by Rebecca Giggs
How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, … the hives, which were people.
—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927).
The cloche comes off. The veil drops. A dawning recognition. Bingo. In our age of multi-track information — when official narratives are profligately revised, and zealous fact-checkers snowball inexhaustible detail online — is it any wonder this device, the literary ‘revelation,’ has accrued a powerful voltage? Irreversible swerve in the mind, a revelation. Privately undergone. I’m talking here specifically of the self-reveal; that moment when a mysterious motivation or behaviour clarifies within. The hinge of so many HBO series, reality television and novels equally. Think: Tony Soprano’s gabagool epiphany. Think: Athena’s realisation, leaving Sydney in The Children’s Bach. Think: the ‘Diary Room’ in Big Brother. “What’s done cannot be undone”, speaks Lady Macbeth, she meaning too that what’s known cannot be unknown (at least, not by the strength of our mere resolve). This is proto-psychoanalysis. It is also the ambition of today’s canny marketers, to sell us bewilderment and the means of its resolution.
The appeal of a revelation is that of passing through a one-way turnstile. Having revolved the ratcheting arm, you can’t turn back. What is the point of more mawkish reflection, prevarication before the untraveled path, more compulsive rearrangement of the desultory evidence? Something unconscious has been made conscious. Ah-ha! The gate locks behind you. A relief, then, to be released from all that ceaseless processing, to give up the journey and arrive at an insight. A conversion for the secular, revelation is intoxicating because it is totalising. The realisation shapes the world everywhere it touches it (like ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle). Do we hunger for revelation in literature, because we experience it so infrequently in life? Or is revelation, by definition, a tool of fiction because it is out of phase with reason? We have an idea that revelatory moments are delivered from the storehouse of the subliminal. Fiction has always been more capable of acknowledging the strangeness of the unconscious self.
A few nights ago I caught the tail-end of the ABC’s “Jennifer Byrne Presents: Pens & Prejudice” — a panel filmed during the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival, featuring the authors Anna Krien, Ramona Koval, James Wood and Kate Mosse in conversation with Byrne. As its title suggests, the show focused on the under-representation of women in literary journals and news publications. Asked whether writing by women had a complexion that was inherently different from writing by men, Krien replied that — so far as nonfiction was concerned — authors such as Anna Funder, Chloe Hooper, Helen Garner and herself wrote books that were “fraught with doubt … uncertainty, and an ability to constantly wonder about being wrong.” In short, it seemed to me, these were books that were marked by a pre-revelatory narrator, a subject in search of (or, at the very least, open to) a transformative episode. To find this type of narrator in nonfiction is not unique today. Is this because nonfiction as a category, has crept closer to fiction in recent decades? Or is it because the self that is unsure, that seeks the ecstatic experience of revelation, is so pervasive in capitalist culture? For this also is the consuming self — the self that, in adverts, is gifted epiphanies about ‘revolutionary’ vacuum cleaners and advanced energy drinks.
As Michel de Montaigne codified in the essay form, the foremost aim books such as those Krien mentions is recording minds. They are less interested in the lives of others, a lineage of events, or even in the kinds of cohesive narratives fiction has typically produced, than in the mental transitions provoked by both direct experience, and the act of writing about experience. Real actions are relegated to how action is registered in the narrator’s consciousness, and how it is effected by its reproduction in writing. The hereditary structure of this kind of narrative is that of every competitive cooking show — let’s go on a journey.
That they are self-regarding books, doesn’t mean they are narcissistic. To differing degrees, books by Krien, Funder, Hooper and Garner have alighted on subjects that initially baffled their writers — feminine violence, moral resistance in totalitarianism, racialised justice, sexual mores and sporting cultures. ‘Write what you don’t know’, seems to have been a mandate: a strategy that imparts a kind of structural humility. Books such as Night Games and The First Stone are concerned not only with unpicking a knot in a series of documentable events; they are concerned with why these events trouble and confuse their authors. The broader ethical agenda then is to provoke a revelation in their readership — why aren’t ‘we’ talking about the ‘grey area’ in consent, for example, and what vocabulary would be required to do so? Is there some obstacle we’re not admitting to, a suppressed prejudice or inadvertent ‘othering’ perhaps?
On a granular level — the level of the sentence — this type of nonfiction makes a study of the open, rhetorical question, sometimes fatiguingly so. Questions are ostensibly asked of the culture at large, but their repetition and tone cultivates the effect of the author talking to themselves, interviewing themselves. (And because these books are so much ‘inside the head’, it can begin to seem that the reader is being called out to give answers as well).
But what happens when there is no actual realisation to be had? When in place of the ‘ah-ha!’ moment, comes the perplexity of Scooby-Doo (“baroo?”). For this is more often how wondering goes: in not knowing what a story means, in not knowing what our own story means. Gaining more knowledge can, paradoxically, generate greater confusion about a subject (particularly when that subject is oneself). In the nonfiction genre this reality of frustrated revelation is problematic, because readers come to the nonfiction shelves with an expectation that these are books that will clarify their topics. In my own writing I am struggling with how to balance this anticipation of making things known, with a resistance to manufacturing revelation. For more often than not insight is not intuitive and sudden, and the path to take isn’t unidirectional. Revelation can be a position, a decision arrived at after the slow-release, incremental worrying at research. Is there a way, in nonfiction, to deal with clues that won’t solve the mystery, and still give the reader satisfaction?