Now this willingness of Kaufman (the filmmaker) to bore and annoy audiences to get the point across reminded me, as so much does, of Edgar Allan Poe's unreliable narrators. (I wrote my MA thesis on this, so once I did understand it! No longer, alas.) Poe deliberately (I think) sacrificed his own credibility as an author – and as a man-- to create a creepy experience for the reader, that of identifying with murderers and maniacs. (You know, now that I think of it, Nabokov does the same thing in Lolita, only it's a child molester we're supposed to identify with—and Nabokov explicitly uses Poe as an inspiration, most notably his poem Annabel Lee.)
Poe supposedly chose (it's not entirely clear that he made this appointment or if Griswold just took charge after Poe's death) as a literary executor and biographer the notoriously nasty Rufus Griswold, who had been something of a rival for magazine editor jobs. You probably didn't realize what a vicious business editing can be. :) Anyway, Griswold created a portrait of Poe as a drunk, an incompetent writer and an abusive husband, a misconception that Poe's friends tried in vain to remedy. But they found it difficult to restore the reputation of the man who had pretty much invented the horror genre, not to mention written so many stories about horrible husbands. So Poe destroyed his own credibility by first writing stories with first-person narration by murderous men, and second, by choosing a biographer who took such glee in trashing him. But in a way, this caused the stories to be that much more experientially horrific.
(By the way, I see in Griswold's bio something that I should have put in my thesis, which was about some of the stories where Poe's narrator buries his wife/fiancee alive—Berenice, Ligeia, Morella. Talk about life imitating art. Griswold had left his first wife and children behind while he went to make his fortune in magazine editing— no wonder he was so bitter!—and so talk about projection... he was something of a negligent husband himself, sounds like. Anyway, his wife died in childbirth soon after that, and he wasn't there, but returned to "kiss her dead lips". A month after the death, he entered her tomb—really, this is SO like a Poe story!—and stayed by her presumably decaying body until his friends found him there—30 hours later. Poe's stories were written in the decade previous, so he wasn't basing them on Griswold's guilty grief. But as if previewing Griswold, Berenice starts with a Latin epigraph that translates to: "My companion said I might find some alleviation of my misery in visiting the grave of my beloved." Cue Twilight Zone music.)
So... well, there's a concept (devised by literary critic Stanley Fish) called the Self-consuming artifact, which has become well-known enough to have its own abbreviation: SCA. Fish uses this term to refer to artwork (mostly books) which transfer the reader's attention from the text, from what is on the page, to the effect it actually provokes, and that the work succeeds most "when it fails, when it points away from itself to something its form cannot capture." That is, the effect on the reader is paramount. In reading this work, the reader experiences something that is beyond the simple form of the story, some combination, I think, of author intent, reader response, and... magic.
The "self-consuming" part doesn't exactly mean what I want it to mean—that the author willingly sacrifices his/her own credibility or authority as the reader reads the story. True to the New Critics dictum of the "text is the text" (which I do agree with, I just don't think it's sufficient), the SCA theory seems to focus more on the "artifact" (the story) than the artist (the author), that is, the story consumes itself in the telling or reading. (William Gibson actually created a book that was supposed to consume itself —the ink was supposed to burn away when exposed to sunlight, and the electronic version was supposed to eat itself as it was read – and only on a Mac, talk about a self-consuming artifact... that's always been my experience with anything connected with Steve Jobs.
No, no, Mac fans, I don't mean it's a bad machine that eats itself, but rather that Jobs's and Apple's focus on design and trendiness has doomed the products to mere cult status, which is, of course, exactly the experience they want, I guess!)
Fish, anyway, said that the reader learns of the futility of looking for truth in art by experiencing the art. But as in the liar's paradox ("I am telling you a lie now"), of course the very act of that realization means that you have indeed found truth in art, the truth that you can't find truth in art... and stop thinking of that right now, or you'll give yourself a headache! (He also sort of suggested that self-consuming ended with the Age of Reason began—18th C—because reason depends on the assumption that you can, in fact, determine the truth.) (BTW, I was talking to the husband about this, and he said, "Well, then there's quantum mechanics—" and I ran out of the room. Talk about headaches....)
Well, I do think you can find truth in art, and not just the truth of the futility thereof. So I find myself appreciating the technique (self-consumption), but not the conclusion. I'm sure it's fashionable and ironic to proclaim there is no truth, but anyone who writes or paints or sculpts believes there is some truth, and it can be captured (and is) in art. Else why bother? That "there is no truth" is what got us into this economic mess, a maze of mirrors called "derivatives," which bears an intriguing resemblance to Synecdoche's mirror structure (the actor playing the author and another actor playing that actor, etc.). If there is no anchor in some reality, well, everything's just a Vegas-style roulette game, right? I guess we saw that this last couple months on Wall Street, anyway. And there's no need for the rest of us to be so jaded—it's would be a good way to work ourselves into a creative block. (Why try, if there's no truth?)
But, as I said, the notion of self-consumption is quite useful. So I'm going to invent my own term, Authorial Negation (or Negation of Author—maybe we should vote on that :), meaning that the author of the work willingly and deliberately subverts his/her own authority by doing something that is destructive (of the author in some way) but helps to create for the reader an experience that is deeper, richer, fuller, something-er, than the story events alone would create. That is, the process of reading this particular work leads to an experience which is, to use a much-used phrase, greater than the sum of the work's parts. And the additional ingredient, whatever it is, is added by the author... and in adding that whatever, the author is sacrificing some essential element of authorship, whether it's reputation, credit ("Anonymous"), acclaim, control, pride of prose quality, voice, control of character, efficiency, orderliness, permanence, narrative logic, whatever the author would ordinarily take pride in and claim authority for. (See how I sacrificed my pride of prose by ending those both on a preposition?)
Let's look back at Poe—he subverted his own credibility by giving authority for the story over to these unreliable narrators, who lied and told bald untruths and didn't even try to make sense of what was happening, and often hiding the coolest and most thrilling events (like Morella's husband strangling her without ever admitting it).
Or Gibson, with his self-consuming book—what does he sacrifice? Permanence, surely. Maybe royalties—I mean, if I paid good money for a book that self-destructed, I'd take the fragments back to the bookstore and demand a refund. (Come to think of it, I have bought some paperbacks that have fallen to pieces, the spine breaking after one reading... I bet the author didn't actually choose that self-consumption.)
And what do they achieve, or allow the reader to achieve?
Poe's sacrifice lets the reader have the vicarious experience of getting away with murder, and maybe also the interactivity of solving the mystery of what's going on (because Poe doesn't solve it for us).
Gibson's sacrifice gives the reader an experience of the ephemerality of life (this poem is about his father's death) and of art, too, and also of the inability (cf. Synecdoche) of making a life into a poem.
And Charlie Kaufman, by sacrificing his skill at pacing and his knowledge of how film works, has created an experience that leads viewers to know something in their bones—life is not art, cannot be art, shouldn't be art. The risk is, of course, that the viewer will (as did everyone in the theater when I saw it!) walk on grumbling about how boring the film was, and maybe he should have cast Jim Carrey in this film too.
A big gamble, no doubt about it. The author is giving up some essential aspect of authorship in order to give over to the reader an opportunity to experience something new, even take ownership by creating her own meaning while perhaps scorning the author's ability.
Now about how this relates to fiction....
Just a few thoughts here. Readers now expect a more interactive experience, and to create it, fictionwriters are changing traditional approaches to narrative and prose. The element with most interest to me is, of course, is point of view. The tighter, closer the point of view, the more the author cedes of control over voice. That is, the author voice gives way to the character voice, which takes over the narration of the scene. What this does is give the reader not just a sense of what happens but an experience of what it's like to be this person—but at the cost of the perfectly grammatical sentences, the lush poetic prose, the omniscient panoramic viewpoint. Sometimes the narrator has an ugly voice; sometimes he sounds sullen and unpleasant and does a pretty lousy job of telling the story. Sometimes he even disses your favorite Dickens book:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They are nice and all -- I'm not saying that -- but they are also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
(That's JD Salinger channeling Holden Caulfield.)
Letting the character voice dominate is a great surrender for authors who have spent years honing their voice. Yes, characters can have their own rough poetry, but if it's their voice, it's not yours, is it? You are giving something of yourself up, aren't you? And why? Because you think the reader will get more out of the story.
That's an authorial negation, I think, letting the reader hear and feel the character's narration rather than yours.
What's another "authorial negation" for the sake of greater truth-in-fiction?
Sequencing and selection of event are certainly part of the authorial arsenal. The author can coax all sorts of response from the reader that way—suspense, amusement, emotion. You know all that. You carefully assemble your scenes into just the right sequence to propel the character journey, to arc the emotion, to build the suspense.... But sometimes the traditional mode of transit isn't going to get the reader to the destination, maybe because it's too predictable, or because you want to highlight ambiguity, or--
For example, Synecdoche's emotion climax (which would usually happen near the end) is out of the traditional sequence. After years of searching, Caden finds his daughter, but she is dying. (Oh, in another amplication of the "life as art" dynamic, she has become a work of art herself, and is dying from it—the tattoos all over her body are killing her.) She has been deceived about him by her mother, and believes that he abandoned her in order to go with his lover "Eric". She says she can't forgive him unless he confesses, and, weeping, he "confesses" to this false story (again, notice the echo of the life as art dynamic). She weeps too, but says that she can't forgive him after all, and then dies. It's a very powerful moment (in fact, the only true emotion, I thought, in the whole film—by design, probably), but instead of happening at the end, so we could stumble to the exit, disquieted and sorrowful, it comes near midpoint, and we endure almost another hour of the tedium of all those actors "acting" out much lesser moments in Caden's life.
So Kaufman used a less traditional and actually less effective sequence. Why? Not because he doesn't know how to pace his film. (In his earlier film Adaptation, Nic Cage having to call his mother to tell her about his brother's death was similarly emotional, and happened just as you'd expect at the end.) He was subverting his own ability there. Why?
I'm not sure, but I know there's a reason. I think it might be to provide a contrast between Caden's real real life—what he doesn't want to turn into art—and his supposed "memoir play". He has to strain for emotion in the play—he doesn't actually seem much more interested than we are—but as his daughter dies, we see the difference between sorrow and depression, between, I guess, life and art (only maybe it's art and life... mirror, mirror).
I've seen this before in Patrick O'Brian's great sea-adventure stories. He's a much more charming writer than Kaufman, well, than anyone, and so I never quarreled with his odd narrative choices, like setting a battle scene not up on the deck with the Marines but down in the sick bay with the ship's surgeon. But now I suspect that the experience created was an approximation of war—that is, the unpredictability of it, the "they also serve who stand and wait" aspect of it. Waiting anxiously belowdecks with the ship's surgeon, unable to know how the battle was going, who among my favorite characters was in trouble, deprived me of the adrenaline rush of a battle scene... and the pleasure of vicarious war. It was, perhaps, a more honest portrayal of war—the fear, the dread, the impending loss—than a battle scene might have been.
Another authorial imperative that you might forgo is the satisfactory ending. How pleasurable it is to wrap it all up, to make everything fit, to answer all the questions the plot has posed—to give your characters the ending they deserve. But closure might not be the experience you want the reader to have. Maybe (replicating life :), the ending is unsettled, uncertain, unpredicted—not because you as the author don't know what you're doing, don't know what organic or holistic ending is called for here, but –
Of course, you and I know that, just as Charlie Kaufman had control over how Synecdoche developed, the author has some control over the reader's experience—yes, even while surrendering control. The act of surrendering control, after all, is in itself showing a certain control—and I suspect, just as Kaufman knew what experience he wanted the reader to have, we have some control in choosing what authorial prerogative we'll forego and what we'll surrender, and what we'll keep to ourselves.
Maybe that's all part of the mirror-mirror effect, an infinity of images, of possibilities, of replications.
But... but there is truth in art. Whenever we're surprised, whenever we are settled, whenever we are moved by a work of art, there is some truth there that perhaps can't be captured any other way. Take that, Stanley Fish.
Oh, must quote Keats here—he was talking, I'm sure, about that Romantic inspiration, that creative frenzy, that mystic connection. But I've always thought (since I have never imagined Shakespeare as a romantic :) that in fact, negative capability (at least as regards S) has more to do with the ability to let go of this authorial imperative and let the story unfold and the characters change. Shakespeare was the one, after all, who kept turning villains into compelling characters, so they were never just evil, and heroes were never just good.
Anyway, here is Keats, and then a snatch of one of his odes:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (John Keats, 1817)She dwells with Beauty - Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.