I’ve been listening over and over to this episode of The New Yorker’s fiction podcast. It’s an enchanting, bewitching piece of writing, and Michael Cunningham reads it brilliantly, with illuminating passion, with a sense of wonder, as those the words are startling him, as though he is witnessing their arrival out of nothingness.
Ora’s body is a landscape, a climate — or a kind of boat — for my feelings… rich, rich, the night air murmured
The story is also a challenge to any idea of plot or structure. Essentially, “Dumbness is Everything” depicts two very drunk people having outdoor sex. That’s it: there’s no twist, no discovery or danger, and no overt change in their relationship as a result. The story finishes and they’re still at it, with the narrative drifting away from their consciousnesses rather than building to a — cheap joke alert — climax.
And yet the drama, the intensity of the tale, at least for me, is amazing. Brodkey, we learn, wrote the story when he was very ill, and close to death: he is remembering / inventing events from decades before, and able to invest them with huge force.
On a basic level, one could say something like, “It’s his voice, his prose style.” Yet the sentences are not particularly ornate, I think, and not even that sonically deliberate (like how, say, the prose is arranged in a Gass or Hannah story).
On a larger, more philosophical level, the story seems to call into question the whole “show don’t tell” conceit. The story suggests that mind, not matter, is primary. That sounds very abstract, but I think it is the case that a lot of fiction-writing advice starts from the assumption that we are bodies, living in a physical world, and it is the writer’s job to create a new set of bodies for us to watch. If the job of a fiction writer is to invent events and situations, replicating the life of matter and bodies, then plot makes sense, because something has to happen to those invented creatures. In such a vision of a story, “show don’t tell” is vital advice: we need vivid details to help us “see” that invented reality.
That’s why creative writing classes advise against adverbial speech tags, like “she smiled awkwardly,” or “he said angrily,” because this doesn’t conjure an image. From the perspective of fiction-as-event, these phrases are clichés, because they rely on our shared understanding of what it means to smile awkwardly: they do not provide an individual, distinct image.
But Brodkey’s story suggests that this is backward. If, instead, the mind is primary, and fiction’s job is to capture the way the mind experiences the world, then we need a difference kind of language. It’s not about presenting a series of unique, vivid images, because matter is secondary. It’s about presenting the way thoughts flow into one another, how the mind truly experiences reality, both at the time and in remembrance. Some of those thoughts would be expressed in vague words, even clichéd words, because many of our thoughts and judgements are vague and general; the thisness that the story evokes would have nothing to do with how things look or smell, but how they seem (and seemed).
We elude each other — but not completely… What is mostly there is ignorance, just like when you’re exploring philosophy, and the more ignorance you admit to the more sophisticated you are, provided the ignorance you admit to is the right sort. Dumbness is everything…
I’m curious what you think about this story. Would you listen to a little and tell me what you think? If you are pressed for time, the actual reading starts at 9 minutes in, after Cunningham tells an entertaining story about how he and Brodkey met.