Another Dispatch from Your Religion Correspondent

Wikipedia and a bunch of nonscholarly places claim that epistolary novels don’t have to be made up of letters: “The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” (I have not yet, in a quick search, found a scholarly source to confirm that this understanding is shared by the critical community.) On basically etymological grounds, though, I’ve always reserved the term for novels that are made of epistles, and I unvented the term “documentary novel” to cover the ones that insert other kinds of “preexisting” documents. (“Unvented” comes from knitting doyenne Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s Almanac, coined as a way of acknowledging that surely someone, somewhere had already invented the thing she just did—but she had never seen it before.)

Thinking about it, though, I have some dim, more theoretically defensible reasons for that distinction, and they come down to questions of the intended audience. A letter is (almost) always from one person to another person. In my other book group, for example, we just read and discussed Les Liaisons dangereuses, and one of the big factors in that novel’s spectacular effectiveness is that quality of intimacy. A specific reader is addressed in a letter, by a specific writer, and therefore the totality of that letter’s meaning encompasses both the personalities of both parties and the relationship between them.

That’s not the case with those other kinds of documents. Take Parable of the Sower, which is formatted as diary entries. (Or actually, as a mix of diary entries and Earthseed scriptures.) Diary entries are great for giving a sense of the diarist as an observer and an analyst. (Bearing in mind that the cultural presumption of more unguarded honesty in a diary is rebuttable on sufficient demonstration.) But they’re essentially one-person shows. The only mind we see in action is the diarist’s, and the only interactions we see them having are the ones they reconstruct in their “private” writing.

(There is a whole other question—which some epistolary novels confront and some duck, and which documentary novels seem more likely to have to deal with—of how this manuscript came into the reader’s hands. We know how we got Lauren’s/Olamina’s journals: she saved them for the posterity of Earthseed, even going so far as to produce copies that could be safeguarded separately. They’re practically a midrash, and are essentially written to everyone/anyone. In Gene Wolfe’s work, these mechanics of transmission are often foregrounded, probably influenced by his engineering training; in the dramatis personae at the beginning of his On Blue’s Waters is a delightfully enigmatic pair of listings: Horn, “the protagonist,” and on the next page, the Rajan of Gaon, “the narrator.”)

Now in Parable of the Talents we’re getting a further complication of that documentary structure, as Daryl wrestles with. It’s a sufficiently significant break in narrative approach that it makes Paul ask whether Butler was revising her original concept. What I think it’s doing is introducing evidentiality to the “record” of Earthseed. That’s one of the things that disparate documents bring to a text, right? (If you were reading me back during the original Infinite Summer, you may recognize that this is a recurring interest for me.) By bringing in voices and documents and texts that aren’t Olamina’s, this book is giving us a more stereoscopic view, requiring us to do precisely the work Daryl describes of judging each piece of evidence ourselves in relation to the others. (It doesn’t look like we’re getting such a thing here, but I note that a common kind of interpolated document is a newspaper article, which will unavoidably activate questions of objectivity and truth and factuality.) With Olamina’s daughter assembling this text for us now, juxtaposing her mother’s journals with writings by her father and uncle and especially superseding each chapter’s material with her own commentary on the people and ideas it contains, we’re getting a very opinionated context for Olamina’s beliefs and actions. It’s not an unalloyed first-person view anymore.

On its own, I appreciate that as a narrative complexification and as a whole extra layer of nuance. But I also think there’s another thing going on that’s particularly intriguing. A couple weeks ago I mentioned one of the Earthseed scriptural passages as evidence of the community-building of the early “church” of Earthseed. I take the analogy here from studies of the early Christian church, and the kinds of documentary evidence that scholars use to reconstruct the lived practices of the people and communities who were converting the words of their prophet into a way of existence. That growth of faith communities starts with the doctrine, the words of the founder. But then the faith grows beyond the range of its founder; converts join and merge their own ideas with the doctrine they adopt, and offshoots spring up in other places and inevitably evolve their own slightly different variations. I think that’s what Butler’s giving us in this book. The first book was ultimately about Lauren’s distillation of her philosophy, and about that philosophy itself. Now here in the second book what we’re seeing is that philosophy being grown out into a religion instead, which means adherents and practices, no longer just ideas. It means other people. Olamina’s daughter, writing to us from some unspecified (right?) period far enough in the future that Olamina is dead in her past, may well be the first church historian of Earthseed. This is her critical record of how her mother’s ideas became a religion in the world around it.

The Part about the Critics as Comedy

In her post for this week, Sarah says, probably correctly, that if this part of 2666 had been published on its own as Bolaño had instructed his heirs to do, it would have been something of a disappointment. Chatter generally has been that though the critics themselves have seemed kind of aimless and homogeneous, the writing is pleasant enough. Still, is vaguely pleasant writing enough to sustain a book in which the characters aren’t really all that compelling?

After reading Sarah’s post, I read Jeff’s comment on my long piece about the dreams. He says:

When I finished the Part About the Critics, I thought I was unsurprised to find Norton with Morini because I had no expectations to be overturned—the characterization had been so opaque that I didn’t have any feeling of what might have been out of character or unpredictable.

Suddenly it occurred to me — what if we regard this section of 2666 as a comedy , not in the Seinfeldian sense (necessarily, though it often enough applies) but in a literary sense?

Consider the following excerpted matter from the passage about comedies of manners in A Handbook to Literature:

The stylized fashions and manners of [members of an artificial, highly sophisticated society] dominate the surface and determine the pace and tone of this sort of comedy. Characters are more likely to be types than individuals. Plot, though often involving a clever handling of situation and intrigue, is less important than atmosphere, dialogue, and satire… Satire is directed in the main against the follies and deficiencies of typical characters… A distinguishing characteristic of the comedy of manners is its emphasis on an illicit love duel, involving at least one pair of witty and often amoral lovers.

Just try to tell me we don’t see a lot of these things in 2666 so far!

My college Shakespeare professor described comedy in the Elizabethan sense as the sort of literature in which there is some problem in the beginning (e.g. mismatched pairs of lovers, political problems) that can be resolved by a the proper alignment of and marriage of a pair or pairs of lovers. (Tragedy, by contrast, is when there’s a problem that a strategic marriage would solve that goes unsolved when the marriage falls through; Romeo and Juliet, within this set of definitions, is comedy turned tragedy.) All’s Well that Ends Well, which describes the nature of the Shakespearean comedy in its title, is a comedy. As You Like It is another. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is yet another.

Dreams in the summerish climate of Mexico are what finally tie Norton and Morini together after several attempts at mismatched relationships within 2666. In comedy, there really are, to borrow a phrase from Jeff, no expectations to be overturned.  Shakespeare’s plays are pretty transparent from the beginning about which pairs should and will line up and get married at the end to resolve the central conflict.  Bolaño isn’t up front about the proper pairing, but upon analysis of the dream content binding Norton and Morini together, it becomes obvious (I contend, if obvious only in retrospect and with a bit of digging, which I suppose isn’t in fact all that obvious after all) that they are destined from the beginning to come together. Whether or not their union resolves any central conflict besides the Pelletier/Espinoza/Norton love triangle is debatable.

(Consider comedy on the big screen today, though. I defy you to name a Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts movie in which the characters you know in the beginning will get together don’t get together in the end. These movies pay lip service to there being some larger central conflict — a life ruined by tabloid photographers, a chain store edging the little guy out of business, etc. — but they are ultimately about resolution of the relationship. I suppose we want to expect more of Bolaño, but maybe we shouldn’t; maybe the point for him is that focus on atmosphere and satire that the venerable editors of the Handbook describe.)

In any case, Bolaño seems in some way to be influenced by the old convention here. I wonder, then, if it’s not useful to think of this part of the book as a sort of comedy in that old sense (I also raised the question in a comment somewhere of whether or not part 1 was something of a picaresque). If so, I wonder also if each part of the book will emerge as a take on another subgenre of literature, and I wonder how those parts will play together.