Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Surely You Exaggerate

The literary elephant in the living room turns out to be a question readers are fearful of asking themselves.  Are we being led down the garden path?  Is our response, rather than the story at hand, the target?  There has not been a time in the historical past or the immediate present where such questions are not relevant.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe you are entirely in the hands of the author, from the moment you pick up a novel or short story to the moment when you set it down, thereupon to consider its effects on you.  Once again, conventional wisdom has it wrong.

Another great force is with you as you read.  True enough, that force may well have been manipulated or in some way exploited by the author.  And it is a devious, tricky one, indexed against your own, closely guarded, fears about your own ability to recognize when your leg is being pulled.That force is the not unjustified fear that you may be the target of a conspiracy between the writer and a select cohort of readers.

You refer to the satire, a convenient-but-misunderstood term some writers use when they want to take something on, which is to say take something down through the use of ridicule.  While there are sufficient avenues for taking on something tendentious, then reducing it to its sublime unimportance, satire has yet another goal than ridicule.  You could say that satire points a finger at some attitude or condition that is the true culprit, then suggests some plausible outcome.

Satire uses exaggeration, often an exaggerated seriousness, but so too do burlesque, parody, and pastiche, all of which stop short of suggesting a practical solution.  For examples, let's look at a master satarist from the nineteenth century, whose guidelines are still much with us.  

In at least two, if not all, his stand-alone narratives, Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain, has left us with "The Grandfather's Ram," and "The Mexican Plug Horse," which may be considered a yarn or tall tale, strictly for amusement and laughter, without seeing a few steps beyond, to yet another of the rascally author's intent.

"The Grandfather's Ram," an epic shaggy-dog story, of event piled atop event, seems to be at the expense of the subject, a Virginia City, Nevada, denizen of the fabled Comstock Lode silver mining days.  A closer inspection will reveal the true victim--and remember, there is no such thing as victimless humor--not to be the character, Old Billy, rather the author, himself, Mark Twain, whose constant searching for a story makes him a prime candidate.  

Taking this logic one step along, we readers may "get" the notion of the story being an elaborate prank on Twain himself, because the reader will soon learn that the outcome is always the same.  There is no outcome, only anticlimax and uncertainty.  Some of us readers may extrapolate on this tale or yarn even further, wondering in how many ways we have been distracted by the promise of an effective outcome, which will never arrive.

"The Mexican Plug Hourse" gives us the option of thinking the horse in question is the target.  Once again, it is the writer, presenting himself as an unreliable narrator, reminding us of the nineteenth-century consequences of wishing to own a horse without any slight background in horseflesh, or the twentieth- and twenty-first century wish to own an automobile, being guided in our decision making by an individual whose job it is to sell cars.

When we read an essay, short story, or novel, then decide of our own critical nature that the work is at the delicious cusp of exaggeration and plausibility known as a satire, we are comforted with our own sagacity and independence of thought, even though individuals trusting of their own sagacity and independence of thought are often prime targets for the literary humiliation inherent in satire.

When we read a work, accept it without question, then discover it is a satire, something is lost in the transaction.  We are uncertain where and how satire could have passed over or through us.  How, in other words, could we have not understood The Loved One to have been a satire?  By the same token, how could we have been so sure the later work, by the same author, Brideshead, Revisited, was indeed not a satire, when all our instincts insisted it was.

The splendid satirist walks the cusp of his or her vision, creating in us that series of unrest, suspicion, and cynicism inherent in restraint.

You once had a supervisor whose philosophy it was never to expect truly good works, even though it was his belief that there were truly good works.  "Better to appologize for what you missed than have to retreat from what you over diagnosed."  In a sense, you began to learn from him to suspect everything, even such standards as The Book of Job, as satire, apologize for those that weren't.

Tarzan of the Apes?  Satire.  Around the World in Eighty Days?  Satire.  Of course Possessions.  Of course, Middlemarch.  Of course, 1984.  Of course, The Pardoner's Tale.  You firmly believe these. You believe all of Sinclair Lewis, much of Steinbeck.  Even if you have to make the occasional apology or retraction, your view that nearly all of everything was meant to be satire keeps you in the kind of balancing act along the cusp, exactly where you feel you ought to be.

Not too long ago, a student of yours listened to some of the admiring things you were saying about her characters and the situations they'd got themselves into.  "I'm making fun of them,"  she said. "As soon as it becomes difficult to tell if and when you are, you'll have landed deep into the voice for this project,"  you said.

No comments: