by Woody Brown
I review books for a local alternative newspaper, Artvoice. This week I reviewed a nonfiction book called The United States of Paranoia by Jesse Walker. It is the third book in a row that I have reviewed that is concerned with the definitive human act: storytelling. The bigger word for this, “narrativizing,” is clunky and awkward, but it does not have the colloquial baggage that “storytelling” seems to carry. We understand both terms, however, to mean “the act of ascribing a logic to a series of otherwise disparate objects in time or space.”
The Facades, a
novel released last month by Eric Lundgren, is preoccupied with the question of
how we answer questions with stories.
The narrator, Sven Nordgren, is a man whose wife, Molly, has disappeared
without so much as a trace and the novel follows him on his search. His story reveals itself as a quest not for
the lost woman (who, for all intents and purposes, has always been lost and
will remain lost forevermore) but for some logic behind her disappearance. Sure, she is gone, but why? Her absence is bearable only if it has a
reason, a cause to justify the effect that the narrator experiences each
nightmarish and lonely day of his life.
Lundgren adds the definitive element of film noir, the incomprehensible
woman, to the relentless meaning-making of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, a novel that
follows Oedipa Maas as she tries to make sense of the insistence of the symbol of
a post horn in her life.
The narrator of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, released over the summer, is Anais Hendricks, a young delinquent who has endured an amount of drug abuse and violence that is roughly on par with Ewan McGregor's experience in Trainspotting. With no clue as to the identity of her parents or the nature of her childhood, she grapples constantly with the question of her own narrative. She plays what she calls “the birthday game”: a thought experiment in which she imagines different outlandish scenarios through which she might have come into being. Her preoccupation is not with, say, the fact that she was recently raped. She is fixated not on the question of how she is, but why she is.
The United States of Paranoia is an investigation of the role that conspiracy theories have played in American history—a large role to say the least. As I moved through the book it became clear to me that conspiracy theories and really all narratives are fundamentally soothing constructions. The idea that the Illuminati are enacting an elaborate plot to stymie your every career move may sound frightening, but that is only the manifest content of the fantasy. The unspoken content is the assertion that you matter enough to be on the radar of the Illuminati. Further, the fantasy insists that you are not to blame for your inability to, say, keep a job for longer than a couple months. It’s not your fault, it’s the fault of the Illuminati who, though they may have ruled against you in this case, ultimately hold the whole world in their illuminated hands. The Illuminati giveth and the Illuminati taketh away. The idea that someone somewhere has a plan for you and you alone—that someone is running the show behind the scenes—is the most comforting idea of all.
But this is not a bad thing. It is not as if there is a real truth that we should aspire to understand free of the hackneyed constraints of our narratives. Narrativization is the way we understand anything at all. We “come to terms” with it and then we put those terms in an order, an order that betrays our deepest desire and that identifies us like a fingerprint. Whether or not we intend to, we are always understanding ourselves as central characters in the narratives of our lives. The stories through which we tell ourselves may be happy or sad, but they always have meaning.
In relation to us, everything has meaning. Conspiracy theories are small, exaggerated examples of this. If a UFO appears in the sky at exactly 11:11AM and at the same time a two-headed calf is born in front of you, you would probably be inclined to assume the presence of some sort of relationship between those events that is more than simply coincidental. People perform the same maneuver when they consider their own lives and it usually involves words like “deserve” and “payback.” We say casually that someone “doesn’t deserve” to suffer whatever tragedy or to enjoy whatever success. The unspoken meaning of those statements is the presence of a Great Adjudicator who never sleeps and who always makes sure the scales of justice are weighed according to a logic, no matter how clandestine that logic may be.
Meaninglessness is the most horrifying concept man ever devised to scare himself. A meaningless world is a world without man in it. This is why we draw lines to connect different events and experiences and situate them into great sky-spanning shapes. The whole of scientific discourse is an attempt to repair the meaninglessness of the world by asserting the existence of immutable, undeniable laws that govern our lives. Trauma is that which we have for whatever reason been unable to integrate into our narratives and shock is the experience of the traumatic event, an event whose whole terrifying power is its senselessness.
After three years, I ended my time in psychoanalysis in July. It was after I realized that my analyst did not have the answer to the Sisyphean orbital on which I had found myself traveling over and over, that he did not know the answer that would unite into a single coherent constellation the proliferation of apparently significant signs that had characterized my life. I realized that subjectivity functions by writing a narrative, a story in which the world, which does not make sense (or at least does not make the sort of sense that satisfies), makes sense. The letter A, for instance, seemed to follow me in the names of everything in my life: my partners, my parents, my schools, my jobs, my writing. It dogged me like the post horn in The Crying of Lot 49. And much like that novel and most postmodern fiction, the narrative of the period of my analysis ended without an answer to what it all meant. I know simply that it meant.
Woody Brown writes and teaches in Buffalo, NY.