Abstraction and Nonsense

The real in fiction

Percival Everett

Percival Everett, General Lee, 2021. Courtesy Show Gallery.

A version of this essay was first delivered in February 2023 as the Finzi-Contini Lecture at Yale University's Whitney Humanities Center. The Finzi-Contini lectureship was endowed in 1990 by the Honorable Guido Calabresi, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and former Dean of the Yale Law School, and Dr. Paul Calabresi, in memory of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi.

For a while after writing my novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell I deluded myself into thinking that I had achieved my artis­tic goal of making an abstract novel. I have been so tricked several times in my literary career. I believe that I should be able to con­struct such a thing, an abstract novel. Given that the constituent parts of my art, namely words, are representational, the problem is obvious. Still, I believe that I should be able to make it. The other obstacle is that I have no idea what such a thing might look like. After four of my novels I have briefly believed that I at least had gotten close, only to look more closely and discover that I was not even in the ballpark. Or so I thought. Now I might believe that the problem is not that I can’t make an abstract novel, but that I cannot make one that is not.

The Western Red River, directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1948. The American Western film is a fascinating cul­tural form, if for no other reason than because it is regarded and regards itself as a representation of the American character, albeit an America that exists no place but on the page and on celluloid. The America depicted in Westerns is fantasy, often anchored by a nod toward something historical, but in no way true. However vivid our notion of the two gunmen facing each other in the street or in a saloon might be, there are very few showdowns docu­mented. There were plenty of murders and some gunfights, but rarely quick-draw action. The idea of settlers regularly arranging their wagons in a circle to fend off Native attackers seems unlikely, since their wagon trains were often miles long. I mention Red River because of a choice Hawks made in the production. He chose to shoot the film in black and white, claiming that Technicolor offered colors that were garish and what he wanted was realism. Black and white was more realistic to him. I can certainly under­stand the aesthetic choice of black and white over color; I like the look of it myself. But what is Hawks thinking when he says real­istic? Before the mid-nineteenth century very few people had seen a photograph. I believe that’s fair to say. What could have been further from a realistic depiction of the real world than a picture without color? Perhaps it was because of the terrible images pho­tographer Mathew Brady provided to the public of the carnage of the Civil War. The war was real, the images were of real people, and so black and white became the real representation of that war. Newsreels of the world, in black and white, became the world in the mid-twentieth century, and perhaps this influenced Hawks’s notion of real-looking. Or perhaps it was simply that the world of motion pictures had established its reality and that was the look that Hawks could not break away from. I’m guessing, of course, but my issue with Hawks’s decision remains. He was making a film, a fiction, a fiction telling a fabricated story about the mythologized frontier, a construction true to the fantastical west, but, aside from dress and horses, unconnected to the reality of the landscape and history it supposedly portrayed.

About black and white: We have all been seduced by its per­ceived honesty, to the point that colorized films look off to us, unre­alistic, if you will. Even though black and white is anything but realistic. Is it a step away from the artificiality of so-called real­ism or a step toward the actual event? This sort of conditioning is not only visual. Imagine the sound of movie gunfire. Sadly, we’ve heard it all our lives. Too much of it. We have been conditioned by these years of hearing gunshots on television and in movies to expect certain sounds, up to the point where real gunfire sounds unreal to us. Would that none of us ever hears real gunfire, but how many times have you heard a witness to a terrible event say on the news that the gunfire didn’t sound real? What does that mean? It is real. What it means is, if I might expand the utterance as a philosopher whom I would perhaps not choose to read, “I have expectations about how some things should present in the world, and often the actual events do not conform to those expectations.”

The realism that Hawks was seeking had nothing to do with anything real, but everything to do with his and our expectations. I do not believe that Hawks would agree with me. I have no doubt but that he would insist that he was trying to create a representa­tion of the (or a) so-called real world. It would be unfair to call him delusional, but he is wrong.

as a writer of fiction I am attempting to mine those same expec­tations. I am not smarter than Howard Hawks, but I am perhaps more cynical, jaded. So much depends on our expectations and the biases and prejudices that accompany them. What am I doing when I decide to write a realistic story? What am I setting about to make? I am in fact constructing an artifice that appears, seems, feels real or “lifelike.” Roland Barthes would have us believe that the tricks of fiction are no longer effective, dead. With all due respect, this is hardly true, and it’s not true for a couple of reasons. The first is that readers still invest themselves in stories so deeply that they will feel bad or good and defend or argue whether a character has behaved realistically or not. The second reason is that the notion of tricks is unintelligible. Readers are never unaware that they are regarding a construction. Fictions are not lies. Readers come to the work will­ingly and agree to certain terms. Those terms will vary from work to work, but are established by the work, usually early on. Like any contract, breaking it leads to distrust. This is accepted reality. But I imagine that the broken agreement and all its attendant distrust can be seen as similar to the analogous actual-world act of betrayal, and so can be as real as anything.

My search for the abstract novel has, of course, forced me to consider, appreciate, be seduced by, and employ nonsense.

It is not a magic trick in the way a close-up magician makes magic, however magical the effects of a fiction might seem. The close-up magician makes the card or coin disappear, but we under­stand that she is not really making anything disappear, but that she is hiding the thing from us, in practiced, clever, and impressive ways, just hiding it from us. The magician makes your credit card disappear. You will not accept that the card has actually vanished and is no more. And the longer she keeps the card away from you the more anxious you become. That anxiety makes the trick bet­ter. The magic effect of the art of fiction is that, though the reader knows he has entered an artificial world, the work still creates in him real-life judgments about the characters at play. I say real-life judgments because it is not the case that the reader is making pre­tend judgments, is not participating in an extended act of fiction-making. A main character whom we love has betrayed his true love, the kind, wonderful person we too have come to love. The disap­pointment we feel in the betrayer is no different from that which we might feel in real life. Even though the character does not exist. This is real magic, not prestidigitation.

To further understand the notion of the real in fiction I ask you to consider dialogue. Dialogue is perhaps the clearest example of the constructed “realness” in fiction. My best dialogue, the best dialogue of writers better than me, the best-ever dialogue is not “real” speech. Not by a stretch. The rhythms, the tics, the inflections are simply not the same. Perhaps it is a function of the presence of punctuation. I don’t know.

Were you, with your best friend—and I’ll add that you are both fine actors—to memorize some great passage of dialogue, contem­porary dialogue that one could imagine in our time, from a novel or story, or even from the stage or screen, and get on a local train or bus and act out that dialogue, people would think you odd. At best they might take you for non-native speakers, but, more than likely, they will think you are crazy. Conversely, if you were to transcribe the best of your favorite conversations with your dearest friend it would read as terrible dialogue. It would sound “unreal.” But your conversation was real, wasn’t it? Of course it was, but it is not the real that will satisfy in fiction.

How does this work? That of course is the correct question, the question that any student should, must, does ask. I am sad to say that I have no answer. Just as we do not narrate our lives as stories narrate the world, just as we do not describe the world around us as we would in fiction (imagine someone doing that: “It was at this moment that Meredith, still wearing her mother’s scarf, moved toward the ancient, oaken door, full of bad intentions”), we do not speak in the same way we write. The words are the same, our imagined inflections are the same, but it is different. It is a special language that we have learned as writers of fiction.

Unfortunately, it is a language that has no grammatical laws. It cannot be taught, only learned. It is much like how Louis Armstrong defined jazz: You know it when you hear it. This is sad news for students and teachers alike. No books can tell you how to do it. There are only people in the world who will tell you that it is or isn’t good dialogue. It is confounding and irritating and it leaves us feeling not unlike Alice talking to the Mad Hatter.

Alice, I’m glad you brought her up. My search for the abstract novel has, of course, forced me to consider, appreciate, be seduced by, and employ nonsense. Nonsense is not the same as gibberish. Random pecking at the keys of a typewriter will give you gibber­ish. Nonsense has a direction, if not a meaning. Actually, I’m not willing to deny it meaning. I love nonsense because it works by adhering more rigidly to the rules of grammar than we do when we speak. Imagine the bit of doggerel from the animator Walt Kelly:

Wry Song

Oh, pick a pock of peach pits, pockets full of pie,

Foreign twenty black boards baked until they cry.

Winnipeg was open, the burst began to sing. Oh,

Worse than that a Danish ditch was set be four the king.

The absence of meaning is a kind of meaning, isn’t it?

nonsense has a particular kind of beauty. It is more like instru­mental music than a song with lyrics, more like thinking than thought. It negates itself just as it pretends to create meaning. It uses formal diction, vernacular, tautology, portmanteau, and sounds to convince us it is doing something it is not doing. And yet I would argue that the very effort is the root of some meaning. It is not meaningless. It finds significance by what it makes us do, like search ourselves or perhaps abandon belief in meaning so that we again enjoy the cadence of language. No small thing. It is per­haps a performative act. It does something and it does it whether we want it to or not. About literary nonsense, I assert that even after recognition of the work as nonsense, we still, consciously or unconsciously, attempt to have it mean something.

Also from Kelly: “Rabbits are rounder than bandicoots sam.” The words are recognizable. The rhythm is familiar, or makes itself familiar, but the line means nothing. Is the point of this line, or the poem before it, to subvert the rules of language or to mock logic? It certainly preys on our desire to make sense of the world, to find the real in the world. Nonsense is beautiful because it is a confidence game. It seduces us because it sounds like sense, but once we see it for what it is, it is gone—but we have seen it.

Just like street cons, it works because we want something. Imagine one of the most common and practiced street cons. My accomplice walks into a store and, after browsing the shelves for a bit, cries out that she has lost her engagement ring. And it had only just been given to her, she says. She and the store personnel search the aisles and find nothing. Crying, she tells the manager that she will pay a thousand-dollar reward for its return. She leaves her phone number and exits the store. The next morning I enter the shop. I grab some toothpaste and a candy bar and then I head to the checkout with a ring that I claim to have found in aisle three. Of course, the ring was in my pocket when I came in. The man­ager says a woman lost it just yesterday and offers to take it. I say that I’d like to return it. The manager tells me that there is a two-hundred-dollar reward for the ring and that he will pay it to me. I look at the ring and then at the manager and I say, “Oh, all right.” I leave with two hundred dollars and meet my accomplice down the road. The con has worked because the manager wanted something, the thousand dollars, well, now eight hundred. It is hard for us to say that the manager was dishonest, perhaps it would be true to call him greedy, but, certainly, he did desire something.

I have employed nonsense, and I enjoy how the appear­ance of it makes us want to make sense of it.

This is a bit how stories work. The reader wants something. Lovers of literature want to enjoy the language, but there is more. They want finally what all readers want, they want to know. Whether this is voyeuristic, I can’t say, but there is a desire to know something about the world that is being offered. It is that desire that makes the story real, that makes that strange fictive dialogue believable. It is this desire that attracts me, that makes me want to press the limit of the artifice and see where the limit of sense lies. As I said, I have employed nonsense, and I enjoy how the appear­ance of it makes us want to make sense of it. However, I think I want to offer a text that is sensible, real-seeming (without know­ing what that is), straightforward (for lack of a better word), and, finally, devoid of meaning. But it cannot be. Correct?

Much in the way that some abstract painters seek to erase the sensible on the canvas until the image is unrecognizable and hope that the quintessence of the image remains and evokes feeling, so I believe that this might be possible with words.

This interest is driven by my belief that the reader is the meaning-maker in this game of fiction. Even the most naive of us realizes that the writer is the last person to ask what a text means, but the impulse persists. The artist has no authority. Even for the writer, whatever meaning can be constructed from a given text will be different at any given moment. Just as all readers are different, so too am I one day to the next. Heraclitus and that damn river. The circuit of the art is not completed until it has a reader.

With the publication of my novel Telephone I sought to play with the idea of the authority of the reader. That novel exists as three versions, published identically and without any indication that other versions exist. I imagined people reading what are ostensibly the same novels and offering very different reports and reactions. As much as I have enjoyed the play and the reports from some classrooms about the discussions among students who have read different texts, it is still not the abstract work that I want. Only play.

There should be a name for repeated epiphany. Something other than stupid or crazy. I suffer from this. I began with a reference to Howard Hawks. His presence here surprises and amuses me immensely. His belief about the realism of black and white brings me back to earth. All novels are abstract. Of course they are, in the strictest sense. So, too, is the Mona Lisa, no matter how much da Vinci has captured the light, the look, the suggestive smile. If someone walked into this room looking exactly like the Mona Lisa, I should think we would all be frightened. If for no other reason than because she would be very close to two-dimensional.

I believe that the closest I have gotten to the abstract novel I want to make is Wounded, a novel that people tell me is realistic, naturalistic. What they mean is that the story moves ahead with a narration that offers a series of events that the reader can see, that there are no structural impediments to the meaning the reader is seeking, all while being offered a severely editorialized world with 90 percent of what people will actually say missing and a current that pushes single-mindedly toward a goal. Hardly “real.”

My most recent attempt at the abstract novel is my work The Trees. The canvas I paint is decidedly unrealistic, exaggerated, though I hope that through sleightofhand, that it is, in fact, real­istic. I employ the shapes of the crime novel and horror and I, per­haps, exploit expectations of those genres. One might consider the exploitation of expectations to be manipulative, and one would be right. However, the motive for this, and perhaps also the result, are neither pernicious, nor particularly focused. I believe such manipu­lation provides yet more windows for entry to the novel and, more importantly, to the work of constructing meaning.

Percival Everett is the author of thirty-four books of fiction and poetry, including Erasure, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, The Trees, and Telephone. He is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles with his family.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


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