Katharine Haake >

Commentary on "The Origin of Stars" and "The Blue-Sailed Boat"


The stories you are reading here come from a book that followed, in my writing life, a long period of intense engagement with multi-discursivity as a mode of negotiating the ever engaging space between what we believe to be true and what we’re convinced we make up in a narrative form that braids—splices?—writing from fiction and nonfiction—memoir and natural science—together with meditations on writing. I know how to talk about that work, because it has recently come to its end with the publication of my “novel,” That Water, Those Rocks. But having long been comfortable in this blurred space which structures itself according to a logic of metonymical accumulation and grounds itself in history, even as it attempts to rupture historical thought, I found myself, once again, in the negative space that represents the choice between the end and the not-end of writing, that follows the completion of any major project, and then someone said to me that she thought I had strayed too far beyond the old and the primary virtues of story itself.

Of course I resisted this advice, in the same way I resist much of the sound advice I receive in my life, because I did not think it likely that I could return to something so transparent as the naïve illusionism of a story in which one thing happens, and then another, with a seamless narrative arc and clear moral purpose, though of course I recognized the comfort and the lure such a model. So it was with a particular feeling of surprise that, one day, I found myself in the midst of what filmmaker and cultural critic Trinh T. Minh-Ha might call a “coming into being of a structure of the moment,” and slipping, as I did, almost without noticing, easily, like a whisper or silk, into a new writing space—new, at least, for me, but also old, like all writing spaces—which I like to think of as the space of the postmodern fable, but which was recently been described as an “intriguing blend of magical realism, science fiction, and down home Americana.” In one story, for example, a boy is born who “lacks the ability to distinguish phonetic difference,” and in another, a tall girl with tiny feet scales mountains.

By the time I had completed the collection, I had written myself into a world where each character is defined by an essential flaw that somehow reflects not just the sad demise of both earth and history, but also the remaining human capacity for hope and grace. The strange and somehow arbitrary surrealistic wounding at the center of each story works to ground and organize each separate narrative, and the project as a whole, as it considers where we are now in terms that, even if this is the end of time, are not entirely bleak, but leavened with a little of what Italo Calvino might call “lightness” and “quickness.”

In 1975, Saul Bellow spoke to my writing class, describing his generation of writers was the first to take on themselves the challenge of writing a fiction that could not be filmed. In 1980, in “The Literature of Replenishment,” John Barth proposed “a worthy project for postmodernist fiction [as] the transcension of [the] antitheses [that] may be summed up as premodernist and modernist modes of writing.”

A quarter of a century later, it sometimes seems that American writers of fiction have forgotten these essential principles, and as we find ourselves ever more deeply mired in a literary culture dictated by the parsimoniousness of educational and market pressures that work relentlessly to reduce what counts as what we do, it sometimes seems that we are on the verge of forgetting, even, that writing is writing. Looking back, I guess that the very questions that have, one way or another, framed my writing life, will continue to do so, as I stubbornly persist in the notion that writing is an act of faith, like any other, and that it still matters. If, as Bahktin has defined it, the novel truly is the “only ever developing genre that takes place in a zone of contact with the open-ended present,” perhaps this only thing that we can say for sure about writing narrative is that it brings with it the obligation to embrace that open-endedness as a writing challenge that, in the most profound sense, will go on, and on, and on.