Reading, Serendipity, and a Little Synchronicity

[posted by Alice]

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the paper in which Eric Adler asked: Is our culture killing serendipity? He defined serendipity as “an unplanned happenstance that leads to a piece of good luck, or news or insight,” and he gave as an example looking for a book by Steinbeck in the library and as a result finding a book by Sendak that “opens your eyes.” He said that technology and the hectic pace of life make serendipitous finds less and less likely. He also said that technology (such as the recommender software at Amazon) pushes people down preordained paths and makes it likely that they will read only what reinforces their own thoughts.

I’m sure that the method I use to choose what to read is serendipitous. Whenever I want to read something new, I go to a library or a bookstore or a thrift store and look around. Something will usually suggest itself, so I choose to read it next. If I don’t like it, I put it down unfinished. If I like it, I read it straight through and then look for something else. The last time I was looking for something to read I found J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man at a community college library. And when I finished it, I noticed that Greg had brought Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium home from another community college library, so I picked it up and began to read. I found similarities and parallels between the two works, something that can’t entirely be accounted for by serendipity.

The Auster book reminded me of a Beckett play at first. It opens with an old man sitting on a bed, alone, in a place he doesn’t recognize. The setting, with its labeled objects and bewildering offerings, reminded me of one of Beckett’s later mime plays (Act Without Words); and the man reminds me a little of Krapp (there is in fact a tape recorder). This man, Mr. Blank, seems on the verge of incontinence and frailty, and he is undergoing some kind of medical treatment. People enter and leave the room. Mr. Blank can remember only parts of his relationships with them. He alternates between interacting with them and reading bits of manuscripts left for him on the desk in the room. I was not surprised (though you should stop reading this paragraph if you want to read Travels and experience the mild surprise offered by its plot) to learn that Mr. Blank is actually an author and that the other characters in Travels are from works written by Mr. Blank (though in fact some are from Auster’s own works, such as Fanshawe who appears in The Locked Room). We are told that the characters are now writing the author, and though some of them love him and others want to kill him, this is being done to give him a chance to attain the kind of immortality he has given to them. Though my brief description makes it all sound a bit glib, Travels is not simply a metafictional exercise, but is often a real story as well a commentary on writing. In the sense that the characters are presented as means revolting against their ends, and because the meanings toward which this short work points are not entirely clear, there is something irreal about the novel, which I found satisfying.

Another thing I found satisfying was the way that themes from the Auster book reflected one of the main themes in Coetzee’s Slow Man, which I had read during the previous week. Published in 2005, one year before Travels, Slow Man at first seems to have little in common with Auster’s book. In the beginning it’s a realistic story about an older man, Paul Rayment, who has an accident that leads to an amputation, depression, impaired mobility, and a grateful and somewhat impractical love for his nurse Marijana. But then Elizabeth Costello makes her entrance. She is a character from a couple of previous Coetzee books, notably the eponymous Elizabeth Costello, and she seems to know more about Paul Rayment’s life than she could possibly know in reality. This isn’t really a mystery because she is presented as an author in search of a character, and less than a page after her appearance she bustles with her notebooks and reads out the first couple of sentences of Slow Man, the novel. We are left with no doubt that Elizabeth Costello wants to write about Paul Rayment, but he doesn’t seem willing to cooperate in living the plots she has in mind for him. Though she does impinge on his life in many ways — she comes to stay with him and is reluctant to leave, and at one point he is so troubled by the knowledge she has of his thoughts and life, he asks her if she is real, and when she says she is as real as he is, he asks, “Am I alive or am I dead?” Of course he is in fact a character, shown sometimes as fully developed and realistic and sometimes as a means rebelling against the author’s intentional ends. Elizabeth Costello’s presence, woven through what is otherwise a rather quiet character study, gives the work a subtle irreal quality. Because Coetzee has had Elizabeth Costello muse about realism and fiction in previous novels, I wasn’t surprised to find this theme in his work, but as an irrealist I appreciated it.

If we see Alice in Wonderland as a world made from words, in these two novels, as if by extension, we experience the word made flesh (in the form of characters who inhabit their author’s world or are pursued by their author in their own fictional landscape). In both novels this idea is explored with sometimes irreal and sometimes challenging results. Thursday Next would probably be appalled (see Jasper Fforde’s wonderful humorous novels about a world in which fiction and reality interpenetrate)!

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