Are we in a narrative if we don't know we're in a narrative?

As is often the case with the web, I stumbled across this clip while looking for someone else (or nothing at all, really; just surfing–but surfing implies some sort of deliberation or volition, and there was none here. There should be another word for this: lolling in the waves. Which is of course not a word.). In this clip, Jonathan Franzen talks about the general irrelevance of the novelist to American culture at large. My first thought was not to agree with him. And while in a certain sense, I don’t agree with him, I have to agree that, sure, “no one, outside of a very small circle in New York, could care less about what Philip Roth thinks about the Iraq war.”

It’s hard to argue with that, but it started some kind of mental friction going in me about one of my deep obsessions. The nexus, if you will, of grief and hope and narrative.

(Parenthetically, perhaps because I am culturally American–at least in the old bald white guy sense–I have that mongrel’s obsession with pedigree. No, I don’t care very much about Philip Roth’s perspective on the Iraq war, because I don’t why I should. I might care about Jonathan Franzen’s, though I suspect it’s not much different from my own.)

Human beings, it seems to me, are hardwired for narrative. Our understanding of the world is shaped by our ability to explain it to ourselves–or have it explained (in narrative) to us. Without the ability to narrate ourselves out of harrowing circumstances, there is no hope. Without the hope that narrative provides us, there can be only grief. Which doesn’t mean that there is no grief. Only that grief is the obverse of hope. And so what does this have to do with Franzen? Those of us who write tend to be aware of the simultaneous vitality and fragility of the often multiple narratives we surround ourselves with. Not just as writers, but as human beings. Franzen in particular seems to be acutely aware of–and perhaps terrified by–his own narrative, and his loss of control of it (what with that Oprah mess and all).

But there’s something in the American character–if I may be permitted such a wild generalization–that leads to a kind of blithe and facile life inside an accepted reality, an accepted narrative that we do little to change or even acknowledge.

Like all narratives, it’s a construct. And each culture has its own accepted narrative. Indeed, culture is a narrative, or a pile of narratives, itself. And I think it’s a general lack of American introspection (the famous unexamined life) that leads to a kind of willful disassociation–bear with me here, please–from the awareness of narrative. Yes of course we’re all walking around in our little narratives, which we’re constantly revising, but I don’t think most people are really very busy thinking about this. And this is a dangerous thing.

Psychologists call the act of salting away a memory “rationalizing.” Which is to say that when stuff happens, we have to figure out how it fits into our own narrative. We tend to make sense of things after the fact, and we have our own mental footnotes and brackets and marginalia we use to explain the events of our lives to ourselves. Indeed, to create, out of the stream of time, actual events. This is how we make sense of what often makes no sense. And making sense of things gives us immense comfort. This has been shown to be fundamental to happiness, regardless of how accurate our narratives and predictive narratives happen to be. Probably more because of how inaccurate they are.

But I don’t think that most of us are aware that when we do this we are creating/editing/shaping a narrative. And the problem arises in that we often prefer the comfort of a sensible narrative–including conspiracy theories and complete nonsense–rather than subject it to logical and difficult and uncomfortable critical scrutiny. I don’t think most Americans are aware of how the cultural narrative is created–something I lay no real claim to understanding myself. The thing is, by and large Americans likely aren’t even aware that there is a cultural narrative. When the television writers went on strike, I kept thinking, America loses its narrative! But of course it’s not that simple. All of our media, including our novels and other books, shape our narrative. And weird things happen when the weird happens. Take the Virgina Tech shootings last year. The slowly-pieced-together cultural narrative that began to take shape from TV and student video. Endless replays of the same stuff over and over–until one of the networks struck narrative gold. The murderer’s own narrative, videotaped for posterity. This was cultural rationalizing.

I can think of a lot of really post-modern examples of out-of-control narrative–the OJ car chase. The execution of Timothy McVeigh (video feeds of a brick wall, taken at a vast remove). And of course September 11. But the real point here, if there is one, is that this lack of awareness of the existence of a narrative leads to a complete apathy about how it’s created, and a huge opening for demagogues and marketers to spin it. Which of course always happens.

We’ve all heard about talking points and staying on message, but are we all aware of the written narrative nature of those things.

The nature of such things is of course to create a plausible narrative, most often one without a lot of room for equivocation and consequently one without much substance or complexity. A reality byte that’s easy to swallow. And that lack of understanding of the narrative machinery operated by those who understand the power of communication (written narrative) leads to an apathy about communication. And an apathy about the importance of people who do it really well.

So an apathy about novels and novelists is pretty natural. Novelists of the caliber of Franzen and David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth and many, many others (not to mention narrativists of a less altruistic or curious nature), tend to understand that vitality and fragility of narrative, as well as its inherently fungible nature.

And there is some part of the cultural narrative that they help shape. And I think it’s completely invaluable that they provide moments outside of the uber narrative of reality and provide the opportunity–even if it remains untaken–to revise our notions of the real and the true. Are other cultures any more interested in their own narratives and how they’re created? I have no idea. The American ideal tends to be, Don’t think, just do. I tend to prefer the think and do. But it’s a free country, and people are free to be stupid.

Tell me what you think. Seriously.