“E Unibus Pluram”: the short story and the voices of a fragmented nation.
Ignite article, IJAS online 2
One of the truisms of American studies seems to be the intrepid historylessness of the United States. De Tocqueville observed that democracy tended to “make each man forget his ancestors” (de Tocqueville, 6), and, for better or worse, the shedding of history, both individual and collective, has been synonymous with the development of an American identity. The persistent tendency to try one’s luck, and the attendant widespread aversion to forms of assistance such as welfare, bespeaks an equally widespread aversion to the idea of being fixed by history. This aversion stems back right to the origins of America itself, founded on the principle of equal opportunity, where no man’s past, immediate or ancestral, should be permitted to influence negatively his pursuit of happiness. To be “American” is – often uneasily – to balance the demands of the reinvented self with an enduring sense of One Nation Under God (the nature of the God being, perhaps, still up for debate). The combined influences of staunch individualism and entrenched exceptionalism have had a unique and ubiquitous impact on the literature of contemporary America, where both ideals have flourished over the relatively short life of the nation.
From its earliest days, America has conceived of itself as marked for greatness. The “myth of the redeemer nation” (Madsen, 16), from Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech through the confused rebellion of Thomas Pynchon’s young sinner and Toni Morrison’s complex racial explorations, endures against centuries of manifest challenge. In American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset investigated some of the paradoxes “that permit pernicious and beneficial social phenomena to arise simultaneously from the same basic beliefs” (Lipset, 38). These paradoxes are inherent in the creed upon which the United States is founded: the idea of unity from diversity. This idea echoes in President Obama’s 2009 invocation of the “patchwork identity” in his inaugural address, a whole that is built from many smaller pieces, pieces that do not belong together except in the context of their juxtaposition.
“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed” (Chesterton, 5). The tenets of that creed can cause a certain strain on American identity, between individual and collective. E Pluribus Unum, the motto of the United States, is an inspiring idea, but makes for a complex reality. The American Creed, as Chesterton called it, fosters a high sense of personal responsibility and initiative, and the qualities prized in and by Americans, but these same basic tenets – liberty, opportunity, and the autonomy of the individual – can cause excessive litigiousness, greed, and a sense of entitlement that can obliterate the greater good. On the whole, exceptionalism and individualism are not irreducibly at odds, but the tension between them is inevitable. Just as the fasce of branches that inspired the name of fascism sought to make a strong whole from gathered splinters, the American identity comprises twin drives; enshrined in the nation’s ideology are the two, ultimately opposing, strands of liberty and fraternity. Liberty will always have to give way to fraternity; the collective overpowers the individual. The American refusal of history and the exceptionalist assumption of a special destiny privilege the idea of the United States over any of her citizens. The inevitable strain between the opposing needs of the individual and of the collective give rise to a unique culture, which produces a unique art, consisting of strands of other art and fragments of other cultures that go towards creating a patchwork art to go with a patchwork identity.
Frank O’Connor’s idea of the “lonely voice” of the short story is arguably the necessary consequence of these competing draws, at once fragmentary and complete, independent of and contingent on the outside world. In 1927, Ruth Suckow argued that America was the “land of the definition of the short story” (Suckow, 4), where the form found its greatest scope for development. The title of this paper is taken from an early essay of David Foster Wallace’s on television and US fiction. This phrase is an obvious, if grammatically suspect, inversion of the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”. The “patchwork heritage” implicit in the motto of the United States offers a rich seam of narrative, but it also provides writers of American identity with their greatest challenge: to represent the individual contra mundum, but also intra mundum. A number of critics have argued that the short story is the most American of art forms. William Peden claims that it is “the only major literary form of essentially American origin, and the only one in which American writers have from the beginning tended to excel” (Peden, 1). However, as Peden asserts in the same breath as this somewhat sweeping statement, “paradox has characterised the development of the American short story”. This paradox lives in the very notion of a national art form, for as Cormac McCarthy pointed out in interview with Richard Woodward, “the ugly fact is that books are made out of books” (McCarthy, 1992). McCarthy owed a debt to the great writers of “issues of life and death”, including the very American Faulkner and the decidedly European Dostoyevsky. What, then, is American about the American short story? Within a form like the short story, which exists on its own terms and with only suggestive reference to the outside world, history can be elided, overlooked and reshaped to suit the narrator. The individual in the context of an American society, whose society is predicated on the possibility of the reinvention of the self, is best represented by an art form that can be anything its author needs it to be, recognised on sight but without definite features.
“[D]esigned as a culturally disposable artifact” (Levy, 2), the short story, with its idea of an unanchored narrative, to be read and abandoned, appeals to the constantly self-renewing spirit of the United States. It is interesting to note too that the means of distribution of short fiction falls in with this view of its function: short stories, unlike novels, are frequently first published in magazines, which themselves epitomise disposability. On the other hand, as Andrew Levy points out, perhaps it is true to say that “the nationalist claim has been so strong because the authors can agree that the short story is American without necessarily agreeing to what it means to be American” (Levy, 29). As Cormac McCarthy’s statement to Richard Woodward would suggest, it is not especially useful to argue that the short story is the essential and indisputable American fictional form, both because America cannot lay exclusive claim to the development of the form, and because the form cannot claim to deal more with Americanness than the American novel or poem (Levy, 29).
The artistic challenge of representing this struggle is one that the United States is increasingly meeting, in the shape of writers like David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, both of whom I discuss briefly here. Part of this representational challenge is one of language, and the capacity of an individual’s language to flourish against the overwhelming vocabulary of a nation assured of its own greatness, particularly one whose identity is so bound up with acquisition, the vestigial Puritan belief in visible saints. The overwhelming capitalism of the United States has worked its way inexorably into the language of the country, its commerce and its art. As a consequence, language itself is commodified, and within this commodification, the sincere articulation of a life becomes fraught with difficulty. This struggle is persistently embodied in the short fiction of both Wallace and Saunders. In particular, both writers offer complex satire on the difficult process of sincere self-expression within the context of commercialised, commodified linguistic structures. Both writers are strongly associated with current critical discourses on sincerity and compassion, and both write out of and into a problematic, cynical and circumscribed vocabulary.
In Wallace’s “Mister Squishy”, a sinister little story about Focus Groups, chocolate and corporate crime, Wallace articulates several concurrent aspects of the fragmented modern American identity. The consumerist language that dominates the narrative functions as a mockery of the sort of buzzword culture within which such a story operates. The interaction of the facilitator, Mr Schmidt, with the group reveals a master manipulator, massaging the Focus Group’s view of themselves by way of what Wallace terms “countertrend” conversations, countertrend being a particular marketing strategy that employs the individual’s desire to be seen as rebellious and unconventional – mirroring the coded language that draws the reader into the narrative. By expertly simulating openness and honesty about the whole focus-group process, Schmidt “invite[s] those listening to laugh with him at the statisticians’ jargon” (Oblivion, 23), all the while directing the group’s responses in a useful direction. The story offers a powerful evocation of the cynicism with which the marketing industry treads carefully on the line between what Wallace calls “their natural […] herd instinct and their deep fear of sacrificing their natural […] identities as individuals” (36). The desire for individuality is so pervasive that it has been subsumed by the marketing machine of the late postmodern era. Threading through this depressing tale of corporate puppetry is the second, and arguably more important, sub-narrative. Schmidt, the facilitator, is a nondescript 34-year-old with “very nearly nothing left of the delusion that he differed from the great herd of common men” (47). Postmodern incredulity has, in the world of the narrative, become currency, so pervasive as to be an enemy of honesty instead of a weapon against artistic deceit. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Schmidt looks in the mirror. So fragmented and illusory is his sense of himself that he actually identifies himself with the cartoon logo of his employer, Mister Squishy. Powerless against the energy of social expectation, anxious to present himself as together and successful and really just the embodiment of the American Dream, Schmidt, the common individual, can only relax into the crowd as he mourns his own isolation, wondering “if he even had what convention called a Free Will at all” (55).
The first story in Saunders’ collection In Persuasion Nation, entitled “I CAN SPEAK!™”, takes the form of a letter of response regarding a customer’s complaint about the eponymous product, which the letter calls an “early-development opportunity for babies and toddlers alike” (101), and which purports to interpret the more advanced babble of young children, approximately translating it into complex adult speech. Language is doubly commodified in the story; on the obvious level, the story talks about a language as the output of a commercial product: infant expression is assisted by machine. Advanced models of the product offer personalised “Discretionary Phrases”, as well as a unique mask that is made to look like the infant in question. The mask, then, whichever version of it is in use, covers the baby’s head and gives the illusion that it is speaking. Here we might think of Fukuyama’s contention in 2002 “that Huxley was right, that the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history” (7). A baby whose face and voice are robotic is surely no longer strictly human, and the story glosses over the issues raised by this intersection of development and technology, while simultaneously making them unavoidable for the reader.
By offering a radical iteration of mediated communication, the story draws attention to the other, subtler ways in which language is mediated and determined by technology – the ways in which we have become posthuman without knowing it. That mediation is further figured in the language of the story itself, in the form of the letter from the desk of a “Product Service Representative” for the device. The letter is highly stylised, echoing the advertising language of the product itself, rather than reflecting a coherent human voice. By embodying the company’s marketing argot, the letter writer, Rick Sminks, disappears into a parody of himself. More pertinently, his capacity to express himself clearly and coherently is limited by the vocabulary available to him. Language, then, is reduced by commerce to a network of marginally post-infantile utterances, limiting communication to a blankly narcissistic, unreflective monologue. This is sharply underscored by considering Saunders’ perspective on language as a creative medium. Discussing Arthur Miller’s work, Saunders noted that
the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences — the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood, and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (that is, like one’s own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen — something like that. I guess I’m just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.
In Saunders’ vision of art, then, language is not only not debased, but its elegance and expressiveness is paramount to what he sees as the redemptive power of art. To reduce language and communication to commodities, products to be improved and traded, is to rob humanity of its very essence.
The concept of American exceptionalism has gone through several incarnations since de Tocqueville remarked on the brash certainty of young American regarding its own future. The travails and triumphs of exceptional, solitary figures pervade the Western genre, in the guise of the loner who fights for justice or freedom or who simply life engages the American imagination in every kind of art. Even in the mouth of horrors, the value of being chosen is held up as sacred. These figures present the unquenchable optimism of American exceptionalism, and indeed highlight the connections between exceptionalism and individualism; the belief that an individual can change the world, and the conviction that that individual will always emerge from the United States, whose value is greater than any of her citizens not despite but rather because of their immense faith in the power of one. The superhuman hero trope is an overwhelmingly American one, a solitary, exalted figure in a world full of people who cannot understand him, who often revile and deride him, but who look to him for help in all situations. This, perhaps more than any other, parallels the American vision of the exceptional individual, alone, misunderstood, indispensable. The solitude of the hero, the necessary isolation of the excellent and the competing desires of the hero to be both saviour and man in the street, captures the necessary tension between individual and collective that gives America its restless core. But there is another narrative being unearthed here, working within and eddying against the tide of exceptionalist rhetoric; we might call it the untermensch rather than the übermensch, the speaker who does not govern his own speech, but capitulates to the language – and by extension to the life – that the world allows him.
The plight of the underdog, the losers and drones, of those with whom these stories are populated, is dramatised through language: even the words these characters speak are not their own. Both Wallace and Saunders, in these stories in particular, but across their work in general, sharply satirise the debased language of the contemporary United States, drawing attention to the difficulty of meaningful communication in these circumstances. In this respect, both writers seem to indict the confident, exceptional Unum that overrides and silences the humdrum, struggling Pluribus (with apologies to Latin-speakers everywhere). David Rando argues that “among other forms of marginalization, Saunders’s subject is above all the American working class.” The conceptual engagement with what Rando terms the postmodern working class occurs here through the manipulation of language; the ironic quasi-metafictional devices with which both stories are peppered move away from simple artistic commentary or “sneering”, becoming a true satire: a bitter, compassionate analysis of how language and linguistic control liberates and restricts society, particularly those without access to traditional forms of power. By repeatedly enacting that struggle in various guises, as Rando points out, the writer “subtly positions his reader as a consumer of working-class realist satire”; by immersing the reader in the protagonist’s restricted or incomplete vocabulary, by highlighting its absurdity, the reader is necessarily attuned to the absurdity of the struggle for linguistic independence, and by extension the struggle for independence from the commercial and political forces that govern and prescribe available vocabularies. By positioning the limited, imperfect voice as the central structuring force in the narratives I have identified here, then, Saunders and Wallace explore the political and social contexts within which the “losers” of their fleeting narratives struggle and suffer and grow.
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