Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves. (From “Preludes”)
Tomas Tranströmer, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has for years now been one of my ports of refuge. The books of his poetry on my shelves never remain unopened for long. I turn to him when I wish to come as close as possible to what cannot be said. This past decade was full of dark years, and I returned again and again to poets. They kept watch over me and, to adopt a phrase of Tranströmer’s, I survived on milk stolen from their cosmos.
I read Walcott, Bishop, Ondaatje, Szymborska, Bonta, and a dozen other marvelous writers, but above all I read Heaney and Tranströmer who, in different ways, fused the biggest questions with personal experience.
To read Tranströmer—the best times are at night, in silence, and alone—is to surrender to the far-fetched. It is to climb out of bed and listen to what the house is saying, and to how the wind outside responds. Each of his readers reads him as a personal secret. For this reason it is strange to see this master of solitude being celebrated in the streets or showing up as a trending topic on Twitter and a best-seller on Amazon. He usually dwells in quieter precincts.
Tranströmer’s poems owe something to Japanese tradition, and early in his career he wrote haiku. Reading him, one is also reminded of American poets like Charles Simic (for his surrealism) and Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, and W. S. Merwin (for their plain speech and koan-like wisdom). But Tranströmer casts a spell all his own, and in fact the strongest associations he brings to my mind are the music of Arvo Pärt and the photography of Saul Leiter.
I swim out in a trance
on the glittering dark water.
A steady note of a tuba comes in.
It’s a friend’s voice: “Take up your grave and walk.” (From “Two Cities”)
His poems contain a luminous simplicity that expands until it pushes your ego out of the nest, and there you are, alone with Truth. In a Tranströmer poem, you inhabit space differently; a body becomes a thing, a mind floats, things have lives, and even non-things, even concepts, are alive. His memoir, “Memories Look At Me,” inspired me to title my weekly column for the Nigerian newspaper NEXT (for the year the column ran) “Words Follow Me.” There is much following in Tranströmer, much watching, from a distance and from close by, and the trees, pasts, houses, spaces, silences, and fields all take on invigilative personae. There are many dreams.
I dreamt that I had sketched piano keys out
on the kitchen table. I played on them, without a sound.
Neighbors came by to listen. (From “Grief Gondola #2”)
Tranströmer is well translated into English (even if he wasn’t, until this week, a best-seller), and there are versions by May Swenson, Robin Fulton, Robin Robertson, and others. My favorite book of the poems is “The Half-Finished Heaven,” a selection translated by Robert Bly. Bly’s language is so clean and direct it seems to bypass language itself. This was the volume I turned to the most during the horrors of the Bush and Cheney years. Even though around the same time my own belief in God had faded away, I found that I needed to somehow retain belief in a cloud of witnesses. I had strayed away from religious dogma, but my hunger for miracle speech had not abated. Tranströmer’s mysterious poems, hovering on the edge of the unsayable, met me right at this point of need.
I open the first door. It is a large sunlit room. A heavy car passes outside and makes the china quiver.
I open door number two. Friends! You drank some darkness and became visible.
Door number three. A narrow hotel room. View on an alley. One lamppost shines on the asphalt. Experience, its beautiful slag. (From “Elegy”)
And, from “The Scattered Congregation,” which is in five short parts, these lines:
We got ready and showed our home. The visitor thought: you live well. The slum must be inside you.
Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way to the Address. Who’s got the Address? Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.
There’s a kind of helplessness in many of the poems, the sense of being pulled along by something irresistible and invisible. There are moments of tart social commentary, a sense of justice wounded (“the slum must be inside you”—for many years, Tranströmer worked as a psychologist at an institution for juvenile offenders). There is also in the poems a kind of motionlessness that is indistinguishable from terrific speed, in the same way Arvo Pärt’s music can sound fast and slow at the same time. It’s a good thing I’m unembarrassable about influence, because I realize now how many of Tranströmer’s concepts I have hidden away in my own work. When I’m asked in interviews what my favorite thing about New York, I usually answer with a line lifted from “Schubertiana”: “Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live.”
The images with which Tranströmer charges his poems bring to mind the concept of “acheiropoieta,” “making without hands”; in Byzantine art, acheiropoeitic images were those believed to have come miraculously into being without a painter’s intervention. The Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Veronica are the most famous examples. These were images registered by direct contact, and they were usually images of the Holy Face of Christ. (Albrecht Dürer, in his immodest way, was alluding to such images when he painted his deliriously detailed full-frontal self-portrait of 1500.) I feel Tranströmer’s use of imagery is like this, and like contact printing, in which a photograph is made directly from a film negative or film positive. There is little elaborate construction evident; rather, the sense is of the sudden arrival of what was already there, as when a whale comes up for air: massive, exhilarating, and evanescent.
The satisfaction, the pleasure, the comfort one takes in these poems comes from the way they seem to have preëxisted us. Or perhaps, to put it another way, the magic lies in their ability to present aspects of our selves long buried under manners, culture, and language. The poems remember us and, if we are perfectly still, give us a chance to catch sight of ourselves.
Teju Cole is a photographer and the author of two works of fiction, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief.” He contributes frequently to Page-Turner.
No matter what you’re field, if you seek to make a splash, the ability to think outside the box is essential.
Canva’s Andrew Tate found forty inspiring reads to put you in a state of mind to get ahead through creative thinking, whether your field is business or the arts.
01. Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Lazy thinking is the bane of creativity. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman talks about how there are really two different thinking systems within the brain. System 1 lets us make fast decisions based on intuition, while system 2 is more deliberative and slower. Sometimes quick, emotional decisions are great for creativity but often we need to take a set back and reassess, bringing the second system into play. Kahneman explores different exercises you can do to make sure that for any creative decision you make, or any creative thinking you do, you are accessing the correct part of your brain.
02. Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision & Reality – Scott Belsky
Throughout this series on creativity, we have always said that tenacity and determination are just as important to creativity as that initial bright spark. In Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky takes this a step further and gives you concrete strategies for realizing your idea and developing the skills to make them happen time and time again.
03. Things I have learned in my life so far – Stefan Sagmeister
Stefan Sagmeister is one of the world’s foremost graphic designers. One of his many beautiful books, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far incorporates material from his exhibitions alongside his maxims for great design and true creativity.
04. How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World – Steven Johnson
If you learn one thing from How We Got to Now, it would be that we have no idea where we are going, but genius, fate, and serendipity drive us there. Steven Johnson tells wonderful tales of creative genius and the curious connections between one breakthrough and another.
Editor’s Note: This is a chapter from Journalism After Snowden: The Future of Free Press in the Surveillance State, a forthcoming book from Columbia University Press. The book is part of the Journalism After Snowden initiative, a yearlong series of events and projects from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism in collaboration with CJR. The initiative is funded by The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.Edward Snowden’s revelations about the conduct of the NSA don’t just tell us about the past conduct of the government. They tell us something about the future of political journalism. In light of the extraordinary pressure on New York Times reporter James Risen to reveal his sources, and significant movements to restrict journalistic reporting of leaks by the Obama Administration, it’s clear the stories that arose from Snowden’s leak have moved journalistic coverage of the world’s governments, already a fraught endeavor, into a new and more contentious phase.
Before Snowden, we saw the distribution of video and cables from the US State Department, leaked by Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. That was an extraordinary occurrence, but one of such strangeness—the scale, the involvement of Julian Assange, Manning’s own military history—that it was impossible to know which aspects of that leak were singular occurrences and which indicated larger patterns.
Snowden, a far more knowledgeable and confident source than Manning, and holding far more significant material, has made some of those patterns visible. The leak of the NSA documents provides much information about political journalism in a networked age. The most important patterns are these: Individual sources have improved leverage, transnational news networks are becoming both essential and normal, and digital data is undermining older patterns of journalistic reputation.
Taken together, these changes disrupt the unstated bargain between governments and news outlets. In all but the most extraordinary cases, national news has been published in national outlets, with the borders of reporting, national interest, and national jurisdiction all lining up. After Snowden, that pattern is shredded. As journalistic outlets become more networked, the familiar geographic link between sources, reporters, publications, and subjects will weaken.
The open issue for the world’s investigative journalists is how far the world’s governments will go to restrict these networks. The threat of relatively unconstrained reporting of secrets has prompted extra-judicial attacks on publishing outlets, as with suspension of credit card payments to Wikileaks following Congressional complaint. (Full disclosure: I am a supporter of Wikileaks, both as a philosophical matter and as a donor during the period in which its finances were first under attack. I am also a donor to ProPublica and The Guardian, in large part because of their role in preventing the US from limiting publication of the Snowden revelations.)
We are quite accustomed to autocratic governments like Saudi Arabia and Egypt hampering journalism, but with the rising threat of real transnational reporting, we are seeing authoritarian leaders in South Korea and Turkey push for control of media. Even governments with a constitutional commitment to freedom of speech and of the press, such as the UK and US, have attempted to create de facto restrictions on publishing where the law allows them no direct relief. The essential question is how journalists and publications can strengthen their ability to report important news in an age of increasing interference. There have always been leaks and leakers. Any discussion of journalism in the US will eventually come around to Watergate and Deep Throat, the code name for Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI and leaker-in-chief. Likewise, digital data made leaking easier long before Snowden; the site Cryptome.org was set up in 1996 to do much of what Wikileaks also does, and Wikileaks itself was roiling national politics long before Manning ever showed up, as with its accusations of corruption by Daniel arap Moi in 2007.
In large bureaucracies, the scarcest resource is not access to data, but individual bravery.
The Manning case, though, was unusual: a massive leak from inside a secured network run by the richest country on earth, one seemingly well equipped to guard its own secrets. It concerned the United States, the world’s sole superpower and most important global actor. And Manning, visibly upset with US conduct and on disciplinary probation, was only allowed continued access because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the need for technical talent while decreasing the supply.
The cumulative effect was to make the revelations of 2010 seem as if they might be a one-off, rather than a new pattern. Many people commenting on the Manning leak believed that nothing of that magnitude would happen again. This assumption rested on the conviction that national governments and large firms would quickly find ways to limit access to their secrets by insiders who might be willing to leak that information.
The Snowden leak shows us that this organizational adaptation did not happen. The National Security Agency is among the best-funded and most competent group of electronic spies in the world. It had three years after the example set by Manning to limit possible leaks, and it failed, spectacularly. Not only did the agency lose a huge trove of data, officials could not initially identify who had leaked it and, if they are to be believed, still cannot use their own internal controls to discover which documents Snowden had in his possession when he left.
After Edward Snowden, we see how much power now lies with the leaker. (Barton Gellman / Getty Images)
If the NSA cannot secure its own documents, what hope is there for less competent institutions? All large institutions with secrets now face a serious threat to their current practices in making use of digital data (exactly as Assange predicted they would back in 2006.) The value of freeing information from physical containers is that more people can see and use it simultaneously, at lower cost. This is a boon for almost every possible use of this data, but it is in tension with any desire to keep it secret.
This tension is fundamental. Sharing data widely is the principal source of risk to its secrecy, but making secret data harder to share also makes it harder to use, and thus less valuable. This dilemma grows more severe the more is to be kept secret, because large stores of data require increasingly automated processes of indexing and linking, which in turn require reducing barriers between data stores, so as to “connect the dots.” And all this hoped-for dot-connecting requires scores of junior analysts and administrators just to manage basic operations.
From a bureaucratic point of view, there are three obvious solutions to this problem: immediate restrictions on system access for anyone skeptical about the mission; dramatic limits on the number of junior employees given access; and total internal surveillance. Acting on these solutions would indeed lower the number of leaks, but would leave an organization trying to use vast datasets with a skeleton crew of paranoid yes-men, hardly a recipe for effective organizational action.
Some bureaucracies will indeed subject themselves to dramatically increased degrees of internal paranoia over who is to have access to which pieces of data, but most won’t, and the ones that do will find that it hampers their effectiveness. Just as people write down their nominally secret passwords on Post-Its, organizations will re-open their databases to competent administrators and entry-level analysts, because they will have to if they want to make use of the information.
Bureaucracies are permanently vulnerable to a revolt of the clerks. The increased value of digital data comes almost entirely from its improved shareability, and if data is more shareable, there is a greater risk that it will be shared. In a digital world, it no longer takes a senior figure like Mark Felt to leak; it can be anyone who has access to the data. For all Snowden’s genius, he operated far from the levers of power within his organization.
What Snowden (and Manning) show is that in large bureaucracies, the scarcest resource is not access to data, but individual bravery. Brave sources are rare but not vanishingly so; a brave source can accomplish the delivery of information on a scale unimaginable even a decade ago. One curiosity of the half-millennium since Gutenberg, and especially of those hundred years in which the telegraph, photograph, phonograph, telephone, cinema, radio, and television all appeared, is that for all the innovation, media remained relentlessly national, constrained by local economics and politics.
For physical media—books and newspapers, letters and photographs—international tariffs priced out much border crossing. The cost of building out the infrastructure for the telegraph and later the telephone had the same effect. Even radio and TV, transported as pure energy, first appeared when broadcast engineering was barely adequate to cover a whole city, much less cross national boundaries. Even border-spanning news organizations such as the BBC had to set themselves up country by country.
Through the end of the 20th century, leaks of any importance would be leaked to, and published by, the press in that nation. Profumo was reported in England, Watergate in the US, and so on. Even as entertainment became more global, the news (especially political news) remained nationally sourced, nationally published, and nationally consumed.
Here, too, there are historical precedents before Snowden. It is no exaggeration to say that the current pope got his mitre in part because of The Boston Globe’s coverage of child sexual abuse by priests. The Globe published its series on the horror of Father John Geogahn’s crimes in 2002, just far enough into the internet’s existence for the story to spread outside the US, sparking international scrutiny. Similarly, The Guardian’s correspondent in South Africa told me later in that decade that he had regarded his job as reporting on South Africa to the UK, but had recently discovered that his South African audience was now larger than his British one. The Guardian website had become a platform that allowed South Africans to read about themselves.
Those were 21st-century equivalents of the first English bibles being printed in Antwerp: a way of placing a single publisher out of the reach of the target nation’s government. What’s different today is the “multiple publishers” strategy that Assange improvised and Snowden extended, akin to insisting that every synagogue have two Torahs or every database store information in multiple locations. Having more than one copy of the leaked data and more than one publication working on the story makes the leak more effective.
After Manning, it was easy to believe that organizations like Wikileaks were the hinge on which any such leak would depend. In the aftermath of the State Department leak, Assange rather than Manning was presented as the central figure, not least because he was charismatic, brilliant, and odd—catnip for the press. Given his outsized presence, it was easy to believe that there had to be some organization between the leaker and the press to make any system of international distribution work.
After Snowden, we see how much power now lies with the leaker. Snowden demonstrated that the principle value Wikileaks had provided was not in receiving the source materials, but in coordinating a multi-national network of publishers. Snowden himself took on this function, contacting Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald directly.
The potential for a global news network has existed for a few decades, but its practical implementation is unfolding in ours. This normalization of trans-national reporting networks reduces the risk of what engineers call a “single point of failure.” As we saw with Bill Keller’s craven decision not to publish James Risen’s work on the NSA in 2004, neither the importance of a piece of political news nor its existence as a scoop is enough to guarantee that that it will actually see the light of day. The global part is driven by the need for leakers to move their materials outside national jurisdictions. The network part is driven by the advantages of having more than one organization with a stake in publication.
The geographic spread of the information means that there is no one legal regime in which injunctions on publication can be served, while the balance of competition and collaboration between organizations removes the risk of an editor unilaterally killing newsworthy coverage. Now and for the foreseeable future, the likelihood that a leak will appear in a single publication, in the country in which it is most relevant, will be in inverse proportion to the leak’s importance. These two changes—the heightened leverage of sources and the normalization of trans-national news networks—are threatening even to democratic states with constitutional protections for the press (whether de jure, as in the US, or de facto, as in the UK). Those governments always had significant extra-legal mechanisms for controlling leaks at their disposal, but empowered sources and transnational networks threaten those mechanisms.
This containment of journalistic outlets inside national borders resembled a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a social science thought-experiment in which each of two people is given a strong incentive to pursue significant short-term gain at the other’s expense. At the same time, each participant has a weaker but longer-lasting incentive to create small but mutual, longer-term value. The key to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is what Robert Axelrod, its original theorist, calls “The Shadow of the Future.” The shadow of the future is what keeps people cooperating over the long term—in friendships, businesses, marriages, and other relationships—despite the temptations of short-term defection of all sorts.
News outlets and governments exist in a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Publications have a short-term incentive to publish everything they know, but a long-term incentive to retain access to sources inside the government. Governments have a short-term incentive to prevent news outlets from discovering or publishing anything, but a long-term incentive to be able to bargain for softening, delaying, or killing the stories they really don’t want to see in public (as happened with Keller.)
So long as both institutions have a long time horizon, neither side gets all of what it wants, but neither side suffers the worst of what it fears, and the relationship bumps along, year after year. (There have been a few counter-examples: I.F. Stone did all his work for his weekly newsletter by researching government data, never interviewing politicians or civil servants. He reasoned that the quid pro quo of increased access but reduced ability to publish would end up creating more restrictions than it was worth.)
The shadow of the future has meant that even in nations with significant legal protections for free speech, the press’ behavior is considerably constrained by mutual long-term bargains with the government. Empowered leakers and transnational publication networks disrupt this relationship. A leaker with a single issue—the world should see what the State Department or the NSA are doing, to take the two obvious examples—has no regard for the shadow of the future, while publications outside the US will be not be constrained by legal challenges, threatened loss of insider access, or appeals to patriotism. There is one final pattern that the Snowden leaks make visible. In the middle of the 20th century, mainstream news both relied on and produced cultural consensus. With the erosion of the belief that mainstream media speaks to and for the general public in an unbiased way, the presumed lack of objectivity of any given news organization has become a central concern. Alongside this change, however, we are witnessing the spread of a new form of objective reporting: reporting done by objects.
There are, of course, precedents to object-based reporting; tape-recorded conversations in Nixon’s White House ended his presidency, as his foul-mouthed, petty vindictiveness became obvious to all. The heroic work of The Washington Post is the stuff of journalistic lore, but the mechanical nature of the tape recorders actually made them the most trusted reporters on the story.
As the quality and range of reporting by objects has increased, it has had the curious effect of making the partisan nature of both reporters and publications a less serious issue. If Mother Jones, predictably liberal, had only been able to report Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent because a bartender heard and repeated them, the story would have circulated among the magazine’s left-leaning readers, but no farther (as with most stories in that publication). That bartender recorded the conversation, however, and the fact of the recording meant Mother Jones’ reputation didn’t became a serious point of contention. Because people only had to trust the recording, not the publication, the veracity of the remarks was never seriously challenged.
This pattern of objective recording trumping partisan reputation is relatively new. Indeed, in the 47 percent story, otherwise sophisticated political observers like Jonathan Chait predicted that Romney’s remarks would have little real effect, because they didn’t understand that the existence of a recording simply neutralized much of the “out of context” and “he said, she said” posturing that usually follows. Mother Jones no longer had to be mainstream to create a mainstream story, provided its accuracy was vouched for by the bartender’s camera.
In Snowden’s case, many of the early revelations about the NSA, and especially the wholesale copying of data flowing through various telecom networks, had already been reported, but that reporting had surprisingly little effect. The facts of the matter weren’t enough to alter the public conversation. What did have an effect was seeing the documents themselves.
All inter-office PowerPoint decks are bad, but no one does them as poorly as the federal government. The slides describing the Prism program were unfakeably ugly, visibly made by insiders talking to insiders. As with Romney’s remark about the 47 percent, the NSA never made a serious attempt to deny the accuracy of the leak or cast aspersions on the source, the reporters, or the publications.
Like the Nixon tapes and the Romney video, the existence of the Snowden documents also gave Glenn Greenwald, one of the most liberal journalists working today, a bulwark against charges of partisan fabrication. Indeed, he didn’t just publish his work in The Guardian, a liberal UK-based paper; he took the data with him to a startup, The Intercept, believing (correctly) that the documents themselves would act as a kind of portable and surrogate reputation, disarming attempts by the government or partisans elsewhere to deny the accuracy of present or future stories generated from those documents.
In past leaks—the Pentagon Papers, Watergate—it took the combined force of leaked information and a mainstream publication to get the public’s attention, and mainstream publications were, almost by definition, the publications most invested in the shadow of the future. Meanwhile, more partisan publications of the 20th century were regarded with suspicion; even accurate reporting that appeared in them rarely went beyond niche audiences. After Snowden, the world’s governments are often denied even this defense. This creates a novel set of actors: an international partisan press that will be trusted by the broad public, so long as it traffics in documents that announce their own authenticity. There will be more Snowden-style leaks, because the number of people with access to vital information has proliferated and cannot easily be reduced. Even one-in-a-million odds of a leak start to look likely if a million people have access, as was the case with the State Department’s cables. So what should journalists and publications do to maximize their ability to report newsworthy stories and minimize government interference? Three broad skills are required.
First and most importantly, reporters have to get good at encrypted communication. (It would be useful if news organizations began encrypting even routine communication, to avoid signaling to the governments they cover when something particularly important is happening, and to provide cover to sensitive sources.) Encryption is not an IT function; individual reporters have to become comfortable sending and receiving encrypted email, at a minimum. And, as was the case with both Manning and Snowden, it’s important to recognize—and to get the source to recognize—that encryption is no guarantee that a source won’t eventually be identified. It is a tool for buying time, not guaranteeing anonymity.
Second, journalists and institutions in contact with leakers need to have a plan for involving other journalists or institutions located in a different jurisdiction. While the leaks that get the most attention are national scale, we can expect additional leaks from inside businesses and local governments. It may be valuable to have a New Jersey newspaper holding vital documents about a sheriff in Colorado, to make sure the Colorado paper can’t be successfully pressured to withhold them. (This “doomsday switch” scenario seems to have been used by John McAfee, in his fight with the government of Belize, an indication that the pattern extends beyond journalism.)
And third, both journalists and publications should figure out to whom they might be useful as a third-party recipient of some other journalist’s or publication’s secrets. In moments of crisis (and important leaks tend to precipitate crises), those in need of backup will turn to people they already trust. If you are a journalist, editor, or publisher, ask yourself which other publications, anywhere in the world, would turn to you if they needed backup?
These leaks are far more threatening to secretive organizations when perpetrated by clerks instead of chiefs and distributed outside the bounds of local jurisdiction; they are also harder to question or deny. We are already seeing the world’s democracies behave like autocratic governments in the face of this threat; the Obama administration has become the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation (a judgment recently made by James Risen, the man whose NSA story Bill Keller quashed).
Leaks will still be relatively rare. But because they can happen at large scale, across transnational networks, and provide documents the public finds trustworthy, they allow publications some relief from extra-legal constraints on publishing material in the public interest.
Brave sources are going to require brave journalists and brave publications. They are also going to require lots of technical expertise on encryption among reporters and lots of cooperation among sometime competitors. The job of publications is to air information of public concern, and that is increasingly going to mean taking steps to ensure that no one government can prevent publication. Nothing says “We won’t back down” like burning your boats on the beach.
Clay Shirky has a joint appointment at New York University, as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and as an assistant arts professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program. He blogs at shirky.com/weblog. This story was published in the March/April 2015 issue of CJR with the headline, „Revolt of the clerks.“
“When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” (Stephen King’s manual On Writing)
The writer as a paleontologist leads me automatically to the fish paleontologist Neil Shubin and his famous book ‚Your Inner Fish‘ in which he says that every reptile, bird and mammal alive today is descended from ancient fish.
Sure enough, in 2004, scientists found one of those transitional species: Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old Devonian period specimen discovered in the Canadian Arctic by paleontologist Neil Shubin and his colleagues. Tiktaalik, explains Shubin on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, is an „anatomical mix between fish and a land-living animal.“
„It has a neck,“ says Shubin, a professor at the University of Chicago. „No fish has a neck. And you know what? When you look inside the fin, and you take off those fin rays, you find an upper arm bone, a forearm, and a wrist.“ Tiktaalik, Shubin has observed, was a fish capable of doing a push-up. It had both lungs and gills. In sum, it’s quite the transitional form.
Shubin’s best-selling book about his discovery, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, uses the example of Tiktaalik and other evolutionary evidence to trace how our own bodies share similar structures not only with close relatives like chimpanzees or orangutans, but indeed, with far more distant relatives like fish. Think of it as an extensive unpacking of a famous line by Charles Darwin from his book The Descent of Man: „Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.“
And now, PBS has adapted Your Inner Fish as a three-part series (you can watch the first installment here), using the irrepressible Shubin as a narrator who romps from Pennsylvania roadsides to the melting Arctic in search of fossils that elucidate the natural history of our own anatomy.
„Many of the muscles and nerves and bones I’m using to talk to you with right now, and many of the muscles and nerves and bones you’re using to hear me with right now, correspond to gill structures in fish,“ explained Shubin on Inquiring Minds. Indeed, despite having diverged from fish several hundred million of years ago, we still share more than half of our DNA with them.
„The genetic toolkit that builds their fins is very similar to the genetic toolkit that builds our limbs,“ Shubin says. „And much of the evolution, we think, from fins to limbs, didn’t involve a whole lot of new genes.“
“Now is life very solid or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; goes down to the bottom of the world — this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change, one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous we human beings, and show the light through. But what is the light?”
“When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing.” ― Virginia Woolf, The Waves
“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“Just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.”
Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968). In the spring of 1938, shortly after performing one of the greatest acts of artistic courage — that of changing one’s mind when a creative project is well underway, as Steinbeck did when he abandoned a book he felt wasn’t living up to his humanistic duty — he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath — a title his politically radical wife, Carol Steinbeck, came up with after reading The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Julia Howe. The novel earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later, but its private fruit is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive.
Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a remarkable living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, driven by the dogged determination to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations. His daily journaling becomes a practice both redemptive and transcendent.
Steinbeck had only two requests for the diary — that it wouldn’t be made public in his lifetime, and that it should be made available to his two sons so they could “look behind the myth and hearsay and flattery and slander a disappeared man becomes and to know to some extent what manner of man their father was.” It stands, above all, as a supreme testament to the fact that the sole substance of genius is the daily act of showing up.
Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:
Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is don — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.
A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
Indeed, upon starting the diary, Steinbeck is clear about its disciplining purpose and its role as a reminder this incremental daily progress, often slow and small, is precisely what produces the greater whole. In one of the first entries in early June, he writes:
This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.
Steinbeck’s commitment to discipline isn’t mere moral vanity or fetishism of productivity — his is an earnest yearning to create the greatest work of his life, the height of what he as a conscious and creative human being is capable. In one of the early entries, he resolves:
This must be a good book. It simply must. I haven’t any choice. It must be far and away the best thing I have ever attempted — slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges. And I can do it. I feel very strong to do it.
But per Dani Shapiro’s astute distinction between confidence and courage, this is a statement of the latter, the truer virtue — Steinbeck is well aware of everything that might derail his efforts, vexations both external and internal, and yet he decides to exert himself anyway, to be wholehearted about the endeavor despite a profound lack of confidence. Here is courage, alive and throbbing, from another of the early entries:
All sorts of things might happen in the course of this book but I must not be weak. This must be done. The failure of will even for one day has a devastating effect on the whole, far more important than just the loss of time and wordage. The whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language. And sadly enough, if any of the discipline is gone, all of it suffers.
So single-minded is his sense of purpose that in one entry he declares:
Once this book is done I won’t care how soon I die, because my major work will be over.
And in another:
When I am all done I shall relax but not until then. My life isn’t very long and I must get one good book written before it ends.
Wall clock design by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.
But some days, his resolve barely overpowers his self-doubt:
If only I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain — never temper a word to a reader’s prejudice, but bend it like putty for his understanding.
And some, the self-doubt becomes completely overwhelming:
If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.
On others, he is able to recognize the doubt but not buy into it:
For some reason I’m slightly skittish. That does not always mean anything. I’ll just take a running dive at it and set down what happens.
This, in a way, is the journal’s most emboldening quality — it is almost a Buddhist scripture, decades before Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, as Steinbeck faces the ebb and flow of experience. He feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him, and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.
Still, most striking and yet most strangely assuring of all — especially to those also laboring in the seething cauldron of uncertainty that is creative work — is Steinbeck’s chronic and acute case of Impostor Syndrome. Even though he had reached both critical and financial success with his earlier work, he seems not only mistrustful but even contemptuous of that success, seeing in it a source not of pride but of shame. In an early journal, he writes:
For the moment now the financial burdens have been removed. But it is not permanent. I was not made for success. I find myself now with a growing reputation. In many ways it is a terrible thing… Among other things I feel that I have put something over. That this little success of mine is cheating.
He is extremely harsh on himself, to a point of letting his suspicion of his own success swell into suspicion of his personal valor and the basic goodness of his character:
I must be sure to choose which is love and which sorryness. I’m not a very good person. Sometimes generous and good and kind and other times mean and short.
Like most artists, he repeatedly questions the validity of his art and his qualification for it:
Taylor [Ed. — next-door neighbor] just rakes his yard and putters. But he would probably do a better job of this than I am doing. More ship-shape. I wish I were he sometimes. Just rake the yard and mix a little cement. How did I ever get started on this writing business anyway? To work.
Even as he nears completion of the novel — remember, one that would win a Pulitzer and earn Steinbeck the Nobel Prize — he still mistrusts its merit and his talent:
This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.
Shortly before beginning The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures in another journal the fake-it-till-you-make-it nature of self-salvation — of incredulously pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps despite a grave sense of insufficiency, of being a fraud about to be found out — and even anthropomorphizes the journal itself, addressing its pages with the same conflictedness with which he beholds his success:
I’m tired of the struggle against all the forces that this miserable success has brought against me. I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages — ten of you — you are the dribble cup — you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. Have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.
He is especially mistrustful of public acclaim and the complacency it breeds:
Strange thing honor. The most sapping thing in the world.
Indeed, he measures his success not by income or acclaim but by the day’s work. In an entry from the beginning of the diary, he marvels at the enterprise and lays out its objectives:
Here is the diary of a book and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don’t work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is a definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day.
Steinbeck is equally unperturbed by the commercial prospects of the finished product — it is the process that he extolls above all else, as a moral necessity:
Don’t know who will publish my book. Don’t know at all. No reason to let it slide though. Must keep at it. Necessary.
That process, for him, is fueled by what Anne Lamott would call the “bird by bird” approach to writing some decades later. The journal then becomes a pacing mechanism. A month into the work, Steinbeck writes:
I wonder whether I will ever finish this book. And of course I’ll finish it. Just work a certain length of time and it will get done poco a poco. Just do the day’s work.
As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
In an entry that calls to mind Mary Oliver — “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,”she wrote — Steinbeck reasons with himself to find a healthier pace and rhythm:
Must slow down and take it easier. Saturday had a feeling of exhaustion near to collapse. I guess I’d been working too hard. It’s not the amount of work but the almost physical drive that goes into it that seems to make the difference. I should take it a little easier or I won’t be finishing. I have just a page or so over 100 typescript pages done out of 600. I have five times as much work left to do as I have done already, so I must conserve strength because I do want to do this novel and finish it this time. Must get no fatal feelings about it.
A few days later, he paces himself again:
Think. Think tonight and tomorrow work harder but get sleep tonight. Need sleep.
Illustration by Judith Clay from ‚Thea’s Tree.‘ Click image for more.
And yet he is well aware that moderation is not among his talents:
I am simply incapable of working any way but hard and fast. That is the only way I can make it.
When he finishes the first section of the book, jubilant, he rewards himself with a rare period of rest:
And now Book One is done — rhyme, rhyme. And I am going to take Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off.
One of the most heartening aspects of the diary is that it isn’t a log of the perfection of genius but a deeply assuring record of a flawed human being’s repeated micro-failures, followed by repeated returns to discipline. In one entry, he observes with equal parts incredulous marvel and dismay:
Although I got up early this morning I’m late getting to work and I don’t in the least know why.
In another, he laments:
Today much to my disgust the time has slipped away.
And then, he quickly exhorts himself, as he often does in the diary, which becomes a catalog of productivity mantras and positive self-talk out of doubt’s abyss:
Now to work god damn it and different work. Must get to it.
Particularly of note is Steinbeck’s relationship with distraction, which encompasses everything outside the work — both positive and negative interferences. Life itself is a distraction from the living world he is writing into existence — visits from friends (“Sue and Bob showed up this morning. Had to kick them out. Simply can’t have people around on working days.”), outings on the town (“Good time but Jesus how the work suffers.”), rest periods (“Always on week ends I have the feeling of wasted time.”), his own body (“I’m a little sick today… It is time to go to work and that is all there is to it.”), the dentist (“I go to the dentist at four. After which digression, get back to work.”), and even something as neutral as the seasonality of summer (“Exciting but I can’t allow excitement. Leave that for this winter.”). The diary becomes his voice of reason, in which he is constantly counseling himself on retaining focus, as he does in this entry from late August:
I must re-establish the discipline. Must get tough. So many attractive things are happening that it is difficult.
In another entry, penned shortly before he headed into town for a rodeo, Steinbeck urges himself:
Must be sure not to drink too much.
And yet he fails, then self-flagellates for the failure, writing the next day:
Only a quarter page. Rodeo blues and weakness… Drank lots of whiskey and had a fair time. Empty feeling, empty show. Same enthusiasm circus had whips up… And now home with a little stomach ache that doesn’t come from the stomach. Terrible feeling of lostness and loneliness.
But he manages, always, to get back on the bull –a constant dance of discipline and distraction that recurs throughout the diary. The next day, he writes:
Yesterday was a bust and I’m sorry but I think today will be all right.
Illustration by Oliver Jeffers from the unusual and wonderful ‚Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters.‘ Click image for more.
In another entry, he chastises himself capitally — “Big Lazy Time” — and bemoans the fissures of his willpower:
Demoralization complete and seemingly unbeatable. So many things happening that I can’t not be interested.
Well past the midpoint of the book, he decries the external strain on the internal process:
Was ever a book written under greater difficulty?
But he is also well aware of his own responsibility, far from the illusion that external conditions alone determine the course of the work:
I’m afraid for this book, really afraid. Part of the difficulty lies in all the shooting at me, but the other half lies within myself.
In another entry, the dual pull of exasperation and commitment accelerates:
Always something. Just more this time. I can do it and I will do it, by God. It is just the discipline that is all. I’m wasting time today and I don’t care much. Everything goes in circles and I must think WORK.
Indeed, the diary becomes as much a tool of discipline as one of self-forgiveness. One day, he gives himself permission for diversion:
I’m dawdling today… I don’t care if I do dawdle some.
But if there is one lesson to be found in this difficult tango between distraction and discipline, it’s that half the work is abating distraction and the other half not becoming so preoccupied with abating it that the effort itself becomes a distraction device. (After all, E.B. White put it best: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) At one point, Steinbeck becomes particularly preoccupied with the distracting presence of sound. In mid-June, he despairs:
After spending nearly seven thousand dollars to be alone and quiet, the neighbors run their radio all day and I get the benefit of it. Carol can hear them reading their letters to each other. We may have to move from this beautiful place.
But Steinbeck seems fully conscious of the admonition at the heart of White’s proclamation. In another entry, he writes:
It is particularly fine today because the noise next door has stopped at least for the moment. No cement mixer, or pounding on pipe or things like that. Almost too good to be true. It would be funny if the absence of noise made it hard. It won’t. It is delicious this silence. Absolutely delicious.
In some entries, he goes through the entire cycle of self-doubt, self-consolation, and crystalline awareness of the whole experience in a single stream-of-consciousness paragraph. Here is one from September 7, about a month away from finishing:
Dreamy sleep and coughing from too much smoking and confused by too many things happening and pretty worn out from too long work on manuscript. Have to cut down smoking or something. I’m afraid this book is going to pieces. If it does, I do too. I’ve wanted so badly for it to be good. If it isn’t, I’m afraid I’m through in more ways than one. Carol is working too hard now, too. And I’ve been with this book so long now that I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid. Well — have to take that chance. After all, if only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So the hell with it. Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves. I wish I could do that. I wish I would write only one page a day but I can’t. Got to go on at this rate or suffer for it. It must go on. I can’t stop.
Indeed, he frequently turns to the diary as a form of self-soothing, as much a mechanism for mobilization as one for calming himself:
This book is my sole responsibility and I must stick to it and nothing more. This book is my life now or must be. When it is done, then will be the time for another life. But, not until it is done. And the other lives have begun to get in. There is no doubt of that. That is why I am taking so much time in this diary this morning — to calm myself. My stomach and my nerves are screaming merry hell in protest against the inroads. I won’t be glad when it is done so why try to hurry it done? Now, I hope I calm down enough to start work again.
Underpinning all his practical frustrations and commitment to the writing process is Steinbeck’s larger philosophical awareness of the flash of presence we call life and the way in which we so often mistake the doing for the being:
So many things are happening. This is probably the high point of my life if I only knew it.
When I think how I am not following orders to do what people think I should do, I am scared, but then I think that it is my own work, if anything, that will be remembered. I can’t work for other people. I don’t do good work with their ideas. So I’ll go on with my own.
And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:
I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.
Colin Winnette and Jeremy M. Davies each have a new novel featuring an unreliable narrator: Winnette’sCoyotefollows a possibly unhinged mother and Davies’sFancyis about a man looking for a catsitter. Here, once and for all, they (maybe) settle the debate: Who’s the greatest unreliable narrator in literature?
Jeremy M. Davies: Let’s set some ground rules: No Faulkner, no Joyce. No John Dowell, from The Good Soldier. No Nabokov at all. Nabokov dined out on his unreliable narrators for, what, forty years? Who needs those recommendations?
We’ll qualify our assignment by rebranding it „Best Unrecognized Unreliable Narrators.“
Colin Winnette: How unreliable is a narrator really if he or she is famous for being unreliable?
Should Beckett be similarly nixed? I’d otherwise propose Krapp. If unreliable narrators manipulate facts to suit their needs, Krapp—whose existence consists solely of listening to self-selected segments of autobiographical tapes and eating bananas—is the apotheosis of unreliability.
JMD: But I don’t see Krapp as conspicuously dishonest. Deluding himself, I guess, in that he’d like to believe he’s still got something to look forward to, but that’s too universal an unreliability to count for much. Beckett’s major narrators strike me as quite reliable, since they’re not even willing to pretend to be people . . .
CW: Fair. But there’s a case for narrators who are unintentionally misleading or otherwise limited in their ability to tell their story. Alice Soissons, of Gaetan Soucy’s The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, is very forthright in her presentation of herself. But, following the death of her father, she’s forced to leave the family farm, and once we’ve seen her through the eyes of others we realize we’ve been misled—not intentionally, but because she’s internalized a life of captivity and abuse.
JMD: Along similar lines, how about the narrator in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina? It’s not that she isn’t articulate or doesn’t understand her situation. Her perception of it, however, is so skewed and fantastical that we can’t even be certain if the eponymous character, her roommate and confidant, exists.
CW: Perfect. Not necessarily a liar, but existing in a world (or with a mind) that’s more complicated or multiple than a straightforward “account” can grasp.
JMD: Typically, an unreliable narrator is meant to be giving a garbled report of the world—but what happens when the world itself is garbled? (And who would argue that it isn’t?)
CW: How about the protagonist of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness? His job—editing an enormous report detailing the gruesome massacres of the indigenous peoples of a Central American country by its military—feeds a growing sense of his being personally imperiled. Is this Moya implicating educated classes who’ve benefitted from past atrocities, or is the narrator simply unable to absorb this violence without making it a part of his own story? Or are his fears valid? The perpetrators of those atrocities are still in power. Garbled and garbling.
JMD: I’m nominating the Physicians’ Desk Reference.
CW: An unreliable narrator is a device the author uses to divide the world of the book. An account that intentionally generates a sense of something else—be it what „actually happened,“ the garbled and garbling world, or just a fog of inconsistencies and fragmentation.
JMD: Right. In the writing-workshop world, the term “unreliable” is too often applied to any old narrator with a theatrical style. There’s Gogol’s madman in „Diary of a …“, for instance, but when the diarist does depart from reality, it’s so clearly signposted as psychosis that we’re dealing less with unreliability than with, well, an efficient execution of the author’s aims.
CW: Two popular contemporary „unreliable narrators“ are Amy Dunne from Gone Girl and the kid from Emma Donoghue’s Room. I’d argue they’re liars, but not unreliable, really; they give us everything we need to understand what happened, and the stories they set out to tell are ultimately resolved. They’re very tidy.
JMD: That’s an excellent distinction. Let’s zero in on voices that call into question even the possibility of reliability.
CW: Along the lines of Malina, there’s the narrator of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life. Abandoned in a deserted hospital, she’s recording the details of her long and difficult life with what feels like unbelievable optimism and tenderness. Hers could be a defensive position, or it could be psychosis brought on by the tremendous suffering she’s endured. Millet doesn’t wink or give us any perspective outside the narrator’s voice to measure her against. Forced to choose, I’d pick Millet’s narrator over Soucy’s. Grappling with the question of Millet’s narrator’s reliability—and her possible motivations—requires an unnerving kind of empathetic speculation on the reader’s part.
JMD: In Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, not only do we find—many times over—that events aren’t quite as stated, there’s also the larger question of which (if either) of the two worlds described in parallel is meant to be taken as real. The narrators are honest with neither themselves nor the reader. It’s an excellent book someone needs to put back into print immediately.
CW: Always fighting the good fight!
JMD: And then there’s the great Rudolph Wurlitzer. His first two novels Nog and Flats might outdo Beckett in terms of giving us worlds where everything is disputable, puzzling, unnerving. Or Henry „The Sussex Slasher“ James. The Sacred Fount is his least read major novel, and certainly his oddest. The narrator spends the entire book concocting elaborate deductions about fellow partygoers based on next to no evidence. Even when he’s finally “set straight,” it’s difficult to believe we’ve done anything more than penetrate a single layer of solipsism.
CW: Speaking of solipsism, Marie NDiaye’s narrators have often descended so far into their own universes that they are openly aware of, and oppressed by, the disconnect between reality and their perceptions. Her recent collection, All My Friends, presents multiple examples. First person or close third, the warped lens of the protagonist’s mind is the only view we have. And because the inherent isolation of one’s inner life is so stunting to these characters, the affect is claustrophobic at times, disorienting. Do people see me as I see myself? Are my perceptions accurate? We’re left to wonder, is it even possible to reconcile one’s inner life with those of others without just agreeing to accept the median and ignore the noise around it?
JMD: I think we’re getting there.
CW: If we’re aiming for five, you’ll have to choose between Wurlitzer, Priest, and James.
JMD: Holy Moses. That’s not fair. Aren’t we allowed to have three-way draws?
CW: Not if I have to cut poor Alice Soissons.
JMD: Under protest, I’ll go with James. We can’t go pretending there weren’t unreliable narrators before 1940.
JMD: But I feel unsatisfied.
CW: These lists are meant to be dissatisfying. Half recommendation, half fuel for debate over what we’ve excluded.
JMD: We’re ignoring other forms of the species. Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness isn’t a novel, but an account of the author’s conviction that an egocentric God made wholly of “nerves” wants to turn him into a woman the better to have intercourse with and even impregnate him …
CW: Memoirs are all, de facto, the products of unreliable narrators—though Schreber is, admittedly, an advanced case.
JMD: Our pièce de résistance should be a book without an identifiable first-person narrator that is nonetheless untrustworthy despite pretentions to stability. I’d suggest that the bible of unreliability might be Brian Aldiss’s Report on Probability A, which posits an infinite series of voyeurs in different realities peering into a putatively unbiased, maddeningly precise, and so highly suspicious “report,” itself not unlike a novel . . .
CW: Which leaves us where?
JMD: With quantum physics?
CW: Or . . . the proposition that, while many “unreliable” narrators lie or otherwise obscure information, the terrain of storytelling is such that its more flawed and compelling characters are often those who believe themselves capable of putting together a comprehensive account in the first place—or that such an account is even possible.
5 of the Best Unrecognized Unreliable Narrators and 2 that Will Destroy Your Faith in Reliability Period:
The multiple narrators of Marie Ndiaye’s All My Friends (2004, English trans. 2013)
Unnamed, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness (2004, English trans. 2008)
Unnamed, Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life (2007)
Unnamed, Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (1971, English trans. 1990)
Unnamed, Henry James’s The Sacred Fount (1901)
Daniel Schreber, Daniel Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1903, English trans. 1955)
Reality itself, Brian Aldiss’s Report on Probability A, 1968
ZEIT ONLINE: Mister Boyle, Ihr aktueller Roman Hart auf hart erzählt von einem jungen Mann, Adam, den es zurück in die Wälder zieht. Er ist gewalttätig. Er ist frustriert von unserer modernen westlichen Gesellschaft.
T.C. Boyle: Ja. Aber wir alle sind frustriert von der Gesellschaft. Jeder auf seine Weise. Wir sind frustriert von Regeln. Gehen Sie in einen deutschen Park! Das erste, was Sie sehen, sind unglaublich viele Regeln. Spucken verboten, Hunde verboten, von Brücken springen verboten, Spaß haben verboten, Atmen verboten. Das ist doch schrecklich. Andererseits: Gäb’s keine Regeln, wäre da nicht mal ein Park! Da wäre nur Dreck. Adam, dieser verstörte junge Mann, will sich zurückziehen in die Natur und nur von ihr leben. Er will sein selbst angebautes Opium verkaufen. Er will unabhängig sein.
ZEIT ONLINE: Gut, aber er läuft mit einem Sturmgewehr durch die Gegend.
Boyle: Er ist schizophren, und er leidet unter Wahnvorstellungen. Jeden, den Adam für einen Feind hält, nennt er Chinese.
ZEIT ONLINE: Ironischerweise schießt Adam mit einem chinesischen Sturmgewehr.
Boyle: Mein Roman basiert ja auf einer wahren Begebenheit. Im Jahr 2011 gab es einen Mann in Fort Bragg, der das getan hat, was Adam in meinem Buch tut. Ich habe den dicken Polizeireport und all die Details und die Ironie der Dinge stehen da drin. Aber um daraus Kunst zu machen, müssen diese Details gären und eine Struktur bekommen. Wenn Sie diese Parallelen und die Ironie sehen, freut mich das. Aber es ist die reale Welt, über die ich schreibe.
Er bezeichnet sich selbst als arroganten Punk und Besserwisser. Der Autor T.C. Boyle beantwortet Fragen von ZEIT ONLINE-Lesern und erklärt, was Schreiben zur Sucht macht. Video kommentieren
ZEIT ONLINE: In Ihrem Buch ist die Natur ein Ort der Radikalisierung. In der deutschen Literatur denkt man da sofort an Ernst Jünger, an den Waldgang, an eine Welt außerhalb der Ordnung.
Boyle: Das ist eine interessante Verbindung. Aber auch in den USA war der Wald, die Natur im Allgemeinen, lange Zeit ein Ort für die Unzufriedenen. Als das Land noch unerschlossen war, konnten die wirklich unzufriedenen, seltsamen Menschen einfach in die nächste Wildnis gehen. Danach gingen Menschen, die zurück zur Natur wollten, einfach nach Alaska. Das war die letzte Grenze in Hippie-Zeiten. Jetzt ist sogar Alaska nicht mehr die letzte Grenze. Nun gibt es keine Wildnis mehr.
ZEIT ONLINE: Natur als Ort des Ungehorsams. Da ist ja auch Henry David Thoreau nicht weit, der in eine Hütte zog und den Staat Staat sein ließ.
Boyle: Thoreau wird meistens als der Eremit der Wälder angesehen. Aber was die wenigsten dabei erwähnen: Er verbrachte einige Zeit im Gefängnis, weil er seine Steuern nicht zahlen wollte. Vergangenen Sommer bekam ich den Henry David Thoreau Preis und die Gastgeber nahmen mich mit zum Nachbau von Thoreaus Hütte am Walden Pond. Es war ungefähr drei Quadratmeter groß. Alles drin, was man brauchte! Ein Ofen, ein Bett, ein Stuhl, das war’s. Aber Thoreau lebte ja nur wenige Meilen von einem Ort entfernt. Er konnte also jeden Tag ins Café gehen, über Politik reden und dann ging er zurück in den Wald.
ZEIT ONLINE: Ihre Figur Adam würde wohl sagen, Thoreau war ein Heuchler.