Monday, April 28, 2014

Bring Chaos to Order

As a writer and a student of English Literature, I have a diverse range of influences, which can be exemplified in the two final papers I am writing this semester: one on John Updike's "Pigeon Feathers" and "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car" from Updike's collection, also called Pigeon Feathers; and the other on Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.  While stylistically the authors are very different, the more I look at these texts I am studying, the more I realize that, while they are stylistically very different, in some ways they are similar.

Both Updike stories are about the character David Kern, in his teenage years and as an adult, one from a third person perspective, the other from a first person--although the third person is closely focused on Kern's perspective and thoughts, so in many ways it matches closely with the first person, later in his life.  It actually makes a lot of sense that Updike would make this change from Kern's teenage story to his adult story, since adults are much more cognizant than teenagers.  Probably more significantly, Kern becomes a writer, and the latter story represents his writerly musings--he is taking ownership over his thoughts.

Like all of Updike's work (at least of it that I have read), in both stories a significant part of understanding what is happening in the story involves seeing the character's inner-lives realized in the descriptions--as a certain professor of mine would say, Kern is "reading the world like a book."  He is looking for signs of God in the material world, seeking faith in a way that makes sense to him.  However, in "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car", Kern is not merely reading the world like a book, he is forcing the audience to do the same--he is creating elaborate metaphors to signify the ideas he is attempting to get across to his audience.  While, clearly, Updike is doing this in both stories, as the author of the stories, his changing from the third person to the first person illustrates how he as a writer does this.  In effect, he is illustrating how he as a realist sees the world and then uses it as a part of his writing to as a way of creating meaning.  While there might not be that sort of meaning, in the real world, in the things that he describes, it is interesting to see how as a writer he does this.  It is definitely something that I am keeping in mind.

Conversely, rather than mimicking the real world in an attempt to convey his ideas, Vonnegut creates his own universe of characters, which are not intended to be realistic, and, as is the case of Breakfast of Champions, they are, by the admission of the author, characters in a book.  Vonnegut is drawing attention to the writing process and showing how we understand the "real" through language, and thus, anytime we use language we are giving our own subjective viewpoint, no matter how objective we are attempting to be, we can't help but be subjective, since language is our only way of making sense of everything.  

To Vonnegut, and other post-modern/metafiction writers, there is no such thing as realism.  No writer is actually being any more realistic than any other, since it is impossible to be anything other than subjective.  The styles might be different, one might focus on the setting and the scenery and describing what how he perceives through his senses the world around him, it is still his subjective point of view, and thus no more "real" than any other writer.  True, it might be easier to picture what he is describing, but each person will picture it in his own way.  In other words, not only is Vonnegut calling attention to fictional writing, but he is calling attention to the real world, as well.  While there might be an objective reality, there is no way for any one to get more in touch with it than any one else.

Vonnegut's view, therefore, allows you, if you are so inclined, to question the narratives that you have come to believe as fact, since every narrative, be it history, or science, is someone else's subjective viewpoint on whatever it happens to be.  What Vonnegut is questioning is our we all seemed trapped in some sort of materialistic mindset where we are all programmed like robots to spend our whole lives desiring and working towards owning stuff--but the irony of it is, no matter how much stuff we have, we only continue to want more stuff.  There is no end to it.  We go to school, get jobs, go into debt, all just to have this stuff, which is never as fulfilling and wonderful as it seems like it will be before we get it.  We all go about our lives like characters in a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and everything turns out alright--there is some sort of resolution in the end, if you live your life the right way.  And that is the danger of "realism" and writing that purports to be "real" or "nonfiction", because it gives people a false perception that reality is shaped by external forces.

But that isn't the case.  We each shape reality in our own subjective way, through the language that comes naturally to us, through experience.  This is what Vonnegut is getting in Breakfast of Champions at when he says,

"Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling.  I would write about life.  Every person would be exactly as important as any other.  All facts would also be given equal weightiness.  Nothing would be left out.  Let others bring order to chaos.  I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead." (215).

And this is what I intend to do as a writer.  Maybe it will never bring me fame and fortune and everything, but I feel like it is the right thing to do.  This is how I choose my priorities.  While maybe their is no universal moral code, I do follow one of my own.  Maybe it's not religiously based, but I know when something feels right--because it feels right.  It is really just that simply.  It might not work universally, but, as a writer, it works for me.

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