Episode vs. Narrative and the false choice of Huck or Ames

The Wall St. Journal has attempted to cause a minor literary ruckus with an opinion piece by Lee Siegel titled “The End of the Episode.”Siegel, borrowing his intellectual argument from British philosopher Galen Strawson, argues that the narrative — “straightforward storytelling style connects events together in one continuous thruline whose fundamental purpose is to reveal the Big Fated Meaning of life” — personality of our current fiction says bad or deficient things about our personalities. That narrative “is an insult to the endless possibilities of existence” and that there’s too much of a focus in narrative on the narrative way of seeing things as the only way for there to be good in life.

By contrast:

Episodics do seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their “self” to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now–the past has no bearing on present experience. (“I actually said that? I couldn’t have!”) In this view, Episodics are sober, disenchanted beings, alive to the principle of ceaseless change that drives human existence.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the episodic has not left American life, but simply relocated from the novel to films, television series, manga/comics, fan fiction and roleplaying games. Let’s also set aside for a moment the snarky response that it is precisely the episodic approach to life, the misadventures of picaresque-esque bankers, traders, politicians, etc. that got us in to the current financial mess. There are several problems with setting up this dichotomy and even more so with the literary criticism that is sloppily used to bolster it. The few that I see right away:

  • The point of Huckleberry Finn isn’t Huck at all. It’s Jim. And there’s a narrative to that.
  • I know that white males of a certain age love Augie March, but I’ve read it, and it’s not a great novel. In fact, it’s at its best in the first half where it more of a bildungrsoman. The later picaresque stuff is actually not that picaresque — it’s dabbling around in trying to say something about masculinity and freedom and women and America, and it has not aged well at all.
  • Most of his examples — Augie March, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road — are adolescent fantasies that are also straining too hard to make a point. You want real picaresque? Something that really deals with random tragedies and joys of reality? Try Simplicius Simplicissimus.
  • The real culprit (naturally) of the Narrative is religion and the real symptom is happy endings. And the big example of this is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. He writes: “Not only does she tell the story of her hero–John Ames, a 77-year-old Congregationalist minister–in a simple, straightforward manner in which every one of the novel’s events fits like a puzzle into the novel’s overall pattern of meaning. Her story is also a story of growing spiritual evolution. It is a religious story, and religion is the strongest bastion of the Narratives.” Here’s the thing, though. Gilead is narrative in a minor key. The patterns actually aren’t all that strong and the puzzle is unraveling in a hundred places. It’s a subtle narrative — unlike the Big Themes that often underlay the picaresque-lite novels of the 20th century that Siegel points to as Episodic.
  • The beauty of narrative is that it creates the possibility of strong characters. I actually agree with Siegel that a little loosening of the narrative, a little less heavily clockwork approach is good for writers and readers at times. But one major weakness of the Episodic is that the authors tend to push the characters around too much, puts them in to situations just for the fun of it or the meaning of it or the shockingness of it. Strong narrative characters push back against the author and the reader and are actually less confined than
  • If you are going to talk about episodic novels of the 20th century and especially bring up Huckleberry Finn, then you best bring up Oxhering Tale by Charles Johnson.
  • This is bizarre: “Episodics say, Grow up! Living means living freely, away from any story, Freudian or otherwise, society or anyone else wants to impose on you. A convincing narrative, not truth, can convict an innocent person at a trial. Politicians weave grand tales about themselves to pull the wool over voters’ eyes. Anyone foolish or egotistical to believe that he is living out his own story is complicit with these different degrees of mendacity.” And it’s undermined by the focus on episodic/picaresque tales, where the protagonist so often does not live freely at all, but rather is always falling in to the clutches of those who can spin a convincing narrative and rather than resisting that narrative either runs away from it or undermines it through sheer randomness. And who in the end, don’t really experience much of anything because of their either unreflective or self-absorbed nature.
  • Siegel ends with this: “Now that we have protected and extended life to an unprecedented degree, perhaps we can dispense with narrative’s protective shield and open ourselves more honestly to life’s inherent discontinuity. Like the stoics of yore, we might even find that life, if we are lucky enough to live it out to its fullest portion, is easier to bid farewell to if it signifies nothing but the beauty and the miracle of being alive, minute by meaningless minute.” Not a particularly bad or for that matter, profound, sentiment. But one that doesn’t follow from the episodic literature, which even when it is at its most random and, well, episodic, even when its main character changes not one whit, still tends to have some point, some pattern, some message, some pose. Authors just can’t help it. And from that comes a narrative stance that signals what the whole point of the episodic is supposed to be.
  • Also: it seems to me that the most joyous, full approach to reality is to play around with all the narratives and the episodes. To be both Huck and Ames and Augie March and Holden Caufield and Olive Kitteridge as it were. Yes, narrative thinking is powerful, but narratives are in competition and seeing a narrative arc to one’s life generally is so much broader and also disjointed but also useful and pleasurable than Siegel suggests.
  • Finally, the episodic works best when it is funny.

Now, all that said, I do think that there is a bit of an overemphasis on Neat Narratives in our society, particularly in ones that are adolescent — too much bildungsroman rather than the harder to portray and yet more interesting stories of what comes after one becomes educated, or what happens when ones powers are diminishing rather than growing. In addition, I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing more of the picaresque in modern fiction, especially if it can be done without engaging in postmodern self-consciousness  about the episodic. And, in particular, it would seem strange that there isn’t yet a rollicking, humorous, episodic LDS missionary novel.  This has all been hastily written so I’m sure that there are holes to be poked as well as better critiques to be made. So have at it.

3 thoughts on “Episode vs. Narrative and the false choice of Huck or Ames”

  1. .

    I’m not convinced these are so very different, narrative and episode. We will find narrative whether it is intentionally in place or not. And all narratives are ultimately composed of episodes. I think it’s a false distinction. Cf my current novel (not helpful, I know) and the movie I just watched.

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