It’s big. Shown here in relation to a local brew (clearly the best way to illustrate scale):
It’s difficult to describe how each chapter enriches the story of Building Stories. There’s something Borgesian about Ware’s novel—not in the sense that it’s something that Borges would have written—what I mean to suggest is it’s like something out of a Borges story—winding, maze-like, self-referential, but not solipsistic. Building Stories doesn’t come with a set of instructions, so the reader has to interact with it in a random way. What’s really thrilling and emotionally impactful is the way that each piece deepens the story and develops each character a little bit more.
In the forked path I’ve been following, Lonely Girl (this is the building’s name for her; we might also call her the Would-be Writer, The Diarist, or, perhaps, The Amputee) emerges as the central character, and she gets the lead story in the Big Four Panel Board book. She’s looking for a companion, so she places an ad:
This tiny little square says so much: Ware wastes no space. Lonely Girl’s personal ad is in some ways a metonymy of Building Stories (and Ware’s oeuvre all together): it combines ironic, self-aware humor with a stark and devastating sense of loneliness.
Lonely Girl shows up as a character in the lives of her downstairs neighbors, the Sour Couple. The soda-swilling boyfriend wonders how she might have lost her leg. In some ways he serves as audience surrogate here—I doubt we’ll get the full story. (The boyfriend also entertains other fantasies about Lonely Girl’s body).
Of course, the Lonely Landlady also gets her panel. We see more of her stunted life, her mother (and the building itself) a proverbial albatross around her neck. Ware uses the size and scope of the Big Book to optimum advantage; he knows that the book is so big (and his panels so small) that the reader simultaneously sees everything and comprehends nothing. Ware employs lines that crisscross from section to section, often running through narrative elements we’ve yet to engage, or sometimes tracing over what we’ve already seen. The effect is not disorienting, though—rather, Ware uses the visual space to show the ways in which his characters and narratives cross, abut, or fail to connect.
The Big Book’s theme is in fact about cross-pollination, about the ways that different strands intersect, conmingle, blend (or fail to). It’s appropriate then when our old friend Branford the bee arrives:
I first heard Williamson’s recording over twenty years ago on a series of LPs that I checked out from the library. I had probably already read The Hobbit half a dozen times by then, but Williamson’s sonorous voice—along with the music and audio production effects—added another layer to Middle Earth.
My daughter, five, already familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass film, had no problem keeping pace with the story (although she occasionally asked me to pause for clarification on a few finer points, such as the delicate distinctions between goblins and trolls, or just who exactly is this guy Bard who shows up all of a sudden?) My favorite part of the entire weekend was my two year old imitating Gollum, sniveling a sinister, “My precious!” while squinting gleefully.
There are few books I’ve read as many times as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I read it countless times between the ages of 11 and 15, read it again as an undergrad, then read it again–twice, I’m not ashamed to admit—when Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out. However, despite reading The Hobbit repeatedly as a kid, I’ve never really gone back to it. It traffics in a gentle folklore that seems out of square with the epic mythmaking in The Lord of the Rings, and I think that I was always unsettled by a certain discontinuity between the two books that was easier to ignore if I never went back to The Hobbit.
Memory has a way of eliding details, and books are especially susceptible to this wearing down and smoothing out. So, I remembered The Hobbit as a quest, a miniature epic with Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home to find treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. I remembered Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves invading Bilbo’s tidy hobbit hole; I remembered trolls who turn to stone; I remembered riddles with Gollum and a ring that turns its wearer invisible; I remembered Mirkwood and barrels and the mountain lair of a dragon. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Five Armies, where the enormous eagles literally swoop in and save the day, deus ex machina style.
Listening to the unabridged audio, I was struck by just how much had escaped my memory: I barely recalled the spiders of Mirkwood or the talking ravens or the part where the wargs tree the dwarves. I had completely forgotten the shapeshifter Beorn, a creature straight out of Scandinavian myth.
What I found most strange in revisiting The Hobbit though was its radical compression, its tendency and willingness to pivot sharply, to cast its characters about or trample them under (metaphorical and sometimes literal) foot, or throw them in dungeons or barrels or some other danger.
Whereas The Lord of the Rings progresses from the folkloric feel of The Shire through to the high-adventure sweep of Icelandic saga and ultimately to a King Jamesish condensation of near-pure archetypery (and back again, of course), The Hobbit showcases a rambling, flowing, discursive, “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rhythm.
In short, The Hobbit, as it turns out, is a picaresque novel.
And just what is a picaresque novel, and why is The Hobbit one?, you may or may not ask.
Michael Seidel offers a clear definition in his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (an excellent picaresque, by the way):
. . . the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature . . . became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. . . . Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.
The Hobbit is very much the story of the topsy-turvy turns of Bilbo Baggins’s identity. At the adventure’s outset, he’s a respectable—comfortable—Baggins of Bag End. Not the sort of fellow who goes on adventures. And yet he’s enlisted by Gandalf to serve as burglar for the expedition, a picaró in the making who steals a purse from a troll and never looks back.
It’s not just Bilbo’s various thefts, but also his “adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior” that marks him as a picaró. His scheming is evident repeatedly in the novel, whether he’s riddling with Gollum or Smaug, devising a breakout from the Elf King of Mirkwood’s dungeon, or playing the long con against the parties involved in the Battle of Five Armies. He echoes Gandalf in this way, whose talents seem to veer more toward trickery and cunning than dazzling spells or marvelous magic.
Bilbo’s picaresque turns of fortune and turns of identity are neatly summarized in a late exchange with yon dragon Smaug, who immediately calls him out as a picaró:
“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”
“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”
“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I am chosen for the lucky number.”
“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”
“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”
“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”
But imagination is of course the primary tool of the picaró, and Bilbo is no slouch: The Hobbit condemns evil, greedy Smaug when it shows the rewards of letting “your imagination run away with you.” Indeed, the entire novel is a running away, a constant deflection of stable identity, as Bilbo twists and turns his way back to The Shire.
And what happens to Bilbo? What happens to that once-stable, once-comfortable identity? We learn at the novel’s end about the queering of his identity—
. . . he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.
So! Queer, strange Baggins the picaró embraces his “Took side,” his disreputable adventuring side. And still the narrative comes to a lovely cozy warm respectable ending, Bilbo’s identity transformed, sullied, illuminated, and enlarged by his picaresque adventure.
And the picaresque? Well, maybe I’ve stretched its definition a bit simply because I’m so fond of picaresque narratives these days. Maybe I’ve simply revisited a childhood classic and imposed a new viewpoint upon it. (And maybe years and years from now I’ll revisit it again with grandchildren, and find something new and different there as well. I hope).
I think what I enjoyed most about The Hobbit this time was hearing the rambling discursiveness of it all—here we have a narrative that understands the perilous and precarious position of the storyteller, he or she who might lose the thread—or worse, lose the audience!—at any damn time. So keep the story sailing, shifting, rambling out into new moods, modes, movements.
And this is the power of The Hobbit—which is to say the staying power of The Hobbit—its ability to evoke the imaginative force of one damned thing after another sheerly happening for generation after generation.
Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
Just what, exactly, is David Shields’s Reality Hunger supposed to be about? He’s brazen enough to slap the subtitle “A Manifesto” right there under the title, suggesting a work of sustained principles calling for something to change or happen for some reason, but after reading the damn thing, I still have no real idea what he really wants or why I should care. If I had to venture a guess, it seems that Shields is suggesting that we quit reading, writing, and publishing “standard novels” and that “realism” in letters can only be located in lyric essays and other works free from genre constraint (even the memoir is too artificial for Shields, and autobiography ultimately represents facts without truth).
I think what he really wants is authenticity, which repeatedly gets called “reality,” a term he (repeatedly) fails to satisfactorily define. Reality Hunger seems to argue that authenticity in the 21st century must take the form of synthesis, must chop up and recombine disparate elements, genres, cultural artifacts. To that end, Shields’s book is a tour-de-force of citation and appropriation. Aspiring toward an aphoristic tone, Shields organizes the book into 618 short sections over 200 or so pages; most of the sections are not his work, but come rather from myriad sources across different cultures and eras. I have no problem with this (c’mon, this is Biblioklept!) and Shields clearly demonstrates that the practice is hardly new in the history of story-telling, rhetoric, or philosophy.
My real problem is the self-seriousness of it all. Shields aspires to “break” reality into his text by reapportioning and recombining varied citations, but this bid for authenticity is, of course, utterly artificial, often stolid, and not nearly as fun as such a playful medium would suggest. Even worse, it’s not really a proper synthesis; that is, in stacking bits of other people’s work together with some of his own thin connective tissue, Shields hasn’t achieved an authentic blend or, to use a term he’d hate, anything novel, anything new. The jarring stylistic shifts between sections will lead serious readers repeatedly to the book’s appendix to find out who originated the words Shields is copping.
If Reality Hunger approaches having a point, it comes in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Manifesto.” Here, he attacks “standard novels.” The term is appropriated from W.G. Sebald, a writer of marvelous and strange novels that Shields would love to be essays. In one of the few original lines in the book, Shields dismissively writes that “Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia.” He goes on to argue that the personal/lyric essay is more closely aligned with philosophy, history, and science than novels, and that novels no longer have any legitimate response to these more “real” concerns. Which is utter bullshit, really, and seems more than anything to prove that Shields is probably not that well-read, despite his massive cut and paste catalog. Not that I think that he’s not that well-read. He just picks and chooses, according to his taste, what novels get to escape being “standard.” How can one read contemporary masterpieces like The Rings of Saturnor Infinite Jest or 2666 or Underworld and honestly say that they don’t hold value? Shields, of course, does/would presumably find room for these in his “manifesto.”
The most embarrassing chapter of Reality Hunger, “Hip-hop,” also reveals the most about Shields’s program. It’s also one of the few chapters to feature long sections of Shields’s own original prose. In a turgid, humorless, overly-analytical “defense” of hip-hop and “sampling culture,” Shields describes how hip-hop works, riffing on the function of “realness” in hip-hop, and grasping at the larger implications of a normalized recombinant art form within modern culture. And though I agree with pretty much everything that Shields has to say about piracy and copyright laws, the drastic artificiality of his style and tone is really too much here. It’s like someone trying to explain why a joke is funny.
The worst though is Shields’s assertion that “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.” The sentence itself is a clever bit of sophistry that falls apart under any real scrutiny. I can name a dozen “real events” that I experienced in the last few hours alone, including eating dinner with my family, talking with my wife, and putting my daughter to bed. Complaining that we are denied “real events,” like the mopes Shields cites from Douglas Coupland’s Generation X who lament their “McLives,” is a way of excusing ourselves from the intensity of being present–at all times–in our own lives. The vapid philosophy of the spoiled whiners in Reality Bites wasn’t attractive back in the early nineties and it’s downright repellent now.
So what does it all add up to? I think that Reality Hunger works well as a description of post-postmodernity. And as much as I’ve ranted against it here it’s actually quite enjoyable as a compendium of clever quotations. As a manifesto though, it’s an utter failure. To be fair, he had no shot of convincing me that the novel is or should be dead. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary.
Reality Hunger is now available in hardback from Knopf.