Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The novelty of the novel: Kingsolver and others

One of the most enjoyable things that one can share with one’s wife, husband, lover or partner, must surely be reading with and to each other. And what better form of literature to share in this fashion than the ever “novel” literary phenomenon, to wit, a novel. Sure, if both of you happen to be academic types, the odd philosophical or psychoanalytical text makes good reading together, too, but when it happens at night, before going to sleep, a novel is invariably the better, more enjoyable choice.

Our recent trip to Egypt was no exception, and for our bedtime reading we took along one of the inimitable Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, Pigs in Heaven. Probably best known for her bestselling The Poisonwood Bible, a beautifully written, but disturbing tale on the theme of religion and its “poisonous” effects, especially when fanatically promoted (here, by Westerners) among people of a different culture, Kingsolver has the ability to take a theme and knit its pattern into a variegated, constantly surprising narrative.

Pigs in Heaven is no exception. In many ways it demonstrates what one may call the “novelty” of the novel – that is, the extraordinary capacity of this literary genre to accommodate anything and everything “novel” that historical experience (or sheer imagination) can come up with, in so far as it is linguistically articulable. (And it even has a strategy of dealing with that which resists language, which I shall return to).

In the case of Pigs in Heaven, Kingsolver has tackled the thorny question of native American children who are adopted by white Americans under circumstances not necessarily conducive to the child’s best interests. Except, here she complicates matters by spinning a suspenseful – and simultaneously delightful – tale where the child’s “best interests” appear, for all intents and purposes, to be best served by staying with her “white” adoptive mother. The child, a quirky and intelligent Cherokee girl named Turtle, is thrust upon Taylor Greer in a parking lot one evening by a family member who simply informs her that the child’s mother is dead, and that she “has” to look after the little girl, who shows unmistakable signs of having been abused.

To cut a long story short, after being responsible for the rescue of a man who has fallen down a wall at the Hoover dam, Turtle ends up on the Oprah Winfrey Show with her mother, where she is noticed by Annawake Fourkiller, a star lawyer working for an organisation called the Cherokee Nation. Annawake realises immediately that the “adoption” of Turtle by Taylor was not legal because it lacks the required approval of the Cherokee Nation. From here the plot unfolds in a nail-biting manner, with Taylor’s laid-back musician boyfriend, Jax, her mother, Alice, and a string of beautifully constructed other characters all contributing to the unexpected twists and turns of the undulating narrative.

If it seems, from my brief description, as if this is merely a run-of-the-mill thriller of sorts, I have to correct that impression hastily: although the fictional events in the novel are set in a recognisable time and space – late 20th-century America – which would make of it what Roland Barthes calls a “text of pleasure”, its narrative is intermittently lit up by quasi-utopian moments of potential interpersonal fulfillment, of the kind that is all too rare in extant social reality, where power-struggles between parties in a legal dispute often lead to acrimonious, albeit legally “correct” conclusions of disputes.

To the extent that Pigs in Heaven (the name of the novel has a delightful moralistic Cherokee story behind it) occasionally breaches the spatio-temporal parameters of a “text of pleasure by adumbrating, if not quite entering, the domain of what Barthes calls a “text of bliss” – where the reader encounters a fictional world that does not obey the recognisable coordinates of everyday time and space – it succeeds most as a novel. It is as if Kingsolver utilises the exciting, suspenseful narrative as scaffolding to enable the reader to peer into an unfamiliar social reality that we, as finite, fallible humans, have not quite managed to discover. And she does so convincingly, with the result that one never doubts the persuasiveness of the novel.

What would a “text of bliss” be like, and what would be the point of writing such a novel – except as fantasy (which strives, but does not necessarily succeed in conjuring up an alternative world) or science fiction? It would be an attempt to say, or show (the two things are not the same) what cannot be linguistically stated in a simple, easily recognisable manner. As such, it invariably explores hidden, unknown frontiers.
I can think of several examples of texts of “bliss”, one of them being Salman Rushdie’s infamous, and I believe in certain quarters wholly misunderstood text, The Satanic Verses – a complex, convoluted narrative alternating between moments of realism and magical realism, allegory and fantasy.

Here one seems, at times, to recognise something of the world as we know it every day – part of the action is set in London, after all – but mostly one has no other option than to immerse oneself in intersecting narrative fragments where both fictional space and time have metamorphosed into something wondrously “other”. The story of Gibreel and Chamcha reverberates with echoes of “intertexts” (plays, novels, myths) ranging across a spectrum too wide to recount here, including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (Chamcha as Caliban and as Gregor Samsa) as well as the myth of the fallen rebel angels. At any rate, it is not a novel that anyone could straightforwardly construe as being blasphemous regarding any specific religion; the latter is seen through too many distorting and refracting lenses for this to be possible.

Another novelist whose work sometimes irrupts and disrupts the reassuring dimensions of the quotidian, is the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, probably most familiar to readers through the film version of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The latter novel is shot through with a literary quest – sometimes visible, sometimes latent, out of sight – for a social utopia or nowhere-land that would function, not only to give one respite in the face of a sometimes unbearable extant world of corruption, poverty, war and other kinds of violence, but would also, as Adorno or Foucault might put it, indict the world as we know it, for not actualising the “just” society.

My personal favourite among Kundera’s works is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, though, which is analogous to a musical composition structured as “variations on a theme” – a number of longish “short” stories (not quite novella-length), which overlap and echo one another, without any of them ever being the continuation of another’s “story”, or even the development of a recognisable character’s life in a different direction, because one is never sure whether a character bearing the same name as another in a different story, actually is the “same” character. This is what makes of it a text of bliss: while its narrative time-space is recognisable, the manner in which the different “stories” relate to one another is not. Consquently, it has a strong alienation effect, to the point where one feels quite disoriented (almost like in Bunuel’s surrealist film, That Obscure Object of Desire, where two different, but similar-looking actresses play the same character, to the consternation of the audience).

The effect of such “texts of bliss”, in contrast to “texts of pleasure” (the good ones of which are enjoyable to read, too), is weird and subtle, in my experience. Weird, because it has a strangely transformational effect on one’s consciousness, and subtle, because it is easy to dismiss this strange awareness as something completely insubstantial and therefore inconsequential.

But make no mistake – it is not without consequences. It lights up the world with new possibilities, towards the actualisation of which one could work, no matter what the odds are.

  • Siobhan

    Bert,

    Thank you for an inspiring article. I have for too long been pre-occupied with the political scene and miss the civilised pleasure of immersion in a sea of ideas. You have pitched me in at the deep end and driven me to explore the underwater library of memory and imagination in which my favourite novels are stored.

    I am equally dismayed by the large number of interesting books that will be elude me for want of time and by the large number that I have read and loved but have failed to write about.

    Your essay has put me in mind of several novels that seem to resonate with “…the strangely transformational effect on one’s consciousness, and subtle, because it is easy to dismiss this strange awareness as something completely insubstantial and therefore inconsequential.”

    A few titles spring to mind as fitting your description above.

    “The Archivist” by Martha Cooley.
    “The Forest of Hours” by Kirsten Ekman
    “Authenticity” by Deirdre Madden
    “The Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavic
    “The Trial of True Love” by Wm. Nicholson
    “The Book of Lost Things’ by John Connolly
    “Miss Garnet’s Angel” by Salley Vickers

    The TLS and Guardian Review of Books have reviewed most of them so in the interest of brevity I won’t belabour the blog-o-sphere with my comments!

    Thank you again for your paper on I, Robot. It opened a rich vein of ideas to explore further.

    Sadly, one of the best writers to tackle the issues of robotic and bio-kinetic development has gone. Michael Crichton. R.I.P.

    Happy and Peaceful Holidays!
    Siobhan

  • Lizanne Barnett

    I love Barbara Kingsolver’s works — just finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — fascinating if you are a greenie and organic wannabee — and will re-read it in a month’s time!
    Loved Poisonwood Bible and will now acquire Pigs in Heaven.
    Thank you for this welcome inspiration.
    But I read about 4 paragraphs of your inspiring piece before my antennae were alerted to a possible SPOILER! So I stopped and will reread your piece once I have completed Pigs in Heaven. I am ‘vol fiemies’ with regard to spoilers but I WILL RETURN
    Happy holidays Bert and Siobhan

  • Bert

    Siobhan – As always, thank you for your informative and enthusiastic response. You are one of the best-read people I have ever come across – TL should offer you a blogsite of your own. Some of the novels you mention are on my list of ‘must still read(s)’ – thank you for reminding me by listing them. Literature and philosophy are inseparable, as one can easily gather, not only from the two domains ‘leaking into’ each other in many philosophers’ (e.g. Derrida, Kristeva, Sartre’s) work, as well as in the writings of many novelists (e.g. John Fowles, A.S. Byatt, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus – who is as much a literary artist as a philosopher), but also because, more elusively, it takes anything from a slight, subtle, to a clear and definite shift in one’s use of language to make the difference between literature and philosophy. (Maybe I should write something about that some time.)
    Lizanne – I don’t usually include ‘spoilers’ when I write this kind of thing about literature or film – you could have finished reading the piece, and found only a few very general references to the narrative of PiH. (I recall that some reviewers spoiled ‘The Crying Game’ hugely for audiences when they revealed the ‘gender truth’ about the principal ‘woman’ character prematurely.) It is different, of course, when one writes a lengthy academic article on a novel, and the plot has to be reconstructed in detail for one’s analysis or interpretation to make sense – I recently wrote two such, on Fowles’ The Magus (one of my all-time favourite novels) and Josephine Hart’s The Reconstructionist, respectively. So be forewarned – if you read one of those (their publication details are provided in my publications list), you should have read the novels already!

  • Michael Francis

    A great article – I think many of us in South Africa get so preoccupied with the political events and social turmoil we forget to let go and relax for a bit. I know last night I turned on Special Assignment on xenophobia after finishing Jonny Steinberg’s latest book on policing SA- Thin Blue – and promptly turned it off as I just felt overwhelmed. I need to update my reading list to include some novels and I think this one will be on the list – thanks for the suggestion.

  • Lizanne Barnett

    @ Bert Thanks Bert! You have just reminded me of the Magus! I read that three times many years ago! Yes, really. Also loved French Lieutenant’s Woman, which I thought was cleverly translated into film. Have you read A S Byatt’s Possession? Aanother enjoyable read. Always felt that it had echoes of French Lieutenant — that interweaving of past and present. I have never read Josephine Hart … so will hunt for that as well.
    @ Michael … yes let’s get away from some of our awful problems into that other lovely world the novel offers us!

  • Bert

    Thanks, Michael – yes, good fiction is not merely an escape (as Lizanne suggests, although it is that too); it actually opens up imaginative spaces which have the uncanny capacity to cross-fertilize social reality. This is why Schiller spoke of the ‘aesthetic education of humanity'; he believed that art (including literature) gave one the opportunity to ‘play’ with various possibilities in politics or society, before one took the weighty step of translating (or trying to translate) them into actuality.
    Lizanne – Yes, I love Antonia Byatt’s work, including Possession (which does resonate with Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman – you’re right), but I must confess that is not my favourite book by her. I love her Frederica quadrilogy (is that the right word?) – four books tracing the eventful life of the central character, Frederica. Of the four (Still Life, A Virgin in the Garden, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman), the last two are very special to me. In Babel Tower Byatt shows how well she understands the transition from a reading-oriented modernity to an image-obsessed postmodernity, as well as what the Marquis de Sade tried to tell us about human nature, while in A Whistling Woman she brings together a variety of countervailing threads, disciplines (art, mathematics and biology, for instance), lives and beliefs with such dazzling virtuosity that she leaves one speechless. I would still like to write something about that book… Andrea and I think of Byatt as being the feminine counterpart of Umberto Eco in terms of erudition; like Eco (whose novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, is a repository of so much learning that it makes one feel small and elevated at the same time), she seems to know ‘everything’! It’s a good thing that there are great writers such as these; they remind one of the beauty that human beings are capable of – something essential to remember when, as Michael aptly remarks, one is surrounded by ‘social (and political, as well as economic) turmoil’.

  • Siobhan

    Hi, again, Bert,

    Quadrilogy or Tetralogy, perhaps, as in Durrell’s “The Alexandria Quartet”?

    Re: the ‘crossover’ between philosophy and fiction or belles lettres, Santayana comes to mind, especially “The Last Puritan” and Walter Pater and Matthew Arnold. Obviously, I have a passion for Victorians. Ruskin’s ” Stones of Venice” (despite his ‘madness’) still leaves me breathless with awe and ‘erudition-envy’ if one may create a new category for Dr. Freud.

    Thank you for your comments, Bert. As for a blogsite of my own, I’m not sure I would be up for that so it’s just as well that TL is blissfully unaware of my existence! But thank you very much for the thought!

    I agree that Byatt’s Frederica series is a brilliant achievement. I keep hoping to hear that she has been awarded the Nobel. She richly deserves it.

    By the way, I take your comment on my being ‘one of the best read’ people you have encountered as a compliment to cherish. But I must confess to utterly selfish motives: I’m a ‘book slut’! I simply enjoy reading more than anything else. I grew up being chided for ‘always having your nose in a book’. As though that were a BAD thing!

    Just as I don’t ‘get’ people who hate to read, I’m sure they don’t ‘get’ those of us who love to read. It’s simple really: To read is to learn and I can think of nothing more exciting than that.

    Lizanne,
    Yes, I loved Byatt’s “Possession” as well as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” which got me ‘hooked’ on Fowles. He, too, was mad about the Victorians’ love of learning and sophisticated ‘amateurism’. One must envy the Victorians the ability to be both broadly and deeply informed in so many fields of study whilst the break-neck pace of new knowledge requires that scholars in our time must devote themselves to ever more restricted areas of specialisation.

    How intensely cramping it must be to have to confine oneself to one field. The only over-arching discipline that can still ‘connect’ the various fields is philosophy. Which is what makes Bert such an asset to our tertiary education system. Through this blog, he extends his ‘classroom’ and permits us to eavesdrop on the process of combining the insights of many disciplines. It is so important to make the connections between art and the analytical, between the discursive and the critical. As far as I know, Bert’s approach with his classes is unique in the ever-narrowing halls of academe! Strict separation of disciplines leads to disconnection and alienation, the hallmark of the ruthless academician for whom real ‘learning’ is not the goal; a toxic ‘one-up-manship’ is their raison d’etre.

    Few scholars today have the imagination combined with the intellectual capacity to make the connections that Bert does. I believe that is what education is for: to makes us see the “patterns that connect”. This blog unfailingly does that.

  • sidakwa

    i will look up your books and share them with my ex , books were what contributed to our problems , she reads , i skim through , and books where what made us appreciate each other .

    i am an engineer , she is corporate executive . i read a lot of technical white papers at work and hence anything to do with reading screams work to me , whilst for her books were a means of escape from corporate reality .

    it was “the art of possibility” and “the last lecture” , where i saw the reason why she kept on suggesting new books to me and she also began to understand my aversion to books , but none the less i read the books and was dumb foundered by what i read . as an engineer i believe in facts , laws and systems , any deviation from that world of mine i stumble , but reading with her made me realize they is more to life than stone cold laid facts .

    for those who read the books , we managed to master rule number 6 and we enabling each other’s dreams by working to achieve the A grades we both gave each other .

    i can;t wait for the chapter on “how to have the best ………..”

    thank you.

  • Marco

    Great piece, Bert! It makes me want to read even more than I already do…

  • http://www.izakdevries.co.za Izak de Vries

    Wonderful, thanks Bert. Stuck a link to it om my blog, hope you get some hits!