Stream of Life

So, my newest favorite author is Gene Wolfe. I started reading his books about a year ago, and I’m completely hooked.

But if I have one complaint about his books, it is that the plot often seems somewhat discontinuous. One set of events leads logically enough to the other in terms of causality, but there is no sense of plot progression – X happens, then Y, then Z, then the book’s over, and it feels like the writer forgot to put in a climax.

On the Wesnoth forums, Eleazar articulated his objection to Gene Wolfe thusly:

Gene Wolfe is an amazing and imaginative writer, but ultimately his stories IMHO aren’t about anything… there’s no message, no point, no focal idea… just random events, interesting in themselves but with no real connection or larger significance. This leaves a bad taste in the mouth after reading, even though his skill at putting sentences and pages together is probably greater than any other active sci-fi writer.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no real connection or larger significance, and I don’t think it leaves a bad taste in the mouth (though this is, I guess, subjective), but Eleazar’s clearly on to something, I think. It’s almost as if Wolfe’s books have no metanarrative (insofar as a work of fiction can be said to have a “metanarrative” at all, rather than simply a narrative :P). Wolfe is guiding the narrative somewhere, perhaps, but not paying attention to whether the audience is at least emotionally aware of where it’s heading.

This can be taken as a flaw in his work – or an intentional omission. It’s an interesting idea – leaving out the “story arch”. Perhaps it’s more true to real life.

How so? I’ve been thinking recently about the metaphor “stream of life”. Life can be looked at a stream of events, you flow downhill towards your final destination, and eventually you’re there. It’s a somewhat common turn of phrase – it even has a Magic: The Gathering card associated with it.

What’s interesting about streams, though, is that they don’t have any goal in mind. They flow downhill, following the laws of gravity and inertia, and end up where they end up – in the ocean, in a lake, dried up in the desert, wherever. Streams don’t have story archs. They don’t build up to some goal – they just run on and on until they reach their destination, then stop. There is no story to a stream. If life is like a stream, does that mean our lives have no metanarrative, either comic or tragic? I think, perhaps, so. (This is kind of the same idea I tried to convey in the poem I posted recently…)

So, life has no story arch. We go from place to place to place, do X then Y then Z, but there’s no reason Y should lead to Z dramatically – only logically. You’ve perhaps heard it said that life is not a fairy tale; well, neither is it any kind of story. It’s just what it is, life.

But we need metanarratives. We need our lives to have storylines. Perhaps we make our own; we try to craft our lives to fit what we think our storyline should be. But then the world intervenes and prevents our storyline from coming true.

To return to Gene Wolfe, then; perhaps he’s not making a mistake by having his stories have little dramatic build-up. Perhaps it’s an invitation to draw what connections we will between the different events – to try to discern the storyline that may or may not be hidden in the various and seemingly random events happening to his characters. I’ve always known Wolfe was a writer who forced the reader to interact with his work (heck, you can’t even figure out what’s going on half the time, let alone what it means, unless you’re willing to put in a decent amount of work); this would be just another level of such interaction.

Or maybe this is all nonsense and this is actually just a flaw in Wolfe’s writings. I dunno.


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