By Eleanor Morse, Spalding School of Writing Fiction Faculty
Ocean Vuong, a soft-spoken and brilliant Vietnamese-American poet and fiction writer and a 2019 recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, said, “Often we demand of the American novel to be cohesive, a monolithic statement of a generation, but having grown up post-911, cohesion was not part of my generation’s imagination, nor our language, nor our self-identity, and I felt if I were to write my version of an American novel, it would have to look more like fragmentation.
“In my Zen Buddhist practice,” he continued, “one of the most privileged states of mind is not the expert, is not the master. It’s what’s called the beginner’s mind. The beginner’s mind is the mind that approaches the natural world and the phenomena within it with the utmost curiosity; I think one of the most perennial powers of an artistic mind is awe and wonder before the world.”
Yes to this!
I grew up before Vuong at a time when literature tended to mirror a world that felt tidier and more coherent than this present world, where the role of writers included a kind of imperative to represent a lucid moral universe. When I was young, our house was full of brick-and-board bookcases tottering with novels by Dickens and Hardy and Dostovevsky and Tolstoy. These narratives tended to travel from point A to point B more resolutely than now; characters were reliably themselves, and generally not as contradictory, shifting, or unpredictable.
Little by little, the mirror’s image has changed, and fiction and poetry, the visual arts and music have all veered toward an increasing fragmentation of narrative line, of form, of visual im-age, of melodic line. As a culture (and maybe as a human race) we have moved away from a kind of knowing and certainty; as readers of fiction, we used to get on the bus at one point and arrive at a destination, and now we wander, flaneur-like, through city streets or the wilderness and perhaps never arrive at all. Once upon a time a narrative voice carried us securely; now there may be many narrative voices, some of them reliable, many of them unreliable. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, for instance, contains 166 voices, most of them voices of the dead. Two of his ghosts, Vollman and Roger Bevins III, aware of all their previous mistakes and limitations and still bumbling around in the afterlife, have this conversation:
“We must try to see one another in this way.”
“As suffering, limited beings —“
“Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”
What does this shift away from narrative and moral certainty mean for us as writers? Partly it means a greater freedom to experiment, and the license to use our beginner’s mind. Pontificating is out. It seems to me (although perhaps this is wishful thinking) that fiction is becoming less reliant on plot points and more open to innovations in language and in the way we tell stories. Multiple points of view have become more common, as have changes in tempo, detours into other places and times, and multiple story lines.
Sebastião Salgado in his epic book of black and white photography, Migrations, says in the preface, “For six years in forty countries, I worked among fugitives, on the road, or in the refugee camps and city slums where they often end up…They set off with the belongings they can carry, making their way as best they can, aboard rickety boats, strapped onto trains, squeezed into trucks, or on foot.
“The experience changed me profoundly,” Salgado wrote. When I began this project, I was fairly used to working in difficult situations. I felt my political beliefs offered answers to many problems. I truly believed that humanity was evolving in a positive direction. I was unprepared for what followed.” The fracturing that occurred for him as an artist took place in the quiet of his own mind when he saw first-hand that 1) not everything can be solved, and 2) everything on earth is connected, both for good and ill.
I’ve been thinking about four novels, all circling the theme of human migration—stories of fractured and fracturing lives. Ocean Vuong’s recent novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, is raw, haunting, and deeply expressive of the pain experienced by three generations affected by the Vietnam War: grandmother, mother and son. The book’s boundaries are permeable, as are the psychic boundaries between generations. Memoir spills into fiction, the past and present intermingle.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli wanders between fiction and personal essay, as the narrative itself moves from New York City toward the Mexican border, where thousands of migrants are attempting to cross over.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West has at the center of its kaleidoscopic movement a couple fleeing a war-torn city. Magic realism is the fracturing element here. Portals open into other places, and the lives of the two protagonists morph into other lives.
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck tells the story of a quiet retiree in Germany who encounters a group of African refugees encamped at Alexanderplatz. “Where exactly is Burkina Faso? . . . What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?” The protagonist comes face to face with the depths of his own ignorance—about Africa, about the bureaucratic tangle that requires hundreds and thousands of people to wait and wait for some reprieve from more waiting.
In all four novels, the narratives move along the deep fault lines created when humans face seismic upheavals caused by war, political turmoil, and climate catastrophes. What unifies the narratives is no longer smooth-streaming plots, but the intensity of language, and the emotional truths that derive from “the human heart in conflict with itself” (Faulkner). Each book, in its own fractured fashion, is mending broken hearts and broken worlds.
What stories do you need to tell that must fracture conventional “rules” of seeing and telling? Where does your beginner’s mind take you?
Eleanor Morse, a graduate of Swarthmore College, spent a number of years living in Botswana in the 1970s. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. Her novel An Unexpected Forest, published by Down East Books, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast U.S. and was also selected as the Winner of Best Published Fiction by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards. Eleanor has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She serves on the fiction faculty of the low-residency programs of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.