order to elucidate this dream for you. I never met my father. Though he was married to my mother, he left her when she was three months pregnant with me.
When I was 26 years old, through an accident, I traced my father's family. I wrote to them and they wrote back that they would accept me into their family and we arranged to meet. I thought that I was going to meet my real father, but I only met the first cousin. He told me (and I think he was a little crazywell not crazy but eccentric, because rich people are never crazy), that perhaps I should not meet my father. Why? Because my father had murdered someone who was trespassing on his yacht. After remaining six months in a lunatic asylum, the state had excused him of any murder charge. My father then disappeared. No one now knew where he was, said the first cousin. And so I abandoned my search for my father, for my life at that time was hard enough, and this new trouble was simply not worth the trouble.
When I was 30 years old, my mother suicided.
Enough of my childhood.
I had the following dream: I dreamt that I was looking for my real father. In my dream, I knew that it was dumb for me to do this because my father was dead. Since I'm not dumb, I or the dreamer thought, I must be trying to find my father so that I can escape from this house which is being run by a woman. I go to a private detective. He calls me a dame.
I say, "I'm looking for my father."
The private detective, who might be a friend, replies that my case is an easy one. I like that I'm easy. We begin our search. According to his instructions, I tell this private eye everything that I know about my mystery. It takes me several days for me to recount all the details. It was summertime in Dallas. Everything was yellow. I didn't remember anything about this first period of my life, about my childhood. After this not remembering, I remembered jewels. As soon as my mother passed away, a jewel case was opened. The case, consisting of one tray, had insides of red velvet. Perhaps I'm dreaming my mother's cunt. I'm given a jewel which is green. I don't know where that jewel is now. I have no idea what happened to it. This is the mystery of which I'm speaking.
The private eye pursued my matter. A couple of days later he came up with my father's name: Olen. This name means nothing to me.
"Olen. Your father's name is Olen. Furthermore, your father killed your mother."
I thought, in order to dismiss thought, that's possible. The detective continued to give me details about my father. He's from Iowa, and of Danish blood. All this could be true, because how can I know anything?
Now when I woke up out of this dream, I remembered details about my mother's suicide. She had killed herself eight days before Christmas. A note in her handwriting, lying beside her dead body, said that her white poodle was staying with such and such veterinarian. Nothing else. But despite this note the cops were convinced that my mother was murdered by a man whose name wasn't known. Nevertheless, it was Christmas and there wasn't going to be any police investigation because the cops wanted to return to their homes, Christmas warmth, and holiday.
For the first time ever in my life I had the following thought: My father could have murdered my mother. After all, what if my real father is crazy? At that moment I became very scared. If my father did murder my mother, he could now be planning to murder me.
Now last week I was touring around and I found myself on a gig in Roanoke, Virginia, where I met this absolutely wonderful writer, Richard Dillard, and Richard told me that when he had been a boy he had encountered his first proposition by a man during a showing of "The Killers" at a local Roanoke theater.
That's the end of the story.
Also I should mention that in "The Killers" the name of the Swede who's about to be slaughtered by those killers is Olen.
Now, is this a story, what I've just told you? Certainly it's narrative, right? And each incident actually did happen. That is, it was real. But a story? Stories are about something. And what I've just told youit's not about anything. It's not even about me. A story, you see, a story has something to do with realism, and what I've just told you, though each little bit was real or had happened, has nothing to do with realism.
Listen to another voice as we proceed on this treasure hunt, or narration. The voice of Julio Cortasar.
"Almost all the stories I have written belong to the genre called fantastic, for lack of a better word, and are opposed to that false realism that consists of believing that everything can be described and explained, as was assumed by the optimism of 19th century philosophy and science. That is, as part of a world governed more or less harmoniously by a system of laws, principles, cause and effect relations, well-defined psychologies, etc." That lovely world orderthat governing harmoniously by all these principleswe all know is now over. Though Bill Clinton has a hype.
Okay, a little more on realism. Richard Dillard rightly calls that narrative structuring named realism "reductive."
"But isn't that the central story of 19th century realistic fiction?" he exclaims in his review of Alester Grey's marvelous novel Poor Things. "The central story of realistic fiction: we are born, we are misshaped by biological inheritance, economic forces beyond our control, and cultural biases beyond our recognition, and finally we die with our failed dreams on our dry lips."
Realism: reductive and dehumanizing.
"There's another order," says Cortesar, "more secret and less communicable. That the true study of reality lay not in laws but in the exceptions to those laws has been the guiding principle in my personal search for literature beyond all naive realism."
Now return to the narration that I told you. I can't even say what it's about: Bob Glück's conversation, my dream about my real father, Richard Dillard's memory. Where in this narration lies the real? It lies in the connections between the three sections; in the connections between the "real" events and the holes, the silences. In the slippages. Slippages into what?
In Moby Dick, Melville speaks of reality as the interstices through which all of us fall. There's another, a further way of putting this, of proceeding on our treasure hunt. These interstices can be named chaos, or places where language cannot be, or death. When storytelling, humans attempt to cling to meaning. I think of narration, of narrative, or that narrative which tries to encounter the real, as that which is negotiating between two orders of time: clock time and chaos. The writer is playingwhen structuring narrative or when narrative is structuring itselfwith life and death. He or she is maneuvering between order and disorder, between meaning and meaninglessness and so is making literature.
However, these movements between clock time and chaos in written narrative are more structurally complex. To begin, consider one aspect of time in the novel: time. What? The time it takes to write a novel. A novel's a big thing. I'm talking about novel narration at the moment because that's what I deal with. It usually takes at least a year, often many years. During that time the writer's life changes. So there's the time of all the actual changes the writer is going throughthe time it takes to write the novel.
Two: the time it takes to read a novel. A novel is very rarely something you read in one sitting. So that time it takes to read a novel incorporates all the readers memories, all the interstices of time, the time lapses between readings, all the returns to earlier parts of the novel, etc. Three: the fictive time. The time within the story or the narrations. Even Hopscotchthere's fictive time there. So in this sense a novel, structurally, is a time triad.
Rather than continue with thisand you can start analyzing novelistic structureI want to just quickly skip to a final point. Consider again realism. And I must say the more I think about it, I think writing is more and more about time. Consider again this thing of realism (I'd like to abandon the whole thing). Within the realm of realism lies the assumption that language mirrors all that isn't language, right? A table. That what a narrative is about: telling what is or should be true. That a narrative mirrors reality.
Now do I need to sayhow simplistic. But what I want to ask is, why bother being so simplistic? Why bother with the lie of realism? Why bother being so miserable, reductive, when one could play? If I'm going to tell you what the real is by mirroring it, by telling you a story which expresses reality, I'm attempting to tell you how things are. By letting you see through my own eyes, I give you my viewpoints, moral and political. In other words, realism is simply a control method. Realism doesn't want to negotiate, open into, even know chaos or the body or death. Because those who practice realism want to limit their readers' perceptions, want to limit perceptions to a centricwhich in this society is always a phallocentricreality. "I am the one," says the realistic writer, "I'm telling you reality." And we can talk. I have the same quarrel about narrowing anything to single identity.
In other words, behind every literary or cultural issue lies the political, the realm of political power. And whenever we talk about narration, narrative structure, we're talking about political power. There are no ivory towers. The desire to play, to make literary structures which play into and in unknown or unknowable realms, those of chance and death and the lack of language, is the desire to live in a world that is open and dangerous, that is limitless. To play, then, both in structure and in content, is to desire to live in wonder.
Note: Kathy Acker gave this talk on a panel called "In Extremis, Writing at the Century's End." The panel was presented by Small Press Traffic in the New College Theater in San Francisco on April 29, 1993. Fortunately, the event was videotaped by S.S. Kush for his Cloud House Poetry Archives (1557 Franklin St. San Francisco CA 94109, 415-292-5554). We are grateful to Kush and also to the Acker estate. The tape was transcribed by Quintan Wikswo and edited by Robert Glück. The panel also included Dodie Bellamy, Earl Jackson Jr., and Benjamin Weissman.
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