the future of fiction (circa 1996)

In the spring of 1996, The Review of Contemporary Fiction published an issue, guest edited by David Foster Wallace, called “The Future of Fiction.” The task was to ask writers to consider the future direction of literary art. With technology encroaching. With the future of publishing, of bookstores, uncertain. 

I quote below from Carole Maso’s gorgeous, provocative, difficult essay, “Rupture, Verge, and Precipice / Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not:”

The world doesn’t end, says Charles Simic. Engraved on our foreheads in ash, turned into a language of stars or birdsong across a vast sky; it stays. Literature doesn’t end - but it may change shapes, be capable of things we cannot even imagine yet. 

Woolf: “What is the phrase for the moon? And the phrase for love? By what name are we to call death? I do not know. I need a little language such as lovers use, words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and find their mother sewing and pick up the scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry.”

Charlotte Bronte: “My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in the livid hill-side her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best loved was - liberty.”

The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again. If only for a moment. 

Whosoever has allowed the language of lovers to enter them, the language of wound and pain and solitude and hope. Whosoever has dug into the miracle of the earth. Mesmerizing dirt, earth, word. 

Allowed love in. Allowed despair in. 

Words are the ginger candies my dying friends have sucked on. Or the salve of water. 

Precious words, contoured by silence. Informed by the pressure of the end. 

Words are the crow’s feet embedded in the skin of the father I love. Words are like that to me, still. 

Words are the music of her hair on the pillow. 

Words are the lines vibrating in the forest or in the painting. Pressures that enter us - bisect us, order us, disorder us, unite us, free us, help us, hurt us, cause anxiety, pleasure, pain. 

Words are the footprints as they turn away in the snow. 

There is no substitute for the language I love. 

My father, one state away but still too far, asks over the telephone if I might take a photo of this bluebird, the first I have ever seen, because he hears how filled with delight I am by this fleeting sighting. But it’s so tiny, it flies so fast, it’s hard to see. So far away. Me, with my small hunk of technology, pointing. With my nostalgia machine. My box that says fleeting, my box that says future. 

My pleasure machine. My weeping machine that dreams: keep.

This novel that says desire and fleeting and unfinished. 

Unfinished and left that way. Unfinished, not abandoned. Unfinished, not because of death or indifference or loss of faith, or nerve, just unfinished. 

Not to draw false conclusions anymore. Not to set up false polarities. Unfinished and left that way, if necessary. 

To allow everyone to write, to thrive, to live.

The Baltimore oriole returned from its American tropics at the edge of this frame now. I wait. 

On this delicious precipice.

In the spring of 1996, I was expecting my first child, my daughter Z., and had just begun an MFA program. On my own delicious precipice. 

Carole Maso was my advisor. I can see, even now, her influence on my sensibility. Her books, Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, Ava: they have seeped into my own language.  

We talked about my writing. We talked about my baby. I was at work on a novel, or so I thought. A novel about the death of my mother - about grief and rage, and about not knowing how to go on. About mourning and going on. 

Z’s father got a job offer in New York. We left Providence. I took leave from the writing program. Carole said: “Whatever you decide, we will work to make it fine." 

She called my life "charmed” and I believed her. This has stayed with me, all these years. My charmed life. 

And so it is. 

I returned to Providence the following year - with Z., without her father. Without a novel.

Unfinished and left that way. Unfinished, not abandoned. Unfinished, not because of death or indifference or loss of faith, or nerve, just unfinished. 

But with the grief and rage still intact.

The future will be gorgeous and reckless

I fell in love. Recklessly. Unexpectedly. We were so young. We did not understand the power of falling. The fierceness of love.

My pleasure machine. My weeping machine that dreams: keep.

We stumbled through those years. We wrote. We spent afternoons with Z. at the playground. At the beach. Finding the traveling carnivals that popped up in strip mall parking lots. We put Z. on the rides that spun her around and we’d watch as she circled, expressionless. 

“Was that fun?” we’d always ask. 

She’d nod, gravely. “Yes.”

Serious child. Wounded child. Grieving, of course, even in those impossibly early years. Although we could not know the shapes that grief would take - in her, in us. 

Allowed love in. Allowed despair in. 

She has just turned 15. On her own delicious precipice. 

My nostalgia machine. 

All that we know of these lives we are living, all the language that we use to describe, to question, to probe: all the words that fall from our mouths, at times, unstoppable. 

All the fears we have about the future - of fiction, of art, of love. 

We will go on. The writing will go on. The words - there is no substitute for the language I love - will go on. The love.

The world does not end… Engraved on our foreheads in ash, turned into a language of stars or birdsong across a vast sky; it stays. Literature doesn’t end. 

Love doesn’t end.

But it may change shapes, be capable of things we cannot even imagine yet.