On inexactitude in mapping

28 06 2010
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.
-Octavio Paz, “January First”
Trans. Elizabeth Bishop
A novel examines not reality but existence.  And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.
-Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer begins with the two above quotes, framing the metaphor of writing as cartography.  What follows in the opening chapter of the book is an extension of discussing writing in terms of exploration and guidance, mapping the fictional territories of the imagination.  While Turchi’s discussion is interesting–and written in a very accessible manner–it is also reliant on a central concern of pre-modern aesthetics, assuming that mapping is an exercise in imposing order on the world: textual, visual, temporal.  While this is sensical, my interests in mapping Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire lay outside of the imposition of a different order on a text.

In metafiction, the categories of artifice and reality are blurred at the edges.  Through the immersion in an enjoyable story, the reader occupies the textual “fictional” world as something real: feeling empathy with characters; experiencing sensual details through imagery; anticipating the turn of the plot. This immersion can be experienced in many texts, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, texts firmly entrenched in the canon of Victorian realism. And Turchi covers this range, considering mapping as a wide range of storytelling styles and genres–from realism to speculative.
Some of the oldest stories we know, including creation myths, were attempts to make sense of the world (13).
This imposition of order–“attempts to make sense of the world”–is one way of seeing the act of mapping.  And, in Pale Fire, the reader can see Kinbote as imparting his order–or, moreover, his interpretation, a specific brand of order–on John Shade’s epic poem, through his paratextual comments. It is the limitations of these orders, though, that intersect with post/modernism.  Alternate dis/orders.  The multiplicity of and unknowability of outcomes.  Post-Englightenment illogic.

With this, I turn to the second aspect to metafiction important to this discussion: the complex representation of reality.  In metafiction, the reader (and narrator/author) are explicitly aware of the artifice of the text: it is not real.  However, it’s more complicated than a real/fiction binary:  the text is real, in that is it on the page or screen in front of our eyes or fingers.  It is imminently real, in that respect, as an artifact, an object.  In this way, reality becomes problematic: like immersive gaming [1, 2 (PDF)], reality becomes a system of alternates–the reality of the object’s narrative, the reality of the object, the reality of the meta-narrative.

Similarly, mapping, as Turchi sees it, is both a metaphor for narrative and a narrative ipse, a graphical story.  It is and is about narrative, just as metafiction is both storytelling and about storytelling.  This view of maps is present in Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science,” wherein the perfect map becomes the exact size of the territory, the absurd limit of the pursuit of perfect logic and scientific method.  It is no surprise that Jean Baudrillard cites this Borgesian tale in his “The Procession of Simulacra,” in which he discusses the simulacra’s replacement of the original symbol.  These examples, one built atop another in this case, explore this complication of reality.  The map becomes the territory becomes the map; the symbol becomes the simulacra becomes the real–or, perhaps more pertinently, more real than the real: the hyperreal.

I won’t fully digress into what Suzanne Jill Levine refers to as the “impoverished artifices of twentieth century realism” in her introduction [PDF] to the NYRB edition of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel (also accompanied by a prologue written by his good friend Borges), but this more-real-than-realism aesthetic (a hyperreality inspired in both the character and reader, which is testament to the blurring of what the reader and character accept as “real”) is what I’ve found to be central to much of Borges’ metafictional tales, stories that occupy that transliminal space of real/fiction, is also something found in storytelling from G.K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades to contemporary discussions of new media: interactive narratives and video games.
…infinite number of ways to depict reality (37-40).
It is through this final last approach that I arrive at the concept of narrative as simulation.  In his discussion of Big Brother and reality television, Jon Dovey speaks of simulation as the postmodern Foucauldian “regime of truth”, a progression from the modernity’s modeling.  In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Janet Murray posits that Will Wright’s The Sims can be seen as a novel-generating machine, via which players simulate their character’s narrative, create narrative animations of important moments in the character’s life.  In the same chapter, Ken Perlin, however, argues that computer-mediated simulations lack the expressiveness and verisimilitude of characters and places in other media, such as literature and film. [PDF of both articles]

This is where fiction meets the simulation.  In considering recent film adaptations of speculative literature–The Road and Watchmen–these narratives offer the viewer/reader the possibility of “what-if” realities.  These are more than vicarious experiences of what we might normally hold as “real.”  They are iterations on reality themselves, simulations of what is possible.  This remixing of reality is metafiction’s entrance point to enriching the impoverished artifices of reality.

Pale Fire, however, is not traditionally metafictional. Rather, it questions the reality of a primary text through the paratext of academic commentary, Professor Charles Kinbote’s notes to John Shade’s posthumously published poem.  In this case, it is not the artifact’s illusion of reality that is questioned; in Pale Fire, the notion of static meaning is explicitly problematized.  And, this is done so through the technique so often employed in metafiction, as detailed above: Kinbote both seeks to authorize his own meaning and confronts the meaning offered by fellow Shade contemporaries and scholars; and the reader must also question Kinbote’s hermeneutic, as well as his possible, perhaps plausible, identity as King Charles Xavier of Zembla.  The names of these places, too–New Wye, Appalachia, Zembla–are artificial, yet, like metafiction, have a vague sense of being in on the joke, vaguely familiar and placeable in our real world.

Therefore, Pale Tour is not an attempt to circumscribe Pale Fire in a system of reproducible, explanatory visualization.  Rather, it is another tool for the reader to make meaning from the subjective paratextual contextualization of Kinbote’s telling of the Pale Fire narrative.  Like the map that explores the blank spaces of the unknown–like a graphical Derridian differance, or the new fabulists like Italo Calvino in Mr. Palomar or Cosmicomics–this remediation of Kinbote’s paratextual narrative seeks to provide one sandbox for the reader to play, to make meaning out of potentially disparate or related trajectories.

Future potential path: metafiction’s relationship to video games in Jesper Juul’s Half-Real.




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