Essay: Someplace Between the Damned and the Dreaming: Narrative Mode and the Rendering of Consciousness in Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and Mathias Énard’s Zone
But are not all novels about the writer’s self, we might ask? It is only as he sees people that we can see them; his fortunes colour and his oddities shape his vision until what we see is not the thing itself, but the thing seen and the seer inextricably mixed.
—Virginia Woolf, “George Moore”
In the strictest sense, all the contents of consciousness are ineffable. Even the simplest sensation is, in its totality, indescribable.
—Susan Sontag, “On Style”
Who are we, when alone with our thoughts? The philosophers differ. More importantly, perhaps, what are we? What do we sound like, how does the world with its endless errata of life find its way into cogent being, dialectically opposed to that ghost we call the self? What, in short, does it sound like in our minds? This a central question to realist fiction written in both the third- and first-person, albeit it in a rather different formulation than is typically found. For to frame the issue another way, we might ask how the thoughts of a character in a life-like novel should sound to us as reader. We might ask how the narration could best portray a verisimilar sense of interior life, to mind and close the gap between hero and audience. We might even ask about point-of-view.
There are many disquieting trends in contemporary (let’s say twenty-first century, even if the new millennium begins to feel rather far off) fiction, none of which we will explore here. The overall slide and stumble towards accessibility and ease of consumption in the literary novel, mirroring the worst of society’s impatient whims, can be viewed as either a top-down or bottom-up problem, and is probably a bit of both. Mainstream presses are loathe to publish, and readers are frightened to open (and, most alarming, writers are intimidated to attempt) novels that take chances in form and style, that command and apply advanced concepts in literary theory, that demonstrate bold and original interpretations of fictive elements. However, before we go on too long and risk meeting the definition of ‘explore’, let us shine a light on a corner of the literary cave, which we can barely see from our spot amongst flames and shadows, but which nonetheless offers respite, even break, from the chains.
This essay will dissect with a hope for elucidation the narrative methods used in two remarkable 21st-century novels: Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) and Mathias Énard’s Zone (2008, trans. 2010 Charlotte Mandell). There is quite a bit the two works have in common: both rightly received critical praise upon release, both are major achievements within accomplished literary careers, both are (ostensibly) written in a single sentence, and both have been given more attention across the Atlantic than in the United States (this last point tends to be true of most accomplished, risk-adept, ‘unconventional’ fiction). The are large, voluminous, ambitious novels, distilling, in the great and long tradition of modernist fiction and its progeny, mundane, ordinary, quotidian happenings into literary art. They are extended considerations of the everyday, rendered with skill and precision. But such platitudinous generalities don’t an essay make. There’s another (dis)similarity between Zone and Ducks, Newburyport, grounded in that first question of fiction—how is it done?
Énard and Ellmann craft, it seems at least, analogous first-person narrations in order to tell their respective stories and accomplish their novelistic goals. At this point the wary reader may be, in their own minds, asking questions of our essay: two books with the main character talking right at us—how complicated can it be? There are, however, compelling and illuminating contrasts between these superficially similar narrative modes, one of which will be the principle focus here—the freely-associative interiority of Ducks, Newburyport vs the directly-associative interiority of Zone. The difference, that is, between the uninterrupted rendition of a story by that story’s central figure and the display of a raw, accessed mind artfully shaped into narrative—between Énard’s guiding the reader and Ellmann’s causing cogitation to happen in view of the reader. This question, one encompassing where the narration is aimed—be it towards an implied reader, as in conventional first-person, or ‘nowhere’, into the void of consciousness, as in (very) close third-person—is another of point-of-view’s protean manifestations, and thus essential to the literary novel. Who are we, what are we, and to whom do we talk? Perhaps by considering such issues in two titanic, audacious novels of recent vintage, we can come nearer to comprehending them in those rambunctious Dioscuri, art and life.
Towards A Mimesis of the Mind: Heterodiegetic and Homodiegetic Narration
When evaluating a novel along technical lines—the stuff done, across varying strata of rigor, from book reports to monographs of literary theory—there are two elements running alongside each other that must be taken into account. These creatures have many names and many manifestations, but I tend to prefer narrative and textual functions, which are somewhat broader terms that I use to mean the book relating a series of fictive events, in the former, and ’acting as a book’, as a crafted piece of art, in the latter. Essentially, we have a two sided coin, what and how; of the effectively infinite number of ways to tell a given story, what method does a novel (and writer) choose, and why, and what does that mean for the final result? One could retell Ulysses in about a page, if plot were the only concern. So our question comes down to the manner of telling, a concern that has been with human storytelling since the beginning.
Realist fiction, at its heart, looks to show a world in a manner that resembles lived experience. The how of fiction should match the what of life. This is of course distinct from the what of fiction; the narrative function of a novel is not equivalent to whatever inspires or compels its author, but rather something more like Athena offering disguised direction. When Plato spoke of art as a mere imitation of an imitation, he was referring (pejoratively, to be sure) to the idea of mimesis, which has voyaged its way through two millennia of philosophy to end up, for our purposes, meaning the presentation of narrative events. This preoccupation with an accurate depiction of the world and the people runs through Western literature. Dickens is painstaking in painting his factories and London streets; Jane Austen is meticulous in her compendia of dances and walks round the park; Tolstoy offers a vivid recreation of entire armies and social milieus. In short, driven by an understanding of mimetic representations of common human life, the Regent-Victorian-Edwardian novel is greatly concerned with correct descriptions of parlors and housecoats. Since the great revolution of Modernist fiction, however, the novelistic world has become increasingly (albeit replete with reversals) comprised of not only the exterior but interior world—the workings of the mind. Mimesis, then—the concern with a verisimilar representation of reality—must not only show a living room as living rooms look when we walk into them but must also show consciousness as it seems to us when we think, and live, and exist.
And so we come to the rendering of consciousness in fiction, as good a touchstone as any for the success of a novel written in the last century, and the impetuous, insurrectionary child of point-of-view. The angle of reflection by which we are given access to a given character’s inner world defines how a novel moves, its construction, and to the degree it accurately reflects and then artfully portrays lived experience. The two grand families of narrative mode—third- and first-person—both offer myriad options to accomplish fidelity of consciousness in fiction; although due to its enormous flexibility, the third-person offers far more possibility and therefore complexity in this respect than does the first. For our purposes here, however, sticking only to these terms—and the concepts they signify—would be fatally limiting. Both Zone and Ducks, Newburyport are written by and large in the first-person; there is little ground, grammatically, to argue otherwise. Perhaps when viewed another way, however, we can explore more deeply how these novels work.
Gérard Genette, the esteemed narratologist, kindly comes to our aid. In his study Narrative Discourse (an extended treatment, of course, of the quintessentially first-person À la recherché de temps perdu), he classifies the ‘person of the narrating’ into two broad types: homodiegetic (a narrator who is in the story) and heterodiegetic (a narrator who is not in the story). His concepts are more complex than this simple definition implies, but at a basic level we can see how this vantage point might turn our usual manner of looking at the novel on its head. We have moved away from grammar and syntax as dispositive in textual analysis; rather, we must peer through the mists of voice and tone—those ineffable fictive elements that are nonetheless omnipresent. Is the narrator (or narrating entity, when not in the body of a character) a person speaking about herself? Or is it a creation of narrative intent, looking down from above, standing outside the room and letting us know everything that takes place within? By and large these appellative categories match up quite well with the traditional grammatical ones—if a novel uses I, the narrator is probably within the story, and it is both first-person and homodiegetic.
Determining the locus of the narration relative to the narrative, then, is not typically difficult. Genette’s terminology often lines up with first- and third-person, and the vast majority of novels do not attempt anything all that unusual with respects to the more nuanced aspects of narrative mode. But every now and again an odd exception emerges from the borderlands of the novel, and as they constitute the whole point of this essay, let us hope there are some interesting beings among them. One area that can give some pause is in the depiction of consciousness, especially the ‘lower’ levels—what is called ‘stream-of-consciousness’. This complicated term is best understood as referring to a family of literary techniques rather than a single approach, but they all deal with the direct exploration and presentation of a character’s interiority. When inner thoughts are on display in the text, especially the lower (and closer) we get to the mind, narrative frameworks are increasingly stripped away, leaving us at times bereft of landmarks. And so at times we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary, determining exactly whose voice it is, telling tales of the wild underworld of the mind.
enter, engender, copulate, populate, propagate: Free-Association in Ducks, Newburyport
As most readers will surely be familiar with the idea of free-association to be found in Ducks, Newburyport, we’ll start here, before moving to Zone’s more direct approach, reversing course against the descent of grammar. As noted above, in determining the positioning of the narrator in a work immersed in consciousness, the first question is over the direction of the language—to us or to no one? As is typically the case in profound and proficient literature, the infinite possibilities of the sentence contain the answer within.
Lucy Ellmann’s hammerblow to modern novelistic convention was meet with a Booker Prize shortlist in 2019 and an onslaught of critical agitation. An enshrined member of the praised-but-unread Pantheon, Ducks, Newburyport winds through the mind of an Ohio housewife as she makes pies and contemplates her family and modern America. Unlike Zone, as we’ll see, our heroine is never named—the narration is far too close to her thoughts to organically provide it. The key element that makes the narrative mode work is that lack of external act—much like Ulysses’ “Penelope”—which allows time and text to be devoted to the winding thoughts that make up the book’s central concern.
There are a number of iterations taken on by Ellmann’s freely-associative style in Ducks, Newburyport. While no linguist, I find at least four separate types of association present at intervals throughout. With one notable, recurring exception (which we’ll come to), the entirety of the 988 pages is a single unbroken sentence, save for a few instances of catalogued lists, themselves embedded in the flow. By analyzing these in turn, we can not only come to a richer understanding of how Ducks, Newburyport makes use of free-association to question and perhaps cross the boundary between hetero- and homodiegetic narration—despite the grammatical indications of the first-person—but also more fully appreciate the scope and scale of Ellmann’s vision, an ambition nonpareil in the twenty-first century.
The first selection will serve to provide a general introduction to the overall read of the book, as well. Virtually the entire novel takes place in the aforementioned kitchen, and so from here on out any contextualization of the ‘plot’, as such, becomes rather obviated. Let us instead simply dive headlong into the stream.
the fact that Mary Todd Lincoln may have had a vitamin deficiency, anemia, chicken, the fact that people just can’t stop eating chicken, Chick-Fil-A, the fact that sixty or seventy billion chickens die a year to make chicken and dumplings, chicken à la king, chicken gumbo, chicken Kiev, chicken Vesuvio, chicken Stroganoff, chicken tetrazzini, chicken cacciatore, chicken fettuccine primavera, garden chicken with wild rice medley, chicken chilaquiles, grilled chicken pouches, stove-top one-dish chicken bake, blueberry chicken breasts, chicken and pickled pepper fajitas, chicken lo mein, chicken nuggets, chili powder chicken nuggets, Italian chicken packets, smothered chicken, chicken Boston, chicken spiedies, chicken biscuit bake, Cornell chicken, smoky buffalo wings, King Ranch chicken casserole, easy no-guilt chicken pot pie, chicken ’n’ peaches picante, fire precautions, the fact that there’s nothing for breakfast around here except raw cinnamon roll dough, the fact that I’m hungry but not that hungry
Dominated by our heroine’s ever-present social conscious and her wealth of contemporary references and asides, here we can see the type of manic pace and rapid movement that defines Ducks, Newburyport’s narrative mode; I extended the quote through the entirely of what can only be called the chicken progression in order to give a sense of the sheer overwhelmingness, must be the word, that is the salient feature of the novel. Much like Molly Bloom—as clear a case of literary ancestry as one could hope to find—our contemplative heroine has quite a lot on her mind, made all more apparent by the relatively automatic task at her hand. We can also see in detail the first of the free-associative iterations that appear in the work, what I’ll call itemized association: an ‘accompanied’ running of items from a category or subject that takes over for stretches at at time. The accompanied bit requires clarification—part of the genius of Ducks, Newburyport is the fidelity it achieves in representing the mental process of its protagonist; this is manifest in the many instances where her thoughts seem to leap form idea to idea without her direction—much in the way that happens in real life. As we’ll come to, this reflexive, automatic cognition is the defining feature of free-, as opposed to direct-association. However, again like life, at times she actively ushers her thoughts—while not reaching the full intentionality of direct-association, as in Zone—working through everything she knows on a given topic, resulting in moments of itemized free-association such as this one.
This control is not always found, however, as our next few examples will show. To illustrate our next iteration, two excerpts will be useful. The first follows a thought on the recent death of an old woman found in her home amid tubs of margarine and cobwebs, as reported on the news:
the fact that the good news is she kept those tubs so long they can now be recycled, which maybe wouldn't have been possible when she first started collection them, the fact that I think she should get a posthumous award or something, for saving so much plastic from the landfill, or the ocean, the fact that “posthumous” is a kind of scary word, the fact that it makes you think of exhuming, exuberant, exuberant exhumation, extruding, estranged, ex, humungous, humus, hummus, halloumi, the fact that what’s also scary about it is that she ate that much margarine, the fact that I hope she had it on a cracker, the fact that we’re a butter family, the fact that I’m with Julia Child on that issue
And a second, branching off the rescue of a dog:
the fact that the main rescuer guy kept working on him though, with the beef jerky, calling him “sweetheart,” and finally they got hold of him, manhandled, mandible, Mandela, mandala, manna, mañana, Manhattan, the fact that Mommy liked a Manhattan once in a while, with a maraschino cherry, the fact that why didn’t I make her one, but I think she only liked them when she was out, just for fun, the fact that she really preferred whiskey and soda, the fact that later, on the news, the dog-rescuer said it took twelve bucks’ worth of beef jerky to get that dog off the car, Guadalupe, Guadalajara, Guanabana, Guantánamo, Geronimo, Open Sesame, the fact that there were other dogs too
Along with the dry humor that Ellmann subtly weaves in, this excerpt shows what we’ll call phonic association, the first of two ‘spontaneous’, as opposed to accompanied, iterations of free-association in Ducks, Newburyport. The name perhaps gives it away: three examples can be seen, the second rather more fully realized than the others. At times our heroine seems to slide off on a tangent, like a record skipping over a line, of words with auditory similarities—principally those featuring rhyme, alliteration, and assonance. Exhuming and exuberant have no definitional relationship, but are joined phonically and therefore begin a short chain of inner speech that runs though a range of like-sounding free-associative words. The pattern holds: manhandled and mandible; mañana and Manhattan; Guantánamo and Geronimo. This type of thought pattern—which, again, is quite true to life, and therefore in keeping with our first principles surrounding an authentic display of interiority—strikes the reader as being not fully purposefully, or in the control of the protagonist. This sense is heightened by her return to the original branch of thought—the tubs of margarine found with the old woman and the rescue of the dog, respectively—after the phonic digression. A slight, somewhat involuntary, aside, fulled by the wonderful texture of words, and back to the matter at issue.
Along similar lines comes our third iteration of the free-association in Ducks, Newburyport, and the second of the ‘spontaneous’ pair.
the fact that I think people with kids automatically waste a lot of time, what with all the tending, the mending, the helping, the yelping, decluttering, opening cereal boxes, combing heads of hair and answering messages from the teachers, the fact that loving them takes up time, and I feel guilty about the time that takes too, the fact that I need a good shakeup, Shaker boxes, chores, Pillsbury Doughboy, Jolly Green Giant, Aunt Jemima, Sugar Creek, the Swartzentruber Amish, purple martins, martinis, Proctor & Gamble, the fact that they’re experts in contentment, the Amish, not Proctor & Gamble, or so they seem to me…the fact that if I get any more stressed out they’ll have to Baker-Act me, baker act, mesocyclone, the fact that speeding up doesn't make my job more fun, or safer even, the fact that there aren’t all that many shortcuts to peeling, coring, chopping, beating, kneading, mincing, mixing, grinding, pulverizing, frying, grilling and baking that doesn’t risk injury, and our medical bills are already up the wazoo, Single Payer, Phoebe, chenille, chamois, sheep, chassis, carburetor, vibratory finishing, the fact that the Amish don't have to worry about crime all the time, I don't think
Coinciding with her observations and anxieties over the state (and ills) of modern America, our protagonist finds her thoughts often preoccupied with motherhood, marriage, and the balance she attempts to strike between living for herself and for her family. We can see, too, the circular thematic patterning and hits of the phonic method quoted above, and to be sure these approaches often bleed into one another, in keeping with Ducks, Newburyport’s overall fluid, immersed construction.
But what predominates above are two strings of free-associative thought marked by links in like terms, ones that do not necessarily share either a phonic relationship or show an intentional inventory of itemization, but which instead are grouped together based, it seems, on the images formed in our heroine’s mind. This is conceptual association, and shares traits with the previous two—the spontaneity of phonic and the idea clustering of itemized. (While too much to quote here, the interested reader is encouraged to look up the sterling example of conceptual free-association occupying the entirety of pp. 423-5.) Their effect is such that she seems to again become stuck, record-like, but now it is on an idea—cooking and baking, which constitute her only remunerative work—instead of a sound. A somewhat overburdened housewife and mother, who makes money on the side by selling baked goods, her mind at times latches onto concepts of domesticity and becomes stuck, exhausting a subtopic before being able to move on. It is again a striking verisimilar approach, especially given that Ellmann employs it to explore an area of the protagonist’s expertise, mimetic of anyone who’s felt unable to, as it were, avoid taking their work home with them.
In this way, the narrative method in Ducks, Newburyport is not only a realistic display of interiority, but works towards furthering the underlying thematic and plot concerns of the novel—a unification of the book’s textual and narrative functions. Our final free-associative iteration is the strongest of the four in this respect, one we’ll therefore call narrative association.
the fact that you can’t assume a kid’s related to both parents anymore, and what does it matter, when they all secretly wish they were adopted anyway, Jane Eyre, the fact that maybe they should teach divorce-coping skills in school along with First Aid, food hygiene, sex ed, how to make chocolate chip cookies, and how to do your taxes, stepmom, stepdad, Stepford wives, the fact that I kind of spoiled Leo when we first got together, I know, and maybe concentrated on him too much, and left Stacy out of things, without ever meaning to, the fact that all I wanted was for us all to get along as a family, the fact that I was so darn happy though, euphoric, so bowled over by him, the fact that I just assumed Stace would love him too and things would all work out, which I see now was kind of simplistic, the fact that Leo’s the most loving guy in the world though, so I never thought it would be difficult, and she liked him from the start, but she held back, the fact that I think she was still hoping Frank would somehow return, the fact that I thought it would be all right once she’d had time to get to know Leo better, Stepdad Day, and saw how great he is, seesaw, the fact that then Ben came along, and maybe she felt even more left out, though I know Leo did everything he could to prevent that, the fact that we used to talk about it, Leo and me, not Leo Stacy and me, we, the fact that I guess I was in my own dreamland, Candyland, the unconscious mind, the fact that none of this is his fault, that is for sure, the fact that he’s tried so hard to be a good stepdad, the fact that he always loved Stace, the fact that Stacy said in our session that I defer to him too much and it drives her nuts, the fact that I guess it’s a habit of mine, the fact that I don’t know where I got, oh yeah, from my mom
Our protagonist’s mind is now running, not thoughts categories or sounds, but the prevailing thoughts and anxieties she holds about her family, residual issues from her own childhood, the guilt she feels surrounding her eldest daughter and the protagonist’s second husband, and the worry she has for the future of their relationship. This is clearly a more controlled thought process—while still retaining the fundamental synaptic connectivity that is the hallmark of all free-association—and is the second of our accompanied iterations. The odd sporadic social reference (Stepford wives, Candyland) has not been excised, allowing the passage to retain an elemental sense of uninhibited cognition, but there is a clear development of narrative progression.
These progressions are the best examples of Ducks, Newburyport’s emotional resonance in a more traditional novelistic sense, elements which, while not the focus here, are incredibly strong. Ellmann’s ability to offer a total portrait of her character via such a method is outstanding, and yet another piece of evidence in support of the view that challenging, bold, fearless literary styles—in the hands of a gifted writer—offer an unmatched ability to render in arresting detail human life.
We have seen how Ducks, Newburyport makes sweeping use of a range of free-associative iterations to capture and render the nuances of consciousness, the many ways our minds work, subject varying degrees of our will. Two types of free-association—accompanied and spontaneous—are further broken into a total of four iterations: itemized-accompanied association, narrative-accompanied association, phonic-spontaneous association, and conceptual-spontaneous association. These terms, as stated, are simply my own product of analyzing the text; another reader may find more, less, others, or have different appellations altogether. They surely show, however, how thoroughly free-association defines the narrative mode of Ducks, Newburyport, and, ultimately, that this narration is of a heterodiegetic nature.
Returning to our notion of the direction of the language, this breakdown of style demonstrates that it can not truly be said that the heroine of Ducks, Newburyport is speaking towards ‘us’, the reader. Rather it seems clear that this is case of a narrative entity—typically a third-person creation—having access to the ongoing cognition of a character, mental activity that is not intended to tell a story or provide information but is instead, we say, directed to the void of the mind, simply pure consciousness existing as such. It is the very essence that defines this type of narrative mode as free-association, differing from what will come below in Zone, that marks the narration’s locus as outside the book. The thought patterns of the protagonist move freely, loosely, without necessary plot-based reasoning or, at times, even fully intention, across the memories, musings, and moments that constitute her inner world. In this way, despite the comprehensive use of first-person grammar and syntax, Ducks, Newburyport is narrated by something outside the story itself, a third-person entity that achieves the rare feat of total narrative self-abnegation, and in terms of literary ancestry is far more closely related, from a technical-mechanical standpoint, to the prodigious close-third person novel of the Modernist tradition—such as Ulysses, The Sound and The Fury, U.S.A., or To The Lighthouse—than a Proustian first-person approach.
This point is arguable, perhaps, as writers don’t write to critical definitions (nor should they; although theory has a place in workshop, despite reports to the contrary), and the narration of Ducks, Newburyport, with its trademark ‘the fact that’ serving as something of a mantra of cognition is certainly of a more debatable nature than ‘Penelope’. Indeed, Joyce allows his narrative entity to move significantly closer to Molly’s thoughts than Ellmann does hers, and the close of Ulysses is a far messier (and thereby more completely realized) narrative mode than what we’ve seen here. But in its totality it seems difficult to seriously contend that the narrative mode of Ducks, Newburyport is representative of the protagonist thinking towards an implied reader, with the intent to elucidate and narrate. Instead it seems, to this critic at any rate, a far more defensible position to argue that what we’ve explored here is a remarkable creature of ingenuity and energy, a truly innovative and risk-adept approach to heterodiegetic narration that, like the close of literature’s most famous day, plunges so far into the depths of that enigmatic stream as to drown out its voice altogether. It is a being not of the world it renders through its narration, but one that looks down into the consciousness of its creation, that awesome power so often invoked by the gods of fiction.
une dernière plongée de main avant la fin du monde: Direct-Association in Zone
Mathias Énard’s fourth book is an interrogation of power. The power of an individual against history, of the state against the people, of place against time, of the novel against the will of the reader. This in no way should be interpreted negatively—Zone is a compelling, ingenious, furious novel, one that manages to be utterly readable while retaining those elusive ‘literary’ credentials that high-minded critics are so quick to reserve. If this was a book review, I would go on to Zone-esq lengths; suffice to say, read it.
We’re here for a more specific—and much more fun—purpose, although again a basic introduction may be useful. Zone tracks its (anti-)heroic narrator, Mirković, on his train ride from Milan to Rome, carrying an attaché case with documents of an illusive nature and thinking of his life, one that spans an astonishing array of experiences, places, and knowledge. Like Ducks, Newburyport, much has been made of Zone being written in one 500 page sentence; while this is not strictly true, it comes close, and it is testament to Énard’s imaginative abilities that the book never suffers for a lack of momentum.
The narrative conceit is rather simple—Mirković is at something of an inflection point in life, and takes the completive mood offered by those remarkable creations, European train cars, to do just that. There is, to follow the pattern, very little external action in the fictive present that needs narrating; beyond the occasional trip to the bar car and glance at the woman across the aisle, our man doesn’t do a whole lot. This frees up the narration to focus inward, weaving personal memory, European history, and classic literature into a remarkable tableau of reference and, above all, association. An early example of Zone’s narration will serve as introduction to our ideas:
now I’m hungry, a little, maybe I should go eat or drink something we’re traveling very fast it’s drizzling a little this December evening I remember the long nights of the Croatian autumn, the corn fields are the same the rain too in Slavonia around Osijek in 1991 we were freezing in our hunting jackets and despite all my military training and my alpine exploits I was afraid, I was the most experienced of my companions and I was afraid, in the name of well-greased Achilles I trembled from fear
This quote is among the more obvious examples, showing nicely the links Énard forges between his hero’s ideas. The movement from fictive present on the train to a memory in his deep past is brightly marked, providing geo-temporal landmarks and introductory phrases. (It should not be overlooked, too, that this excerpt offers a hint of the poignancy and emotion that infuses Mirković’s story, along with a look at the type of classical reference he rather adores). We can and should, too, compare with the protean free-association of Ducks, Newburyport—these two novels, for their superficial similarities, are not written in anything like the same narrative mode. Énard’s method here, at the extreme end, is so direct to be nearly conversational; the reader, especially at these more noticeable points, is in little danger of being lost.
Another early case, to more thoroughly illustrate the discrepancies between Énard’s approach and that of Ellmann. After a line of thought on Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt, we come to an excellent instance of directly-associative narration.
in Egypt the flies are innumerable, not far from the Fertile Valley, on the slaughtered cows hanging in covered markets, irrigated by putrid ditches where the blood of sacrificed animals calmly flows, the smell of dead flesh must have been the same after battle, the flies always win, I rest my head gently against the window, pressed by the speed in the half-light, sleepy from the memory of the dense heat in Cairo, of the dusty mango trees, the shapeless banyan trees, the dilapidated buildings, the pale turbans of the porters and the boiling fava beans that made dawn stink as much as the livestock hanging in the sun
Beginning with Mirković’s thinking on his time in Egypt—itself stemming from his thoughts on the early Napoleonic Wars—we dash back into the fictive present for a moment (I rest my head gently against the window), before carrying on to a personal memory of Egypt, explicitly linked by sleepy from the memory of the dense heat in Cairo. The is direct association, this is moving the reader from station to station via an ongoing rendering of consciousness. It is the type of direct A-to-B-to-C connection categorically not found in the free-associative world of autonomous monologue and the like.
Finally, a prototypical selection will give us a little more to work through, and allow for a deeper examination Zone’s narrative mode.
I glance at the suitcase, I’m afraid I won’t manage to sleep or I’ll be pursued as soon as I lower my guard they’ll interfere with my sleep or get under my eyeballs to raise them the way you open shutters or Venetian blinds, its been a long time since I thought of Venice, the green water by the Dogana, the fog of the Zattere and the intense cold when you look at the cemetery from the Fondamente Nuove, back from the war, hadn’t thought of the shadows
Here is a prime exhibition of Énard’s method, one rather more nuanced and therefore representative than those above. The narration—well and truly within the SOC lineage, being comprised as it is of nearly pure consciousness—is, for so raw and unabridged an approach, remarkably cogent. There is none of the sporadic, nearly untraceable movement between ideas as seen in ‘Penelope’ or, indeed, Ducks, Newburyport. Instead, Mirković takes pains to be explicit over implicit, to squawk at us to keep up as he leaps from notion to memory and back again. The shift from the fictive present observation of the briefcase and his associated worries to his memory of Venice is clearly made, with the referents made visible.
Perhaps our point will be made clearer by indulging in that sly critic’s trick of revision. What would this transition look like in a free-associative style? How might Joyce—or, indeed, Ellmann—have it? The bridge, so to speak, between two disparate ideas (concerns over the briefcase, happening ‘now’, and long ago memories of Venice) is Mirković’s articulated thought process, Venetian blinds, its been a long time since I thought of Venice. This is the fragment that moves the reader in tandem from the blinds (as analogy to his imagined pursuers) to the time he spent in Venice. Without that guidance for the explicit benefit of the audience—without the directness that differentiates direct-association from free-association—the passage might read as follows.
glance at the suitcase won’t manage to sleep or I’ll be pursued soon as I lower my guard interfere with my sleep or get under my eyeballs raise them the way you open shutters or blinds, green water by the Dogana, fog of the Zattere and the intense cold looking at the cemetery from the Fondamente Nuove back from the war no thought of the shadows
Of course this is a bit of a conjure’s trick—Zone isn’t written this way, and there’re myriad ways Énard might’ve handled this moment had his overall approach been different—but one can see how much farther into the deep waters of the mind one might be plunged. And this is the true distinction between free-association and direct-association; in a free-associative approach (one even messier than Ducks, Newburyport), we would move into details of memory with scenic immediacy, without the transition making the connection clear. Conversely, Zone represents true homodiegetic narration: Mirković is directing his thoughts towards something; perhaps, given the present tense and overall tone, one would argue that something is not the traditional implied reader of first-person narratives, but the continual efforts to guide whomever may be listening through his mental processes is a notable departure from the heterodiegetic free-association found in the lower levels of SOC narration. Next, we’ll turn to other questions and complications of Énard’s narrative mode, allowing us to encompass a bit more than strict analysis of his directly-associative style while still dissecting it further.
It is possible (I should be so lucky) that someone reading this will think to themselves, ‘ah, but if the narration in Zone is homodiegetic, does this not contradict the intractable rule against first-person present tense that a certain critic has maintained with a near-sacral ferocity?’ Indeed, it does. Another compelling element of Zone’s narrative method, and one that allows us to further explore the nature of direct-association, is its status as a first-person present tense novel, and how and why it succeeds in such a thing when (so, so) many others do not.
In many ways Zone is the rare exception that proves the first-person present tense rule. In so much of contemporary fiction this approach, which has long crossed the Rubicon into mindless fad, is an oddly distancing, falsely authentic, franticly inelegant attempt to bring the reader close to the protagonist in a confession of authorial unwillingness and inability to do the hard work of true character development. The first-person present tense, especially when used as it almost always is in the current literary landscape—to force-fed a sense of urgency or, worse, ‘originality’ into a story that would otherwise (and still does) utterly lack it—is nearly always the wrong choice for a given work. But nearly is not always, and happily we have that most uncommon of POVs, successful first-person present tense, in Zone.
I shift in the seat, I want to get up, take a few steps to chase away the image of Stéphanie with the perfect body, the perfect voice, the keen intelligence, Stéphanie, to whom I told the story of Francesc Boix the photographer of Mauthausen during our trip to Barcelona, how can you care so much about stories, she said, she was reading Proust and Céline, nothing but Proust and Céline, which gave her, I think, the cynicism and irony assistive her profession, she was re-reading the Journey and the Recherche she called him by those abbreviations, the Journey and the Recherche, both in the Pléiade editions, of course, and she filled me with a jealous admiration
The two reasons for the success of the approach are on display here. On the train, Mirković is recounting his sins, speeding through his Purgatorio in a window seat, specifically and necessarily because he is in a moment of profound change and expiation. Much of his trail, as it were, consists not only of what he did professionally but personally, including his fraught relationships with the women of his past, Stéphanie being one (and of whom, it must be said, Énard paints incredibly vivid portraits, especially given the difficulties of his narrative mode). His future, by and large, is unknown, and the matter of whether he’ll be able to put everything he’s done and failed to do behind him in order to start anew is very much an open question. Should Zone be written in the past tense, the protagonist would necessarily gain wisdom, a knowledge of how this tribunal of in his life ended, and thus deprive the novel of its life-giving uncertainty. A third-person past tense would work in this respect, of course, but would then lose the journey of self-discovery and exculpation that deepens the novel as a whole.
This is further underscored by the second element of Zone that makes its use of first-person present tense successful; namely, that it is built largely on the fictive past. Mirković weaves his story primary with the fibers of memory—of his time in war, love, and deception—and of history—both classical-mythological and compendiously accurate European and Middle Eastern. This is a common tactic of Énard’s—a quick present-tense re-set branching off into an extended discussion or disquisition on something he’s left long behind. These elements, which serve to enrich the novel with an incredible, near-Joycean tapestry, are at their most effective, in this specific context, as spiraling asides from a mind facing the chaos of the unknown. It Mirković’s instability, his lack of agency on the train as he revisits the contents of his encyclopedic mind in front of us, actively and synchronously, that propel Zone to the breathtaking speeds it achieves—the near-unique force that runs efficiently on first-person present tense.
A near cousin to the first-person present tense dilemma is the Dujardin Problem: the issue of how to present consciousness in effective present via first person, without the awkward structures and biases inherent to the mode. A key distinguishing trait of first-person against third (and hetero- vs homodiegetic narration) is the level of ‘unbiased’ access able to be achieved. In the first person there will always be a greater distance than in third. The majority of first-person fiction, written in the past tense, never encounters the Dujardin Problem. While the inner world of the narrator is often addressed in the narration, it is overtly from the ‘future’, the time of the narrating, and therefore typically shrouded in cagey half-mystery in service of the plot. The Problem as such emerges when a first-person narrator looks to render their inner world, faithfully, in real time, be that in the past or present tense. As with Édouard Dujardin’s Les lauriers sont coupés, this almost always results in a fatally inorganic narrative mode.
So what of Zone? To be sure, we run into some rocky ground at times. The book’s central premise necessitates the type of stilted present action movement that plagues Dujardin’s work—I get up, I shift in my seat, that sort of thing. But on balance Énard is able to evade, if not conquer, the enemy.
I was afraid, all of a sudden, I fled in a cowardly way, an insect trying to escape a boot, we all ran away abandoning you there in the countryside quivering with spring, but don’t worry you are avenged, you are doubly avenged for Francis the coward is in the process of disappearing, after his long journey among the shadows of the Zone he is erasing himself, I will become Yvan Deroy, I owe you this new life, Andi, it’s over, I’m off, we’ll see each other again on the White Island at the mouth of the Danube, when the time comes, farewell Marwan farewell Andrija and shit now I’m crying, this story made me cry I wasn't expecting this, it’s unfair I rub my eyes turn my head to the window so no one sees me I’m not in very good shape I’m exhausted probably I can’t manage to stop the tears it’s ridiculous now all I need is the conductor to show up, how foolish I’d look, crying like Mary Magdalene a few kilometers outside Florence, it must be the effect of the gin, the trick of perfidious Albion, no, that story is taking me back with my realizing it, too many details, too many things in common, better set the book down for now, even in Venice in limbo in the depths of the lagoon I didn't cry much and now almost ten years later I’m weeping like a schoolgirl, the weight of years, the weight of the suitcase, the weight of all those bodies collected right and left preserved embalmed in photography with the endless lists of their lives their deaths I’ll bury them now, bury the briefcase and all it contains and farewell
We can see the dangers. Reading his novel on war and remembering his own experiences in battle (and specifically his friend Andi who was killed) Mirković like Odysseus skirts both swirling waters and treacherous cliffs, but gets through more or less unscathed. Énard never allows his narrator to linger on the present; a memory or references (Mary Magdalene is most notable above) will soon enough come in and stop or slow the thread. The relative little fictive present action, aligned with the directly-associative temporal movement via memory and history, avoids (without solving) the Dujardin Problem while providing that rich forward momentum we highlighted above. Simply put, Zone largely escapes the problem of how Mirković can display his mental-emotional condition because he spends very little time focused on his current state of affairs. Instead, he sidesteps, placing a focus on his past and historio-literary references which indirectly fill in his character and situation. We come to understand a great deal about our hero by implication—his obsession with his past and what he’s done, his fixation on war and death, his frayed nerves and the blood-red eyes we can nearly see for ourselves. Énard does not need to have his character tell us how he’s feeling because he shows us his past, and only a madman or a fool could fail to understand the effect such a life must have on a single man and a single mind.
L’Appel du Vide: Narrative Mode and
If language is the world humans inhabit, and literature their cities, then point-of-view is the stolen fire of the gods, illuminating and burning, warming and destroying in equal measure. Modernism, that highbrow Prometheus, set aflame novelistic convention a century ago, and ever since we have been gathering like the hopeful phoenix the ashes. In her perspicacious monograph, Consciousness in Modern Fiction, Violeta Sotirova asserts that Modernism was a technical-mechanical response to the fallacy of an ordered existence as represented by the neat plot and narrative coherence of the Victorian novel. Grammar itself signified convention, and by doing away with it Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Eliot, and their revolutionary compatriots did away with the old world, creating a new one in the chaotic chambers of the mind. The two extraordinary, monumental, exhaustive novels that are the focus of this essay are not Modernist works, but they share both that fearless spirit of risk-adept writing and the sentence-level innovations that bend convention—grammatical and otherwise—to their will.
The single running sentence, that beast of energy and power, is the main weapon Énard and Ellmann employ. But, as we have noted, neither book is actually comprised of only one line. And so, before we depart, a brief word about the interludes. Both books use them, which is why neither can truly be said to be other single sentence, to different and interesting ends. In Zone, the interludes, which are excerpts of a book Mirković is reading, are simply examples of accessed writing, essentially a frame device that fits with and reinforces the book’s overall possession of a homodiegetic narrative mode. And, conversely-yet-similarly, the interludes in Ducks, Newburyport reinforce it as having a heterodiegetic narration. Comprised of the recurring story of a mountain lion, wandering through Ohio (an event that really took place around the time of the fictive present), they showcase the narrative entity's ability to move outside the scene that predominates the novel, abandoning its central character, briefly, from time to time in order to tell us something else--a prototypical trait of third-person narration.
Genette, returning to the topic in Narrative Discourse Revisited, stresses that the heterodiegetic narrator (what I’ve referred to here as the narrative entity) is not accountable for his information, which is granted by virtue of the parameters of the external point-of-view. The homodiegetic narrator, however, is obliged to justify (by, for example, reading a book) the information he gives about scenes from which he was personally absent. This tracks nicely with what we’ve found. The narrator of Zone, Mirković himself, is clearly responsible for everything he knows, and as we have seen, provides a great deal of expository information to fulfill this debit. This is emphatically not the case with Ducks, Newburyport. In a rather neat bit of symmetry, then, both the interludes in Ducks, Newburyport and Zone, via opposite routes, support the dueling conclusions regarding their respective narrative modes.
And it is in that totality of vision, the fusing together via profound learning and innate talent the textual and narrative functions of their novels, that Ducks, Newburyport and Zone share the most in common. Both Lucy Ellmann and Mathias Énard display in their work the profound grasp of the power of narrative mode and the aptitude in execution that so often marks great writing. Their respective approaches to capturing that which makes up the vast majority of lived life, to capture it and reconstitute into something elegant and resonant, are at once admirably ambitious and instructive paths for others to follow and to break away. The long arc of literature has bent not towards progress (an illusory and corrupting notion) but towards truth. Not moral or even historical truth, but a truth of life, a fierce commitment to seeing, feeling, and distilling the world as it is found into the written word. As times and places change so too do ideas of what this truth means, but the great novels all work towards excavation in their own way. Chained to the rock of convention, the best writers look not at what literature is but what it might be. The question then, as it always does, returns to matters not of desire but of vision.
The best of art can make us feel; the best of fiction can cause the reader to experience a depiction of life that draws out their own pasts, illuminates their own moments of being, gives voice to the innermost workings of their minds. That ghostly creature with which we unceasingly live, consciousness, is at once ineffable and in great need of expression. Each of us only navigates our own existence, and for as singular these fleeting things are they feed on the same stuff of life. In literature, truly verisimilar narration, unlocked and explored by the types of ingenious, far-reaching, risk-adept narrative modes we have studied in this essay, can give light to the recesses of the mind, can move a novel from a crafted work of art to something more, a window to the underworld, a thunderous meditation on the terrible and beautiful power of the ordinary, the everyday, and the unknown truths of the self.
Ellmann, Lucy. Ducks, Newburyport. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis. 2019.
Énard, Mathias. Zone. Translated by Charlotte Mandell. Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books. 2010.
Free-association is a fairly widespread appellative for a distinguishing characteristic of so-called ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing (see below); direct-association has spread, as far as I know, only to myself. They will be defined below.
Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which begins the companion essay to this one, is an excellent resource on this topic. Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton Classics, 2013.
The usual note on definitions is appropriate: perspective refers to the character who is centered by the narration; point-of-view is the technique used by that narration. The narrative entity of Mrs. Dalloway follows mostly Clarissa’s perspective in a close third-person point-of-view.
A good analogy to illustrate the overly broad application of SOC as a specific method is to think of asking someone, “What is your favorite food?” and them replying, “It’s a fruit.” While they’ve given a response that leads in the general direction (and eliminated a number of choices), they haven’t really answered the question; there are still a number of disparate possibilities. Saying a novel or story is written in “stream-of-consciousness” style is similarly a half-answer; it tells us something about the work—an important something—but doesn’t provide the sought-after specificity.
While essay is not, per se, yet another proselytization for risk-adept writing that engages authentically with inner life, it is worth pointing out that the absence of this narrative scaffolding creates far more fidelity in the rendering of consciousness, which constitutes the power of techniques in the SOC family. See Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes of Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton University Press, 1978., esp. pp. 133-6; 217-22; 234-40.
Ducks, Newburyport, pp. 94-5. For quotes of both Ducks, Newburyport and Zone I’ve decide to forgo the ellipses that should, strictly speaking, be used. Both novels create an unceasing atmosphere, an avalanche of words, images, phrases, and allusions, the spirit of which ellipses would undermine.
Cohn, as part of the best analysis I have found, calls the technique used at the close of Ulysses (and would have probably used the term for Ducks, Newburyport) ‘autonomous monologue’ in Transparent Minds, which I quite like and have written about . Autonomous monologue would be the moody-yet-brilliant second son of the SOC family tree.
The distinction between itemized and conceptual being the lesser range of the former—only methods of preparing chicken, for example—leading to a more focused and controlled sense in her cognition. The scope of ideas in conceptual association creates a spontaneous effect, mirroring a mind running of its own volition.
Emily Hall, in her brilliant 2022 debut The Longcut, does this by overwhelming her narrative situation with sheer style, a feat I have written about , while introducing the Dujardin Problem in more detail.