From Wood to Saramago to Houellebecq

I wrote last week how Wood champions literary realism at the end of How Fiction Works. But really, he does this subtly throughout the entire novel. Not by ever contending that experimental fiction doesn’t have as much to say about the relationship between fiction and life, but through a kind of censure, again related to craft, which is detectable in passages like this:

Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves? This is something like Saramago’s question; but it is worth noting that he reaches his questions by traveling in the opposite direction of those postmodern novelists who like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things. A certain kind of postmodern novelist (like John Barth, say) is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’ By starting with an invented character, however, Saramago is able to pass through the same skepticism, but in the opposite direction, toward reality, toward the deepest questions.

Wood is talking about José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel I’m now really eager to read. I do really like postmodern fiction, but there are times it can get tiresome. A bit shouty. But based on Wood’s description, it sounds like I would love Saramago’s way of negotiating a postmodern existential crisis.

What I understand Wood to be saying here is that he approves of Saramago’s existential exploration because it doesn’t just stop at revealing the artifice to the reader. Instead, it uses that revelation to ask a further question. His quote is lovely:

Yet the novel suggests that perhaps there is something culpable about being content with the spectacle of the world when the world’s spectacle is horrifying.

Because I am deep into my Houellebecq project at the moment, this makes me consider the metafictional aspect of his work. I am slowly getting the sense that Houellebecq is unable to forget for a moment that he is writing, that he is creating a story for others to read, to be consumed. A certain narrative personality—either Houellebecq himself or an authorial personality he uses when writing—hovers over his work. It isn’t so much like Barth and the constant reminder of the invented character, but more like Houellebecq just can’t get out of the way.

I’m slowly starting to get a feel for Houellebecq’s overall aesthetic, and his project, and the more I read of his work, the more I think that he uses this form of metafiction because he would consider it dishonest to write the kind of fiction that pretends the writer doesn’t exist. I find that notion of dishonesty pretty interesting.

But I’m still working through all of his work and I think I’ll wait to expand on this idea until I’ve finished, or at least, nearly finished. I want to think about it a little more in case I’m misreading him…

*Thank you to careful reader, Guilherme, who kindly reminded me that it is Saramago and not Saramango! This post now corrected.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

5 thoughts on “From Wood to Saramago to Houellebecq”

  1. Amusingly, my own uncertainties about Houellebecq could be phrased using exact words from the two parts of this post: to what extent is he “unable to forget for a moment that he is writing,” and to what extent does his writing document a perception of self as “a fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?”
    I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts as you go through his work!

  2. The line my friend and colleague takes on Houellebecq is about the uncertain nature of the frame. So, Houellebecq is always flying very close to the edge in his novels when it comes to certain wince-making issues like misogyny. When his characters say hateful things, it’s unclear whether Houellebecq agrees with them or not. If there were a stable frame, then you could feel H presenting a view that clearly belongs to a character, but sometimes you’re just not sure if those words aren’t coming out of H’s own mouth. The thing is, the reader can’t make a decision one way or the other, it’s ambiguous, and that draws attention indirectly to the way that we gain information about the textual world of the novel from the structure of narrative.

    I really want to read The year of the death of Ricardo Reis – it’s been on my shelf for ages! I may just pick it up and read along with you.

  3. Saramago is a fantastic author. I’ve only read his books Blindness and Seeing but ever since I have been collecting his other books and look forward to enjoying them immensely.

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