Teddy Barton and The Fate of the Unnarrated
When Cheryl generously invited me to contribute something to Emerald City, Iíd just finished delivering a paper at an annual symposium in honor of Peter Straub, hosted by the English department of the University of Wisconsin. You can probably be grateful that this isnít that full-bore academic paper, but I thought Iíd use this opportunity to revisit a question that haunted me then, and that continues to fascinate me now, partly because Iím still not sure Iíve got a handle on it. Put simply, the question is this: What happens to fictional characters when their stories arenít being told? This may sound like something of a metaphysical (or metafictional) question, but over the last several years itís one that has shown up among enough major writers and with enough variations, that it might almost be called a trend, or at least an emerging technique ó and it seems to be particularly apparent in fantasy and SF. What it means, if anything, is open to question, and Iíll get to that a bit later on. But let me start off by trying to clarify what Iím talking about and what Iím not talking about.
First of all, Iím not talking about the kind of mistakes and oversights that gimlet-eyed mystery readers call "holes in the plot," or the continuity mistakes that movie-fan websites love to catalog, such as when a character drives fifty miles in what appears to be zero seconds of real time. Nor I am talking about fan fiction which offers unauthorized episodes in the lives of favorite characters, nor the kind of professional fan fiction that does the same thing: when Robert Goldsborough writes a new series of Nero Wolfe adventures, or Lin Carter or Robert Jordan or others write new Conan tales, or everybodyís cousin writes a bunch of new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the point usually isnít to explore the unnarrated bits of the original tales, but rather to recycle earlier settings and characters in putatively original stories (though there may be cases in which such tales spin off from oblique references or minor characters in the original). Nor, for that matter, am I talking about "sharecropping," in which writers are invited or commissioned to write new stories in a beloved setting created by an earlier author. Itís worth noting that all these examples involve characters and settings that originally appeared in series, often with chronologies that werenít that carefully worked out in the first place. Pastiches arenít what Iím interested in, and they arenít what the writers Iím going to discuss are interested in.
Instead, I want to explore what happens in the unnarrated bits of particular narratives ó the quite literal holes in the story, that are so essential to narrative economy that they usually go unnoticed. For lack of a better term, Iím going to call this characteristic porosity. All narratives are to some extent porous, of course: the untold bits of the tale, the deliberate gaps in narration, what the literary theorist Gerald Prince has called the disnarrated, (with his subcategories of unnarrated or unnarratable, which I donít need to go into here). A character leaves Manhattan, say, and appears suddenly in suburban New Jersey; the journey itself is left unnarrated, since it isnít essential to the plot. Another character may disappear for years, like Magwitch in Dickensís Great Expectations, his story never fully filled in. In some extreme cases, like Virginia Woolfís The Waves, even the major events of the central charactersí lives may occur in the unnarrated interstices of the novel, revealed only through discussions during their infrequent reunions. Of contemporary SF writers, Gene Wolfe has most frequently and cannily made use of such techniques, quite self-consciously in his Soldier of the Mist novels. In such cases as Woolf and Wolfe, a careful reader might reasonably expect to infer much of what happened during the unnarrated bits, but such cases as Great Expectations leave a considerable amount of room for us to construct our own backstories.
This, in turn, has given rise, increasingly in recent years, to a number of novels and stories that occupy the unnarrated spaces of other novels and stories. Great Expectations itself came in for this treatment with Peter Careyís 1997 novel Jack Maggs, and one of the pioneer works using this strategy is Jean Rhysís 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines a backstory for one of the great unnarrated characters in Victorian fiction, the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Bronteís Jane Eyre. Closer to home in fantasy and SF, we have Gregory Maguire exploring the backstories of the witches or the scarecrow in Oz, or Valerie Martin crafting the tale of Mary Reilly in the interstices of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin crafting a new Foundation trilogy in the spaces left in Asimovís original, or even Orson Scott Card revisiting the untold bits of his own Ender saga. Examples could multiply endlessly, and it wouldnít surprise me to find that someone is right now totting up a bibliography of these things, probably as part of one of those ubiquitous "favorites lists" that pepper the sidebars at Amazon. Itís worth noting that most of these novels are perfectly respectable in their own right, and some are brilliant, but theyíre essentially new novels constructed in the spaces left by earlier novels rather than attempts to recreate or recapture the experience of those earlier novels. Theyíre not pastiches or nostalgia trips.
Now letís take this a step further. Letís return for a moment to that character leaving Manhattan and arriving in New Jersey, a common sort of narrative ellipsis. What would we make of it if she later complains to a friend that "the whole trip back to New Jersey disappeared. Iím getting in the car, boom, Iím standing on our lawn in Hendersonia. Thereís no transition ó East Fifty-Fifth Street, Guilderland Road, one right after the other." She says itís "like the in-between stuff never happened. Like it was just left out." As readers, we of course know that it was left out, that it was simply part of the unnarrated spaces that are common conventions for moving a story along. What happens to our perception of the story, though, when a character in it becomes aware that whole chunks of her life are "left out"? And what if, further on, she begins to realize that sheís a fictional character in someone elseís story?
This particular example comes from Peter Straubís in the night room (2004), the novel which started this whole line of questioning. In the night room challenges many of our notions about the nature of narrative spaces, makes ingenious use of its own porosity, and plays relentlessly with other texts both real and imaginary ó from Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz to other Peter Straub novels, and even to novels written by characters within this novel. In fact, a key scene in the novel isnít actually in the novel at all, or at least not in the novelís surface narrative. In a remarkable chapter near the center of in the night room, we meet a teenage boy named Teddy Barton, who lives in a small town in "a kind of generic midwestern landscape." Teddy awakens one morning "to a world that has been altered in some subtle yet unmistakable fashion" ó everything is "quieter, duller, softer, less vital." Teddy is a boy detective, it seems, who has been investigating a mysterious truck bearing the words Moon Bird and a neighbor digging a big hole in his backyard. But now it comes to him as an epiphany that "in some sense the world around him has just died," and that "nothing new is ever going to happen to him again. He will never figure out what Mr. Capstone was up to in his backyard, and the Moon-Bird truck will go forever unexplained. That door, and those beyond, are forever closed to him. From now on, he can go only backward, through older worlds, solving mysteries that have already been solved, and as if for the first time."
What has happened to Teddy Barton? None of this is at all related to the main action of the novel, and our only real clue comes a couple of chapters earlier, when we learn that a character named Tom Hartland, author of a successful series of young adult mysteries featuring Teddy Barton, has been murdered while trying to help a friend escape from her husbandís henchmen. Teddy, it seems, is trapped in Hartlandís unfinished novel, in a world no longer being narrated. To complicate matters further, we learn that Hartland as well as the friend he was trying to help ó the one who couldnít remember traveling from New York to New Jersey ó are both themselves fictional characters in a novel being written by Straubís protagonist Tim Underhill, who of course is himself a fictional character in the narrative of Straub or his implied author ("implied author" comes from the great American scholar Wayne Booth, whose The Rhetoric of Fiction is worth your attention; it refers not to a narrator, but to the version of the author projected through the story--another intermediate step between the fictional narrator and the actual author).
Furthermore, Underhill is a character familiar to Straub readers from a number of earlier novels, thus linking this text with a complex series of other stories centered around the fictional city of Millhaven and its murderous history. With its interpenetration of textual worlds, its deliberate use of narrative porosity as a plot element, and its manipulation of genre markers drawn from story types as diverse as young adult mysteries, supernatural horror, portal fantasies, and serial-killer thrillers, in the night room makes effective use of a wide range of the resources and techniques of what Iíve come to think of as postgenre fiction.
Though he may be unusual in descending a full four levels into his nested-doll narrative, Straub is not alone in playing with unnarrated spaces. Some other recent examples of characters becoming aware of their own textuality range from the whimsical (David D. Levineís story "Charlie the Purple Giraffe Was Acting Strangely") to the profoundly ambitious (Paul Parkís A Princess of Roumania ó which effectively thrusts even the reader into a role much like Teddy Bartonís ó and, classically, John Crowleyís Little, Big). Thereís even a discussion thread on The Valve.Org concerning characters who become aware that they are inhabiting a tale, or at least a genre And of course, we can find earlier examples in such arenas as magic realism, such as Julio Cortazarís famous 1956 Escher-like story "The Continuity of Parks," in which a man reading a murder story becomes the victim within the story. Even young adult fiction has its examples: the protagonists of Roderick Townleyís The Great Good Thing are aware that they are characters in a beloved childrenís book, and while they try to survive in the dreams of a reader after the book itself is burned, they find their world disintegrating until they are rescued by being written into a new novel. And I havenít even mentioned Jasper Fforde.
So now weíve got two ways in which writers take advantage of narrative porosity: writing stories in the spaces left by earlier stories, or elevating the spaces in their own stories to the level of plot elements. And, as a kind of corollary of the latter technique, we have an increasing number of characters in stories who ó partly by noticing these gaps ó become aware that theyíre characters in stories. The obvious next questions are: is this a gimmick, or a technique? And why does it seem to be emerging so visibly these days? And why particularly in areas like fantasy and SF?
Itís hard to think of it as a gimmick when you read novels as deeply formed as in the night room or A Princess of Roumania, both of which can be positively dizzying as their implications become apparent. Thereís more to it than that, so I started thinking about what readerly effects all these stories have in common, and what I came up with was a phrase which has unfortunately become so hackneyed that by now itís routinely used by lawyers and university administrators: "the shock of recognition." The phrase originally gained wide currency, however, after the publication of Edmund Wilsonís 1943 book of that title, a defining anthology of American literature in which he set out to show how American writers came to discover that they had developed their own voices, traditions, even mythologies.
I think something like that may be going on here. I think fantasy and SF, and perhaps horror, have evolved to the point where they need no longer be ashamed of their own literariness, or their own "story-ness." Much of the satisfaction of a novel like Maguireís Wicked derives not simply from recognizing how it slots into the Baum story and Hollywood movie, but also from recognizing that it alludes to a broader pop fantasy tradition. Itís fundamentally a story about other stories, and validates our love of those other stories, much as (in a different but related technique) stories like Geoff Rymanís Was or Philip Jose Farmerís "After King Kong Fell" re-imagine beloved fantasies as though they were realities. Both the Straub and the Park novels also contain stories about other stories, and both also allude to a variety of fantasy and SF traditions, even though they may not always be keyed to specific texts. In a key sense, all these novels are celebrations of Story, and in particular of the playfulness of Story. (By playfulness, I should emphasize, I do not mean Whimsy; Whimsy is something else, with far too many carbohydrates).
And hereís my guess as to why this sort of thing is important: without recognizing this sort of playfulness, genres can easily ossify, becoming stale parodies of themselves, providing easy reads for easy readers. The exploration of the unnarrated is only one of a number of techniques characteristic of postgenre fiction ó genre-bending is another, more familiar one ó by which stories come to recognize that theyíre stories, by which genres and genre materials can be recombined and reinvented to make something startlingly new out of the familiar. They are, in a sense, genre defibrillators.
To get back to poor Teddy Barton and his unsolved mysteries, look again at Straubís description of his non-future, in which he is doomed to "go only backward, through older worlds, solving mysteries that have already been solved, and as if for the first time." Doesnít that sound like what happens to stories that donít know theyíre stories, or to genres that donít come out to play?