Multiply, cascade, explode: A theory of literary fiction

Painting by Da Mao (大猫)

Painting by Da Mao (大猫)


Let’s take Franz Kafka as a starting point for doing literary analysis. Kafka attracts interest for a host of qualities: the originality of his macabre vision, his premonitions of totalitarian state bureaucracy, his inimitable dreamlike style. These qualities combine into something greater than the sum of its parts. What other author of so modest an oeuvre—unfinished drafts of three novels published posthumously (against his wishes), a novella and a score of short stories—can approach Kafka’s universal appeal? I would add another quality contributing to his compulsive readability: the seamlessness of his narratives. Break off a snippet of his writing at almost any point and you are left with the most intriguing material, as if discovering a fragment of some long-lost ancient manuscript, leaving you eager to find the rest.

Seamlessness is a function of the transition. In nonfiction prose, a thematic connection or some other rhetorical turn is used to hook one paragraph to the next, enabling the overall logic to proceed gracefully and the writing to “flow.” In fiction, this flow is built into the very story line: the sense of movement is enacted literally in the form of the physical passage of time and space. In mass-market and genre fiction, the transition from one event or location to the next can be taken for granted and is rendered through stock narrative devices that operate beneath the reader’s awareness.

In certain rarefied examples of literary fiction, we enter a very different universe. Sheer physical or temporal movement, the getting from point A to point B, becomes a challenge. It is never taken for granted. How do characters manage to get themselves from one place to another, how does one get safely across the street or even across one’s room?

Kafka’s great successor Samuel Beckett grew so preoccupied with this problem that he withdrew increasing amounts of ambulatory capacity from his characters until they are reduced to crawling in circles in a forest or floundering in a ditch in the mud, others stuck in urns or rubbish bins or buried up to the neck in sand. Space is reduced almost to zero and there is nothing left but time and the voice. This greatly simplifies the problem of novelistic time, which can now devote itself to the minute physical progress of the characters, or lack thereof. Another problem is the empty time normally experienced in everyday life, in which nothing happens. Does empty time have a place in storytelling? A great deal, in fact. How many minutes can go by before an incident takes place? Can a protagonist make it to the bathroom or take a shower without being distracted, interrupted or accosted? Hence the richly rendered boredom of Victorian fiction’s long pedigree of miserably married heroines (Emma Bovery, Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, Effie Briest, Edna Pontellier, to name a few).

Likewise in Kafka, none of the usual narrative expectations applies. We immediately think of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a human-sized insect. Curiously, it’s not so much his shocking circumstances that intrigues as much as his mundane struggle to get out of bed (as delightfully anatomized by Vladimir Nabakov’s famous essay on the story)—a metaphor for everyone’s daily struggle to get out of bed. We also think of the daily struggle just to get oriented in an unfamiliar place, as played out in the opening chapter of Kafka’s Amerika, when Karl Rossmann is about to disembark in New York harbor after an Atlantic crossing and gets lost in the maze of corridors in his ship; or Land Surveyor K. in The Castle, who is famously unable to reach the castle where he is to begin his employment, until quite late in the novel.

The path down any of the proliferating hallways and passageways in Kafka’s novels is fraught with extreme tension, suspense and danger, though more a benign than mortal danger, vacillating between the comic and the sinister, occupying a space between momentary confusion and outright disaster (deferred at least until the conclusion of the story), as the stable coordinates of conventional reality are replaced with a psychological reality powerful enough to distort space and time. No other writer more convincingly recreates the sensation of being high on hallucinogens than Kafka, the feeling of being lost in a carnival funhouse, chock full of surprises and obstacles and repeatedly sprung complications, in short, the “Kafkaesque”—without the use of drugs. It is also a metaphor for the experience of modern bureaucracy, which does trap us in eerily similar situations of frustration, helplessness or panic.

But it is not the metaphorical dimension of Kafka, his proverbial symbolic significance to modernity, his so-called meaning or message, which interests me here. That’s pedagogy, the extracting of a “lesson” from a novel to be summarized in a high school or college study guide, in order to absolve oneself of having to actually read it, still less derive pleasure from it. I wish to return to the question of style, to the possibility of crafting and sustaining a style, one so consistent and distinctive that the innocuous transitions transporting his protagonists from one decisive event or encounter to the next turn out on closer reading to be just as thick with mystery as the dramatic junctures they lead to. The drama and suspense that normally builds up to a climax in the plot of conventional novels, is in Kafka to be found in the unremitting suspense separating one minute from the next, one sentence from the next. Drama is realized through style, texture.

To take a passage almost at random from The Trial, when Josef K. arrives for his second visit at the house of the lawyer Huld. By this time, the reader has likely forgotten about the first visit, some seventy pages earlier. In that equally strange episode, K. arrives with his uncle, who is personally acquainted with the lawyer, yet what they initially encounter upon setting foot in the foyer is a disarming inhospitality. A pair of female eyes darts at them through the door’s peephole, before disappearing and reappearing. When K.’s uncle resorts to banging on the door and demanding admittance, another door opens and a man in a nightgown informs them in a whisper that Huld is ill. The first door by this time has opened and the servant girl Leni leads them to the lawyer’s room. We need not concern ourselves with what transpires after that but will jump directly to the second visit, which likewise confronts K. with unaccountable hurdles upon setting foot in the same foyer:

As usual his first ring at the lawyer’s door was fruitless. Leni could get a move on, K. thought. But it was at least something that nobody else had interfered, as usually happened—the man in the dressing-gown, for example, or some other busybody. As K. pressed the button for the second time, he looked back at the other door, but this time it stayed shut, too. At last two eyes appeared at the peep-hole in the lawyer’s door, but they were not Leni’s eyes. Somebody unlocked the door but propped himself against it and held it shut for a moment, calling back into the flat:

‘It’s him!’ and only then opened it wide. K. had been pushing against the door, for behind him he could already hear the key being hurriedly turned in the lock on the door of the other flat. So when the door in front of him eventually opened, he was almost hurled headlong into the hall and just glimpsed Leni, for whom the warning cry of the person opening the door had been intended, rushing off in her chemise down the passage which led between the rooms. He gazed after her a moment and then looked round to see who had opened the door. It was a skinny little man with a beard, holding a candle in his hand. (Ch. 8, transl. D. Scott & C. Waller)

Anyone familiar with Kafka will find this passage representative, without necessarily recalling its import. It’s entirely of a piece with all of his fiction. As with innumerable other passages, it has a gratuitous quality that is not essential to the narrative or does anything to advance the plot. You can come up with as many ingenious explanations as you wish to contextualize it, to demonstrate how it is motivated, but you must finally concede that K.’s subsequent interactions with Leni, the businessman and the lawyer could have proceeded unaltered regardless of the odd machinations in the foyer. A less imaginative writer would have ushered K. directly into the lawyer’s office with minimal fanfare; or the scene would simply have begun in the office, a description of the arrival being redundant, and it would have been a real lawyer’s office, not a bedroom, as in Huld’s case.

The gratuitous here is precisely the point. It is anything but ordinary and is every bit as interesting as the more eventful occurrences, or the long dialogues, monologues rather, during K.’s meetings with important people (such as occurs in the scenes following those in Huld’s foyer). Yet the turning points occasioned by the interactions with power turn out to be anticlimaxes, a seamless series of anticlimaxes. This leveling process occurs across the narrative, deflating the crucial junctures and displacing the dramatic focus onto the spaces, or transitions, between them, with startling and fascinating results.


The closer we examine a text, as my brief analysis of Kafka reveals, the more unexpected and unstable it becomes, despite its evident seamlessness, as things unnoticed erupt into importance, creating seams in their wake. And so is formed an infinite regression of seams. My own use of the term “seamless” itself admits of more than a few problems. Can you describe as seamless something that really is seamless? In that case why use the word at all? I may describe a person’s face as blemishless, but not a manikin’s. “Seamless” is not the same as “perfect,” though it is often employed in this sense. It is not the absence of a seam, but proposes what it denies: the glaring seam, the seaming of a seam, the fusing of awkward parts into an illusory whole, the attempt to make the juncture at which they join together convincingly imperceptible. The seam cannot be rendered invisible without bearing the trace of its effacement. No work of art or literature is completely seamless. They are only more or less seamless. If you look closely enough at any so-called masterpiece, you will see hundreds of seams and fault lines inviting worrying and prying apart. If you could ask the creator of an artwork about them, he would have to admit they were a source of perpetual torture until he slammed his pen or brush down and said, “Enough! I can no longer continue trying to polish this work to perfection. Time to move on to my next work.”

The word splits open in its polysemy and slippage. It unseams itself. Whatever you describe as “seamless” comes undone as you’re describing it. The seam implies the stitch and inevitably becomes unstitched. The cut on flesh must be stitched; it can be unstitched and stitched again. The cut, the gash, the incision, has a long pedigree, as Jacques Derrida describes in Of Grammatology, going back before recorded memory, indeed bringing into play the factors that allowed memory to be recorded: when the cut is transferred from animal to stone and bark. When the marks made by it begin to stand for something. When people start using marks to represent and symbolize things. But even before the development of writing, the incision’s originary act of violence was the precondition of human language itself, of speech. Long before the cut became differentiated and codified in linguistic symbols, it performed the radical act of division and inaugurated difference. From division and difference arose replication, multiplication, classification, organization, control, power, borders, and classes.

While the trace of every incision is ineradicable, it can be crossed—stitched—by an infinite number of new incisions. But then one line emerged to institute a regime that has had us in its grip ever since, the perfect line, the beam: Light, Logos, the Word, Truth, reason, rationality. And God said, Let there be a line: and there was a line. The Line obscures all lines. It stands for itself, for self-awareness, self-consciousness, subjectivity, presence. It privileges sound over silence and speech over writing (hence the notion that speech historically precedes writing). This privileged master incision creates hierarchical binaries. Light stands over darkness, white over black, the soul over the body, interiority over exteriority, inside over outside, seamlessness over the seam. The Line cuts across continents to separate civilization from savages.

Deconstruction was invented to unmask these hierarchies. Not to negate or reverse them, to turn them upside down, but to unseam them, to show that linearity suppresses all that is interesting in the interest of what is true or proper. Any claim is a seam, hiding something, the exposure of which would undermine the claim. The very claim that something is “seamless” immediately unzips itself and out pops what is most unseamly. In Dissemination, his tour de force of difficulty (necessarily so as the language enacts the complexities of what it is describing), Derrida presses the vagina and the hymen into the service of a new operative metaphor to replace linearity and the Line: the seam as invagination, a slit or wiggle which never completely closes but on the contrary, when massaged, opens into something larger than itself, turning the outside in and the inside out in a continuous loop. Other nonlinear metaphors have been proposed—Sir Thomas Browne’s quincunx (The Garden of Cyrus, 1658), which like the Moorish arabesque is not only infinitely replicable but moldable and malleable, as is Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome (A Thousand Plateaus), none of which permits convenient explanation because there is too much to explain.

But let’s return to the scene in Huld’s foyer. It is unusual in that it takes place in a space at once inside and outside, both inside Huld’s house and outside the rooms in the house. Everything in Kafka gravitates toward ultimate interiority: the bedroom, typically the sick room where the ill are confined but also where speech and power paradoxically take on their greatest vitality and eloquence (studies have certainly been undertaken of the number of scenes on beds and in bedrooms in his fiction). Yet the most interesting things tend to take place on the way there, in hallways and passageways, in the transitions between interiorities. This transitional locus between inside and outside may not be privileged, but it is bidirectional and provides a curious autonomy and agency, the ability to flip-flop, to proceed both forward and backward. The middle ground too is susceptible to inside/outside reversal; the foyer itself flip-flops in confusing reversals of perspective. Consider the mutual voyeurism that takes place through the keyhole: who is peeping at whom? The foyer functions as the reader’s keyhole as well, peeping into the proceedings, or is it the other way around and something or someone in the text is peeping at us?

Meanwhile, walls, boundaries and mazes must be traversed and negotiated; they are anything but seamless. Everything is stuck halfway in or halfway out. It is precisely these transitional episodes that hinder the flow of the narrative, miring the reader in unexpected digressions. As with any digression in these novels, it could potentially take up the rest of the book, or it spawns a series of digressions. They lend a peculiarly disjointed quality to reading Kafka. It might be said that the impression of seamlessness derives from the consistency with which we experience this characteristic disjointedness. His novels flip-flop. One can read them backwards. His narratives seem to open up at the seams and gape, threatening to fall apart. Hence all three of his novels remained unfinished, since they could carry on ad infinitum. They have a starting point but no ending point (true, K. is executed in the brief concluding chapter of The Trial, but I’ve always found this tacked-on ending gratuitous and unsatisfying). They are unstable and thoroughly disorganized, with jarring and mystifying logical gaps between chapters. Yet these gaps oddly enhance the reading experience. His novels are exemplars of the pleasures of the open-ended text.

The literary artifact, the text, is conventionally understood to be an uncomplicated object. But this notion of the text as a closed, unified “masterpiece” is, of course, illusory. It could be more precisely described as less than an object and more as a complication or invitation, one requiring the help of the reader or critic to work itself out. In spite of an author’s intentions, the text is never finished. It has no decisive beginning and ending, as it’s always part of a larger context. Nor does it have a fixed place, being both inside and outside of itself at the same time. There is no proper standpoint for viewing or grasping it because you are being grasped by it. Yet it certainly exists. Despite being a part of and dependent upon a larger system, it has a kind of autonomy or intention, though a parasitic and symbiotic one.

The term “text” embraces much more than the literary text (the novel, etc.). It may refer to any constructed object that is amenable to competing interpretations, anything that is invested with symbolic meanings and is therefore of interest. A text may be as small as a single word or morpheme (strategically deployed), or as large as the world. This essay I am writing is a text. This book and all of its essays is a text. The publisher of this and other texts is a text. The conditions of a publisher’s marketplace and a free press are a text. But by this point the term “text” is becoming too large and diffuse for the benefit of analysis. Context can help us keep things to proportions.


Here I can see some readers cringing or beating a hasty retreat from this text of mine, which may seem out of control. And there are also those who recoil at anything that smacks of postmodernism, poststructuralism, deconstruction. Nonetheless, the notion of the text as something open-ended, unfinished and ongoing, as a process rather than a product, nested in a potentially infinite series of texts, is hardly new. It has been around for a long time and was proposed independently of the poststructuralists by the critic Wolfgang Iser, the linguist M.A.K. Halliday, and others. (Indeed I borrow from Halliday the concept of the interdependency of texture/text/context, while employing the terms for my own purpose, as I do not subscribe to his mechanistic and reductive “systemic functional linguistics.”) Still, this impasse needs to be confronted and allegiances declared.

Poststructuralism has been falling out of favor in the one realm where it has had a life—academia. With only a small and dwindling coterie in university English departments still capable of teaching it, it is increasingly derided as at best, impenetrable, pretentious and passé, and at worst, a cynical joke perpetrated on a whole generation of gullible Anglo-American academics by a group of French intellectual con artists and poseurs with their ink cloud of nonsensical jargon and arch hipness. While some undergraduate literary theory survey courses may still feel obligated to devote a week or two to the poststructuralists to pay homage to the influence they undeniably had over the previous decades, it is only to cherry-pick a few theoretical tools to use on more politically meaningful endeavors in feminist or postcolonial studies.

For their part, proponents carry on in the conviction that poststructuralism marks a decisive and crucial, even epochal break from the entire canon of literary criticism that was and continues to be practiced ever since the discipline was formed two or three centuries ago, and going back even before that in the long tradition of biblical hermeneutics. Poststructuralism could be said to stand in the same relation to previous criticism as modern physics to Newtonian physics. Or, to paraphrase Thomas Kuhn, it marks a “paradigm shift” from the previous way of looking at the world, equivalent in scale to the reversal of perspective that enabled Copernicus and Galileo to overturn the Ptolemaic universe. The break with the past is so great that the order of things then and the order of things now are wholly incommensurable. They cannot coexist; the past is thoroughly outmoded; as irrelevant garbage it can be tossed down the chute. But as the new framework is too difficult for people to grasp, it can take a long time, many decades, for the stymied older generation to die off and a new generation to grow up and grasp what has happened with fresh eyes.

As may be apparent by now, I align myself with the poststructuralists. Or let me amend that proposition, as it posits just the sort of stark dichotomization of categories (before vs. after) that invites deconstruction. I will simply affirm my preference for the latter, and not in order to embrace an academic fashion; deconstruction has long lost any sense of coolness or faddishness. I practice it because it’s more productive and revelatory than any other method of criticism. (A footnote on terminology: whereas “postmodernism,” “poststructuralism,” and “deconstruction” are often used interchangeably, they refer to different categories. Postmodernism more precisely is a reaction to modernism in architecture and the arts. Poststructuralism is a reaction to the school of philosophy and anthropology known as structuralism. Deconstruction is the method of analysis applied to the arts and humanities by the poststructuralists.)

And yet, the deconstructionists are themselves remarkably, surprisingly amenable to deconstruction. Aware of this, Derrida famously refused to be pinned down or labeled a “deconstructionist.” I don’t refer to those instances in which the poststructuralists fail to practice what they preach in their own criticism. For example, there is Derrida’s own rather tidy (but not short, running to forty pages) and uncharacteristically unplayful account of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law” (from chapter nine of The Trial) in his essay of the same name in his book Acts of Literature, in which he has quite decisive things to say about how this parable needs to be interpreted. I refer, rather, to the poststructuralists’ lack of what Aristotle called ethos: the correspondence between your character and your actions. If you have ethos, people bank on you because they know who you are and trust you: you have transparency, consistency and integrity, words backed up by deeds. But the deconstructionists’ radical approach to texts is not undergirded by an equally radical approach to life. The problem here is not with being radical; it’s bragging about being so while not actually being so.

I am intrigued by the idea of the leveling of hierarchies and what this might entail in practice. I wish to find role models, critics or writers who live out their lives according to deconstructionist precepts, because I’m extremely curious as to what these would be, what these lives would look like, not necessarily because I would choose such a life for myself (though I might very well), but I want to see what can be imagined. I do lead something of a radical lifestyle, in fact, and I’d like confirmation and validation that it follows from theory. After much scanning of the critical horizon, however, nothing much turns up. The poststructuralists, one after another, lead the most conventional and bourgeois of lifestyles. Even Michel Foucault, whose extreme sexual promiscuity in the transnational gay bathhouse scene of the 1970s, what he himself called “living on the limits,” resulted in his death from AIDS (at a time when the scale of the disease was barely understood), was not able to bridge theory and practice in a forthright way, informing and energizing his criticism and philosophy with a frank and personalized account of the parallel activities in his life going on in the wee hours of the night.

Likewise, the poignant documentary on the philosopher, Derrida (dir. Dick & Ziering, 2002), filmed a few years before his death. Some, myself included, find the film an embarrassing bore, though not out of any failings on the directors’ part, who handled the subject matter about as well as anyone could. The challenge, again, was how to translate Derrida’s radical ideas to the screen, when there was nothing in his actual life to illustrate and animate them. A quote of his own (not from the film) captures this predicament: “Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets” (from the essay, “Some statements and truisms about neologisms, newisms, postisms, parasitisms, and other small seismisms”).

What we see instead is the venerable old academic puttering around his book-lined apartment, indistinguishable from any of your standard caricatures of the clerk, scribe, or pedant harking back to Chaucer and Shakespeare, and aligning Derrida’s linguistic virtuosity and punning with that abstruse school of Elizabethan writers epitomized by John Lyly, whose strange, highly ornamented, self-described “euphuistic” language has its rewards for a tiny coterie of curious enthusiasts charmed by self-referential wit for its own sake. Or as Shakespeare’s parodied schoolmaster Holofernes describes himself,

This is a gift that I have…a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions. These are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion. But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it. (Love’s Labour’s Lost 4.2.65-71)

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