Living by Fiction (Annie Dillard) 3*

Sometimes Annie Dillard writes like this: Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.  (From An American Childhood)

This volume is a scholarly work on contemporary modern fiction, and it feels as if a tenure committee has had its way.  How terribly disappointing that not even Dillard can break out of the stifling language of academic criticism.

Dillard likens contemporary modern fiction to modern art, and I must agree that they are both cold with occasional brilliance. Story in fiction and representation in art were for centuries thought to be the irreducible nub of their arts, Dillard notes, and she does not seem to mind that both have been lately discarded.  However, her praise is curiously faint:

The world is finally almost buried in technique. The replacement of deep space with abstracted patterns of paint, and of felt events with semi-abstracted patterns of language, is an achievement of modern art. The technical surfaces of such works are pure. Their intentions can be only aesthetic. No sentimentality of subject matter interferes with their formal development. Their pleasure to the senses, and their attraction for the mind, may be considerable.

What I like most about the book is the title. How do non-readers get around in life? The world is too much to take in without fiction. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard wrote of the discovery of cataract surgery, when the stroke of the scalpel could slam the lifelong blind with sight. They found sight to be a confusing field of color-patches. Facts are just color-patches without fiction to resolve the boundaries and depths, to bring focus and sense to fields of data. Cataract surgery provided the patients with all the equipment they needed to see except for that last, crucial step of understanding. Thus does fiction bring it home. Orwell for Karl Rove’s doublespeak, Brave New World for the commoditized future now brewing in Asia.


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