Form and Emotion

Form and Emotion

2004-10-20

Author Lucy Corin opposes the emotionalism of genre fiction to the deeply emotional formalism in the fiction of Harold Jaffe, Patricia Eakins, and Janet Kauffman.

I like movies. I go on binges. I watch as many as I can so I can feel worn out from sitting there so long, or lying there, having gone through so much with no effort at all. I’ll watch thriller or horror or spy but I won’t watch tear-jerkers or romances or comedies. I use genre as genre’s intended: for predictability. This has to do with the kind of emotional experience I am willing to negotiate. I like to end up with my body safe, time having passed, with the cellular sense that something has been experienced and experienced without consequence. Everything, it turns out, is okay; the world remains as it seems. The point of this kind of watching is to go through the physical sensation of extreme emotion - my favorites are fear and love - while being in complete control. I know when to pull back, when to shift into metawatching, when to examine the set decoration, when to remember who I am without the movie, an act that renders the movie meaningless. I kill it as I watch.

After a binge I have moved through time and am the same; I am reminded of my integrity outside the movie because of the movie. It’s a roller coaster precisely in the sense that a roller coaster is maintained and inspected and passes many safety tests. Someone else has “insured” my experience and all I have to do is reel my disbelief in and out. This is the most businesslike of exchanges. The producer of the experience is the anonymous composite corporate movie production machine, and the customer is me, alone with the buffet. I’m using a pretty cheap grabbag of easy metaphors here, which I find appropriate.

Genre fiction has a form. It performs as designed. Mainstream literary fiction has a form. It also performs as designed; it’s just a different kind of car. Formalists have everything else. In a way, they’re the ones who least have form because they don’t take it for granted. They have to find and make forms because they know they’re going to be in one anyway so they might as well find a good one. I know exactly where and how my emotions function within a familiar form, and therefore I’m having surrogate emotions, I’m having the effect of an emotional experience without the danger actual experiences require. The story “produces or does not produce” an emotional effect on me and I can judge it accordingly. I know what it wants and I can decide whether or not it gets it. You see how this is like a pickup bar. You pretend you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know exactly what’s going to happen. Besides, you decided to go to the pickup bar and pick up. Casual sex is great unless it starts feeling creepy and stupid and inhuman. I think a lot of people think any watching, or reading, is surrogate experience, that it’s supposed to be. But it can also be actual experience, and that’s what I’m after when I approach things as a formalist.

Here’s me, 23, trying to write a story in a form based on this line from André Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism. The line is: “I had begun to cherish words excessively for the space they allow around them, for their tangencies with countless other words that I did not utter.” I’m trying to write the history of a magical family that includes the history of objects, words, and ideas that arise as one narrative initiates the next via words lifted from one context to another. I’m afraid of what I’m trying to write. I don’t know what moves me because the piece has so many breaks and I’m caught in the patterns and these patterns are moving to me. I have not developed any characters. There are no gasping moments of realization. My characters, specifically, are not realizing anything, they’re just being themselves, surrounded by things with invisible histories. I don’t know if I’ve written a story, but I know that I am not responding viscerally to the cleverness of my form. I am responding to feeling I might be engaging in the world in a way that feels new and true and in a secret way, even political. My hackles rise when I imagine being accused of masturbatory aesthetic sterility. Formalists - the kind I want to be - do not find forms to find forms, they find forms to find stories and find stories for the same reason old what’s his face (I’m not sure where I read this - a lot of people said something along these lines, I expect) said we do: we are all crying at Oedipus “don’t you see?”

Or we’re William Gass saying, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” Which is a deeply loving thing to say.

I wanted my story to feel like a linking blinking mass - which is the way I was feeling history, and family, and words, and I was writing this out of feeling lied to by a culture that seemed to think of these things as possibly represented in a timeline, a family tree, a series of sentences that moved in one direction alone. What a lie!

So: where is emotion located in a story that emerges via shape as much as subject?

Here’s what Harold Jaffe does in his book of fictions, False Positive [reviewed by Rone Shavers in ebr July 2003 ]. Jaffe takes a text that either is or sounds like a piece of journalism and alters it, variously, on the level of the sentence and/or via larger formal choices. Sometimes he breaks or adjusts the piece just a tad, highlights a few phrases so you look at them askew for a second, or breaks a paragraph in an unexpected place, or shifts in and out of stylized language use so you’re taken out of the story long enough to wonder what’s up. Or he places versions of a story next to each other, or patterns parts of parallel stories in ways that expose complexities or hypocrisies or in some cases kind of make the pieces cancel each other out. Each piece approaches the project through a different formal methodology. In “Carthage, Miss.,” for example, the incident is reported bit by bit, each bit in two ways. It’s a story about a nine-year-old boy who finds his mother dead and doesn’t report it. Notice the instant irony; an account of the unreported:

When Crystal Wells died on Nov. 3, her son Travis draped her denim jacket over her body, covered her face and shoulders with newspaper, and laid her, face up, in the corner of the cramped family room of the one-bedroom trailer.

When Crystal Wells died on Nov. 3, her son Tyler covered her body with her pale mauve terrycloth bathrobe, placed sheets of toilet paper over her face and shoulders, and set her, face up, in a corner of the cramped family room of the one-bedroom trailer. (p.33-34)

The story continues, plaintext version followed by altered italicized version. Notice 1) The tone: you can hear the earnest “writer” trying to choose details, working to set the scene, to elicit emotion through the crude tactics of fiction writing. Here, it’s the writer as doe-eyed manipulator, so busy looking for the “meaningful detail” that the kid’s name, something that is an actual fact (arbitrary as a name is, in non-fiction) might be wrong. 2) You can see the difference a detail makes, especially when the next paragraphs read:

Crystal was petite, just five-feet-one in her stocking feet.

Crystal was petite, just five-feet- two in her lizard skin line-dancing boots. (p34)

3) You’re in on the joke, and there is a joke, humor in the effect of looking at the prose, opening the back of the watch to watch its mechanisms tick. You laugh at the “writer’s” failure to elicit emotion because, of course, you’re examining the exposed mechanisms and are not “drawn into the story.” 4) Emotion happens elsewhere in the piece, in moments, for me at least, like this:

Dot Begley said Travis begged them not to call the police.

Dot Begley said Tyler begged them not the call the police. “I asked him why not. He said because they were fat-assed homophobic yahoos.” (p.35)

Out of context this excerpt probably strikes no chords, and it shouldn’t. Out of context, the easiest part to see is the joke. But this moment comes after pages of patterned repetition, variation, and in a very interesting way, as a result of the layered obfuscations, it reads like someone is finally telling the truth. The reason “Tyler” is afraid is that the police are scary. Not that humor stops for emotion, and certainly the shredding of the truth/fiction divide continues within the passage: our sense of understanding this boy and this situation comes in a line that is not only paraphrased by a “character” in the report (Dot), but is something this kid would never literally say. It makes me think of Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” when the children, attempting to contend with death, begin speaking like philosophers. In Jaffe’s book, moments in the text like this, where emotions manage to cut through the puzzles and linguistic posturing, are hard-earned, and they never come where you’d expect them. Not, for example, in a moment of breathtaking lyricism, and not in a last line that hovers and resonates, but in a suddenly human phrase that slips into an otherwise dead-sounding sequence. Emotion isn’t easy, and real emotion is rarely if ever where you wanted it to be.

So: Where is emotion located in a text that is immersed in unironic, lyrical, evocative, warm language?

Patricia Eakins would, I suppose, be classified as a fabulist more than a formalist, but I see everything in terms of form, and my goal here is to look at stories that don’t place emotion in predictable recognizable controllable places, and I think it’s a writers relationship to form that allows her to create what I’m thinking of as actual rather than surrogate experience. As quickly as I can, here’s what she does in her collection The Hungry Girls. These are stories about hybrids, stories of symbiosis. The stories are in paragraphs. They’re linear. They feel fully written, organically whole, as they should, because she’s writing about organic systems, tales that are cosmic and microcosmic.

Each story is set in a semi-imaginary place: one is in a post-apocalyptic place, one in an Antarctic place, one in a children’s tale forest place, one in 19th century France, an historical place. All these places are not in front of you; they are places you know because of your imaginative experiences. Each story is about a sort-of animal, sort-of imaginary creature: humans that are sort of rabbits, called “Ibbits,” for example, or an animated teddy bear thing called a “Banda” (even the names are a hybrid of known and invented). Each story feels, in retrospect, like an unopened orange with seeds intact - you know they’re in there because you’ve seen oranges opened before - and also these oranges are the kinds of oranges that have little baby oranges inside them. These stories have a form that’s related to the 19th century idea that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” where the embryonal development of an organism mirrors the evolutionary development of the species, a metaphor particularly applicable to the title story, “The Hungry Girls.” It begins like this:

The people of Houviers poked each other when they first saw the young of the dirt lice burst from their mothers’ bodies. The pharmacist had already been watching through the lenses of his shiny microscope. He claimed the lice sons mate with their sisters even inside the mothers’ bodies, then are eaten as the daughters eat their way out.

Born pregnant. In the story the hungry peasant girls eat dirt and then they eat anything, rooftops and candelabras. They eat and grow and work the fields and some of them die from having babies that eat themselves out if their bellies, and some wander into the woods where they grow as big as houses and young men move into them. At the end of the story the girls are dead and in history but the townspeople make souvenir pastries, “special little cakes, baked as puffs with nuts inside, called poucettes.”

I heard Patricia Eakins read this story ten years ago at a conference called “Unspeakable Practices,” to honor Barthelme. Ten years that story hovered in my mind and I had no copy of it. I think I resisted finding a copy because I could not understand why I thought these girls were heroes - they’re so gross and I love them and I think they’re like revolutionaries or something because they’re so animal, they want and want - When I finally found a copy of the story I read it and read it and finally I registered something concrete: “Oh! They’re eating dirt because they’re hungry ” - i.e. they’re poor. But my identification all those years had not been with their literal poverty - their literal poverty was one of the last things I consciously recognized about the story - it was their hunger, their enormity, the way they plowed through time gobbling and continuing to want so recklessly, without reference to anything like apology, with nothing pathetic associated with their hunger. This story is great for a Marxist reading, also great for a feminist reading, and doing those readings is fun because proving a point is fun, and it’s great to find that something so cool also has friendly politics and articulate arguments. But what gets me is the looping and ungraspable response I still have to the girls - the continuing incongruity of an uncontained experience emerging from a story that is itself immaculately formed. This is when an actual emotion is created.

Here’s something Janet Kauffman does in her collection of prose poems Five on Fiction. This is from a piece called “On Plot, as Ground”:

Bleed it, run over it, past the margin or whatever edge of the thing hedges the page, garden, sheet, highway, screen. There’s the body, too, and when the format or the shoulder cuts off, drops off, and it’s not possible to go over and under the asphalt or onto the reverse of the surface, moebius-stripped, or inside the skin, and the eye is exposed to the same plane and cut of things, well, the mind does for the mind what it can. A blur and flux and more of the same until somebody says, stop! And then bleed that, run it over, a surface a place a form a fake a violence a turn to it and from it.

I think she says “go to and from it [i.e. plot, ground, form]” as in see it for what it is and know it in its multiplicity. And know that form, while it always is, is also a violence. Form is a violence because it cuts and shapes and contains the world. Ezra Pound said “fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.” I was always interested in the morality part of this. Sloppy, unaware, assuming language is BAD - bad writing and bad as in cruel. So is sloppy unexamined assumed form. It is wrong to go to a person and move her body around or dress it or arrange it or frame it or suspend it or color it or describe it or ignore it without, in a sense, taking fucking responsibility for your actions - without taking your subject, shall we say, to heart. Here the she is the world as we witness it and the language as we use it.

Let’s read it again, because I think this Kauffman passage accomplishes what I’ve been trying to articulate. I have a sense, when I read it, that I’ve been made to know something that resists re-articulation and this is because the passage is, precisely, itself. I feel like want to get it and don’t yet know how to get it, so what I’m doing instead is regarding it with respect and wonder, I am in a sense loving it, because entirely “getting” something is a violence. I want to get you. I got you. The end. Death.

Instead, I want to be near something, close enough to sense the electricity of its edges. This is the point of reading and writing, which make for the same brain bend anyway, so let’s read it again.

“On Plot, as Ground”

Bleed it, run over it, past the margin or whatever edge of the thing hedges the page, garden, sheet, highway, screen. There’s the body, too, and when the format or the shoulder cuts off, drops off, and it’s not possible to go over and under the asphalt or onto the reverse of the surface, möebius-stripped, or inside the skin, and the eye is exposed to the same plane and cut of things, well, the mind does for the mind what it can. A blur and flux and more of the same until somebody says, stop! And then bleed that, run it over, a surface a place a form a fake a violence a turn to it and from it.