An unnatural fiction

Pieter_Claeszoon_-_Still_Life_with_a_Skull_and_a_Writing_Quill

Nathaniel has a problem. Many problems actually, but not all of those are relevant to my concerns here, and most would not be of concern to others. Which is true for almost everyone I imagine. But how rude of me, you probably have no idea who Nathaniel is. He also has a similar difficulty, but I’ll get to that shortly. The easiest way to describe Nathaniel is that he is also me: the deliciously absurd ‘Arthur Wingsmith’. Yet, he is also not me; although, for better or worse, I am always in some measure him. Nathaniel’s particular problem of late, is that he is not quite sure where the boundaries between us become just that: real boundaries. He knows, for instance, that I am a fiction of his own invention, yet is starting to wonder if I might not be some sort of unnatural one. Am I, for instance, Pen-Name or Character? Synonym or Antonym? Strange Fish or Odd Fowl? Or, what may be worse still, am I the face of mid-life crisis, the poor man’s equivalent of a sports car? Surely, Nathaniel is still too young for one of those ‘life-phase-crisis-thingys’? That is, if he is not already too old.

This ‘problem’ is not really one of Nathaniel trying to figure out who he is – he knows who he is, it’s written right there on his birth certificate. (It is also on his expired passport, and other miscellaneous documentation.) The question is more: “what am I?” Where he comes from – originally – the answer to that question is: “you are what you do.” A deeply unsatisfying answer if it happens, as it often has to Nathaniel, what you do is something so deeply unimpressive to others it pretty much counts as doing nothing. And thus, one  also becomes nothing. Which is fine from an existential point of view, if that view is that we are all essentially meaningless absurdities or selfless illusions born of a strange, dynamic causality. (Strictly speaking, that last might have more to do with a Buddhist ontology than an Existentialist one.) Yet, one of the things that Nathaniel used to ‘do’ in the past, was ‘be’ a Sociocultural Anthropologist, and so his former professional engagement tells him that a whole lot of ‘nothings’ – collectively acting together and against each other – are still ‘something’. In general, it is figuring out the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of that ‘something’ that keeps Sociocultural Anthropologists in gainful employment. That is the ‘doing‘ of anthropology that allows its practitioners to know what they are. (Part of Nathaniel’s problem is that he is no longer a Sociocultural Anthropologist, but I’m not allowed to tell you how that came to pass. Not that I would have, it’s not very interesting.)

Unsatisfying as it may be, the answer “we are what we do” is very hard for Nathaniel to ignore. It is not that it is necessarily ‘true’, just that his whole life has been colored by it, and deeply imbibed cultural tropes are very difficult to shed. One must do something, even if it turns out that something makes you nothing. Self and Identity, in this view, tend to be more verbs than nouns. Which suits Nathaniel, as he’s always been highly suspicious of  noun-ish ‘essentialisms’. It is for this reason, more or less, Nathaniel created me: Arthur Wingsmith. For he decided that he wanted to ‘be’ a Writer, but needed a name that many other people did not also possess. A name, moreover, that could only exist as a verb-ish ‘doing’, rather than as a real name on a birth certificate. Real names, in his opinion, tend towards inertia. (It’s only his opinion, mind you. Opinions are not fact, no matter how much we may want them to be. They are also not ‘current events’, no matter how many news pundits and talk-show talking-heads want us to believe that they are. Indeed, ‘The News’ may turn out to be made of the most unnatural fictions of all.)

It must be said, that Nathaniel’s idea to try and become a Writer did not appear ex nihilo. At various times, throughout what he still remembers of his life, he has wanted exactly that. Possibly, while he was still at high school, he wanted to do it because it was the only career on the Career Office’s chart that did not require a university degree. (He must have forgotten about that at some point, since he ended up with the degrees that allowed him to be an anthropologist for a time.) In fact, he has wanted to do it enough at various points, that he could construct his ‘writerly origin story’ around it as an unbroken narrative. If he really wanted to, he could make it seem more like destiny, than the random coalescence of a contingent personal history it actually is. There was, or is, nothing predestined about his choice, and to pretend otherwise would be one of those unnatural fictions he has become concerned with. Which is why, I imagine, he’s having me tell you that; even though it seems a little off topic to me. Anyway … so it was, that just under a year ago, he created me. You know? To have at least some sort of run at being a Writer.

And what am I? At first I was a project, created as a frame for producing at least one weekly writing exercise: a writer’s ‘doing’. For Nathaniel is what could be called a masterless apprentice, but  he knew that real writers write – sometimes just for exercise – so an apprentice must try and do the same. It’s not that he’s never written, just that he has, or had, no experience in writing fiction. My job, such at it is, is to help him get to grips with how writing fiction works, as well as to create a discipline around his efforts to do so. (Incidentally, that is why Arthur Wingsmith is ‘published’ on the web. Since the knowledge that each exercise would become ‘public’ created the right kind of pressure for him to take it seriously – the internet is a very unforgiving beast, after all.)

So far so good. There’s nothing very ‘unnatural’ about that. If anything, it might partake a little too much of the narcissism peculiar to our internet-driven age, but at least has the virtue of being narcissism with a purpose; a pragmatic narcissism, if you will. Arthur Wingsmith is still a convenient fiction to a purpose, and Nathaniel is still whatever it is that he… well, is. But to write me, quite accidentally, I became something slightly more than a name he uses to mask his own. I became, more like, but not quite like, a character. Partly, this happened because some of the details I’ve provided about myself, are also really his details – twisted a bit, as though a reflection in a poor quality mirror. The town he has me living in, for instance, is a little like the one he lives in. How I got there, is a little how he got where he is. Even the tropical Island he had me write about once, is a lot like the one he lived on for two years whilst ‘doing’ ethnographic fieldwork. In short, although he really set me up to be his public face, he fictionalized me just enough that I seem somehow differentiated.

Yet it gets worse for him, because he’s written me as though I really do live in some mysterious town with bald women, and have real face-to-face human interactions. I even have real friends, whom I see – like Sylvester G. Weatherface – and my town is full of interesting weirdness. His town, on the other hand, is not wierd, and his life is highly mediated through technology. Indeed, his life contains practically no real people at all. Not because he’s a misanthrope, but just because that’s how it worked out… by accident. I seem sufficiently separate from him now, that he’s a little jealous, as though I am somehow not contained in his life.

However, his life does contain me. He even has my memories, my fictional memories; ones close enough to his own that perhaps there is no real difference. And I use his memories to create fiction; some of it even quite competent, and at least mildly entertaining. Somewhere, in this exchange and creation of memories I have become almost real, while still remaining a convenient fiction. The point is that the boundary between these memories – fictional and real – has become blurry for him. Is he going insane? Probably. Does this make me an unnatural fiction? Hard to say, and not really my problem. It’s his problem, and I have my doubts that Nathaniel will ever resolve it. My suspicion is that he doesn’t really want to.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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