Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fiction Review: "An Unwritten Novel," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In her best work, Virginia Woolf challenges the reader to reconsider his or her perceptions. She requires one to view familiar things in new ways. These include words, objects, people, and even society’s conventions. In “An Unwritten Novel,” she asks the reader to look in a new way at looking at things in a new way. One is presented with a transformative perspective that doesn’t highlight new aspects of its subjects; it only shows projections of itself. The story dramatizes solipsism.

The narrator is a passenger on a commuter train. At first, she is absorbed in her newspaper, but she finds herself distracted by the faces of the other passengers. She is particularly fascinated by an older woman, whom she calls “Minnie Marsh.” When the train empties out, “Minnie” tries to start a conversation, but the narrator isn’t interested in what she has to say. It goes in one ear and out the other until “Minnie” mentions her sister-in-law. Her contempt for the woman is obvious, and it piques the narrator’s curiosity. But “Minnie” stops talking about her as soon as the narrator shows interest. The narrator’s busybody impulses, though, are too strong not to find another outlet. In her thoughts, she indulges in extremely detailed speculations about “Minnie” and the sister-in-law. These veer into fantasies about “Minnie’s” religious life, and even into possible crimes and past guilt. As the ride continues, the narrator tries to incorporate another passenger (whom she calls “James Moggridge”) into her fantasy scenario about “Minnie.” However, when “Minnie” arrives at her stop, the narrator discovers that her speculations bear no relation to reality, though she can’t help but launch into another round of them based on the new information she finds out.

Near the end, the narrator says of herself, “Life’s bare as a bone.” In Woolf’s view, the narrator’s daydreams are reflective of her own emptiness. She is a completely self-absorbed character. “Minnie’s” efforts to strike up a conversation are fruitless; the narrator lacks the empathy to build a rapport with another person. She is only interested in “Minnie’s” conflicts and what makes the woman upset or uncomfortable. The narrator doesn’t see the world in terms of friendship and other relationships; people exist only for her entertainment. And when they don’t (or won’t) provide it for her, she retreats into daydreams that more than make up for the difference. She is all that exists in her mind; other people are just images to project upon. Her perspective only reveals aspects of herself.

In addition to its insights about the dark side of perspectivism, the story is yet another display of Woolf’s extraordinary sense of craft. It demands that she dramatize the narrator’s state of mind, and she does so through an extremely canny use of pacing effects. As the narrator becomes increasingly absorbed in her daydreams, the flow of words gets faster and more chaotic. At times, the narrator’s speculations take on a rhapsodic quality that occasionally borders on the manic. They are often reminiscent of Henry Miller’s automatist flights in the Tropic novels, but no one should confuse Woolf’s passages with the sort of go-for-broke surrealism that Miller epitomizes. She is as deliberate as he is reckless. The accelerated rhythms are not the result of the author getting carried away; Woolf uses them to render the narrator’s increasingly unrestrained imagination. She creates a crescendo of solipsism’s triumph: the fantasy’s details explode and take over, and their foundation is no longer in view.

The story lays the groundwork for Woolf’s approach in such novels as To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway. “An Unwritten Novel” demands that the reader see narration as a subjective matter--as a reflection of the mindset of the character whose perspective is being presented. “An Unwritten Novel” doesn’t tell us much about “Minnie Marsh” or “James Moggridge.” However, it does tell us a good deal about the narrator. She’s always focused outward, whether it is on the news or her speculations about the lives of “Minnie” and “James”; her own life is always beneath her attention. She doesn’t care about people beyond the opportunities they provide as springboards for her reveries. Her fantasies about others offer no insight; they only dramatize her own imagination. She exemplifies solipsism, and one can consider her the prototype for the characterizations in the above-mentioned novels, which are constructed through juxtapositions of the perspectives of characters who are self-absorbed in their own ways. The novels are symphonies, but they require certain kinds of melodies to give them form. “An Unwritten Novel” is where Woolf first finds the sort of melody that will do.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf