Disclaimer: This isn’t actual, full-bore academic writing. Yet. This is a transitional start-to-tone-it-down, shake-the-cobwebs-off post. I still ramble a fair bit.
Picture this: A murder surreal and a work of words blurring the lines between dueling narratives. It takes about 635 words – a man sits down to read a novel and opens himself up to assassination from an unknown malefactor operating in concert with an illicit lover. You, the reader, never realize what’s actually happening until the knife is about to go in.
In a nutshell, that’s what happens in Julio Cortázar’s Continuity of the Parks. Originally published in 1967 as part of an anthology called Blow Up and Other Stories, or La Casa Tomada y Otros Cuentros for those inclined to find it in Spanish. It reads like an early example of modern-day flash fiction. I had the pleasure of going over this one for my first class as a graduate student and, for all that it’s a short, easy read, it was a doozy. Let’s get right to the point.
There were three major interpretations I noticed in today’s discussion.
- The events happened exactly as written, all in the real world (I was a part of this particular group).
- It was a case of freaky metatextual murder and/or…
- It was a case of freaky metatextual suicide (which, I think, ended up being the majority by a landslide).
I read Cortázar’s story as a straightforward murder, possibly even a suicide by romantic rival, driven by the killer’s passion for the unnamed female character. In this instance, Cortázar got to use something I’ve never been able to get away with, and which I generally discourage other writers from using as a consequence: He doesn’t break the action up.
As of this writing, the .pdf file includes a single paragraph break which may or may not be present in the original print; I did a bit of searching for both the English and Spanish versions and both of them provided versions with the break. In any event, it’s basically one or two big blocks of text. The end result is a seamless narrative that offers no chance to disengage, no ability to easily stop and reorient yourself when the scenery changes. You don’t get to step out of the action and form a new thought.
In a longer novel, I don’t think this would work. Even for a conventional ~1500-3000 word short story it’d probably be very iffy at best. Cortázar’s nascent flash fiction hits a sweet spot at 635 words, and the credibility he has as a published author from what’s now a bygone era means he can basically get away with anything he wants regardless.
This may sound petty, but if I or another unpublished writer tried this today, the trick would probably go right over the head of anyone likely to read it – I’ve actually had something like this happen before where I swapped certain characters and points of view around in a novel or short story and none of my readers caught it or liked it. Another of my writer friends has a treasured short story with a twist that she can’t reveal until the end, similar in scope and execution to Cortázar here, but virtually every reader she’s had outside of a single captive audience has disliked it.
Perhaps that’s a function of the wording that Cortázar uses, much of which is poetic in translation and intensely focused on sensuality and imagery, but I honestly don’t think so. I think it’s more a function of credibility. Older artwork, including the written word, has a sort of instant credibility to it. We’ll give it the benefit of the doubt even if we normally wouldn’t. Stepping outside of the literary box, this almost seems to be an inherent feature of our species – we defer to our elders on certain things, especially if it yields us any kind of advantage, real or imagined.
Sure, you might say, we go through our rebellious years. But at the end of the day we often fall back on rationales of tradition to justify everything from the quality of a work or philosophy to the continuation of a law. See Aristotle, who was flat-out wrong on so many things, yet he’s still held in astonishingly high regard as a bedrock of Western Philosophy – and rightfully so, if you’ve got any sense of history. See Adam Smith, whose Invisible Hand theory of economics gets discredited into oblivion every other generation only to sneak back in under a new name. A lot of the time, it helps that most people don’t actually read or listen to the so-called classics; they may have only a token exposure to them and generally have no opinion beyond It’s great and all but it’s really boring. This is probably not an accident. In many ways, academic veneration of old works reminds me of recent controversies involving modern-day fandoms – it’s sort of like a gatekeeping mechanism, an easy way of saying This is more cultured than That; I know more about This than You; therefore I am more cultured than You; listen to me.
Swap some words around and you’ve got Gamergate or white male nerds griping about the influx of female and minority characters in comics and games. Squint and shuffle the goal posts a bit and you’ve got the essence of many complaints about Black Lives Matter.
What I’m trying to say is that Cortázar, and all of the other previously published writers and musicians and artists; all the venerable creators of yesteryear are not inherently better or worse than you or I. They get away with things we can’t not because of any superlative qualities of their work, but because they did it before most of us were born. Their work endures because the manuscripts survived and they got lucky enough for someone in the right time and place to evangelize them.
Tens of millions of others didn’t get those opportunities. I’d wager that we’ve lost or overlooked unfathomable talents over the ages; men and women whose works would make Shakespeare and Beethoven, Aristotle and Smith look like a bunch of lousy amateurs. Now that we’ve arrived in an age of easy creativity, mass media, and mass consumption, I’d also wager that number’s going to skyrocket.
Hopefully at least a few of the talents who do get recognized will be able to get away with intentionally neglecting to insert a paragraph break every now and then, as Cortázar does. And when they do, hopefully they’ll be recognized for doing something clever and unconventional, as opposed to being griped at for deviating from the norm.