Monday Motivation: The secret world of fiction
What is fiction best at? Opening up other worlds? Introducing us to people beyond our usual circle? Enabling us to escape the quotidian into landscapes in which love, justice and truth finally conquer?
I heard Jennifer Egan, author of a book that her interviewer called “sublimely evocative” talking about precisely this. The BBC’s Mariella Frostrup had run her through the worlds conjured up in Manhattan Beach, Egan’s most recent novel. It’s a story set in the docklands of New York just before and during the Second World War. It deals with the experiences of a young woman called Anna Kerrigan who enlists as a navy diver and helps teams repair ships damaged by encounters with the enemy.
The novel evokes not only the austerity and excitement of the war, and the very specialised world of naval diving, but also organised crime and its infiltration of the Irish unions of the day. All this took more research than anyone can reasonably be expected to do – and perhaps explains why the novel was fifteen years in the making.
But none of this is what Egan says fiction does best.
This is how the interview went:
Frostrup: This is a novel of hidden stories. Are you interested in how narrowly we see others, and yet how many secrets each life contains?
Egan: So much. And I think in a way that’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read In Search of Lost Time (better known as Remembrance of Things Past). That is so much what Proust was interested in, the ways in which we can see each other every day but inner life is finally such a private thing. To me, that is the amazing thing that fiction can do, that no other genre I’ve seen really can, which is, open up someone’s inner life for survey.
I agree wholeheartedly. Fiction – and particularly the novel – gives us access to the thoughts and the feelings and the secrets of characters. We’re given a ringside view of their inner life in a way that is not possible in reality.
Think about your own experience for a moment. You live a life that is composed partly of your actions in the world. That includes the thoughts you express to the people around you. Naturally, you’ll reserve your most intimate thoughts and your most vulnerable feelings for the people – or the person – closest to you.
But you also exist in the dusky heartland of your head where ambiguity shadows every thought, and doubt undermines every decision. Winston Churchill was talking about Stalin’s Russia when he said “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. But that characterisation can with equal justification be applied to our inner selves.
And of course, in the real world, in some relationships, there is no one whom one trusts enough to confide these secret mysteries (or miseries) to. But even in the most open relationship each of us experiences transitory thoughts and feelings that we keep entirely to ourselves.
And it is this world, of secrets and lies, of hidden ambition, of guilt and repression, that, uniquely, the novelist can access.
The lesson to be drawn from these thoughts is simple: if this is the USP – the unique selling proposition – of fiction, then we’d be crazy not to exploit it as thoroughly and as cleverly as we can.
This is precisely what Egan did in Manhattan Beach. And there’s absolutely no reason in the world that we can’t do likewise.