A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us (Kafka)

The classic realist novel seems unaware of its complicity with the forces of falsehood. It provides pseudo-nutrition whilst confusing rather than clarifying our relation to the world. It propagates a false view of life which stops us from seeing life as it really is. What is the relation between literature and life?

There is a good argument for saying that it is narrative which actually makes us human. Human existence is a fabric stitched from stories. The question: who are you? can only be answered by telling a story. Although it is humans who make up stories, it is also stories that make up humans. In this way human life is inherently storied; a life on the way to narrative arrives when told in a story. On this view without the ability to tell or listen to stories we would no longer be human.

Here are three short stories.

1. The Princess died. Then the frog died. Then the Prince died.

2. The Prince saw the Princess kissing the frog. He killed them both in a fit of jealousy, then killed himself in an ecstasy of remorse.

3. The Prince tumbled out of a window and died. He landed on, and squashed to death, a passing frog. The Princess, who meanwhile had gone dancing at the Defenestration nightclub in the next town, died after swallowing an ecstasy tablet.


One single reported event (“the Princess died”) cannot alone constitute a narrative. An isolated fact has no meaning at all and attains meaning only through narrative connection with other facts. Narration is the linguistic linking of events and the meaning varies according to the way the narrative relates incidents to one another. Thus plotting of a narrative declares its stance towards cause and effect:

  • Version 1 (above): a series of independent successive temporal events,
  • Version 2: causally linked acts with meaning explicitly/implicitly supplied,
  • Version 3: a jumble of aleatory, absurdist, contingent facts.

The second version is the predominant narrative form of our time; it is called realism. In realist novels there is no effect without a cause and no cause without an effect. These narratives present what happened as a necessary consequence of what went before. The introduction of an unpredictable event (however outlandish) is, soon after the new event occurs, passed off as the decisive consequence of a preceding event. The narrative thus (with this semblance of causality) retrospectively organises the chaos of experience into an orderly beginning, middle and end. Readers, in their turn, won’t permit an element of chance in a realist narrative: if one is identified it will be smothered with meaning in the frenzied search for causality. This is not the logic of life, but realism makes the reader believe that it is. The sense of living in an ordered universe is what is important here. Realist narratives soothe the reader by presenting our unpredictable human world as under firm control: suitable explanations are supplied, messy reality is corrected: chaos is tamed. The causal connections need not necessarily bear verisimilitude just as long as they make the universe seem organised. This fiction instead of challenging the human need for causality, is feeding it.

But what if human life in fact is absurd, chaotic, contingent, immutable, meaningless? What if lives are made up of a flux of chaotic, confusing events, one after another? If so, then the explanatory narratives of realist stories operate to disguise and deny the very mess under consideration. Readers striving eagerly for meaning and sense and coherence through narrative connections are soaking up illusions that make life less easy to understand. A conventional narrative instead of clarifying our confusions, doubles them. There are two contradictory necessary impulses at work here, and we are living at the intersection of their tension. Humans have a fundamental need for stories to make sense of our chaotic human world AND the prevalent story form is narrated in a way that disguises and denies the existence of this chaos. If human life is ultimately chaotic and illogical and aleatory and contingent and absurd, these stories of organised causality are misrepresenting it.

What is the answer to this paradox?

One response would be to turn away from realist fiction. Instead we could read and write narratives that, like version 3 above, have a different approach, a centrifugal approach, to causality. The more artificial a story is, counter-intuitively, then the more reliable it may be. Let us instead seek the world of literature shorn of its realist illusions: the fairy tales, the gothic, the surreal, the comic, the absurdist, the fantastic, the magical, the poetic. For imagination to be unleashed it must be released from the constraints of causality so as to make manifest the importance of the contingent in our lives. Realist fiction dissembles its rhetorical nature in order to persuade us that we are in the presence of the real, but it sells its comfort on the cheap by pandering to our illusions. Art should be challenging falsehood not promoting it, and it could start by flaunting its artifice.

See you in the defenestration night club.


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