Saturday, December 4, 2010

Contemporary Nonfiction and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Like other late-twentieth-century authors -- like, for example, Wolfe, Dillard, McPhee, Chatwin, Raban, Didion, -- Suleri creates a form of nonfiction that has much in common with the writings of the Victorian sages, Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and Thoreau.. Like all of them, Suleri shows points of view that readers by themselves cannot perceive or comprehend. By describing lifestyles alien to the average reader and making sense of them as Wolfe attempts to do, or by revealing personal histories that perhaps the reader will identify with and apply to his own life, the writers impart interpretations that inform. They make things accessible, able to be comprehended, knowable to the reader. As such, all are masters of experience. Each shows his or her gift for communicating private, very personal experiences to the reader.

The writings from New Journalists, Victorian sages, satirists, travel writers and autobiographers push the boundaries of fiction and blur distinctions between nonfiction and the novel by introducing elements of both. They suspend fiction's dependence on plot, on its goal of reaching of a degree of closure, by playing with how literature usually is temporally and spatially arranged. The stories do not follow a set chronology but instead are pastiches, layers of set pieces, that create a novel in their combination. Yet they do not eliminate plot completely; characters and storylines still exist to provide, at the very least, an interesting story. Suleri, by constructing an intimate history covering personal lives of individual characters taking place in (but intrinsically and inseparably related to) the public sphere of international history, epitomizes that writer of a compelling story that, ultimately, hopes to speak to each reader.

Suleri and the Resistance to Definition in Postmodern Writing

Another technique of the postmodern author, one that almost acts as an umbrella term, is the resistance to definition, particularly to conventional definitions. The ploy of postmodernism is to rupture traditional associations, attributing "ad hoc, arbitrary, and unsanctioned" meanings to given terms or ideas. Suleri's virtuosity with this strategy is stunning. Her misattributions display themselves in her love of metaphor, as she twists mild pleasantries into complex, multifaceted positions. To describe, for example, the "miraculous companionship" of her sister Ifat, Suleri draws on an old Muslim tale, reordering it to fit her vision of her sister:
To sleep on Ifat's bed was milk enough, to sleep in crumbling rest beside her body. Sometimes like water she runs through the sentences of sleep, a medium something other than itself, refracting, innocent of all the algae it can bear and capable of much transmogrification. Her water laps around me almost in reproach: "You were distracted, when I requested your attention. You were not looking. I was milk."
Suleri distorts and expands on the traditional Muslim attributions of water and milk, a polarity that, in the folktale, applied to the benefits of devout worshi Intead, water and milk become degrees of Ifat's attraction, her vanity, her "immoderation." The idea of sisterly companionship is problematized by Suleri's definition, becoming more a question of sensational, even erotic sparring, rather than the tradional, more antiseptic nurturing and support. Creating a tidy description is particularly difficult when it comes to female relationships, because of the unavailability of proper descriptive words: "By this point admittedly I am damned by my own discourse...formulating that definition [of women] is about as impossible as attemting to locate the luminous qualities of an Islamic landscape". Not only are her cultural and sexual worlds multifaceted, they also resist any assessment of their plurality with conventional language. Her non-traditional attributions seem to be more out of necessity than the impetuous desire to be arbitrary.

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