At a college party three decades ago, the woman I would eventually marry (and divorce) participated with me in a parlor game: one of the tasks was to write down your least favorite word your most favorite word. As it turned out, my favorite and her least favorite were the same word – that should have been a red flag, but I guess we assumed we’d change each other (for the better, of course). Besides we had hormones (and pheremones) on our side.
The word was ‘ambiguity’.
I had an idea for a book back then, a real monument to the whole notion of ambiguity, that I never managed to actually write. I knew I wasn’t good enough to pull it off. Ambiguity is hard. The book was called Decoys, and I’m finally taking a crack at it, thirty years later.
I got the idea for the book more to show I was as hip and post-modern as a friend of mine who was working on a science fiction novel, set on a distant planet, which featured a musically gifted but essentially autistic alien race – and their oral history narrated by a character with no sense of time or causality. I know it sounds impossible, but he actually wrote his book (Soldiers of Paradise, by Paul Park -- check it out). The result was a kind of surreal epic poem whose fractured pieces still somehow resonate together.
I knew Decoys would never be quite that cool, but I got some points as an experimental poseur: the plan was to write seven connected short stories, by seven different fictional authors. These imaginary writers are the principal characters in the book and all find themselves writing about the same set of events, which transpired among them a decade before. The discrepancies between what happens in the stories and the facts of the writers’ ‘real’ lives, as sketched by the collection’s editor in a gossipy Afterword, are not merely the product of memory and point of view. These ‘writers’ are actively re-shaping the events they describe, making them into fiction that answers the needs of their egos and imaginations.
Each of the writers is a character in all the other stories, though precisely which character is left for the reader to decipher. The central figure, whose mysterious death (or murder – or suicide) haunts all the writers and their stories, will appear as a Mediaeval princess in one tale. In another, she’s a captive African leopard; in a third I’m thinking of representing her by an endangered grove of elm trees on a Chekhovian foreclosed estate.
Though some version of the essential plot emerges from all the writers, their perspectives and grudges (not to mention the styles, points of view, periods and locations of the stories themselves) should make it nearly impossible to arrive at an objective reading of the actual events that inspired everyone.
It sounds migraine inducing – a 49 point grid, more like three dimensional chess than any ordinary writing project. For years I thought it would be impossible. I’d alight on it, like a bird on a statue, sniff around a little, give up and fly away. But attending Diane Lefer’s lecture in Noble Reading Room at last summer’s MFA residency, it struck me with the force of an epiphany: if I didn’t write Decoys here and now, then where and when would I ever have the nerve and the support to try it?
I’m running out of decades for procrastination.
To make the best use of the school, I decided to work with Doug Glover and his advice was read works like the one I was attempting, and try to figure out how the authors actually did the work. The idea was it might help me do mine. And so far it has. Good thing, because I need all the help I can get.
The two works I want to touch on briefly here are Rynusuke Akutagawa’s story In a Grove and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire.
Through the course of In a Grove, seven characters in Feudal Japan give their versions of a rape and murder in the woods outside Kyoto, in what appear to be straightforward transcriptions of legal testimony. First, a woodcutter describes finding the body of a samurai, along with a comb and a rope, tied to the base of a nearby cedar tree, with no horse nearby. Next a Buddhist Priest describes seeing a samurai, armed with a sword a bow and a full quiver of arrows, riding a sorrel horse with his wife on the Sekiyama road, around noon on the day before. The policeman speaks next: he arrested a bandit named Tajomaru that night; he had evidently been thrown by a fine sorrel mare, who was grazing nearby, and had in his possession a bow and quiver of arrows. The next speaker is the samurai’s mother in law, who speaks well of the samurai pleads with the police to find her daughter, who remains missing. With the scene set and the evidence on hand, we hear the testimony of the principals.
The bandit Tajumaru says he lured the samurai and his wife into the grove with promises of buried treasure, then surprised the man and raped the woman; but then she insisted that Tajomaru fight a duel to the death with her husband, as she could not live with two men knowing her shame. She agreed to stay with the winner. Infatuated with the woman, Tajomaru agreed, she but ran off while the two well-mateched warriors struggled. By the time the samurai was dead, Tajomaru was alone.
It happened quite differently according to the wife. After the rape she agreed with her husband to kill him and then commit ritual suicide herself: neither one of them could live with the shame of what happened. But she was unable to carry out her side of the pact. “I hadn’t the strength to die,” she says. “I am still living in dishonor.”
The samurai’s version is told by his ghost – through a medium.
According to him, the bandit actually proposed marriage, and the samaurai’s wife agreed. But it was even worse than that: “…she pointed at me, tied to the root of the cedar and said ‘Kill him! I cannot marry you s long as he lives.’” But this was too much, even for the bandit. Tajomaru refused, and in fact offered to kill the woman instead. But the samurai hesitated and his wife fled into the forest. The bandit chased her and, left alone, the samurai committed seppuku with his own short sword.
Any of these characters might in fact be lying -- even the ghost; perhaps all of them are lying. It’s impossible to know for sure. As a reader you want some closure. We see detective thriller at the movies, we watch Law& Order, we read Agatha Christie and novels …a t least some of us do. OK – I do. And some basic need I have is being ignored, refused … flouted. I come to the end of this cryptic little story asking a fairly simple question – what happened? – and Akutagawa won’t answer it. The clear implication is – there is no answer. The story stays with us, stays alive, gets made into a world-famous film whose title – Rashoman -- has come to define the contradictions eye-witness testimony in another language, because of that mystery.
The concept has filtered all the way down to the bedrock of popular culture, as we can see in this exchange from The Simpsons:
Marge: Come on, Homer. Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.
Homer: That’s not how I remember it!
Somehow I had never read Pale Fire. But I might not have appreciated it before my time at VCFA, so it’s just as well. There’s a lot to appreciate in Nabokov’s 314 page novel. The form is unique: a 999-line poem by a poet named John Shade, surrounded by a foreword, commentary and index by one Charles Kinbote. A pompous narcissistic gasbag, Kinbote is a hilariously insane parody of everything awful in academic and literary criticism. Kinbote claims to admire Shade’s work, and he does, but only as a mirror of his own preoccupations and even his life story, which he has breathlessly recounted to the old poet, assuming that it would become the central subject of Shade’s magnum opus.
Of course the poem has nothing to do with Kinbote, or with his wild tales of life as an exiled king from the ‘remote northern country’ of Zembla. His escape and flight from a cabal of regicidal assassins makes for an outlandish romance, which might remind you of The Prisoner of Zenda, which also featured an imperiled king, mistaken identities and lots of hokey high adventure.
Nabokov is obviously enjoying himself with this material and you can’t help but be swept along as he correlates the writing of the poem Pale Fire, canto by canto, with the relentless approach of the Zemblan assassin Gradus – from Zembla through Europe, to America and finally to the Appalachian college campus where Kinbote and Shade both serve on the faculty. Kinbote writes the commentary after Shade’s death, and according to Kinbote, Gradus was aiming for the exiled King when he accidentally shot the poet.
This wild tale of buried crown jewels and expatriate princesses, of mad assassins and reckless escapes by tunnel and boat forms a bizarre counterpoint to Shade’s poem which is a quiet, autobiographical attempt to deal with his daughter Hazel’s suicide. When Shade mentions a mountain, Kinbote goes off on a self-indulgent tangent about a long walk he took with Shade. Kinbote asks what Shade has been writing about, Shade responds, “mountains.’ It’s a bittersweet moment in the poem -- Shade discovers that the “white fountain” of the afterlife glimpsed by a resuscitated woman interviewed in a magazine, which resonated so perfectly with his own vision of the afterlife, was in fact a misprint. She actually said ‘mountain’, not fountain:
Life everlasting – based on a misprint
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint.
And stop investigating my abyss?
This metaphysical question is of no interest to Kinbote. All that matters to him is Zembla … in this case, the mountains of Zembla:
The Bera Range, an erection of veined stone and shaggy firs, rose before me in all its power and pride. The splendid news made my heart pound, and I felt that I could now, in my turn afford to be generous. I begged my friend not to impart to me anything more if he did not wish it . He said, yes, he did not, and began bewailing the difficulties of his self-imposed task … Would I mind very much if we started to go home – though it was only around nine – so that he could plunge back into his chaos and drag out of it, with all its wet stars, his cosmos?
How could I say no? That mountain air had gone to my head: he was reassembling my Zembla!
Somehow Kinbote manages to put himself front and center at every occasion, even blaming Shade’s wife Sybil for destroying parts of Pale Fire that dealt more explicitly with exploits of Zembla’s King Charles Xavier.
The assassin Gradus may in fact be a much more ordinary man named Grey, an escaped lunatic who killed John Shade, mistaking him for the judge who sentenced him to the asylum. This is a far more sensible explanation, and nothing in Kinbote’s version, or his increasingly unhinged digressions, leads us to accept his bizarre version of events.
Here’s another typical Kinbote annotation: of the word “Often” that appears in Line 62, Kinbote writes “Often, almost nightly throughout the Spring on 1959, I had feared for my life,” and rambles on about this obsessive paranoid delusion for another four pages.
Clearly this is not a normal commentary and Kinbote is not a normal academic. He seems more and more crazy as the book goes on, and you finally start to wonder about some of the basic premises of the story. Is he really an exiled King? Does this ‘northern land’ of Zembla really exist? Does Shade really exist? Did Kinbote make him up? Or perhaps is Kinbote just one more invention of the Shade the poet, designed to bolster the poem with historic and romantic allusions? Or perhaps “Kinbote” has been designed as a mirror image of Shade, a swashbuckling character trapped in a remote college town, or as a metaphor for Shade’s trapped, frustrated daughter.
Because the book is so funny and the characters so touching and infuriating, or perhaps because the puzzle itself, the chess problem that Nabokov has crafted, is so intricate and baffling, dense forests of critical commentary have grown up around the novel, which must have pleased and amused Nabokov no end. Not everyone gushed like Mary McCarthy with her blurb-ready “Pretending to be a curio it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the great works of art of this century.” Edmund Wilson, for instance, famously demurred, calling the novel “A puzzle that can possess no higher interest than a full rigged ship in a bottle.”
But among the ardent army of fans, the battle rages on. The Shadeians think that Shade invented Kinbote; the Kinbotians think the reverse and their scholarly disputes are supported by a wealth of detail in the text. One theory claims that Shade’s shade, his ghost, dictated the Gradus passages from beyond the grave. The book features other séance moments, including one in a haunted barn. Nabokov has used the device before -- Transparent Things is narrated by a ghost and the last line in his famous story The Vane Sisters is actually dictated to the protagonist by his dead siblings. In any case, according to this theory, Kinbote isn’t writer enough to have produced his own fabulist narrative, much less the intimate poem it annotates. It all makes sense, at least as long as you’re reading the essay. The text supports that explanation.
But the text supports every explanation. The text is diabolical. It is only through Kinbote’s off-handed references and footnotes that we can even begin to theorize the truth behind his self-indulgent ranting. But if the author is a Devil, he’s the kind of Devil you’d love to share a dinner with (Of course you’d pick up the check). The closest we can get to that experience are The opening lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers”, from the classes he taught at Cornell, preserved in his Lectures on Literature, gives some hints about how Nabokov wants us to read Pale Fire.
In reading, he says “one should notice and fondle the details.” Reading is re-reading.
Literature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf and there was no wolf behind him. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go between. The go-between, that prism, is the art of literature. Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver.
Pale Fire is a puzzle and a deception; the reader has to assemble it from its various parts. It’s a book about reading – or at least the kind of reading that Nabokov cherishes: an active, playful, wholly engaged level of attention. If you submit to Nabokov, and Kinbote, you have to jump around in the text, following the trail of references that refer to other references, notes on other notes. It takes patience – even the kindness that Nabokov recommends in his lectures. But it pays off. You gradually pick up clues to Kinbote’s real identity – a half-mad Russian professor named Botkin (almost an anagram): a reference to a book on surnames here, a telling remark about anagrams there; a snide reference to Botkin in the index. The puzzle pieces are scattered through the text; if we can ignore, suffer or even enjoy Kinbote’s endless maniacal pontifications and melodrama, we can piece them together. Wilson is wrong, perhaps: it’s a real ship. Or else, we’ve just climbed into the bottle with Nabokov and his doppelgangers.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Nabokov gives nothing away: no hint beyond the text except a stray comment somewhere that the book is “A poem with commentary by a madman” and the rueful remark that “As always, the commentator gets the last word.”
Neither he nor Akutagawa offer any solutions to the mysteries they pose. These are works of compilation, of accrued confusion and my old friend, ambiguity. The purpose is not to render the world as it is but to prove that such objective clarity is spurious, even delusional. Not to mention, kind of a bore.
Which brings me back to the novel I’m trying to write, Decoys. It was conceived as a frivolous gesture of post-modern one-up-manship. And even when I started working on it in earnest this semester – decades later -- I hadn’t fully grasped the point of the book. My original idea, after all, was to write the ‘true story’, a separate narrative which revealed what really happened among these the fictional characters, and make puzzle out of it, a cute publishing gimmick: the reader who correctly deduced the ‘facts’, who most accurately pieced together the objective reality from the embedded clues, would receive some sort of prize. -- like the winner in a scavenger hunt, or the sharpest-eyed kid with a Where’s Waldo book. The actual anecdote would be printed in the paperback edition. You see, I was already gloating over the paperback. In general terms, it’s usually best to write the book first.
Anyway, I realized the whole concept was a mistake, a violation of my own intentions, not to mention the work of the writers I discuss in this lecture. There is no ‘actual anecdote’ in Decoys. There can’t be. That’s the Law & Order fan popping again. This isn’t Where’s Waldo. Waldo has left the building.
.The objective truth I was looking for doesn’t exist. That’s the reality these other works are trying to convey. That’s the reality I have to embrace to write my own. Finally we cannot possess any conclusive account of what occurs between us and the people around us. I could have learned that from a day in divorce court. Instead I chose to study with Akutagawa, and Navobov; and Glover, of course.
So it began to be clear. I started to understand what I have to do with this book, what anyone who chooses to write this way has to do: set version after version over the central events and characters, points-of-view over points-of-view. It’s kind of like the acetate overlays in the old encyclopedias, designed to show time lapse or to gradually complete an image of a human brain or a rain forest. Unlike the old reference book illustrations, the ultimate image here is not one of completion and clarity, but of something close to abstraction.
Certainly it aims to invoke confusion: a jumble, but a jumble with high intention, seriousness of purpose and a message: the life around us, our friends and lovers, the truth of our own personal history -- is essentially unknowable; and the sooner we recognize it, the sooner we fully absorb that bitter but liberating relativity of perception, the better.