04 September 2011

In Context, Out of Context

It strikes me that we set great store by context. We believe we understand, in general and in specific cases, what (the) context is. Ignoring or forgetting or misunderstanding the context is always something other people do, not us. And one of our favorite ways of dismissing what is otherwise the most compelling evidence against us is to allege that it has been 'taken out of context'. Never mind that quotations by their very nature are detached from their original contexts. (We'll see something similar in the Kiss epigraph [2.1] from Burroughs: 'All pictures are faked.')

So you may well think less of me when I shine the spotlight, however briefly, on two sentences in my novel A Kiss Before You Leave Me that run afoul of the conventions of context. I tweeted each of them recently, providing only the title of the novel and an ordering link--thus assuring that they would be read in a certain way, in a certain context, which is different from their original contexts in the novel.

Here are the two sentences, as they appear--in context--in Kiss.

'This wasn't a story about how things happened in the art world; it was a story, perhaps, about letting go' (chapter 9). The point of view is that of Mark, a journalist attempting to write honestly about changes in the life of an emerging painter who has cut his ties to certain parts of his previous life. Mark is justifying his failure to divulge his own role in the painter's early success (Mark provided the painter's introduction to the gallery that took him on); in fact, Mark's own detachment is compromised at best. (A more careful reading of the entire paragraph might focus on the words 'detachment', 'foreground' and 'background', and the problems they pose.)

'"My grandmother said it was really an American story"' (chapter 1). Jack Emery is explaining his need for someone to translate into English his grandmother's Paris diary, kept in French in the late 1920s; the imperative is one of the conditions posed by the grandmother herself before her death. Her family of origin was transplanted at least twice (from France to Quebec, from Quebec to the U.S.), as she subsequently was herself (to Paris and back); her words 'really an American story' may be puzzling until the reader knows much more about the eventual course of the grandmother's life and its possible significance for Jack.

You can see where this is going, especially if you've read the book. From the get-go, I wrote both sentences with the intent not only that they satisfy the immediate contextual needs of the passages in which they appear but also that they apply to the totality of the novel--that they suggest to the reader that A Kiss Before You Leave Me itself is more about 'letting go' than about 'how things happen in the art world'... and that it is 'really an American story'.

I've touched on some of the 'letting go' issues in a recent post about the title of the novel; readers may associate these issues with the final chapter and its playing off of 'letting go' against 'recovery'.

But it would be indiscreet to say much here about the Americanness of Kiss, except to predict that it may be clearer to international readers than to their American counterparts. In fact, this is how I sometimes explain my particular gratitude for international readers: among other things, they will be most able to read it as a novel 'about' the United States. They, precisely, may be the ones with the context in which to read it.


Jim Carpenter said...

Awesome post, Jascha. Awesome novel, too.

bsneden said...

I really enjoyed reading your book and your follow-up comments.

James Hulbert said...

Thanks to both for your kind words and support--and thanks to ebooks, Blogger, Twitter and all the rest for providing new avenues for sharing.