Jorge Luis Borges, 1933-1969
the eighth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Ben Heaton
When I got the check for the last movie I worked on, I decided that with the time it afforded me to work on my own projects I would, first, finish one of the interactive fiction pieces I'd had sitting on the proverbial back burner for years — done — and then I would turn my attention to one of my many half-completed novels and try to finish it up before my savings ran out. We'll soon see how that goes. It would be nice to think that I could make a living at the whole writing thing, but I assume that at some point I'll have to go back to my day job. Or, more likely, some other day job, since I've been on leave from my ostensible place of employ for long enough that I don't think anyone who's still there knows who I am. It will probably come as no surprise to those who read my last Calendar article that high on my list of potential day jobs were I forced to get one would be to become a history teacher; the problem is that my degrees are in English, not history. I've been auditing history classes for so long now — and geography, and poli sci, and economics — that I sometimes actually forget that I didn't major in social science. This interest has been reflected in my recent work; my contributions to screenplays often consisted of exchanges like these:
Lead writer: …and then the teenage daughter feels stifled
because her parents still treat her as a child—
Me: —and also because the low-density suburban development spurred by the interstate highway system, built to quickly shuffle military equipment around during the Cold War, made it necessary to have a car to go anywhere and thereby robbed teens of their autonomy?
Lead writer: …maybe, but I was thinking more that her mother is reacting to having felt neglected by her own parents when she was growing up—
Me: —in the 1970s, when women found that they could get jobs outside the home thanks to the advances of the feminist movement, and needed the income because of the poor economy brought on by oil shocks, leading to a generation of "latchkey kids" who overcompensated and became "helicopter parents"?
Seriously, this is only a slight parody. Usually, this back-and-forth was surprisingly productive, since we'd end up with a synthesis between the two approaches that was an improvement on both — but in recognizing that dialectic, I started to think of this as the axis along which all fiction exists. Psychological vs. sociological. Micro vs. macro. Personal vs. political. Then I read the "The Aleph" and it quickly became clear that Borges didn't care about any of this. The theme of "The Aleph" is "Consider the point that contains all other points. Is that a trippy concept or what?" There is a perfunctory narrative frame slapped around it, but the heart of the story is a 1½-page-long recitation of some of the things one might simultaneously see in the point that contains all other points: bunches of grapes, a woman with breast cancer, a quadrillion ants, the reader's face. It's a prose poem, and as a prose poem it's fine, but it's not really what I would consider a story. (Not anymore, anyway.)
It was "The Aleph" alone that appeared on the reader-recommendations list, but as long as I'd checked the titular Other Stories out of the library along with it, I figured I might as well read them too. I also went through the few short fiction anthologies I'd hung onto after college and found "The Garden of Forking Paths" in one of them, so I read that. The theme of that one is "Consider a novel which, upon reaching a key decision point, follows both outcomes, creating a branching narrative tracking many possible timelines." Note that "The Garden of Forking Paths" is not itself such a story — it is actually about a guy standing in a room explaining this idea. As mentioned above, I read these Borges stories while I was finishing up Endless, Nameless, and in doing research for the latter, I found some old posts of mine to the interactive fiction newsgroups, complaining about people who, instead of actually putting in the effort of turning their ideas into a game, would simply post them and say, "Is that a trippy concept or what?" — thereby stealing the thunder of anyone who might already be working on that concept. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is the equivalent of responding to this objection by posting a Z-code file in which the player character walks into a room to find the poster saying, "[Content of post]. Is that a trippy concept or what?" followed by a *** You have won *** message.
These are not exceptions. In his notes at the end of The Aleph and Other Stories, Borges describes his typical piece as "halfway between a real short story and an essay." They remind me of those comic strips, consisting entirely of poorly drawn talking heads exchanging dialogue, that only take the form of comic strips because newspapers have comics pages but don't have "joke of the day" pages. Yet people seem to love comic strips with perfunctory art, and Borges's work has similarly received wide acclaim. I went looking online to see whether there was some element to these pieces that I had missed, but the first thing I found was this:
|Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort argue that Borges "may have been the most important figure in Spanish-language literature since Cervantes. But whatever his particular literary rank, he was clearly of tremendous influence, writing intricate poems, short stories, and essays that instantiated concepts of dizzying power."|
So it seemed that the answer to "Why do people like 'stories' that are really just short disquisitions on some trippy concept?" was "Because those concepts are really trippy!"
However, when I happened upon this passage, I also thought I might be in luck, because I actually know Nick Montfort, and he was kind enough to take a moment to talk Borges with me. He agreed that Borges is concerned not with psychology or sociology but with philosophy; that on the micro-/macro- axis, he is more like onto-; that where personal vs. political is concerned, he is… I was going to say "abstract," but Nick suggested "mathematical." And also verbal: if, in the comic strip analogy above, we take the art style to stand for prose style rather than for things like plot and characterization, then (Nick argued) much of Borges's fame derives from his well-drawn heads. Nick also pointed out that Borges's "fictions" (for Borges called them that, lest people think he was even trying to write conventional stories) are concerned not only with time and space but also, if not with characters, then at least with human nature.
Still, these stories were not really my cup of tea — or, given the author, I suppose I should say "my cup of maté." The ironic thing is that, in saying so, one could argue that I am implicitly dismissing my own stuff: a lot of people have argued that, e.g., Photopia is also an exercise in shoehorning an idea into the wrong literary form. And then there's— well, I probably shouldn't say too much about something that's only been out for about 24 hours. But I will say that I'm excited to turn to the next thing and try to make it something I would like to read as well as write.