Monday, February 06, 2006

Psychoanalysis & Books

Joseph Beth, a big local bookstore chain (and by local I mean they are headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, so local in a regional sense) had a program tonight where Dan Chaon (who wrote an astonishing collection of short fiction called Among the Missing which was nominated for a National Book Award and a novel called You Remind Me of Me) sat down with a psychoanalyst and they discussed his novel, You Remind Me of Me.

This seemed a strange thing to me. The characters in a book are manifestly not real. Someone (in this case, Dan Chaon) made them up. I really like psychological realism, but I think it's an illusion, just like so much else in fiction. The suggestion of psychological complexity is a characteristic of mimetic fiction--meaning that if you want your story to feel real, you should also make the characters feel like they have a complicated psychological make-up. But characters that are as arbitrary as real people feel thin on the page, just as dialogue that is realistic feels strung out and boring. It's all fake.

And a lot of fiction isn't even about psychological realism. Christy Malry's Own Double Entry doesn't feel even remotely realistic, and that is part of the point of that slim, very postmodern novel. It's still a delightful read. Joy Williams writes short stories that feel as if they evoke interesting, complex, personal and true psychological effect, but her characters are often utterly unrealistic, psychologically. In her short story "The Girls" (which was reprinted in America's Best Short Stories 2005) she describes a pair of sisters who are never named and who are so single in their pursuits and outlook that they are utterly unreal. They are all but one person. This is not even remotely psychologically accurate. Even identical twins have relationships with each other. And yet, the way the family dynamic develops, with all its destructive impulses and with it's unexpected moments and epiphanies, feels utterly true to a certain aspect of the human condition. The characterization isn't psychological, but in some odd way, the story is.

So when you analyze a story, you are analyzing the production of the artist. But does that mean you are analyzing the artist? Freud said that if you made up a dream, it could be analyzed in just the same way as one you had. Are stories waking dreams? Is this going to be about Dan Chaon? Or You Remind Me of Me?

What it turned out to be was quite good. It was a discussion of the themes and characterizations of the book that was informed by the insights of psychotherapy in character. So the characters were discussed, and the way they were formed by circumstances was also discussed. I've been to a lot of readings and a lot of presentations by writers. I admit to a certain fatigue with listening to writers describe how they compose (pencil or pen? Computer?) and where and how they were first published (did they have an agent?) The discussion started with Dan talking a little about the impetus of the book and some ways in which the fiction was related to his own autobiography, and then some of the ways in which it wasn't. Then the psychoanalyst (a smart and interesting woman) commented on the themes of the book and on how people invent themselves in a kind of narrative of self. Then the audience asked questions and pretty soon everyone was involved.

It was quite wonderful. A good audience, a smart and articulate writer, and a smart and articulate commentator.

Afterwards, I talked to the woman who put it together, who would like to do Mothers & Other Monsters. I think it would be way cool.


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