Living by Fiction

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Annie Dillard first made a name for herself as a mystical nature writer in 1974 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning personal narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and has since furthered her reputation as a latter-day female Thoreau with such books as Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), which is also reviewed in this set. Here she applies her personal Platonic and religious views in an attempt “to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” Her ultimate subject, she says, is the meaning of the world, approached via the microcosm of contemporary fiction.

In this three-part book, sections of which have appeared earlier in such magazines as Harper’s Magazine, Dillard sets out in part 1 to draw distinctions between such Modernist writers as William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann and such “contemporary Modernists” as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Jorges Luis Borges. In part 2 she attempts to deal with general issues concerning the status of contemporary fiction; and in part 3 to “raise the roof on fiction” and take on the world at large. Made up of what she herself calls “free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe,” Dillard’s book is not intended for the professional literary critic, but rather for the general reader. Critics and scholars familiar with European literary thought from the Russian Formalists to the French Structuralists will find nothing new here. Dillard does manage, however, to put together many of the implications of contemporary phenomenological thought in a popular (although at times cloying) style, posing such basic questions as “What is (gasp) the relationship between the world and the mind?”

Much of part 1 of Living by Fiction focuses on such familiar conventions of modern fiction as the shattering of narrative time and the breakup of traditional cause-and-effect relationships, the flattening of character and the notion that the fictional world is self-contained, the intrusion of the authorial voice and the interruption of narrative flow and verisimilitude, and the foregrounding of point of view toward fictional reflexivity. Dillard also approaches here the bothersome problem of the integrity of the art work itself. Confronting the common misgiving about contemporary fiction—that is, when is a work about meaninglessness, and when is it simply meaningless?—Dillard delves into the metaphysical problem of metaphor itself. Because she is still firmly entrenched in the now outmoded “New Critical” approach to literature, however, her only real solution is that the integrity of an art work lies in its unity, although she never actually defines the term “artistic unity.” She suggests, for example, that the image of an egg in a cage is a more unified metaphor than that of a shoe in a cage. However, she persists in her own mystical belief that the integrity of a metaphor depends on the things being compared; she ignores the fact that the human mind can perceive a revelatory meaning in the juxtaposition of any two objects.

In fact, what Dillard intellectually knows often seems at odds with what she intuitively believes. For even as she tenaciously holds to her Platonic views, she willingly nods to the theories that have evolved from Albert Einstein to Werner Heisenberg to Kurt Gödel, that the world is more likely to be mind stuff than thing stuff. Moreover, she seems to endorse the studies of phenomenological thinkers in various fields, such as Gregory Bateson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Roman Jakobson, and admits that any penetrating interest in anything leads ultimately not to ontology but to epistemology. No matter where you start, says Dillard, “you end up agog in the lap of Kant.” Her main point in part 1 is to suggest that the significance of such Modernist writers as James Joyce and Franz Kafka is that they expanded fictional techniques to achieve traditional ends, whereas contemporary Modernists have, she claims, lost sight of those ends. For example, she suggests that whereas Kafka wrote profound cultural criticism and along the way had a character turn into a cockroach, some contemporary writers throw away the rest and keep the cockroach for a laugh.

The concept that traditional fiction is a container and an embodiment of cultural and philosophic ideas is still in the mainstream, she says. Although Dillard is not as radical in her reaction to so-called “post-Modernist” fiction as John Gardner was a few years ago in his diatribe Moral Fiction (1979), she still waxes nostalgic for the good old days when a story was a story and was weighted with moral meaning. Some critical readers more professionally concerned with the nature of narrative in the twentieth century may feel that Dillard underestimates Kafka’s self-conscious awareness of the metaphysics of his metamorphosis and that she is oblivious to the deeper cultural meaning in the works of writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

Dillard begins part 2 of her meditation with the basic question of whether the material of the writer is the phenomenal world in its entirety or whether it is made up of only words and linguistic techniques. Admitting that the post-Modernist view doubts that words correspond to anything, she says that she wants to treat this idea with some respect before she discards it. There is little evidence, however, that she gives it the respect that it deserves. For example, she suggests that Charles Dickens drew the materials for Bleak House (1852-1853) from London society and British legal usage; “it were madness, or quibbling, to say he drew them...

(The entire section is 2313 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Choice. XX, September, 1982, p. 76.

Christian Science Monitor. April 9, 1982, p. B6.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 638.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 31, 1982, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 9, 1982, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LVIII, May 9, 1982, p. 140.

Progressive. XLVI, June, 1982, p. 61.

Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 64.