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, Etcetera reads more like a continuous narrative. The narrator mourns the loss of her best friend, Julia, an intense thinker who troubles herself about the meaning of existence. Is life coherent? If not, then all is chaos and...
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meaninglessness. However, if everything in life that happens is meant to happen, then everything is determined, and there is not much reason to assert oneself—and not much reason, in Julia’s case, to go on living. The narrator, also a serious thinker, nevertheless tries to humor Julia out of the black moods that isolate her from the world. The narrator points out that some questions just cannot be answered and do not bear thinking about.
Once a question is asked, however, it is difficult not to want an answer. This is as true for the narrator as it is for Julia. Thus the narrator weaves into her reminiscence the stories of several women named Doris. Each Doris leads a separate life, yet elements of their stories suggest that they may be linked in ways the narrator cannot understand. The narrator’s inability to understand is, in fact, linked to the fact that Julia (as the end of the story reveals) commits suicide. The narrator is as powerless to prevent Julia’s death as she is to understand how the stories of the different Dorises are linked.
The term “debriefing,” which refers to questioning or interrogating someone to extract information, serves as an ironic title for the story. The narrator tries to explore what the story of Julia, of the different Dorises means, but the interrogation does not result in knowledge; rather, the knowledge obtained is about the heartbreaking ambiguity of life and the difficulty of warding off despair.
The fourth story in I, Etcetera, coming after “American Spirits,” “The Dummy” is another version of Sontag’s playing with the idea of shifting identities. The narrator, who does not name himself, is like Miss Flatface in “American Spirits,” bored with his middle-class family life. To relieve himself of his responsibilities at home and at work, he employs a dummy who is an exact copy of himself and who is able to do everything the narrator does. The trouble is that the dummy falls in love with a woman at the narrator’s office and demands precisely the sort of freedom that the narrator coveted for himself in employing the dummy in the first place. The narrator’s solution is to employ yet a second dummy who seems better suited to the job.
Given the story’s title, it seems appropriate to ask who is the “dummy.” Obviously it is the replacement self the narrator employs, but is it also the narrator? Is he as happy with his solution, as he suggests at the end of the story? Or is he rationalizing? In other words, the form of the story expresses the narrator’s seeming complacency about using a dummy, yet the form also leaves open the possibility that perhaps the narrator is a dummy for fooling himself into thinking he has found a happy solution to his problems. Certainly the narrator’s final words seem too pat, too self-satisfied, to be believed without qualification, for he congratulates himself for “having solved in so equitable and responsible a manner the problems of this one poor short life that was allotted me.” Yet his vaunted freedom seems to consist in not much more than allowing himself to lead an indolent life and to affect a “shabby appearance.” What exactly has he accomplished?
The sixth story in I, Etcetera, concerns an unnamed couple’s worries about their precocious son. They are bringing him up to be a genius, but they are concerned about his willful nature. They want him to be independent, yet they want him under their control. These parents are, in short, befuddled by their contradictions, and they have come to a psychiatrist for help in sorting out how they should bring up their baby.
The entire story is told through the words of the two frustrated parents. The psychiatrist’s advice is alluded to in their responses. Like their child, they behave in contradictory fashion. That is, they come seeking advice but they reject it almost as soon as the psychiatrist offers it. Just as they try to shape their son’s responses, they try to manipulate the psychiatrist.
“Baby” is about the tyranny of family life and about the power relationships that infest the parent-child relationship. It is also, on a simpler level, an account of anxious parents who mean well and yet do devastating things to their child. Like the other stories in I, Etcetera, “Baby” is not realistic. It does not give characters names or spend much time describing settings. However, the story deals with real issues in the same way that a dream or a fantasy does. Thus when the parents tell the psychiatrist that they have begun cutting off their son’s limbs, they are expressing the desire to hobble a child, to keep him a “baby,” that parents can sometimes express in less extreme forms.