Writer in Residence

Class, History, Fiction, and Form Part 2: Is the Bicycle Dead?

By Geoffrey Morrison

Before I do anything else, I have to try to say what I mean by fictional forms. I do so with a lot of trepidation, because my sense of these things is idiosyncratic and perhaps wrong. But here goes.

People were telling and writing stories long before the “novel” came to be, in something like prose or in something like verse. They were also doing things that might not be best described as “stories” but could still be called “fictions,” or at least “dreams.” So long as there are people to tell or write stories, fictions, or dreams to, I think they will keep doing so long after the “novel” has departed (if it departs). I am basically in agreement with this exchange in the very funny Donald Barthelme short story, “The Explanation”:

Q: Is the novel dead?
A: Oh yes. Very much so.
Q: What replaces it?
A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented.
Q: The same thing?
A: The same sort of thing.
Q: Is the bicycle dead?

French cartoon shows a man riding on a bicycle-like flying machine while looking through a telescope attached to the front. Two balloons, "Veloc[ipedes]" and "Domanie," are attached at front and rear as are propeller-like wheels.

Is the bicycle dead? Is this a bicycle?

I feel freest as a writer when I think of the long continuities and affinities between so many different but kindred forms from many times and places: folk tales, commonplace books, essays, diaries, romances, encyclopedias, histories, sermons, legends, epic poems, lyric poems, oral narratives, satirical pamphlets…such that I would rather say I am writing a “long prose fiction” than a novel. I feel much less free when I think of what I am writing as a “novel” defined in a narrow way. As a writer, the novel, narrowly defined (NND), is a force I feel I have to resist. I do not think we belong to each other, but the NND is always trying to incorporate me, like a goo.

As any textbook or introductory course will tell you, the NND began as a bourgeois form (the “bourgeoisie” meaning the class that owns the productive capital and employs the workers). It rose to prominence in Europe (part of what makes this N so ND is that it it Eurocentrically ignores the global heritage of longform narrative) at exactly the point in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the capitalist bourgeoisie was taking the place of the older landed aristocracy, and it was intended to gratify their sensibilities.

Put most crudely, the classic bourgeois novel is about people who marry for money and struggle for love, or marry for love and struggle for money, and a happy ending means you have enough love and enough money that people will do what you tell them with big smiles on their faces. In unhappy endings, like little Berthe’s in Madame Bovary, you become a worker. Of course, this oversimplifies things very much. But what I do think these books usually have in common is a special focus on the agentive, realistic, psychologically dynamic individual, the “character,” as the proper terrain of narrative momentum – agentive in the sense that they do things with a reasonable expectation of getting their way.

When the classic bourgeois novel applies these narrative techniques to characters who are not themselves bourgeois, like peasants or workers or racialized or colonized peoples – in other words, people who the eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie think are not supposed to have psyches or get their way – the result is usually sentimentality, burlesque, or bathos. Think of the workers and poor people in Dickens, even when his heart is in the right place.

“Isn’t it a pity,” the bourgeois reader is meant to say, when people who the bourgeoisie think are not supposed to get their way – peasants and workers and racialized and colonized people – do not get their way. And the bourgeois reader is meant to see these as private tragedies or jokes rather than the effects of explicable, defeatable social forces. It’s all very mawkish. But, on the other hand, for as long as there have been bourgeois novels there have been attempts to break out of their strictures and let in a little fresh air – so much so that a “pure” bourgeois NND may not even exist. They were probably always ideologically contested ground.

Of course, many other things happened to the novel after the nineteenth century to make it more like the beautiful and noisy multitude of forms that came before the NND. Modernism and Postmodernism made sure of that. The gradual but undeniable opening up of literary production to people of working-class, peasant, colonized, and racialized backgrounds, of all genders and sexualities, in all parts of the world, has made sure of that. So too has the basic fact that, while individual members of today’s bourgeoisie may still write novels, and do so at a marked advantage (they have money, which equals time, and novels take a hell of a lot of time), the novel has mostly outlived its social purpose as a device for the class-formation of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Their victory has been total, so in aggregate they don’t really care about novels that much. The form has nothing left to offer them. I think they prefer movies and TV shows and fitness regimens and business books with titles like Scram: The 31-Day Lifehack for Agile Buildouts.

For the rest of us, we who have to work for a living and write to see – for a brief, gopher-like moment between shifts, errands, responsibilities – what we can see, this state of affairs presents us with a great irony and a great challenge. The irony is that, for all the radical changes to the novel form since, say, 1900, we have nevertheless also inherited, like an unpawnable heirloom, the tools and techniques of a literary form, the NND, that was never really for us or about us, never really took our ways of seeing and thinking seriously, never really cared to ask why we were the way we were. And so if we want to transcend the realistic individual agentive character and write about the agency of groups or the movement of vast forces or the psychic landscape of someone who is not getting their way, we do so against the pull of a lot of residual goo. The challenge, of course, is to do it anyway.

Next time I am finally going to suggest a way or two we might.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Geoffrey D. Morrison is the author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). He was a finalist in both the poetry and fiction categories of the 2020 Malahat Review Open Season Awards and a nominee for the 2020 Journey Prize. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver). Falling Hour is his first novel.