Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
The narrator of “Life-Story” says that his greatest desire is to be “unself-conscious” as a writer. The irony is that his every comment, including this initial one, points to exactly the opposite. He worries in an acutely conscious way, for example, that his story contains no “ground situation” (a coherent, trenchant plot and conflict), and he agonizes over a prose style that he fears is “fashionably solipsistic” and unoriginal. What is even more frustrating to the narrator is that his artistic impulses are directly contradictory; he prefers “straight-forward tales of adventure” to the “experimental, self-despising, or overtly metaphysical characters of Samuel Beckett’s or Jorge Borges’s,” but he can muster only self-conscious, solipsistic stories in which the story’s artistic processes are conspicuous and cumbersome—such as in the “theatre of absurdity, black humor or allegory.” He thus prefers, like his wife and adolescent daughters, real life to literature, and he reads only for entertainment. He concludes that the medium in which he desires to write is “moribund if not already dead . . . along with society.”
He even suggests that his increasing preoccupation or obsession with pattern and design for their own sakes is a manifestation of schizophrenia. Later, one of his literary characters, whom the reader can see is merely a replica of the narrator (a writer writing a story about a writer writing a story), worries that he can produce no stories of “passion and bravura action,” detailing further the traditional elements of fiction that seem to elude him, such as “heroes they can admire, heroines they can love, memorable speeches, colorful accessory characters, and poetical language.” At one point, the writer in the narrator’s story asks gloomily, “Why must writers choose to write such stuff (self-conscious introspection) when life is so full of people and places and situations to write about?”
The narrator then begins to develop his proposition that his own life might be a fiction in which he is the leading character, whereupon he decides to write about just such a phenomenon. In a sense he makes this proposition come true by writing a story about a man writing a story about a man writing a story, ad infinitum, all of whose existences are indisputably fictional. Adding to his frustration, the narrator suspects not only that he is a fictional character but also that the fiction that he is in is the sort that he least prefers. Following this line of thought, one of the narrator’s fictional narrator-authors, identified as “C,” suggests that to get his story moving, he must expunge the writing of “overt and self-conscious discussion of the narrative process,” which is exactly what the original narrator is doing, or rather, trying to do. The original narrator says that he would like to write a story leading to an exciting climax and denouement, if he could. He is, after all, dependent on his reader for his existence.
Following up the premise that his own life is a fiction like the ones that he detests, written by an author who might resemble himself, the narrator wonders if he could not appeal to his own author to change the tone and style of his boring and colorless tale to one in which “the outmoded virtues of courage, fidelity, tact, restraint, self-discipline, amiability, et cetera” would occur. He wonders too if he could not make his own life apart from the design of his author—“to achieve factuality” or at least to be a more positive hero, but he admits the futility of such a proposal. However, ironically, the narrator’s mistress, real or imagined, shows her contempt for the dullness and passionlessness of her life with the narrator by withdrawing from his life—or story. He then confesses feelings of creative and sexual impotence—the very substance of his fiction. Only the need to move his story along—paying attention to the needs of the immediate sentence before him—keeps him going.
Additional problems occur when the narrator wonders whether the story he is in might be “a roman a clef,” whether it might not be a film or theater piece rather than a novel, or whether, in fact, his story might not focus on someone other than himself—his wife, for example, or his daughter, or his mistress, or even the man who once cleaned his chimney. He speculates that his childhood might not even have been real—that the part of the story that he is in might be mere background, mere forced exposition. He concludes that at this advanced stage of his story, the absence of a ground situation means that his story is “dramatically meaningless.” Is that, then, he inquires, the meaning of his life as well?
The narrator brings his story to a close by arguing that in a sense he is his own author and that therefore his life is in his own hands. The old analogy between Author and God, novel and world, has broken down. Reality and creative illusion are one. Rather than being bound to and directed by an omniscient Lord or Author, one’s existence as author-character necessitates the authoring of one’s own life-story. At this point, the narrator’s “real wife and imaginary mistresses” enter his study unannounced and unsummoned by him, confirming the notion that people as fictional beings are free from an author’s dictates.