Thursday, December 17, 2009

The narrative of dreams

Closing off a chapter dedicated to Narrative Situation, Suzanne Keen provides a list of questions to ask about each story -- the way to start thinking about stories in terms of narrative structure. I'll paraphrase without quoting:

* Who is the narrator? (What is her or his relationship to the implied author and to the characters of this story? Who's doing to the seeing and the perceiving of the events of the story?)

* Does the narrative situation change in the course of the story? (Are there multiple narrators? Changes in the degree of omniscience?)

* What does the implied author get out of each narrative situation? What does the implied author get out of varying the narrative situation? Out of not varying the narrative situation?

I'm reading a short story by Lydia Davis, "Five Fictions From the Middle of the Night," published in the Tin House's 10th anniversary issue. They are five short-shorts, each of them with their own separate title, "Swimming in Egypt," "The Schoolchildren in the Large Building," etc. Two of these ("Egypt" and the fourth piece, "The Piano") are told using the first-person plural pronoun, "we." (As in, "We are about to buy a new piano"). But because these pieces are united under an encompassing heading ("Five fictions..."), we easily understand that the narrator in all of these five pieces is the same. Indeed, there's no change in narrative situation happening here -- just the change in a pronoun.

If it's not entirely clear at the end of the first piece (it describes a scuba diving trip in the Mediterranean), by the end of the second piece (where the narrator ends up in a bathroom that's also an elevator) it becomes obvious: these five stories are dreams, five entries from a dream diary. The fact that the narrator chooses to call them "fictions" (here's an interesting side question: to whom do story titles belong, to narrators or implied authors?), the narrator is inviting us not to interpret them in terms of psychology, but to read them in terms of story structure. Indeed, we do not know when or in what order and at what interval from each other these dreams were dreamt -- or if in writing them down the narrator modified them. Or if these are, indeed, dreams at all -- the name "fictions" implies that they are composed consciously and with a specific goal in mind.

Indeed, simply by calling these dreams "fictions," the implied author hands off the dreams into the hands of her narrator. Dreams are essentially non-fictions -- and am I right in generalizing that when we read non-fiction, we automatically assume that the narrator and the implied author are one and the same person? Maybe this is not always the case, but in the case of dream diaries it seems to hold. So. Here's the way I choose to read Lydia Davis's story: there's a complicity here between the implied author and the narrator. They are working together at trying to hide something from us while at the same time implicating us in the mystery. Did the implied author actually dream these dreams? Or are they a skillful work of a narrator, a work of fiction, of constructing fiction in such a way that forces us to assume that the implied author dreamt these dreams?

More importantly, what is it that the two are trying to hide from us? What is the disturbing emotional content that they are afraid is true but don't want to admit to be true? I think it has something to do with the perception of self and self-worth. I think it has something to do with the notion of authenticity, as demonstrated by obscuring the space between the narrator and the implied author.

1 comment:

  1. the bathroom that is also an elevator. now that has the weird quality of a dream. and the weird mix of public and private.