Narrative as Determination of the Future Anterior
Narrative, it seems banal to observe, opens a space. This space is not so much a place of play for unlimited possibilities (although in the best of possible worlds it might yet be) as somewhere determined, always, in advance, by the future anterior: what will have happened and how it will already have taken place lure us through stories to their ends, become the end that shines through from the very start. Reading for the ending: in narrative, the end justifies the means; the end is the means.
That is why the distinction so frequently drawn between plot and story, fabula and sjuzhet, while handy, turns most provocative precisely when it cannot be made, when the temptation is there for us to make it as readers, when the way to do it seems at hand, but we are stopped ultimately from completing it. Too many Cliffs Notes to The Sound and the Fury have made modernist plot-story scramblings predictable, easy-to-read. But still we watch out for when the story turns out to be such that its arrangement prevents us from decrypting, excavating it. The end (the story) stymies the means (the plot) and vice versa.
At the end of “Leopoldina’s Dream” by Silvina Ocampo, we find out that the story has been told, not by a human narrator as we may have assumed in our anthropomorphic self-satisfaction, but by a little dog who, along with his mistress, Leopoldina, has--Virgin Mary-like--been assumed into Heaven. We are left with the puzzle of where this story, this plot, this narrative enunciation, could have come from. Heaven? A dream of Heaven? The end crosses the means; the story undoes the plot. More, since the first part of the story concerns Leopoldina’s miraculous ability to bring back objects from her dreams, the tale, narrative itself here, resembles one of these objects, brought back, mysteriously, from some other place, dream world or Heaven. Leopoldina’s dream-objects, much to the frustration of the little girls she looks after, are poor things, stones, grass. The narrative, likewise, is a poor object, a mundane miracle, produced by the simple yet frustratingly seductive crossing of narrative options.
Christopher Priest’s novel of the everyday miraculous, The Glamour, deals with invisibility so as to intertwine plot and story in a way that seems relatively straightforward at the beginning, only to turn into a tangle, a conundrum, at the end, much more so than the flashier (hence, more reassuring) experiments of the nouveau roman or overtly experimental fiction.