Susan Sontag Short Fiction Analysis
Susan Sontag’s fiction has often been linked with that of the French New Novel, advocated and practiced by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. These novelists rejected the conventions of realistic fiction; they did not create lifelike characters and compelling plots. Rather, they wanted to promulgate a view of literature as a contrivance, a calculated construction of an independent world. Literature did not imitate reality; literature created its own reality, its own reason for being.
Sontag found the New Novelists compelling because the American fiction of her period (the 1950’s) seemed stale. Novelists seemed to have nothing new to say about their environment or about the form of fiction itself. A good example of Sontag’s effort to create a new kind of fiction is her story “American Spirits,” collected in I, Etcetera. Essentially the story is a satire about the boredom of American middle-class life. Instead of documenting the life of realistic characters, Sontag turns her fiction into an allegory, naming her main character “Miss Flatface,” a name that suggests a person with no dimension, a person who lacks a rounded, enriching life. Miss Flatface forsakes her family and embarks on a flamboyant life with Mr. Obscenity.
By making her characters types or symbols of “American Spirits” Sontag attempts to broaden the focus of American fiction, making it less concerned with the minute particulars of individual lives and more perceptive about the broad patterns of cultural behavior. Miss Flatface, for example, is looking for thrills, entertainment, and a sense of destiny that is continuously alluded to in the story as Sontag mentions such classic American strivers as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy.
Sontag’s fiction is often about the narrator’s or writer’s dilemma: How to be creative, how to find the proper structure for a story, a story which is often an account of the writer’s own perceptions. Thus Sontag’s stories tend to be autobiographical. “Project for a Trip to China,” for example, reads like a diary of her feelings about her father and mother, and “Baby,” she has admitted in interviews, is partly a reminiscence of how she and her husband responded as parents of their son David.
“Project for a Trip to China”
The lead story in I, Etcetera deals with the narrator’s anticipation of a journey that will take her, for the first time, to the land where her father died. Rather than presenting a narrative of her feelings about her father, the narrator jots down her earliest memories involved with hearing about China from her mother, who brought back souvenirs from her stays in the country with her husband. The narrator tries to re-create her sense of China, of her father, of her family, from these tokens of the past. Ultimately she concludes that the real “trip” is the one she has taken in her imagination, for as she says at the end of her story, “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go.”
This final sentence provides the clue that what Sontag is most interested in as a writer is how she can transform the raw materials of life into a story. “Project for a Trip to China” is unique in her collection because it reads like the listing of the raw materials themselves, the fragments that she tries to fuse into fiction.
The second story in I,...
(The entire section is 1421 words.)