Encyclopaedic Realism, or the Post-Modern Saga

Tuesday November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is another post on in an earlier post I have termed Encyclopaedic Realism, for no other reason than I have no better term. The post is occasioned by having since the last post read more texts that convince me that this is a fruitful and productive line of enquiry, and to me, quite an exciting idea. To recapitulate, this was what I wrote in my last post on the subject:

I mean ‘encyclopaedic’ in the sense of it being comprehensive, but also as a term meaning more than this, as a term describing the structure of knowledge, the way in which it is arranged, and then eventually accessed. To borrow, selectively, three differing definitions encyclopaedic that I think are particularly useful:

1) covering all branches of knowledge or, less commonly, all aspects of one subject;

2) Origin 1530, meaning “course of construction”;

3) enkyklios (ἐγκύκλιος), meaning “circular, recurrent, required regularly, general” + paideia (παιδεία), meaning “education, rearing of a child”;

There is something in each of these that I like. In (1) the comprehensiveness; in (2) the metaphor of ‘construction’, implying the necessary building of structure. And in (3) it is really this notion of it being ‘circular’ and ‘recurrent’ more than anything else.

In that post I did not provide any examples of the texts that might conform to readings informed by notions of encyclopaedic realism, but there are some I think would. First of these, and arguably the most exciting, is the body of work of Roberto Bolano. He wrote a lot, and I have not read it all by any means, not even all of The Savage Detectives, his break-out work. But I have read enough to detect what I am convinced is a larger, if incomplete (deliberately so, probably) scheme.

At the level of text, both of the key Bolano masterworks (as in, master-key, not masterpiece, necessarily) display  features that could fit within the rubric of Encyclopaedic Realism. The Savage Detectives in particular proceeds via a circuitous narration that is largely the product of the reminiscences of other characters than the ostensible main characters. Their ’talking head’ recollections and memories – sometimes directly relating to our protagonists, sometimes not, or at least not always –  make this feel more like a documentary than a conventional novel. But in this way, we are also granted insights into those characters and their stories, that might or might not revolve around the main story. In this way, to return to my definition above, we are granted sight of the excavated ground that surrounds the main story, that is contained in the allusive injunction to cover ‘all aspects of one subject’. Similarly, their accumulation and repetition gives the story a character that is ‘recurrent, circular’.

Although textually formally more straightforward, 2666 also approaches realism in a way that might be considered ‘encyclopaedic’. The novel comprises five related, but on the surface entirely separate stories. Each introduces an entirely new character, or at least one only shadowed in the preceding narrative, as a new story is added. All are united and tied together by events in Santa Teresa, the murders there, and the interlocking reasons for the various protagonist’s own reasons for going there. But what is significant is that the narrative is not linear, nor is it coherent in the conventional sense, and as with The Savage Detectives talking heads, what we are granted is a number of different perspectives, and thus more obviously, ‘all aspects of one subject’. Rather than proceeding in a straight line, the narrative almost draws backwards against its own forward momentum.

Which is interesting, but there is however, a scheme that is bigger than either of these texts, and this is what is really exciting, I think. For reading both of these books alongside the rest of his output, it becomes clear that all of these works exist on a larger, unified universe. Characters and situations recur, events described in one book, are referred to in another, and places and locations are commonly referred to and visited. Most often that place is Santa Teresa, Sonoroa, and events in Mexico, that spill out of the character’s experiences there.

It is almost as if, just as in 2666 a number of narratives that comprise a total story, so each of the novels (or a lot of them –  not all appear part of the scheme) are simply chapters in the capitulation of an entire fictional world.

Of course, there is sufficient ambiguity, mystique and playfulness to mean that although this bigger world has some coherence, sufficient to be recognised, it remains the case that its presentation does still allow for multiple interpretations, and allows room for some dissonance and creative disharmony. In short, it is not a rigid, fixed world that is being elaborated, rather a recognisable, navigable but ultimately irreconcilable and unpossessable world, not unlike our own.

Such a world also corresponds to the example I gave in the first post, of the childhood games that spawn their own back-story and histories, and also the allusions I made to sites such as Wikipedia, and the way we increasingly interpret information and data. These are acts of mapping, as much as they are narratives, and in their richness, and digressive character they allow us to enter more fully, in my opinion, the universes they contain. In the case of Bolano, Woes of the True Policeman is the next instalment.

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