Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The game of fiction

After finishing my review of Goldengrove, I came across an interesting passage by Martin Amis on Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, who are so good that even grandmasters do not understand them, and the spectacle of high-level chess on TV:

Chess-promoters shouldn’t try to meddle with or minimize the near-infinite difficulty of the game: they are absolutely stuck with it. It is what surrounds the board with holy dread—the exponential, the astronomical. So what are [Kasparov and Short] up to out there, approximately? Because no one really knows. It would seem that comparatively little time is spent doing what you and I do at the chess board: hectically responding to local and immediate emergencies (all these bolts out of the blue). We are tactical, at best; they are deeply strategic. They are trying to hold on to, to brighten and to bring to blossom, a coherent vision which the arrangement of the pieces may or may not contain.The passage is interesting, not merely because it was written by a good writer, but because so many good writers have also played chess. Nabokov, of course. Also Borges, Beckett, Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, J. V. Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, and Thomas Gavin, whose 1977 novel Kingkill was about Maezel’s mechanical chess player and Poe’s exposure of the hoax. Since I do not play, my guess is that Amis’s passage is closer to the truth about writing than about chess. The “near-infinite difficulty of the game,” the “holy dread” that “surrounds the board” (i.e. the page), the “coherent vision” that may or may not emerge from the “arrangement of the pieces”—this exactly describes the life of writing. To the degree that it also describes chess, Amis’s account explains why so many writers play the game.

Whether Francine Prose plays chess I do not know. In the “exclusive extras” appended to the paperback edition of A Changed Man, she confesses to playing a lot of computer solitaire. “You know what?” she adds. “I could, without thinking for half a second, tell you about a half dozen writers I know who are completely addicted. Computer solitaire—it’s the dirty little secret of the literary world.”

Solitaire is not always dignified as a game; it is often dismissed as a “puzzle.” When it comes to writing, though, this is a distinction without a difference. Wittgenstein ought to have banished for all time the search for an all-embracing definition of “game.” In the Philosophical Investigations, he famously said that you will find nothing that is common to all games; what you will find instead are “similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.” He called these “family resemblances.” Games resemble one another in much the same way that two brothers and a sister resemble one another.

A certain kind of fiction belongs to the same extended family as chess and solitaire (or what the British call “patience”). I prefer the phrase game of fiction to the more familiar genre-labels “metafiction,” “self-conscious fiction,” “postmodern fiction,” “parody fiction.” Writing is played solitaire (despite clever attempts to make it seem otherwise, it is not, in Amis’s phrase, “savagely and remorselessly interactive,” like chess), but it can still be played as a game. Like chess, a literary text is set off from the practical, workaday world; it is experienced as a wholly different realm; it has an opening gambit and an endgame; and nothing depends on the outcome. Unlike chess, it is not governed by preexisting rules (a text develops its own set of rules, which is part of the fictional game), although both depend upon traditions, conventions, and “classic moves” while also seeking to unveil originality. The game of fiction is not competitive, because there is no opponent. A literary text may be written against another text. According to Charles Simmons, its style is a record of every style not selected for it. But this belongs to the text’s discursive element, not its gaming. Simmons has not defined a text’s style, but its argument for a certain specific way of writing. A literary text just seems competitive sometimes because writing is so difficult.

In the genre of fiction-as-game, Francine Prose is rare in not calling attention, with loud snorts of self-congratulation, to the endless deferral of reference in which, in place of the physical world, her characters must necessarily live. For her, the game consists of masquerading the game. (She makes it seem as if she is satirizing the actual world, but she is conning her critics.) She takes full advantage of the weariness that many readers feel upon opening the pages of latter-day “metafictionists” like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gass, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, Robert Stone, David Foster Wallace or, God forbid, Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates. Great work has been done in the mode, but after Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino, enough is enough.


Unknown said...

Whenever i see a man with a laptop on an airplane and peek over at him, he's playing solitaire. Why not just carry a pack of cards?

Ken Houghton said...

Cards warp a suit jacket.

Am I the only one who still fondly remembers Brad Leithauser as a novelist (Hence, for the topic at hand). Or Walter Tevis's last great novel, The Queen's Gambit?

D. G. Myers said...


I know Leithauser only as a poet and Tevis not at all. Say more.