How Not To Be Seen: On Characters, Stereotypes, and Whatever

The novelist Danilo Kiš— who was born in 1935, and died at the moment of liberation of Eastern Europe, in October 1989—lived just long enough to be a victim of history twice over. His horrific childhood during the Holocaust was the basis of his two best-known novels, Garden, Ashes and Hourglass. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, the first of his two collections of short stories, is about the second totalitarian catastrophe of Kiš’s life: the Communist state which ruled over his adolescence and adulthood.

This doesn’t make A Tomb for Boris Davidovich sound like light reading, but in fact it’s a quick, witty, nimble, even light-hearted book, whose attitude towards its subject recalls a book written by Slavenka Drakulic years later, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Kiš’s method in Boris Davidovich is formally brilliant and brilliantly perverse: working backwards and forwards through the early years of the communist movement in Europe, he creates a kind of gallery of sympathetic characters, true believers or hapless functionaries, whose deaths—casual, incidental, as often as not accidental—are the true history of that movement.

For example: in the second story in the book, “The Sow That Eats Her Farrow,” a young Irishman, Gould Verschoyle, leaves Dublin in 1935 and joins the Republican forces fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Kiš narrates this story with a mixture of historical detachment and intimate interest. “The life of Gould Verschoyle blends and merges with the life and death of the young Spanish Republic,” he writes, describing Verschoyle in two faded photographs, the only “hard evidence” that he was ever there. In the section that follows, subtitled “Cautious speculations,” he creates a kind of montage of Verschoyle’s life in wartime:

I see him charging toward a bayonet, carried along by his own war cry as if by the wings of the exterminating angel; I see him in a shouting contest with Anarchists, whose black flag is raised on the bare hills near Guadalajara, and who are ready to die a noble, senseless death…I see him shaking the dead body of the student Armand Joffroy, who died in his arms somewhere near Santander; I see him, his head wrapped in filthy bandages, lying in an improvised hospital near Gijón, listening to the ravings of the wounded…I see him talking with a young nurse who lulls him to sleep like a child, singing in a tongue unknown to him, and later he, half asleep and full of morphine, sees her climbing into the bed of a Pole who has had a leg amputated.

Eventually the idealistic and naïve Verschoyle goes to his commander and voices suspicions that radio communications within the Republican forces are being passed on to the Soviet Union. Verschoyle is kidnapped by Comintern agents and taken by ship to Leningrad; during the voyage, the agents stay in his room for days on end, attempting to brainwash him into switching his allegiance. We never learn whether they succeed. “It will remain a psychological secret,” Kiš writes,

and legally a most interesting one, whether it is possible for a man cornered by fear and despair to so sharpen his arguments and experience that he is able—without external pressure, without the use of force and torture—to throw into doubt all that has been developed through many years of upbringing, lectures, habit, and training in the consciousness of two other men.

In the end, a Soviet tribunal, unable to tell whether Verschoyle has been converted or vice versa, takes the safe route and condemns all three men to eight years of imprisonment. The two agents are lost in the masses of a Soviet labor camp, and Verschoyle dies in an attempt to escape: “his frozen, naked corpse, bound with wire and hung upside down, was displayed in front of the camp’s entrance to all who dream of the impossible.”

What we see in this story, and in all the stories in the book, is a combination of the pretended objectivity of a historian’s or an archivist’s report with the narrative skill of a novelist. The story’s division into separate, titled sections enables Kiš to switch from one mode to the other without having to labor with any kind of naturalistic transition. It’s almost, but not quite, as if the story is being narrated by different people, or one person in varying states of mind. The story is addressed to a common “we,” as in the following passage: “Verschoyle watched the ashen sea, and this reminded him of scorned and scornworthy Ireland. (Even so, we cannot believe that there wasn’t a touch of nostalgia in his scorn.)” This combination of intimacy and distance, or we might even say the confusion of intimacy and distance, doesn’t create what we might call the automatic sympathy generated by a story told in the close third person; it creates something like critical sympathy. Verscholye is neither innocent nor guilty; he is neither entirely a victim of circumstances nor responsible for his own terrible fate. He is simply a human being in a particular mindset, at a particular, unfortunate, place and time.

A nonfiction writer might be wondering at this point why this couldn’t have been a book of speculative reportage, if Kiš’s purpose was to draw attention to the little-known victims, the “common” victims, the collateral damage, of Communism, and there were plenty of them to be had in real life. He could have chosen real people, and historical figures do occasionally play a role in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, but the choice of fiction is in some ways an obvious one, because the very effort to find the “unknown” victim is a reconstructive effort, a fictionalizing effort. Alice Munro, in the story “Meneseteung,” creates a fiction from the scattered records of the life of a nineteenth century woman poet on the Canadian frontier. Kiš is doing something similar, only on a group scale, a communal scale. The unknown victims in A Tomb for Boris Davidovich are distinct individuals; they have personalities, nationalities, life stories; but at the same time what makes them belong to the book as a whole is not their individuality as such but the very thing that de-individualized them, the ideology that turned them into anonymous bodies dumped in an unmarked grave or buried in the steely waters of the Black Sea.

That we can’t quite reconcile these two things is exactly what gives the book its power.

In this sense, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a powerful counterargument to a theory about the short story first advanced by Frank O’Connor in The Lonely Voice, which is important enough to quote at length:

There is no character here [in Gogol’s “The Overcoat”] with whom the reader can identify himself, unless it is that nameless horrified figure which represents the author. There is no form of society to which any character in it could possibly attach himself and regard as normal. In discussions of the modern novel we have come to talk of it as the novel without a hero. In fact, the short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group—a bad phrase which I have had to use for want of a better. That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape…

Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo—Christ, Socrates, Moses. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”)

The problem with this argument is that O’Connor never explains how these characters can be so radically lonely, so absolutely individualized, and still form part of a “submerged population,” so that we can speak of them as “officials,” “serfs,” “prostitutes,” or, for that matter, “victims of Communism.” He seems to want to have it both ways: not surprisingly, because many of the writers he discusses do, too. Certainly Danilo Kiš does; in fact, as we see in the authorial tone he adopts in “The Sow Who Eats Her Farrow,” he has found a way of shifting from Verschoyle’s subjectivity to the detached, wry voice of the archival researcher who has prepared a report on his forgotten subject. But in doing so Kiš does something Frank O’Connor probably never anticipated: he makes it impossible for us to pity them the way that, say, we pity the cart driver in Chekhov’s “Misery.” Against the prevailing wind of pious concern for the oppressed he pilots a little boat loaded with depth-charges of irony. It’s in this way that A Tomb for Boris Davidovich resembles the immortal Monty Python skit “How Not To Be Seen,” a parody of a British government public-information film in which various innocent citizens are shown hiding behind bushes and inside vacation houses before being shot or blown to bits.

The humor in “How Not To Be Seen” is, in fact, also a beautiful parody of how fiction writers sometimes regard their characters. We work so hard to give them first names and last names, houses and jobs, husbands and mistresses, quirks and obsessions, as if we’re filling out a checklist that somehow will make them “real,” when all we really want to do is drown them in frozen lakes, give them venereal diseases, cause them to fall in love inapproriately, humiliate them in front of strangers. We pretend to be invested in their uniqueness while hiding behind our backs the hatchet of a common fate: death, disappointment, racial discrimination, abuse. Not surprisingly, the farther these characters are from our own experience, or the experience of our intended readers, the more this effort tends to shade into a vivid and effective form of stereotyping. Think Shylock. Think Uncle Tom. Or, for a more recent example, think of the street thug in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, whom McEwan “humanizes” at great length by having the hero of the story diagnose his neurological disease. The street thug then reappears at the end of the novel as a cartoonish villain, a pure symbol of All That Is Wrong With The World, purely in order to be killed off. That was perhaps not the kind of diagnosis he himself would have wanted.

Or, to put it another way: perhaps what’s so dangerous about the idea of a “submerged population,” the suggestion that “there is no character here [in “The Overcoat”] with whom the reader can identify himself, unless it is that nameless horrified figure which represents the author,” is that it radically simplifies a problem that encompasses the whole range of fictional characterization. We might call this the Nobody in Particular problem. Fictional characters depend on the illusion of their particularity; particular names, features, situations, desires; yet because of their illusory, partial, implied nature, we have no access to their particularity except through generalities and resemblances. If I begin a work of fiction with the following sentence,

Barbara O’Reilly, owner and sole agent of Nottingham Realty, put down the phone after her last cold call of the day and watched snow swirl around the wreaths hanging from the streetlamps at First and Main.

The reader’s response proceeds something like this:

Barbara (woman over forty) + O’Reilly (Irish background, Catholic, red hair, freckles?) + owner and sole agent of Nottingham Realty (middle aged, middle class, stable, kids?) + cold call (hard times, recession?) + snow swirl around the wreaths at First and Main (small town, picturesque, parochial)…

Is Barbara O’Reilly the sum of her constituent multiplicities, or is she an “individual” divorced from them? This is a ridiculous question if we phrase it as an either/or, but it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that the real answer, which lies somewhere in the interstices, doesn’t matter.

*

In what sense should human beings be treated as individuals, as singular beings, as opposed to members of a multiplicity—a community, a collective, a neighborhood, a city, an ethnicity, a nation? In his book The Coming Community, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that part of the problem with working out this question is that we so easily assume that there are only two possible categories—“singular” and “multiple,” or “individual” and “common.” Is it not possible, he asks, that there is, in fact, a third alternative, that accounts for some of our dissatisfaction? He proposes a term from medieval Scholastic philosophy that is also remarkably contemporary: quodlibet, which roughly translates as “whatever.” In our current vernacular “whatever” primarily means indifference, as in, “get whatever you want to eat out of the fridge.” Quodlibet, however, means “whatever” in exactly the opposite sense, which we also understand, but use much less frequently. An example might be a mother saying to a child, “Whatever kind of birthday cake you want, I’ll make it for you.” That is, in Agamben’s words, not “being, it does not matter which,” but “being such that it always matters.” The individual kind of birthday cake doesn’t matter per se, but because it is what the child wants, she will make it.

This affirmative use of the word “whatever” does something interesting: it points us toward some future state where the specific case will occur, without suggesting what the specific case will be. That is, if I say, “whatever cake,” I’m talking about a cake whose exact identity is still flexible, or hypothetical, now when I’m speaking about it. Now imagine a person, say a young woman, seventeen years old, who says, “How do I know what kind of person I’m going to fall in love with?” She’s taking for granted that she will fall in love, but she’s not pre-determining who that person will be. She’s acknowledging the great unknowability of what her life will be like two or three years in the future, let alone, say, her early thirties or late forties. In a way, Agamben says, this sense of the future “whatever” is exactly what makes love so unpredictable and seemingly irrational:

Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame) but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love). The love wants the loved one with all of its predicates: its being such as it is.

With all of its predicates. What a terrifying phrase that is, for demographers, sociologists, politicians, and racists—that is, for anyone who wants to make human behavior into a predictable science. The idea of quodlibet, in Agamben’s terms, forces us to come to terms with not knowing what is going to happen next: “There is no essence,” he says, “no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize…[otherwise] no ethics would be possible—there would only be tasks to be done.” This may seem like a ridiculously sweeping statement, but if we look at it in practical terms, thinking about our own experience of how life is now and how it may be in the future, probably most of us will acknowledge that the world is much less predictable than we would like to believe. How many of us could have predicted, ten years before, that in 2009 we would have an African-American President of the United States? For that matter, how many of us could have predicted the particular course of events that brought us to be encountering each other in these pages today?

In what way is this use of quodlibet, or “whatever,” a third possibility between seeeing human beings as individuals or as groups? The intermediate point between singularity and multiplicity, Agamben says, where we can talk about “whatever” cake, or “whatever” loved one, actually has a location, not in life but in language: it happens whenever we use an example. We all know what an example is: for instance, if I choose someone in the audience and say, “X is an example of __________.” In other words, this one individual stands for a whole class of others that share one trait. If I say that X is an example of ___________, I’m not claiming that X is exactly the same as everyone else who shares that trait, but I’m also not saying that X is a completely unique individual, either. X both stands for the group and stands for herself outside the group. What I’ve done, by the verbal act of identifying X in the first place, is to make both identity and multiplicity visible, so to speak, at the same time. We look at X and see both an individual, that is, all the predicates of being that person, and the particular trait in its full expression (which only happens through an individual). This “exemplifying” is a purely linguistic act: it creates a hypothetical being with some familiar and identifiable qualities and some unknown and idiosyncratic ones.

For our purposes, this combination of familiarity and extreme openness to the future is very useful, because when Agamben diverts our attention from the possible to the hypothetical, he points straight to fictional examples of human life. Fiction, as it turns out, is the one way that Agamben seems actually able to describe an “exemplary” kind of human life, because fiction is suspended halfway between the imaginary and the real. Fiction is potentially but never actually possible. It’s a kind of laboratory in which the soul does basic research, not interested in what ought to happen but in what might happen.

What’s particularly interesting about this analysis of fiction as a realm of “exemplary” action, at least to me, is that it helps explain why we sometimes feel that we care much more deeply about fictional characters than about real people. For instance, let’s think back to the example of a fictional character I gave earlier, Barbara O’Reilly the small town real estate agent. We understand Barbara O’Reilly, initially, as a collection of attributes: she’s an “example” of a middle-aged woman of Irish descent, and so on. Let’s say, furthermore, that Barbara O’Reilly has been the victim in a messy divorce, and that, to make ends meet, she’s hired some crystal meth dealers to live in one of her rental properties and give her a 50% cut of their profits. So now we have both her personal characteristics and a field of action in which the story plays out.

In reality—if we lived down the street from Barbara O’Reilly, or were related to her—it would be impossible for us not to relate to her through the filter of moral judgment, or fear for our own safety. That’s not news. The world of fiction is full of unsavory protagonists—Humbert Humbert, or Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. Usually this is explained away as a function of point of view: that we are forced to sympathize with the person whose perspective dominates the story. Agamben, however, would say that we sympathize more with the fictional Barbara O’Reilly not because we see the world through her perspective but because we are able to appreciate her whole situation without being invested in it at all. In other words, we think we see her more fully than we would see a real person. Because she is an example, she is also “all of her predicates.” Because she is hypothetical, we might say, she is also potentially lovable in a way real people are not.

There is, however, a downside to this imaginary “fullness” with which we see Barbara O’Reilly. Imagine, say, a reader from Italy, who has never visited the United States, who reads the story of Barbara O’Reilly cover to cover with absolute fascination, and then puts it down, thinking she’s learned something very important about the way Americans in small towns live their lives. This accounts for the many visitors who come to this country for the first time thinking that everyone they meet drives a pickup truck and carries a concealed weapon. A fully realized fictional character, in other words, carries the illusion of reality around with her like a virus. We tend not to think of the stories we write as conduits for information, but they are conduits for information of a certain dubious kind. The hard truth is that we can work extremely hard as fiction writers to create distinct, unique, credible characters, as “life-like” as they can possibly be, and still be working in the realm of stereotype, either out of our readers’ ignorance or our own. Exemplification has that kind of power.

*

When I was still in graduate school and beginning the process of assembling my first collection of stories, I ran into this problem in a particularly perplexing way. The collection was set in Hong Kong, and the characters ranged from local Hong Kong Chinese people to foreign residents of various nationalities. At the time I was working on one story, “Heaven Lake,” in which a Chinese man living in Hong Kong remembers an event that happened to him many years before when he was a student in New York City: he was working as a Chinese food deliveryman and was robbed and nearly killed by a black man. I showed this story to my teacher, Charles Baxter, and he suggested that I should change the man’s race and make him a white criminal, or, at least, not a black criminal. “There are no other black characters in this book,” he said, “and it makes me very uncomfortable to think that the only black character is this person.”

At first I was surprised and resistant to this suggestion. It seemed to me that I had already fully imagined the situation—that I had already seen the characters with all of their predicates, so to speak—and that to arbitrarily change the race of the criminal would do an injustice to the story and would feel artificial. But at the same moment I also realized that I had never before thought of the characters in these stories as having a collective identity, as representing a group, other than by the accident of all being connected to Hong Kong. And, more importantly, it had never occurred to me that the act of collecting a group of stories into a book was, in some sense, a moral act, or at least a kind of moral statement. Or that describing a fictional character as being of one race or another was a moral act. In other words, I had never stopped to consider the act of characterization as an “exemplifying” act, in Agamben’s terms. To me the individuality of every character was a sovereign thing.

What I didn’t understand is that no fictional character’s individuality is sovereign, any more than any real person’s individuality is sovereign. In other words, as much as we may like to delude ourselves that there is such a thing as an individual apart from his or her various group identities, in the real world, these two things are never separable. More importantly, as Agamben might put it, in a hypothetical fictional world, we take on a strange moral task of creating characters through composite identities who we sometimes feel are more real than the real people we know. This can even be true if one part of that composite identity is a wildly exaggerated or deliberately provocative stereotype (for example, Shylock, or Bigger Thomas) or a more conventional, muted, and socially acceptable stereotype, such as a Latina character working as a maid, an Indian immigrant running a 7-Eleven, or an African-American man robbing a 7-Eleven. The process of exemplifying, of hypothesizing, a human being, can confirm our presuppositions as easily as it can undo them. (In fact, the former is much more likely than the latter, and anyone who doesn’t believe this is welcome to come sit in on my undergraduate fiction workshop any day).

Here, I think, is where the theory of the “submerged population” runs aground on the shoals of condescension. There was a fashion throughout the late nineteenth century and particularly around the time of Chekhov for describing “realism” as a quasi-scientific project, a kind of exposure of the seamy side of life invisible to the bourgeois reader, and this, in large part, is where our whole conception of the collection-of-short-stories begins: with Dubliners and Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time and the whole corpus of Chekhov’s early work. What Frank O’Connor seems not to realize, however, is that each of these writers began with a unified group, a “population,” and then over time abandoned it as a kind of perspectival and moral straitjacket. This same pattern repeats itself yearly in American fiction: the discovery of some new writer who reveals “a world we’ve never seen before,” “the voice of the __________,” “the raw urgency of the _________”: whether it’s Breece D’J Pancake writing about Appalachia or Uzodinwa Iweala writing about child soldiers in Nigeria or Jhumpa Lahiri writing about Indian immigrants in Cambridge.

In postcolonial studies, this is called assuming the position of the “native informant.” Another way of describing it might a Comprehensive Liberal Reassurance Policy. Its effect is to institute a fundamental difference between the implied reader and what we might call the “implied subject”: the group, the class, the population, not any particular individual in that population. The writer functions, essentially, as a spokesman for that population, an intermediary between the known world of the reader and the unknowable (“brutal,” “raw,” “exotic,” “mysterious”) world of the characters. My student Lynn Tang Lee has written a trenchant analysis of how Lahiri and Amy Tan—the two best-selling Asian American writers of the last twenty years—use a kind of flat, uninflected, deliberately simplified prose to represent “foreignness” in a way that is unthreatening to non-Asian readers, as proof of their own assimilation.

During those same years I was in graduate school in Ann Arbor, I often saw a car around town (probably driven by another smart-aleck graduate student) with a bumper sticker that said, “All Generalizations Are Wrong.” Not quite, Agamben would say. In fact, it may be that the resistance to generalizations, like the fictive and fantastic idea of racial “colorblindness,” is exactly what makes American readers and writers so susceptible to them. We’re so wedded to the idea of the individual character, and so inclined to view the writer as essentially a transparent medium between the character and us—so eager to grant the character its own autonomous “reality”—that we can’t see the exemplifying process at work. As Derrida famously put it in his essay “White Mythology,” our prejudices are like white ink on a white page—a page that still appears blank.

This is what makes A Tomb for Boris Davidovich so valuable: because it takes the most pitiable of subjects and refuses to allow us to pity them, to objectify them, as a population. They are so clearly and starkly “exemplified” that their strange and unpardonable humanity, their hard-won individuality, shines forth all the more brightly. Yet they are also entirely figments of Danilo Kiš’s language and imagination, and we’re never allowed to forget that, either. The hypothetical world of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is never allowed to descend to the merely “real.”

I say these things not in a spirit of hostility toward realist fiction but out of a feeling that we sometimes don’t appreciate how combustible fictional modes of characterization can be—how tremendously powerful and subtle characters can coexist with cruelly drawn stereotypes, as they do, for example, in two of the greatest American modernist novels, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. William Gass, who was and is an opponent of realism, argues in his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction” that in fact the illusionistic power of realism is too great, and that the writer’s obligation must be “not let the reader out; the sculptor must not let the eye fall from the end of his statue’s finger; the musician must not let the listener dream.” I wouldn’t quite go that far. For me John Gardner’s description of fiction’s effect upon the reader as a “vivid and continuous dream” still holds—some of the time. But we have to be aware that he is describing an effect of fiction, not fiction itself, and we who are the dream makers have to remain wide awake, conscious of what Giorgio Agamben means when he says, “the root of all joy and sadness is that the world is as it is…not what it seems or what we want it to be.”

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