Scott Cheshire's Electric Literature essay "The Fundamentalist Reader — On Plotless Novels and the Meaning of Life" reads like an installment in a conversation I've been having with myself.
Why, Cheshire wonders, is he drawn to books such as, say, Jenny Offill's recent "Dept. of Speculation," which he describes as "[l]ots of white space, no clear 'plot,' it read like a narrator thinking out loud, unaware I could hear every word"? The answer, he suggests, is that for him, writing is (to borrow a phrase from Don De Lillo) "a concentrated form of thinking," which is how Cheshire conceptualizes reading as well.
He's right, of course, on both counts: As Joan Didion has observed, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." This is why I write also, and why I read, to confront something I don't know, or don't know I know, to embrace, or tolerate, what Offill calls "this not-knowing," which is, of course, the essence of literature.
To make the point, Cheshire focuses on three novels: DeLillo's "The Names," Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" and Max Frisch's "Montauk," which he contrasts with the experience of his upbringing in a Jehovah's Witness household, where everything had been (on its own terms, anyway) revealed. Literature, then, offered a kind of antidote, a way of deepening, of complicating, the world.
"All of these books," Cheshire writes of the novels that rewired his thinking, "are intimate, and share a near shapeless close-to-the-bone rawness you don't find very often in novels. But they also read like writers in search of self-knowledge, in search of meaning. They are books that do not yet 'know.'"
This is not, by the way, a knock on faith, although Cheshire has moved away from the certainties of his childhood. Rather, it is an insistence on a different kind of faith, in which we ask ourselves questions that don't have any answers, and turn away from the false comfort of fairy tales.
Cheshire quotes Frisch on writing: "What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself." Then he adds, "I read for that same shock. I read to undo what I think I know, and it's a lifelong process."
The corollary is that in undergoing such a shock, again and again, we are somehow made more authentic, brought more closely into contact with the elusive, open-endedness of life.
"The best ones," Cheshire writes, "the books that last, lay for us a path toward some personal epiphany." Yes, yes, I want to say, that's it precisely, although it's also the case that the older I get, the more I read and write, the less I need (or want) to know.