Short Story Club: “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

The story is here; now, on with the commentary. Sadly I don’t have my Locus back-issues to hand right now, so we start with Lois Tilton:

This is a metastory, a story about storytelling and a warning about searching too hard for meaning in stories, which should be about people, not abstract ideas. It is notable that the stories in which Isha finds so much meaning are not very storylike or memorable, unlike the immortal tales of Somadeva. Recommended.

Pam Phillips:

There are moments of beauty, and wonderful little stories that Isha collects in her net, as she travels from world to world between the stars. One of them even coins a term that describes exactly how this sort of story tends to run into trouble. There’s too many elements competing for your comprehension, too many self-referential arrows pointing at each other. I enjoyed reading it, and had fun thinking about how all the parts interact, but they never quite settle down. It’s a collection of stories drawn together only by threads of narrative, caught forever in the moment just before it gels into a solid whole.

David Hebblethwaite:

The structure of ‘Somadeva’ mirrors that of the Kathāsaritsāgara, in that it consists of a number of interlocking stories, some embedded within others (Singh also writes herself briefly into the story, as the authors of some texts did and Somadeva here wishes he had). One result of this is to make it more-or-less impossible to tell for sure whether Somadeva is in the future with Isha, or in the past telling all this to Sūryavati, or perhaps somewhere else. It’s handled elegantly by Singh, the effect is not so much disorientation as a satisfying recognition of the shape of the whole.

One of the main themes of ‘Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra’ is the extent to which stories can – or should – be pinned down to one definitive interpretation. Isha is excited to discover that a tribe named the Kiha tell stories that can be interpreted as describing fundamental scientific processes; it’s an appealing way to read them, but then Somadeva reminds us that those tales could just as easily be read in other ways – none necessarily invalid.

Perhaps, following on from this, it’s best to leave one’s interpretation of this story open. But there is one thing I think I can say with some certainty: at the start of the tale, Somadeva says,’ I was once…a poet, a teller of tales’; by its end, he’s declaring that he is those things. Whatever else stories do, they bring Somadeva to life.

And Matt Hilliard:

The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.

All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.

So: did it work for you? I’ll also point out Singh’s brief remark on the story at her website, and the related earlier story, “Three Tales from Sky River“.

31 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

  1. “To the Kiha, what is real and what is not real is not a point of importance.” To me, it is and there is nothing real in this story.

  2. I read it last night, intending to post something about it as I did last week, but couldn’t really come up with anything to say. This was partly due to the fact that my first read of it was interrupted several times by a toddler demanding I play Sesame Street videos for her on the computer, but even going over it again after she went to bed, it just didn’t resolve into much of anything for me.

    It might’ve helped if I had any knowledge of the background myth, but I don’t. I think, though, that there were one of two levels of meta too many. There were a bunch of cool ideas there– the memory-destroying attack, the idea of recreating an author from his work, the modern physics creation myths– along with some other stuff that was kind of “meh”– the “is it in the past or in the future?” thing– and none of it really led anywhere. It’s just kind of… there.

  3. I thought I could get away with leaving it that brief because it is the issue that Matt sets out in the final paragraph of his review. There is no real attempt to make any of the characters or settings real, they are just cards to be shuffled in an aimless mediation on metafictionality.

  4. I think it’s more of a meditation on how culture is constructed–not something that most of the Matt’s examples are really concerned with–and that that is a very real thing.

  5. Well, I liked it, but I’m not sure what there is to say about a story that so explicitly warns its readers against trying to puzzle out its meaning.

  6. Well, what did you like about it?

    And what the narrator cautions against is trying to reduce stories to a single meaning. We’re explicitly invited, at the end, to “weave meaning”…

  7. I thought it was well-written, and I enjoyed some of the stories-within-stories, which is anyway a form I enjoy (I also read and enjoyed “Three Tales from Sky River”). I agree with Martin that there’s not much to any of the characters, but that’s something one doesn’t tend to find in short fiction to begin with, and I certainly wasn’t looking for it in a story that announces its emphasis on folk-tales right at the outset.

    Reducing to a meaning vs. weaving meaning: I see what you’re saying, but I’m still put off by Singh’s warning. It feels as if she’s trying to say that stories can be read in many different ways, and ends up prescribing the way that her story should be read.

  8. But if we are to believe that this is a story about the way culture is constructed, don’t we need to believe in the characters who are constructing their culture? If it is a collection of imaginary folk tales, don’t we need to believe in the culture which generated them?

    More generally, I would disagree with Abigail that one doesn’t tend to find plausible short fiction. I don’t expect all short stories to be character studies – although surely it is one of the most common reasons for writing a short story? – but I do expect developed characters.

  9. Stupid fingers: “More generally, I would disagree with Abigail that one doesn’t tend to find plausible characters in short fiction.”

    Or are we talking specifically about science fiction short stories here?

  10. I guess we’re talking degrees here. For the type of story this is and its length, I didn’t find the characters particularly underdeveloped. In general, my experience has been that the smaller canvas of a short story, and their greater emphasis on plot or worldbuilding (which, yes, is an attribute of genre and definitely not the case in literary short fiction), allows for less meaningful character development than in novels.

  11. Martin: To the contrary, I’d take Abigail’s view that folk-tales aren’t particularly concerned with character. Hansel and Gretel aren’t memorable for their personalities but for their situation. Similarly, surely one of the notable things about folk tales is the extent to which they become detached from their original context? Hence discussion about cultural appropriation, being a thoughtless process of de- or re-contextualisation.

    I agree with you that quite vivid characters can be created in short stories, and that lots of short stories are written with this goal in mind. I’m not sure, though, that we mean the same things when we talk about “plausible” or “vivid” or “developed” characters.

  12. It’s an interesting story in that if I had to pick out the things I like most about it, they would be 1) that it’s a cleverly-constructed encapsulation of an argument and 2) that I learned some things from it. Notably, those are probably also the key excellences people would point to in a lot of Golden Age SF; but those goals are now seen as unfashionable or at least insufficient by readers, often including myself, who place higher value on literary qualities. And yet this story also seems to reject the Golden Age SF concern with plot and problem-solving: it feels more literary in its structure and prose, and in the cultural aspects of its argument. So it’s an unusual mixture of old and new–which is the impression I get from a lot of Singh’s stories, although in many different mixtures–and to my mind a fairly successful one.

    I disagree with Matt Hilliard about how to read the story–Matt H. writes that “both the science fiction and fantasy glosses proposed by the narrator are conceits that the the story tries out and then abandons,” but I don’t think it abandons them. I think the story wants to hold them both up as co-equal interpretations. Somadeva-our-narrator says outright: “To assign one single interpretation to [these stories] is to miss the point.” Which makes this another story-about-story, yes, but more particularly in this case it’s a story about of direction-of-gaze–Isha wanting to look back into the past (the SF gloss but the historical gaze), Queen Suryavati wanting to look forward and know what happens in the future (the historical gloss but the SF gaze)–and the parallels between the two, the moment when the two gazes meet. I was reminded of the bits in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun where Severian talks about symbols and suggests that they create us rather than us creating them, and that historical events can cast shadows backward in time as well as forward.

    So what I was getting from the story was the idea of stories as a way of reconciling the objective and subjective, the scientific and the religio-historical, the way our identity is shaped by both gazing into the future and into the past–and perhaps the inadequacy of gazing in only one direction.

    Is any of that what you meant by “how culture is constructed,” Niall? Could you elaborate?

    It also seems possible to interpret the story as suggesting scientific determinism behind any culture’s core stories–that those stories will naturally mirror scientific properties and events, because, I suppose, science is universal. I don’t think that’s an intended interpretation, given that it contradicts so many other things the story states and implies, but it did seem implicit to me, and made me uneasy. (Although the point could also be that once we start seeing stories in a certain way, it is hard to stop.)

    I do wish, getting back to literary values, that Isha was just slightly more of a character–if my memory had been stolen and I was left only with a rare book inscribed with the name Vandana and her notes, I’d be much more interested in that Vandana and what she wrote.

    On the other hand, like Chad, I do also wish I knew more of the underlying associations and culture: they might have shed more illumination on how we’re meant to regard Isha, as well as enriching the story more generally. I did look up several of the proper nouns on Wikipedia, with some interesting results. There’s one suggestion on Wikipedia, for example, that Isha is another name for Kali, which would certainly be suggestive: Kali, goddess of dark (space?) and time. But I can’t find corroboration of that. More generally, Isha seems to be one name for the supreme being in some variants of Hindu, of which all living things are a part. And the Isha Upanishad religious text is framed by someone asking a sage the question of how to achieve self-knowledge and immortality of spirit-if-not-body, which feel relevant in this story.

  13. But they aren’t all folktales, are they? There is a frame, a frame which can be read in two ways but which Singh tells us is immaterial. Somadeva and Isha should be real, shouldn’t they? Or are you saying that it is all a folktale and Singh is just re-writing a folktale as a folktale? In which case, we are back to what you see as critique of cultural appropriation and I see as idle wanking.

    I’m not sure, though, that we mean the same things when we talk about “plausible” or “vivid” or “developed” characters.

    Oh don’t start that! How about this: do you consider any of the characters in this story to be any of those things?

  14. Adding to what I wrote above:

    Although the point could also be that once we start seeing stories in a certain way, it is hard to stop.

    And to some degree that, a way of seeing stories, is what cultures are.

  15. I wonder if people would place this emphasis on culture if the story were based in a culture they found more familiar. How much is this a story about culture because the culture is unfamiliar to the reader and thus stands out to the reader?

  16. I wondered why we should even bother to think about the meaning of the story when the story says that there is no meaning. And if there’s no meaning then what’s the point of reading it?

  17. I don’t think it abandons them. I think the story wants to hold them both up as co-equal interpretations.

    I would argue the SF interpretation isn’t consistent with the scene where Somadeva drinks at Sūryavati’s request. If he’s a far future reconstruction then where does that come from? A dream? Do AI reconstructions dream? My interpretation is that this basically invalidates the SF context in favor of a fantasy one.

    Then you get down to this business at the end: “Perhaps all I’ve found is a moment of time that keeps repeating, in which, despite the predations of history, I am caught, with Isha and Sūryavati, in a loop of time distanced from the main current. Here my stories never end…” And so forth. Which to me seems to cast aside the fantasy context in favor of, well, some hand waving about not being able to distinguish between the teller and the listener.

    Actually to be honest I find that whole last paragraph (well, next to last) incoherent. It sounds nice but means very little, and in fact if it means anything it’s rejecting meaning. Which I guess is a slightly nicer way of calling it, as Martin did, “idle wanking”.

    The Severian quote about symbols inventing us is an interesting contrast because it is crystal clear what Severian means. But then again Wolfe’s writing, for all its opacity, always affirms that there’s an absolute truth somewhere even if we can’t quite see it.

  18. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of comments about Watts’ “The Things” regarding how it is an “exercise” more than a story proper. To me, calling Watts’ story an “exercise” seemed a bit reductive, particularly when I saw a clear effort on Watts’ part to establish setting, context, character (for the alien, of course), and plot.

    Yet with Singh’s “Somadeva,” oddly, the impression I have is of, well, an exercise — a metafictional exercise, with acts of metafiction at its heart, and so a weaving between stories as meaningful and stories as (nearly) meaningless, stories as subjective and stories as merely objects. Upon finishing “Somadeva” the first time, my reaction was along the lines of the piece’s metafictional efforts being obvious and not, ultimately, “sophisticated” enough (to echo Matt Hilliard). Upon reading “Somadeva” a second time, I came away with the same basic impression, and I found that I wanted more from the piece than “Sometimes stories are just stories” and a final turn to “you,” the reader, that felt … predictable.

    The piece does have moments of real poetry and insight, especially when it concentrates on showing vs. telling. For instance, “But Suryavati? She is susceptible to story”: the notion of a weakness for and to story, of a desire for or maybe addiction to what story provides, of an openness to story, I find to be a fine moment of attention to detail in the piece, as such susceptibility encompasses all involved (Isha, Somadeva, Suryavati, “you,” etc.). Also, the tales of the Kahi and Inish evoke well the cadence and metaphorical register of myths, particularly the Inish tale of Bako/T’fan — as does, at times, the voice of Somadeva himself.

    Overall, though, I felt that Somadeva’s voice was inconsistent in tone and rhythm, that it fell too much into telling as opposed to showing. The catalogues of questions, for example, or the explanations of the forms and histories of the Indic texts shift the piece away from the more poetic, meditative tone with which Somadeva begins (and which matches the tone of the Kiha and Inish tales) and to which he returns when remembering Suryavati. This inconsistency of voice proved a bit distracting in places for me; it influenced my sense of the piece’s metafictional concerns being obvious, predictable.

    In the end, I think the obviousness of the irony for which “Somadeva” reaches leaves me unsure of how much to read into or take away from the story. Somadeva ends by declaring, “I am a poet, a teller of tales.” A recovery of what he once was, true, but an assertion made at the end of a tale that is not entirely, properly a tale but in fact a meta-tale about the telling, response to, and sharing of tales. Almost more of a preface or a prologue than the tale itself?

    Still, if as Singh writes on her web site, “Somadeva” is something of an “exercise for the reader,” I wonder if some intriguing possibilities arise. Is this an exercise, maybe, for traditional/conventional (i.e., Western) SF readers in a different way of storytelling and story-reading, such an exercise reworking traditional/conventional (i.e., Western) SF narrative expectations into a different set of (cultural) narrative expectations? I like this question, but I’m not sure “Somadeva” is sophisticated enough to bear the kind of analysis such a question might encourage or produce.

    So, mixed feelings for me on this one ….

  19. @ Matt H.: I think it would be thoroughly consistent with what you call the SF interpretation if our narrator Somadeva, an AI reconstruction as you say, finds itself having to reconstruct its own past in order to be the Somadeva that Isha wants, to answer the questions about “his” choices and motives that she wants answered. Part of that reconstruction would necessarily be reconciling what it knows of itself in the present–its time with Isha–and the past self that it was created to be a facsimile of. But as soon as it does that reconciliation, as represented by the tea scene with Suryavati, it looses its ability to tell which direction the story is going in, which interpretation is true. Read only that way, it is among other things a pretty neat AI story, I think. Isha isn’t the only one hunting for a past, and a self; Somadeva can be seen as not just narrator but also protagonist.

    But I’m also sensitive–perhaps overly so and am reading too much into the story–to the way the themes of the story, and the stories within the story, seem to suggest a sort of dream-logic, or perhaps in this case “spiritual logic” might be a better phrase. That’s more what I meant by a fantasy interpretation–I have trouble reading the story with that SF interpretation not being “true,” but I also wonder if in addition there’s more being said. That’s where I ponder the bi-directional gaze, the hints about the interconnectedness of things, the possible significance of the name Isha, the caution against single interpretations, etc.

  20. As ever, an awful lot to try to digest/synthesise here. I’ll start with an easy one, from Martin:

    do you consider any of the characters in this story to be any of those things?

    Plausible, certainly; vivid, somewhat, with a clearly defined set of emotional notes for each; developed in the sense of containing internal contradictions, no, developed in the sense of changing over time, yes for Somadeva. The historical frame feels more abstract to me, but I suspect that’s because it’s introduced second, and because my readerly sympathies lie with the futuristic frame. Obviously it is not “a character story”, but its characters feel sufficient to the sort of story it is; I have ideas of Somadeva and Isha in my head to carry away with me.


    How much is this a story about culture because the culture is unfamiliar to the reader and thus stands out to the reader?

    It’s a fair question, but I think it is in the story. I think Mike is right to detect an element of advocacy for non-Western storytelling (sf) traditions in the story (and Singh’s fiction in general), and I think Matt D is very right to point to the recontextualised (there’s that concept again) Golden Age-ness of this story. Describing it as “schematic”, or “an exercise”, or “not real” is true from one point of view — but, I’d argue, there are other, more productive points of view from which to approach it. Singh can clearly put a sentence together, and (if you’ve read other of her stories) can clearly create conventional narratives and characters, it’s just not what she’s doing here; and whether one or other mode is more to my taste or anyone else’s taste is less interesting to me than looking at what is actually going on in the story and how.

    So to get back to the point at hand, culture is the raw material of the story. Its protagonists are storytellers who go out into the world, collect the stories of the people they encounter, and make something out of them — in the case of the Kiha, even presume to put them in “the right order”. (Which is to say that in a sense it’s about all storytellers. Including critics, if you think of critical work as telling stories about stories.) So they’re transforming the cultures they visit because, as Matt D says, culture is a way of seeing stories.

    On the question of meaning: Matt H, for the purposes of this story, I see no reason why we shouldn’t accept that AIs can dream, so I don’t think the superposition of fantasy and sf readings is ever collapsed. But I don’t agree with Martin that this means the difference is “immaterial”; and I really don’t agree with James that the story says that there is “no meaning”. What it says is this: “it is also important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and form them into a chain of their own making”. And later: “Would we sit together, Sūryavati, Isha, and I, with you, and feel teso within us—and weave meaning from the strands of the tale?” That is not an assertion that the story has no true meaning; it’s an assertion that whatever meaning we find in the story can be true. It’s a refusal to offer a single meaning, but an inducement to create your own meaning. Matt H, for instance, seems to be spot on in his reading of the Inish tales as a reflection of the relationship between author, reader, and character — Singh’s Somadeva is not my Somadeva is not your Somadeva. But it is also, more generally or more literally, a story about devotion and identity and society. Without having thought about it deeply, I bet you could take it as a metaphor for other processes in which combinations change the properties of something; atomic theory, for instance. Etc etc.

    Abigail is right to suggest that this point — that stories can be read in many ways — is, itself, dominant within Singh’s story as a whole. We are directly told that is what the story is about. But to say that’s a flaw of the story is a bit like claiming postmodernism is flawed because the statement “trust no authority” is itself an assertion of authority; there is more to carry away from “Somadeva”, in its images, in its modelling of storytelling as an act of devotion, and so forth. It has a message that asks us to look beyond the message. Forget what we think Singh is trying to say with the story: what can we make it say?

  21. Long, internet-free weekend here, so I am a little late to the fray. But that’s all right, as I don’t have a lot to say about this one. I didn’t have any of the character concerns voiced above, as they all seemed consistent with the mode of the story. My biggest problem here is that there’s a lot of meta-fictional baggage, and the ratio of scaffolding to story is kind of low.

    This is a very short story, and we spend a lot of it getting to know the life and times of Somadeva and his work. The issue there is a) the inconsistency of voice that Mike points out above & b) that Somadeva and his work add almost nothing to the story. The structure asks a lot of the reader, but there’s little payoff from it. We never learn the answers to the questions we’re most interested in, etc.. The whole thing strikes me as being one revision short of being ready to go. The author thought of an interesting structural conceit and wrote a story to go within it, but never got to the point where she realized that the structural conceit was holding the piece as a whole back and winkling out the good parts from the bad.

    It either needs greater length and substance, to justify the structural overhead, or needs to ditch it entirely and focus more precisely on the many valences and possible interpretations of stories from other cultures.

  22. One thing I’ll say about all this is that I’ve learned a lot about how different people take different meanings from the same text…but I didn’t learn it from this story, I actually learned it from the first short story club. Stories that seemed much more straightforward than this one were read wildly differently.

    I say this because, as far as I understand the points he makes, I think Somadeva celebrates this aspect of storytelling. My instinct last year, thinking about the discussions, was not to celebrate but to despair. It seemed like the written word failed, or at least was quite unreliable, as a means of communicating the thoughts of the author to the reader.

    Part of the difference may lie in the way, although Somadeva apparently wrote his stories down, he generally speaks of, well, speaking. He seems to speak aloud his tales to Sūryavati, and then at the end describes everyone sitting together and arriving at meaning through a sort of teamwork. Perhaps this is a reasonable view of oral storytelling.

    But most written stories don’t work that way. The writer produces the text, and then the readers draw all sorts of meaning, including plenty the writer did not intend and some that, had they been alerted by a friend or editor after reading a draft, they would have changed the text to prevent. There’s no give and take, no conversation. Rather than sitting together, everyone is isolated. Even though the Internet provides a medium for writers and readers to interact directly, isn’t it generally accepted that it’s a bad idea for writers to engage with critics and reviewers about their work?

  23. It seemed like the written word failed, or at least was quite unreliable, as a means of communicating the thoughts of the author to the reader.

    I’d argue that fiction doesn’t communicate the thoughts of the author to the reader, and that it’s not meant to. If someone wants to communicate their thoughts, they should write an essay. Fiction by its nature refuses that direct link between author and meaning; it’s more about describing a thought-space for the reader to inhabit. I’d point out that we don’t often disagree about the literal events of a story, except where such disagreement is invited, such as the nature of the frame in this case. What we disagree about is the meaning we impose on those events.

    The follow-on from this is: why is it a bad idea for authors to engage in discussions of their work? The standard answers have to do with an inevitable lack of objectivity, and/or a sense that their presence will inhibit free discussion. But those are both expressions of a belief in authority. The first is an objection on the grounds that authors will believe they have access to the truth about their fiction, the second on the grounds that readers will believe that authors have access to the truth about their fiction. If everyone let go of that idea, I’d suggest, authors joining discussion of their work wouldn’t be half so controversial.

    Not that everyone is going to let go of that idea, and actually, not that I want them to. Authors do have intentions, and I’m interested in what those intentions are. (This gets particularly tangled, of course, when you stray into the politics of a story — which we notably haven’t done in this case — rather than a more abstract or aesthetic debate.) But I don’t want that perspective to become the be-all and end-all of a discussion, which is why objections about “reading too much into a story” rarely make sense to me. If I see something in a story it is, in a sense, there; if you don’t see it and I can’t convince you to see it that may mean more of the something comes from me than the story, but it still comes from my interaction with the story, not wholly from me.

  24. I think we are on the same page, Evan:

    I didn’t have any of the character concerns voiced above, as they all seemed consistent with the mode of the story… The issue there is a) the inconsistency of voice that Mike points out above

    Inconsistency of voice is a character concern. Similarly, when you say “the ratio of scaffolding to story is kind of low”, I think this is echoing my complaint about the lack of the real in favour of “meta-fictional baggage”. It is a really short, really under-developed story.

  25. It seemed like the written word failed, or at least was quite unreliable, as a means of communicating the thoughts of the author to the reader.

    In addition to what Niall wrote, which I heartily agree with, there’s also the temporal aspect. I find that good stories often require unpacking over time to fully appreciate. I suspect a lot of us are reading these stories and then posting our thoughts within days, if not hours: so what we’re sharing are a series of first responses, accounts of the ways we as readers connected to the stories based on what was on our minds at the time, our emotional state, etc. It would be an interesting experiment to keep a story that we all disagreed about in the back of our minds for a few months, or a few years, or a few decades, re-reading it every now and then, over the course of many different life experiences, and then reconvene and talk about the story again. I’m sure we’d still differ, but I wonder if those differences wouldn’t be softened by all of us having had the time to consider a story in different lights, some of which may have been similar to the lights initially used by those we disagreed with.

    Back to this story specifically: I’m always suspicious of separations like design vs. content, scaffolding vs. story–to me, design carries with it implied content, and likewise scaffolding implies story. I think some of our differences in reaction to this story come down to how much story we’re willing to credit the scaffolding with–I’m about as far from Evan’s suggestion that the “structural conceit was holding the piece as a whole back and winkling out the good parts from the bad” as possible. I think the structure emphasizes what to me are the good parts. One way is via the suggested connection with the author: there’s an emotional distance to the story’s telling that I might have found off-putting, except for the suggestion of a “Vandana” who has made notes in the margins of her own copy of the Kathasaritsagara. That created a sense that it may be an important text for her personally, something she herself has grappled with as a collection of stories, as a glimpse into the past, as a piece of culture; that this story might be a continuation of that grappling. In general I’m in favor of stories that artfully present notions that the artist is grappling with: that presentation, seeing what other people grapple with and how they do it, how they represent messy and amorphous ideas as story, is often more interesting to me than whatever conclusions and resolutions they might arrive at.

    That said, Evan, I’m curious: what are the questions you were most interested in, that we didn’t learn the answers to?

  26. Martin: Agreed.

    Matt: I wanted to know more about the cultures, more about the world, more about the characters.

    I am not considering structure in isolation, I don’t think. I just think that as a choice, mimicking the Kathāsaritsāgara in miniature is an expensive choice that doesn’t much go towards the strengths of the story. I make a point of separating the structure and the content because I feel they work together so poorly. We spend a lot of time on stuff that is explicitly structure, that is, Somadeva talking about the structure of the story that he is trying to tell us about Isha and about Sūryavati and his history and the structure of the book that he wrote/compiled, rather than just telling us the story. Finally, the ending feels like a tacked on attempt to make something out of what has come before, but doesn’t feel earned or shown or convincing.

    This may have worked well, at least for me, as a more traditional piece of fiction (in the anthropological mode of LeGuin, maybe), with the same general bones and characters and with a little more substance. But in my mind, putting the story in the voice of Somadeva and tying it to its metafictional conceit sunk it. It just doesn’t have anything interesting enough to say to need such an expensive device to express it.

  27. It seemed like the written word failed, or at least was quite unreliable, as a means of communicating the thoughts of the author to the reader.

    Another angle on this, from Tom McCarthy:

    One way of thinking about art, or the novel, is that the writer is the transmitter, the originator: I have something to say about the world and I’m going to transmit it. But this isn’t how I see it, I see it as exactly the inverse: the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it – not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively. This is what Heidegger says about poets: to be a poet is to listen before speaking; it’s first and foremost a listening and not a speaking. Kafka said it as well: “I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say.” Writing, or art, is not about having something to say; it’s about aspiring to a heightened state of hearing. It’s why C is a totally acoustic novel and a receptive novel. The hero, Serge, sits there for hours trawling the aether waves, absorbing, listening to ship-to-shore transmissions, stock market prices, sports results, writing them all down. In a way, if you could see Serge’s transcript it would probably read like an Ezra Pound canto.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s