Falling water: Is it narrativistic or episodic?

An excellent article by Lee Siegel (author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob) appeared in the Wall Street Journal. At first blush it may seem to be yet another Robert Benchley “pick one” dichotomous probe (It was Benchley of the Round Table who made the famous statement, “There are two kinds of people in the world—those that divide the world into two groups, and those that don’t.”) but I found the discussion to be of deeper value than a superficial differentiation. Referring to British philosopher Galen Strawson’s controversial essay that differentiates between Narratives and Episodics, Siegel gives these antipodal concepts an American literary tilt.

Here’s a sampling:

This being the 100th anniversary of the first American edition of “Huckleberry Finn,” it is the perfect time to ask an essential question: Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is “a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing”?

Hemingway was correct when he said that all American literature comes from Mark Twain’s classic tale of the runaway boy and the fugitive slave. Hemingway’s own “In Our Time,” a collection of interrelated short stories that portray the episodic adventures of a young boy named Nick Adams, is a model of the genre. Picaresque novels define our national literature: Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” William Faulkner’s “The Reivers,” Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” John Barth’s “The Sotweed Factor,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five”—the list goes on and on. Even non-fiction has been influenced by the episodic style. The so-called “gonzo” journalism of a writer like Hunter Thomson, with its adventurous protagonists passing through random events, is the non-fiction equivalent of the picaresque.

But episodic fiction has been dealt a sorry hand of late. Our most popular critically acclaimed novels are pure narratives. Their straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life. In the war between Narratives and Episodics, the former are winning hands-down…

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now—the past has no bearing on present experience. (“I actually said that? I couldn’t have!”) In this view, Episodics are sober, disenchanted beings, alive to the principle of ceaseless change that drives human existence.

Contrast the picaresque novel with the bildungsroman—“novel of development”—a 19th century invention that still influences conventional novels today. In that highly structured genre—Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s “Apprenticeship” is the grandaddy of them all—the protagonist passes through one significant experience after another, suffering, learning and finally growing into the wise sum of the events he has passed through. Though you’d look in vain on Amazon.com for a bildungsroman nowadays, just about every work of contemporary fiction, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Ian McEwan, depends upon characters whose lives are meaningful patterns of behavior—characters who are themselves stories within a larger tale. The attempts of modernist and postmodernist fiction to use Episodic tricks of the trade—fragmentation, montage, stream-of-consciousness—to drive Narratives into the hills have utterly failed.

Siegel sees the definitive turning point in the juggling between these two poles to be 2001—just after 9/11, not coincidentally—and points most notably to Jonathan Franzen’s mega hit, The Corrections, as the signatory narrative work. Other contemporary writers are also referenced including Claire Messud, Joseph O’Neill and Elizabeth Strout.

Siegel’s final view is expressed quite directly:

It does seem that the narrative view of life seems to have little to do with life itself. It’s hardly a coincidence that the world’s great stories were written in epochs when illness and disease were rife, life spans were shorter, and people were surrounded by the dead and the dying. Now that we have protected and extended life to an unprecedented degree, perhaps we can dispense with narrative’s protective shield and open ourselves more honestly to life’s inherent discontinuity. Like the stoics of yore, we might even find that life, if we are lucky enough to live it out to its fullest portion, is easier to bid farewell to if it signifies nothing but the beauty and the miracle of being alive, minute by meaningless minute.

But does that final assessment seem a bit too pat? Whoa, Nelly. From where I sit, these distinctions are not so simple. What about the both/and? I’m thnking about examples of an episodic narrative, or a narrated episodic. I don’t see this as an either/or. One caveat: I haven’t had a chance to read Strawson’s essay. More research needed.