Recently, my reading group selected Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit as our next book, and I recalled reading a review by Elaine Blair of Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair claims “Cusk has written admiringly about Karl Ove Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.
As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other narrative. I’ve read Knausgaard’s first book. Parts of it are tedious, yet as a whole it is compelling in a voyeuristic way. But I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. Sebald incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism, and the narrator is usually a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.
Though I hadn’t read Cusk’s work when I read this New Yorker review, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than to employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious, of what exists outside of our daytime awareness. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nightly dramas. What a loss!
As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He also says that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.
If our novels adhere to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.