Charles Baxter: Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1997. $15.00 paper (ISBN 1-55597-270-5), 245 pages. Reviewed by Brian Charles Clark
Novelist, short-story writer, self-described former poet, and creative writing teacher Charles Baxter has a keen eye and a strong heart for detail. In Burning Down the House he wrestles with “the imagination’s grip on daily life and how one lives in the pressure of that grip.” Because they grip us, because we wrestle with them, the images and voices of the imagination require the attention of a muscular criticism: the keen eye of the narrator, plus compassion—a willingness to accept the “other” without capitulating the ideals, the imagination, of one’s own community. Baxter reads the tropes of America the way a masseuse approaches muscle, feeling for knots and eddies in the landscape of textured skin and sinew. Baxter has detected a knot among contemporary American narratives: a strain, in the senses of both species and stress.
Baxter names this strain in the title of the leadoff essay, “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made’”. “We often pretend,” Baxter writes in his Preface, “that public lying by politicians has no effect on the stories we tell each other, but it does; or that our obsession with data processing has no relevance to violence in movies, but it might.” The assassination of JFK, Nixon’s Watergate, and the obsessive attention given to grainy film and gaps in audiotape are archetypal instances of the kinds of stories straining the imagination of contemporary culture. Baxter takes a critical path that echoes the Frankfurt School, as well as Christopher Caudwell, who wrote in the early 1930s: “This is the first unwritten law of alienation, and we need to be conscious of it: The something we say no to is never the real enemy, but only the shadow it casts over and within us.” All of this, of course, is a textbook description of the “postmodern condition.” But instead of a criticism of relentlessly reductive materialism (that, in Baxterian terms, might well be seen as dysfunctional, a kind of depressive downward spiral), Baxter’s is more generous.
Baxter is not afraid of the conspiracies of abuse and narratives of confession, but he is concerned with our expressions of “sorrow mixed with depression or rage, the condition of the abject,… the psychic landscape of trauma and paralysis…” Baxter does not dwell in these conditions; he guides us through them, firing off tips for re-imagining the same old story all the way. For example, if we have learned to be suspicious of feeling “bad,” and find ourselves in the psychic ghetto as victims of “disorders,” what we may truly suffer from is an addiction to narrative epiphany. Just as a religious experience is an epiphany, a life-directing experience, for a believer, so we’ve come to believe the cure for depression is an interior act of insight on the part of the depressive. In “Against Epiphanies” Baxter argues that “This country has always… been fascinated by a certain variety of the isolated thinker—sometimes a genius, sometimes a crackpot, and sometimes a weird mixture of the two.” Baxter samples Thoreau and Henry James, Sr., but his point is about the kind of paranoia that, on the one hand, produces the Unabomber Manifesto of hermit Theodore Kaczynski and, on the other, the underground hermeticism of UFOs and vanishing hitchhikers that surface in, for one, The X Files. That “Insights, in art and outside of it, depend on an assumption that the surface is false” and that everybody else is missing the real story is a narratively productive “pathos…, especially among Americans and adolescents.” We’re on a slippery slope, as Baxter observes: “the fascination with false surfaces leads, fairly quickly, to a fascination with conspiracies. It is one thing to say that the surface is illusory. It’s another to say that the illusion has been designed that way by fools or malefactors.”
Baxter’s case against epiphanies in fiction has echoes in the anti-psychiatry movement, especially in the writings of the post-Jungian James Hillman. Like Hillman, Baxter is a fierce defender of the prerogatives of the imagination. In Healing Fiction Hillman writes that an “act of turning to imagination is not an act of introspection: it is a negative capability, a willful suspension of disbelief in them [the muses and abusers of our interior lives] and of belief in oneself as their author.” If this Keatsian negative capability is at first an epiphany, we shouldn’t linger, for our way leads us to the vale of soul-making, where the real work of a narrative relationship begins. Thus Baxter writes: “To line up with the anti-epiphanic is to withdraw from officialdom. Officials, and official culture, are full of epiphanies and insights and dogmas. One is free to be sick of that mode of discourse.” The confessional soup boiling in talk-show TV-land (Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake), and MFA programs everywhere, is strained in the stock image of “people acting meaningfully or stewing in their own juices.” We want that epiphany, but the “epiphany was never meant to be used for merchandising and therapy. It is not easily adapted to a mass market. But practical measures have been applied. The job has been done.” To refuse the epiphany is thus to read and write one’s way out of the box of sorrow and depression. This is a narrative voice that is “quarrelsome, hilarious, and mulish.” This voice in our stories is needed, it is necessary: “It has to be. It’s a correction.” Anti-depressant and resistance movement? Same thing—at least in fiction.
In “Talking Forks: Fictions and the Inner Life of Objects” Baxter explores the idea “that contemporary fiction has gradually been developing a fascinated relationship with objects that parallels in some respects the concerns of various ecological movements.” Perhaps the idea of “objects and humans” as “collaborative” “is… risky” in that Baxter veers perilously close to “crackpot New Age dogma,” but that which “may be good for fiction is not necessarily good in the realm of ideas.” Perhaps the apologia is required—an academic product disclaimer?—but Baxter’s attempt to recover for fiction a, so to speak, secret life of objects is most welcome. This recovery is needed because, as Baxter points out, there occurred a split around the time of the Romantics in which “Poetry was supposed to get the spirit, and fiction got the material world.” Baxter locates a knot in the 19th-century essayist John Ruskin’s notion of the “pathetic fallacy.” Ruskin thought the “literary response to nature” of his time was “unhinged.” I think Baxter takes this personally, and I’m glad he does because he manages to say this:
“Poetry gets the spirit and hears it speak but is called mad. Prose fiction is given a landscape of dead objects and is rewarded for writing about these things with a popular acclaim, a mass audience. This is a particularly solipsistic and Puritan solution to the problem of inner and outer worlds.”
“Talking Forks” winds its way through a garden of fictions: Baxter has a nose for examples, and ranges from Rilke to Cervantes to the Russians, taking us on the scenic route through a history of the mind-body split. Fiction writers need poetry because the world is not a dead object. The material of writers Baxter writes, “Materialism without ideals, mad or not, weeps. Deprived of a quest, it is consigned to centuries of weeping.”
Burning Down the House is an important book for readers, writers, and especially teachers, of literature—not only fiction. If there are two kinds of thinkers in the world—“splitters,” who tweeze apart the world seeking difference, and “lumpers,” who seeker to reduce the number of categories by seeking connection—then Baxter is a lumper par excellence.
Baxter tries, and in my view succeeds, to give back to American fiction the things that have been suppressed in more than a century of ruthless realism and abject materialism. His essays abound with close readings of 19th and 20th century writers, making this collection not only a scholarly all-terrain vehicle, but a practical road map for crafters of fiction as well. In a contemporary fiction-writing scene that is traumatized by ahistorical rootlessness and a scienceless suspicion of memory and its resulting narratives, Baxter sweeps away the cognitive cobwebs and the anxious dust of “postmodern” angst and shows us what remains. Here is “stillness,” the quiet attending to the world that, despite materialistic attempts to make consciousness an existential fluke, continues to impose itself on writers who do what writers are taught to do: attend to detail. Here is “rhyming action,” the massively parallel connections that, despite our best attempts to rationally disavow any such knowledge, we continue to find at play in our dialogues of imagination and acts of being. Here is a new kind of resistance to “the official Happiness Project,” to the octopuses of TV-land and New York publishing. Here’s to a “fiction [that] thrives, not on statements and claims, but on questions.”