Le Panoptique

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Fictions of memory / Memories of fiction

Publié le 1 août, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Terrorism has ruined the fiction market, according to publishers. The book-buying public descends on titles like The Post-American World and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and fiction is cast once again as something pleasant and childish to be put aside when things get serious. Author and sculptor D. L. Alvarez, writing from the margins of literature, puts the lie to our generic bias.

Expired Fiction
doNUT!, Expired Fiction, 2008
Certains droits réservés.

At the end of 2005, the Globe and Mail reported that the book-buying public had abandoned fiction in favour of non-fiction. As with most cultural trends at the time, the phenomenon was explained via al-Qaeda and “the events of September 11, 2001.” Literary agent Ann McDermid was quoted as saying, « People are worried about other things now, and are more interested in buying books that tell them about the world » (1).

If current political insecurity is the cause of a tougher fiction market, it is only incidentally so. The criticism that art is a cultural superfluity unlicensed to speak truth is as old as art itself; but, as often as art has been discounted as a bourgeois indulgence or a pack of lies, it has been extolled as the memory and voice of a culture. My question is: Can’t it be both?

In 2003, expatriate American writer and visual artist D. L. Alvarez published a pair of short prose pieces, one a personal essay and the other a short story. The complementary relationship between these two, both preoccupied with the creative properties of memory, provides some much-needed nuance to the question of truth claims in fiction.

Alvarez is decidedly outside of the bookselling establishment. Originally part of San Francisco’s experimental New Narrative scene, itself way off the mass-market radar, he has published no books of his own and is now based in Berlin, working primarily as a sculptor. But Alvarez’s very unsaleability makes his perspective on memory and fiction all the more valid. As an author not likely to be affected by what the Globe called “The Great Fiction Crash,” Alvarez can question the limits of genre at a time when many working writers are under increased pressure to define their work by conservative, market-driven mandates. By pairing his non-fiction with his fiction and by developing a dialogue between them, Alvarez reveals the cracks in the categories “fiction” and “non-fiction,” and speaks to their fluidity and interplay.

In his essay, “Nostalgic,” Alvarez discusses the fictional nature of memories—how we invent details and manipulate facts in order to preserve the textureof things. By rewriting memory, he says, we can sustain its essence, rather than its factual carcass. He notes that important memories are rarely accurate, that the details we remember best are often the ones we invented.

In “Nostalgic,” Alvarez offers two anecdotes of fictional memories silenced through medical (read: institutional, hegemonic) intervention. In the first scenario, a man has surgery to end the ringing in his ear. The sound persists—now a phantom sound, a memory burned into the brain—and must be drowned out by an “anti-hearing aid” which generates ambient noise to distract his brain from the ringing that it still thinks it hears but which, in fact, it only remembers. With time, the device will teach him to forget the ringing. In a second scenario, a woman’s eardrums keep reverberating with her brother’s death screams after a car accident that only she survives. In this case, surgery makes her deaf in order to protect her from the traumatic sound, a memory burned into the body. The scientific establishment—licensed to distinguish between real and false—silences the subjects’ “inaccurate” perceptions and encourages them to forget intolerable, inappropriate, fictional memories.

If we read the present privileging of non-fiction over fiction through Alvarez’s essay, it is easy to understand the appeal of, say, Stephen Lewis over Salman Rushdie. While good fiction allows for a multiplicity of meanings, strong non-fiction, the kind that appeals in these (according to the Globe) insecure times, offers a single note, a correct explanation, often silencing perspectives that do not accord with the author’s view.

Alvarez uses his two medical anecdotes not to endorse factual, verifiable deafness over a subjective capacity to hear, but rather to illustrate the slipperiness and multiplicity of memory and knowledge. “Nostalgic” closes on a description of how and why its companion piece, the short story “Dust,” came to be. Having just been dumped, Alvarez explains that he set out “to rewrite my lover as someone else, changing all his details in order to start the process of forgetting” (2).

The narrator of “Dust” pines for his temporarily absent lover, a man with a rare condition that has turned his bones to lead. To fill his lonely days and to feel closer to his loved one, our narrator (let’s call him “D”) volunteers afternoons and weekends at the Museum of Special Dust, which houses the pulverized lead bones of a long-dead boy who suffered from the same strange disease. The dust is preserved on the floor and furniture of the dead boy’s room, and has not been touched since its original scattering hundreds of years before. Even during the difficult and costly move of the room from Europe to North America, the dust, lead-heavy, did not stir.

As in “Nostalgic,” memory in “Dust” is framed in sonic terms; Alvarez describes an “unnerving” and “aggressive” lack of sound in the room of special dust. The institutionalized memory, preserved and untouched, unaltered, is silent. But, like the man who carries on hearing the ringing in his ear after surgery has erased it, visitors who lean into the room of special dust, over the velvet rope barrier, hear a hum, a ticking, or a whirr, where there is in fact nothing. The stillness in the room of special dust is so complete it even absorbs the small noises internal to the visitors, the movement of their blood and the beating of their hearts; the listeners conjure imaginary sounds to fill the void. Alvarez posits that the visitors cannot comprehend such an unnatural silence, “a vacuum [that] is so foreign to our daily experiences” (3). He points to the way our own narratives overwhelm our capacity to be objective. We bring the noise of our own lives to everything we hear.

I turn to Alvarez in response to the perennial assault on the value of fiction, because for him memory (or cultural knowledge) is always an inscription and a re-inscription, always a fiction; Alvarez’s account of memory in the fictional “Dust” is no less useful or true than that in the non-fictional “Nostalgic.” To be fair, “Nostalgic” is not the kind of non-fiction whose skyrocketing sales are occluding the market for novels and stories. It touches neither on terrorism nor bird flu and his blurring of fact will not make of him a James Frey, denounced—“exposed” was the word favoured in the press—as a liar and a fraud.

The dust in Alvarez’s story is silent and off-limits, a publicly-sanctioned cultural artefact identified as such by its reposition in a museum. But it is also a personal, unsanctioned memory, a queered artefact, the vehicle for our narrator’s remembrance of his absent lover. D wants to write his lover’s name in the special lead dust at the museum, “where the visitors would never see it (but I would know it was there)” (4). Even the typography here emphasizes a structure of multiple, layered reality, where D’s private, emotional truth is protected by parentheses, just as his declaration of love is hidden from the public’s censorious view.

D’s impulse to write his lover’s name “where the visitors would never see it” is obviously complicated by the communicative nature of the writing act and by the location of the writing in an institution of public education. His impulse may be for a private sign, yet his writing would be a fundamentally declarative gesture.

Here we come back to the question of which modes of writing are licensed to tell us about the world. D’s private sign, although relevant to the room of special dust for at least two reasons—the man whose name he wishes to write is another specimen of the rarity on display in the museum, and D’s own emotional life, through sheer proximity, has become entwined with the museum—is not part of the official story on display.

An alliance between creative or personal writing and knowledge production is one energetically denied in the connotative atmosphere surrounding words like “fiction” and “non-fiction.” The artist must not claim to speak truth, but only his or her truth. D. L. Alvarez challenges this exclusion by aligning his fiction with his non-fiction and making them part of the same conversation. The relationship he establishes between fiction, memory and knowledge proposes that selectivity and artistry are always present in memory and in knowledge production.

In “Dust,” D does not write his lover’s name. Before he is able to, a glass wall is installed to seal off the exhibit. This follows an incident, D tells us, “where someone’s three-year-old passed under the old velvet rope barrier. The little girl got footprints in the dust […]. Those footprints are the first and only marks in a room that had remained untouched […] for over three centuries” (5). In this final scene, there is suddenly, unpredictably, both entrance to and egress from a fixed and non-fictional site of memory. The little girl’s footprints become part of the context of the room, her story becomes part of the dead boy’s story, part of D’s story, part of an institutionally managed memory. Thus uncontrolled subjectivity tramps in to contaminate the facts, and fiction and non-fiction blur, as they do, as they always will.


(1) Michael Posner, “The Great Fiction Crash of 2005,” The Globe and Mail 3 Dec. 2005, 11 Jul. 2008. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/Page/document/v5/content/subscribe?user_URL=
(2) Alvarez, D. L., “Nostalgic,” Narrativity 3 (n.d.), eds. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott, San Francisco State University, 11 Jul. 2008. http://www.sfsu.edu/~poetry/narrativity/issue_three/alvarez2.html
(3) Alvarez, D. L., “Dust,” Narrativity 3 (n.d.), eds. Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy and Gail Scott, San Francisco State University, 11 Jul. 2008. “Dust.”
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.

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