Manipulation and Intimacy in Narrative Fiction

Reading a work of narrative fiction can be compared to embarking on a type of journey. The reader embarks upon this journey willingly (unless it’s assigned reading for school, etc.), entrusting her well-being into the hands of the author. Of course this voluntary contract is non-binding– the reader can leave the book, unfinished, for whatever reason (Thankfully, this final power remains with the reader because no one wants to be trapped in a Clockwork Orange scenario. We call those nightmares….).

One of the key challenges faced by the writer is to draw the reader into the text and keep her engaged to the end of the journey. The writer maintains engagment in a variety of ways. In narrative fiction the common ways in which a reader can be held are:

1) An engrossing plot. This activates our hard-wired human trait, curiousity. I.e. What happens next?

2) A compelling character/voice. (We wish to be like her. Or we make the proxy cross-over and think we may actually be like her if we were to find ourselves in the same situation. Or we can’t ever imagine being someone like her, but wonder what someone like her thinks/feels.)

3) Creativity/Imagination. I.e. Elicits a sense of wonder.

4) Beautiful language and/or poetics. This elicits aesthetic wonder.

5) Via character, emotionally hooks the reader. I.e. Intimacy. (Also connects back to the idea of proxy. Empathy is socially and culturally valued if not a hard-wired trait in most of us.)

6) Eliciting intellectual curiousity. I.e. In terms of (new) information being relayed, or the mechanics of the structure of narrative is atypical thereby resonating as a puzzle to be solved or deconstructed, or making connections between disparate ideas in a new way, etc.

(This list is not defnitive, of course.)

I’ve been pondering the levels of intimacy that are subtly and not-so-subtly reached/triggered during the back-and-forth play between author-narrator-reader in that stretch of time/space of writing and a book being read. Because the flip side of intimacy, which can be beautiful and so deeply moving, is vulnerability. To open oneself to intimacy is to receptive and unguarded– we are open to intense connection, but also to deep hurt. Consequently, I believe that it behooves writers to take time to consider the ways in which they create and shape narrative fiction and to what levels and the ways in which they will use intimacy to engage their reader.

Authors have a wide range to work with. There are texts that are very cool, distant, emotionally removed and dry. The primary engagement may be foregrounded as intellectual, and intimacy can be pushed far back, into the nose-bleed section of the emotive auditorium. I think the British literary tradition excels at this type of narrative style. To the other extreme we can be placed so subjectively close to a fictional character that we can experience her life completely as if we, momentarily and actually, are her. We can be more intimately connected to a fictional character, know more of what she thinks and what she feels, than we will ever be able to with our own lovers!

Narrative fiction, on one level, is the careful manipulation of words in order to construct an artificial imaginary temporal, causal, emotional and intellectual mindscape for a reader. The very nature of this work is one of manipulation. Although I’ve stated that ultimately the reader holds the power to close the book should she find herself taken into a place she does not wish to enter, writers also hold a great deal of manipulative power in hooking the reader (particularly through plot) to staying until the end. (I’m not going to go into books that are “difficult” to read i.e. unfamiliar form, or political content, or experimental, etc., but are actually doing an important work/writing. This is separate topic from what I’m detailing here.)

I’ve been thinking about trust and intimacy relationships between the author-narrator-reader because I’ve recently read a novel where I felt hooked enough to follow the plot until the end of the tale, and left the completed reading of the book feeling that the author manipulated me, the reader, as much as she manipulated the characters she created. Of course I understand that the entire construction of a fictional narrative is, on one level, the manipulation of words into a specific form. One must manipulate in order to succeed. But what are the terms? What is shared? Who gives? Who takes? How much? Are there junctures in the narrative where the flow of power shifts? Does the writer leave space for the reader to maintain a sense of autonomy. Does the writer love and respect the reader? Does it matter if she does or doesn’t?

I don’t want to be coy– the novel that troubled me was Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I admire her earlier novels a great deal, especially as I read them when I was coming into my feminist understandings in the late 80s and early 90s. In terms of the a narrative of the dystopic/utopic, I was and am interested in what she’s created in Oryx and Crake. She’s clever, imaginative and engaging and she’s a skillful storyteller. Outside from its genre (which is highly foregrounded), however, was a kind of pounding upon my emotive reading psyche– one of manipulation. I felt like I had been led through a narrative Matryoshka doll-effect, with the final largest doll being the reader, and Atwood the agent who gets to put the set away after she’s finished playing with them. And I did not at all appreciate how this felt.

SPOILER ALERT! Technically, Atwood adeptly and quickly hits the reader with a dual track of causality with which to hook our drive to discover what happens and why: 1) We’re placed in the “present” where it’s post-disaster, so we wonder what’s led to the disaster, and also what will happen next in the “present” timeline of the hapless narrator caught in a survivor situation, 2) the narrative’s past leading up to the disaster is unveiled through its own timeline underscoring the causal elements that led to the disaster as well as establishing the protagonist’s own bildungsroman. Nothing troubling about these strategies; I think she was/is very clever to double up on the narratives and it’s also not unheard of. She treats the same character (Jimmy/Snowman) as two separate characters via the distance of time with the timelines meeting at the end of the novel. Clever.

But the smallest of the Matroyshka dolls comes into play via the introduction and treatment of the characters of 1) Jimmy’s mother, and 2) the figure in the child porn abuse film that Jimmy views/overlay of Jimmy’s narrative of the abused child atop of Oryx. Clearly Jimmy/Snowman is a kind of anti-hero. And his understanding and perceptions of his mother and child-abuse victim/Oryx is that of a flawed and sexist/misogynist/colonialist character. But by situating the text via Jimmy/Snowman’s subjectivity the reader is situated to impose this reading upon them as well, and the writer who orchestrates this manouvre is Atwood. We are vicariously set up to perceive in a way we may abhorr, in order to experience Jimmy/Snowman as Atwood has constructed. The next stage of manipulation is unveiled when we discover Jimmy has been utterly manipulated by his long-time friend, Crake (who may have manipulated the video depicting the execution of Jimmy’s mother in order to manipulate Jimmy into having feelings of vengeance, as well as manipulating Jimmy via his obsession/desire for Oryx). Jimmy, whom we thought had had at least some level of agency in his own story, has actually been played like a pawn by Crake, throughout. To top it off, we are clearly made to understand that Crake is only the “natural” outcome of a society gone utterly wrong. Crake has been manipulated into being by a bad human world. The novel ends with a seemingly “open-ended” sequence– Snowman is at the ultimate crux of having to choose between the lives of humans like himself, or protecting the genetically constructed Children of Crake (as designed by flawed Crake). Atwood does not finish the scene for us, but in terms of how Jimmy was manipuated throughout the narrative, she leaves us with very little space to imagine him doing anything other than what he was manipulated into doing. This is the final manipulation. The reader is manipulated into reading only one ending even when there seems to be space to choose other options.

It could be said that I’m missing the entire point of the novel in that it was written as satire (as implied, for instance, by the main character’s Leave-it-to-Beaver-like name, “Jimmy” alongside the figure of the emotionally distant and disengaged mother, invoking a kind of contructed and heimlich gesturing toward an artificial nostalgia that’s clearly ironic, not to mention the over-the-top names of drugs, trends, organizations, products, etc. found throughout the fictional world as constructed by Atwood). It could be stated that we aren’t meant to engage with the novel on an emotive and empathetic level when the primary engagement is meant to be satirical (and intellectual). This may have been the intention, but I’m not convinced that the intention was successfully deployed. Or, perhaps Atwood intended the reader to recognize that manipulation was the modus operandi, both cause and effect, and appreciate this?

I do enjoy satire– Philip K. Dick excelled at it in the best of his books. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree and tone. In our current lives of hyper-consumerism atop of inherited legacies of colonialism and oppression, that which Atwood gestures toward as satirical is actually part of our lived realities. The real and satirical collapses into one and the same. So the future that Atwood creates is not necessarily perceived as humorous embellishment. This is the whole point, it may be said.

I would respond to this idea with Fred Wah’s, “So what?”*

So what?????

Social commentary and warning if humanity doesn’t change its trajectory? Don’t be manipulated like Jimmy was? Don’t be a Jimmy or a Crake? Don’t be manipulated like they are, even though I manipulated you so that you can see how manipulation works? Aren’t our consumer-driven corporation-led lives a comedic tragedy…?

There is a huge experiential difference between satire that allows us to observe the unfolding of the joke, and one in which we are part of the joke. The dividing line may not be so clear in the construction of the joke– context and subjectivities are not static. I have no idea of whether or not Atwood situated the reader as reader-pawn intentionally, or if it was an unintended outcome. I like to believe that it was unintended. But the reading of Oryx and Crake had me pondering less about the dire conditions we are moving toward in terms of our global impact upon environmental/ecological/social/cultural wellness, and more focussed upon the difficult-to-measure ethical relationship between the writer and the reader.

In the end I felt like the writer had no love or affection for the reader. Indeed, I felt like I had been had. A curious place to find myself when the underlying impetus for the writing of dystopias could be said arises from a place of deep caring for the survival of humanity.

Ultimately I don’t regret having read Atwood’s novel, because it has had me  considering important moral and ethical issues around the relational between author-narrator-reader. We should not enter this space lightly, even if the creative intention is an expression/articulation of levity. It is a relationship that we ought to consider every time we write something intended for a readership.

*Fred Wah was my first creative writing instructor at the University of Calgary. He had a very effective way (if not somewhat alarming/intimidating) of directing a critical gaze upon a story or poem that was skillfully constructed and stylistically “faultless”, but, somehow, devoid of life, or vibrancy, or risk, or edginess, or urgency, etc. The story set out what it intended to do, and achieved it, the end. Stories/poems like these elicited the dreaded Fred Wah’s, “So what?” A rhetorical question, but one critically necessary for the writer to consider.