Thoughts on Narrative, Hawkeye Pierce and Margaret Atwood

Recent events made me think about the whole notion of narrative, and how we are so quick to attach it to everything. There are very many studies dedicated to face perception; it appears that we as humans are biologically wired to see faces everywhere. There are whole websites and blogs filled with pictures of objects that have facial features (electricity sockets, cars etc) and it’s fascinating how easily we spot a face in the most unlikely of places. Well, it works similarly with narrative: we find story-lines wherever we can. I think it mainly has to do with the most basic characteristics of time: its linearity. Time only moves forward and so things must be going somewhere. Add to that our need for meaning, for easily comprehended reasons, and you get a tendency to assume that our lives hold personal narratives, that each individual life has a beginning, several plot turning points and that it is all heading towards an inevitable climax.

This is – of course – complete nonsense. Life is a series of events and nothing more. But it is a unique human trait (or is it?) that we are able to pick out the best suited events and compile them to look like a constructed narrative. Note also that society encourages us in this. Most interviews and applications have at least one section in which you are asked to recount your life so far. Or else you are asked to tell about yourself. No one ever answers, “well, I like reading and the color orange and tomorrow I’m going to the gym” do they? It’s always in the lines of: “I was born in … I studies … then I worked at … and in the future I hope to …”. Now, it can easily be argued that this is simply the most rational way to tell about yourself. Surely your work and study experience are more relevant to the interviewer than your color preferences? But I think there is something more to it, something inside us that wants to see ourselves as the main character in the narrative that is our life. The others are co-stars and their existence is mostly in relation to their interactions with us; and more importantly, the progress of things is such that leads somewhere. That is, my high-school course choices and my higher education choices and my employment choices are not random or even varied around some trait or interest of mine; they are slowly building my path towards ………. whatever it is I’m going to achieve some day.

Cat's Eye (1988)

This goes hand in hand with the human denial of coincidence. We like to think that there are no coincidences. I don’t mean that in a superstitious way; even the most enlightened feel from time to time that everything must be connected. And though I am definitely one for rationality I will indulge myself a bit now to name some coincidental recent readings that made me think about this issue of narrative. The first is Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. I’m only about a quarter through so I don’t have too many insights yet but memory is certainly key here. Details of what is happening in the book’s “now” are few – most of it so far is about the protagonist’s childhood, slowly progressing into solving some unclear issues which were raised in the “now”. Who is Cordelia and why is she so important? The only way to find out is to go through Elaine’s childhood and see everything that led up to Cordelia. And to being an artist. And to… who knows what else. This specific way of telling the story does emphasize that feeling that one’s life is leading to something specific doesn’t it? It’s possible that I only say that because I have narrative on my mind while reading (only one of the many rational explanations to all those ‘non-coincidences’, but that’s for another post).

Another thing that seems relevant enough is what happens when structure and narrative break down. That is an important feature of Modernist and Post-Modernist writing, one which has many reasons, the main one as usual probably wanting to make a radical change and go against tradition. But if I try to connect it to what I have been discussing so far, I would say that perhaps the rise of psychology and psychoanalytic thinking brought about an awareness to many things we take for granted, such as ‘regularly shaped’ stories, and a need to explore other options came along. And so, in the spirit of shaking things up… etc. I think it’s interesting that one subject that connects to it strongly is war. It’s a bit early but when time comes to write a dissertation I think an interesting topic might be exactly that unusual structure seen in Slaughter-house Five as well as in Catch-22. About Vonnegut I’ve already wrote and about Heller I have too much to say to begin so late into a post but I will say this: both have a very strange structure to them. Slaughterhouse is all about what is past and present whereas Catch has that circular movement in it that works to constantly confuse and cause deja-vu. And both, each in its own way, remind me of a literary\artistic expression of PTSD, in a sense. A confusion of times? Dissociative episodes? Intrusive thoughts and obsessions about certain traumatic events? you name it, DSM-IV has it. If I really were to write about that I would try to throw in M*A*S*H, too. I haven’t read the book yet (will order it online soon!) but I love the movie and am currently doing marathons of the show. It’s just so great. I don’t know that it has the same interesting narrative structure (haven’t read it…) but it does feature a strong departure from the classic, heroic, view of war. Trying to keep normality through humor in the middle of the craziest place possible is something that M*A*S*H and Catch share (and so does Samuel Shem’s House of God, by the way, highly recommended). The sane protagonist in the middle of the zany environment? Come on.

Last note on M*A*S*H before I go: since I am far too young to have seen it on television, my current viewing of it is in light of many things that came later and were effected by it. This is just a disclaimer to explain why my following question is the wrong way around: isn’t Hawkeye a younger, wittier Dr. Cox (“Scrubs”)? It stuck my very strongly on some of the episodes. I mean, besides the hospital thing. In both cases there is the confidant doctor who despises authority, does whatever he wants and gets away with it because frankly, he’s right, and yet behind that is a very noble urge to help patients at any price. Hawkeye goes far beyond his duty for anyone, it seems (note season 1, “The Moose”), and when he does that, suddenly all the cynicism goes away. Also, they’re both alcoholics. And I recall one early episode in Scrubs where Cox makes fun of some helpless suck-up intern (was it J.D.? can’t remember. Probably) by calling him Radar. So obviously the writers were\are aware of the influence. I leave you with a tough question: WHO’S THE BETTER HAWKEYE? Yikes. It’s a tough one. Wouldn’t trade places with you right now.

Candidate #1: Alan Alda

Candidate #2: Donald Sutherland

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

Listen: while Kilgore Trout is writing about Bagnialto, Kurt Vonnegut is writing about Kilgore Trout and I’m writing about Kurt Vonnegut. We all have different levels of awareness, but we are all characters in the same plot.

Each time I read a book by Vonnegut I am surprised at just how mind-blowing it is. I don’t know why I never learn to see it coming. But I don’t. This time it’s Breakfast of Champions and I truly am overwhelmed by its abundance of brilliant ideas. It has Vonnegut’s usual tropes, including the one-liners on the beauty of simplicity (“every so often, somebody

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (picture from http://www.vonnegut.com)

would stop to put up a monument” ch.15), the major depressive episode bits, the social criticism and so on. The book also has, as usual, many insightful moments. Here they are mostly about people being machines and the only thing making them human is out awareness, that “unwavering band of light” (ch. 19).

But I want to talk about the narration instead. How quietly Vonnegut inserts references to the narrator since the very beginning, without explaining who he is. And all those ‘spoilers’, clues to how the story is going to end. (This reminded me a lot of Slaughterhouse-Five, and of how there is no time, all of history and all of the future is happening at once and always). So is the narrator God? If so, why is he watching television and how come he can mention his parents? About halfway through the book he mentions, quite casually, that “Jimmy Valentine was a famous made-up person in another writer’s books, just as Kilgore Trout was a famous made-up person in my books” (ch. 15).

Listen: the realization that the narrator is the writer was mind-blowing, and what made it even more so was that it shouldn’t have been. What is more natural than writing yourself, writing what you know? It’s the most truthful thing a writer can do. And yet it’s so uniquely Vonnegut. (Maybe that’s not exactly accurate: I was reminded of Muriel Spark’s novel, The Comforters, in which the main character, Caroline Rose, starts hearing typewriter noises and realizes that she is a character in a novel. It’s all very clever, and very funny too.)

Some of his drawings from "Breakfast of Champions"

The self-narration idea returns again and again throughout the book and is used to explore reality and our grasp of it. It’s funny that I happened to read this just now because that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what happens when I ‘read’ at life as literature. I don’t believe in fate but I find it hard not to go in that direction when I think of life as a plot. I suddenly get a strong feeling that everything that I’ve done so far is preparation for what will happen next. It’s a weird thought (not a psychotic one, I promise) but it’s entertaining. The thing about book plots – good ones at least – is that they convey a message. Recurring themes are supposed to be reflected in them… They are meant to have some point which the text is trying to make. Then I wonder what the themes of my plot are. There are certainly events that repeat themselves – similar reactions in different situations. But maybe that fits in better with a psychology theory or another than in a literary one. I pay also close attention to names: sometimes I hear someone’s name and think that had he been a character in a book, I would have really appreciated the writer’s brilliant naming. I once dated someone whose name was an almost-perfect (one letter away) anagram to Harry Houdini. It was very brief thing so I can’t say I know too much  about the guy; but had I written him into a story, he would probably be a character that had trouble committing to things, and keeps escaping at the moment of truth. Or something like that.

Anyway, Vonnegut. Or maybe: Anyway, life as a plot. Or possibly both. What does it mean, in a the text that is my life, that I’m reading Breakfast of Champions just now? I’ve had the option to do so before. I was close to reading it before, even. Something always got in the way. I was going to buy it but then decided on buying something else, etc. But this time I was reminded of the book – can’t even remember why – and I went to the library and picked it up.  So why now? Are any of the ideas in the book meant to relate to something that is happening (or about to happen)? Is the writer of my book trying to tell me something? This line of thought gets creepy after a while so I had better stop. Here’s a clever quote, so that you may have something to keep thinking about: “This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books” (ch. 19).