Casts of Characters

December 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens and Other Electricities by Ander Monson.

It’s all story, these two very different books agree.  From the perspective of someone even vaguely acquainted with literary history and criticism, these books seem wildly dissimilar and even oppositional: Victorian v. American postmodern, social realist v. belletristic, representational v. poststructuralist.  But to a 13th- or 30th-century person, they could seem very much the same: pretty lies with title pages, single authors, plots and pictures and casts of characters, all in the service of story.

It’s all story in different ways to Dickens and Monson, to be sure.  When I say “it’s all story” to Dickens, I mean that Dickens was a one-man storytelling industry, a factory, a marvelous machine that could create characters and plots and scenes seemingly out of anything.  And I guess that story, narrative,  seemed to him the way that life worked, the way to make sense of things, the way to get things done: see an injustice, write a story that would show people why and how the situation could be unjust to a person they might know, might love, and sometimes (at his best) even why and how the evil behind the injustice might be examined and understood.

Whereas Monson’s “it’s all story” is a little more about calling attention to the structure of the lenses through which we see the world.  To Monson, a conversation is a story; a list is a story; a table of contents is a story; a news report is a story; a diagram is a story; a memory is a story.  Another word for “story” is “fiction,” and another word for “fiction” is “construct.”  Reality is a mosaic of a trillion fictions.  Etc etc; if you were an English major (or minor or whatever) you don’t need to hear this all again.  (It is interesting, really, if only you can separate the idea from the way so many profs are so obnoxious and smug about it, and are so certain that it’s the only way of “reading” the “world.”  I digress.)

Maybe you know that I love those appurtenances of literature known in academic circles as “paratexts,” those pieces of supposed non-story which are nevertheless central to how we read books, to our understanding of how books work and what they are.  As it happens, both of these dissimilar books are pretty heavily paratextual.  Other Electricities in its first (only, so far) edition contains, by my count, 37 pages of paratextual material in a book of only 169 total pages.  (Plus one of these paratextual pages contains a web address where there’s even more.)

And Dickens editions, in this day and age, are crazy with the paratexts; so many students in need of so much help.  This Penguin Classics edition I’m using (God bless ’em; where would the world be without Penguin Classics?) contains a one-page bio of Dickens, an expanded 4-page bio, a 16-page critical introduction, a note on the text, a short bibliography for further reading, a reproduction of the first-edition title page, a reproduction of the original dedication page, three prefaces to different editions (all by Dickens, all reworking similar material in slightly different ways and responding to slightly different grievances Dickens perceived or wanted to cut off at the pass), a detailed table of contents, a cast of characters, and at the end a postscript, two appendices, and explanatory notes.  Good God!  (Not to mention that Dickens does not exactly dive head-first into his narrative once you actually get to the text of the actual novel; Dickens was a throat-clearing sort of writer, it seems to me, and would often write his way into the narrative and into the characters’ lives with little mini-narratives: here, there’s a seven-page satirical genealogical history and a three-page description, almost a prose poem, of an early-winter wind before we meet any characters, Dickens seeming to just enjoy playing around with language, casting a kind of linguistic spell on himself as much as us.)

One of the things I find most interesting about paratexts is their aura of mystery, when you think about them: I mean, who writes this stuff?  And why do so many books look so alike, when you think about it: half-title, title, copyright, t.o.c., etc., etc.?  Am I the only one who’s interested in whether an author writes his own dust-jacket copy and bio?  Does anyone else hate it when there’s no info in a book on the book’s designers or illustrators or cover art?

I digress again (big time).  So both of these books contain long, complicated casts of characters.  In the case of Dickens, I’m not sure when this feature was first introduced, and whether it’s an addition to the text by Dickens for some edition during his life or was included once the book was mainly read in classrooms; however, the short notes certainly have a Dickensian flavor to them.  Characters are “weazen-faced,” “unpretentious but high-souled,” “starched and punctilious.”  It’s oddly ordered, in that there’s an alphabetical list followed by another, shorter alphabetical list, presumably of secondary characters.  Reading the cast gives us some sense of the kind of book we’re in for, and does form a narrative in that sense (although the notes are not revealing of plot, only of character), but I’m sure it’s actually supposed to be most useful for revisiting the work when writing a paper, or when you’ve gotten two characters confused.  A handy checklist, in other words.

In Monson, “A Helpful Guide to the Characters and Their Relationship to Danger, and an Explanation of Some Symbols Commonly Found Herein” is a story itself.  It tells, in a different form, the story we’re about to read, and other stories, too.  Probably my favorite entry in the cast is this:

JOSH: jumps off a cliff into the cold water & the dark below, the snow circling around him & falling on his body; compares himself to Jesus; drives his dad’s car without permission; might cease to exist at any moment; minor character who is barely worth consideration

I mean, that’s just brilliant.  It’s a heartbreaking very short story: that last clause made me give one of those surprised huffs of air that sound like a laugh but are often quite sad.  It’s also a great comment on all those untold stories: all the “minor characters” with major meaning, at least to themselves.  Minor characters in life can have Jesus complexes, too.  And Monson’s “Helpful Guide” shows us that a supposedly objective and non-fictional structure like a list of characters can be — is, in fact, in Dickens as much as Monson — a story we tell, a skewed view on the world and its people.

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