1.06.2004

The Art of Suggestion

Suggestion has been around since the birth of communication. One reason for its existence is as a method for the weak to meet the strong on equal grounds. A boy hints of his love that may not be reciprocated: “Your boyfriend is a lucky guy.”

Of course, suggestion is used to talk around a subject whose difficulty lies in a negative outcome. This arises naturally in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. Abortion, illegal and immoral then, was a touchy subject to speak out loud, like uttering profanities in the presence of a lady. But what would a generation unfamiliar with this attitude or background make of it? a generation lacking the ethical quandary it presents today?

So we run bump into the problem of suggestion as art. Anybody can play. It’s the bullshitter’s favorite con: if you can’t dazzle ‘em with your brilliance, baffle ‘em with your bullshit. You pretend to know something and if someone doesn’t know it, you simply act aloof. The way to prove that your suggestion is art is to ensure that the observant audience understands through context.

Cordwainer Smith solves this problem in “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by, after introducing many bizarre new concepts, explaining them in thorough detail in the next scene. The puzzle-then-reveal method works, but perhaps is not entirely necessary.

In Roger Zelazny’s “The Engine at Heartspring’s Center,” which James Gunn calls the art story, the narrator immediately and swiftly introduces the scenario in order to render scenes similar to Hemingway’s.

The truly masterful work whose art is suggestion might incorporate its suggestions as a natural function of life as the story winds along, such as anything by Jane Austen or Henry James or more recently by Nancy Kress in the second scene of “Savior”. In fact, one might claim this as the meat and potatoes of literary fiction (although the art of connection is the stronger art in that it not only provides its own context but also continues to reveal in rereadings as suggestion generally does not).

But some stories like Hemingway’s build utterly upon suggestion. I will compare two which both straddle the boundaries of the real and the make-believe: John Barth’s “Night-Sea Journey” and James Tiptree’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.” The comparisons I draw will be constructive and not intended destructive since both have entirely different yet similar aims: both are journeys that spell out one apparent end only to suggest an entirely different one.

Barth’s begins with an abstract philosophical pondering that can be played two ways (although it gives little hint initially of what it means on the surface level--quite the opposite of the average story) and that informs us how to accept this intrusion into the narrator’s personal thoughts: “no matter which theory of our journey is correct, it’s myself I address.” Tiptree’s begins with far more conventionally and concretely, revealing only one aspect of the story secret to be gradually revealed as if casually mentioning: “like nearly everyone, he was fighting the flu.”

Tiptree’s narration is also strange in how we quickly find we are traveling from mind to mind of different narrators by the second paragraph. And yet we pull out even further in point of view with “No one noticed the woman.” So we ask ourselves who noticed the not-noticing. It’s as if we’re witnessing the documentary of officials trying to pin down the actions of Dr. Ain--possibly his last, as the title suggests--via the analysis of no one identifying Ain on the flight but someone having checked that “an ‘Ames’ was on the checklist, which was thought to be a misspelling of Ain.”

Meanwhile, Barth’s narrator is still philosophical, wondering if his journey is even real. The first clue to the story’s suggestion is in the second paragraph: “who am I? The Heritage I supposedly transport?” The next clue appears shortly thereafter: “I lack conviction. Many accounts of our situation seem plausible to me--where and what we are, why we swim and whither.” This also tells us the reason the narrator is incapable of plainly telling his story without suggestion: he doesn’t know who he is either.

Tiptree’s documentary narrator(s) could tell us, it seems, for He/She/It have knowledge beyond the story’s overt participants. He/She/It continues to focus on the woman--whether metaphorically or realistically is never revealed explicitly: “Ain watched the smoky seaboard.... The woman was weaker now.... Her hair, Ain saw, that great mane which had been so splendid, was drabbed and thinning.... He looked to seaward.... On the horizon he saw a vast black rug: somewhere a taker had opened its vents. The woman coughed again.”

Eventually Tiptree will also become semi-religious in her description, but Barth heads us immediately there in his third clue toward his suggestion--his double-talk constantly apparent: “I have supposed that we have after all a common Maker, Whose nature and motives we may not know, but who engendered us in some mysterious wise and launched us forth.”

Tiptree now introduces the idea of the throat spray, which she draws our attention to, but tries to deflect as a commonplace appearance in this time of pandemic flu (perhaps this is the story’s minor conceptual blemish that, if people are dying of an illness, foreign countries would allow people sick with a new disease to cross borders easily). The narrator(s) note parenthetically “By that time they were sure she was with him.”

Barth contemplates all of his “drowned comrades... victims of their unremitting [joy of swimming],” which neatly contrasts with the song they sing to their deaths: “Love! Love!” in “the warm sea white with joy of swimming!” This contrast gives the narrator reflective pause: “wonder, doubt, despair...have lead me, even, to suspect... that our night-sea journey is without meaning.”

Perhaps Barth’s intent should be clear by now, but the philosophy bears us past what would seem laughably dark ruminations without the simultaneous double readings: “there are those who seem actually to enjoy the night-sea... or sincerely believe that ‘reaching the Shore,’ ‘transmitting the Heritage’ (_Whose_ Heritage, I’d like to know? And to whom?) is worth the staggering cost.” The purpose of life of living through our “function and design” and “to ‘fulfill our destiny’” leave us with the same hollowness as the narrator--perhaps more so since we can telescope/microscope his purpose of perpetuity onto ours of this destiny “Which is to say Someone Else’s destiny, since ours... is merely to perish.” Barth understands our desire to laugh at the scenario and writes that we can either give up the possibly pointless thrashing and die or “embrace the absurdity”--neither choice of which the narrator appreciates, yet the narrator swims out of habit or in fear of the choice of death.

The line between death and dying is broader in Tiptree. We find the woman “seemed to be stronger here” in Iceland--a hint perhaps that we should read her metaphorically. Ain thinks that a flock of wheatears will head to North Africa and then feeds them from a packet of crumbs from his pocket. Tiptree takes time next to establish the love between Dr. Ain and the unnamed woman via a flashback of her naked beauty as he first spied her among birch woods. But no one else seems to be able to recognize this mysterious and dying beauty, not even Dr. Ain’s former professor.

Barth waxes religious again in contemplating the ultimate purpose, positing a Father who creates and disperses them indifferently--or even a Father who worked against their survival at all, malicious in His intent, destroying believers and non-believers irrespectively, allowing perhaps one in billions a chance at immortality.

Tiptree is a little coyer about mortality--her suggestions never seem to strike as directly at its target as they do. An Indian molecular engineer jokes that Dr. Ain has brought over the Asian flu, which intimates that the flu began in Asia (as do most flus) before traveling to America. But “brought over” plays two ways: intentional and unintentional. Later, at the Moscow meeting, Dr. Ain describes a remarkably prescient device: a virus that cause leukemia. Certainly today, since helicobacter was first implicated as a cause of ulcers, many diseases are viewed with the question of a virus or bacteria as its cause. Moreover, her disease heralds the coming of AIDS with its using “immunomechanisms, and so defense was by definition hopeless.”

Dr. Ain begins to ramble in what would appear nonsense without context but we’ve grown to understand the function of the woman and why Ain did what he did, culminating in the near religious proclamation of “Gaea Gloriatrix...queen.”

Barth elaborates an intriguing theology through the narrator’s and our own inherent mortalities: that our immortality or godhood relies on our ability to transmit this “Heritage,” human generating god to generate human and so on. But the ultimate transfiguration is the irresistible union with the She who is Other-than-a-he when the narrator becomes something other than self--to lose the self, the narrator feels is worth any listener to forswear, yet off he goes into the dichotomous purpose of human existence: to exist for the self or for someone else.

Both stories have their problems. Barth rambles in a charmingly colloquial chatter--that could conceivably be snipped of a few conversational clauses. Tiptree’s primary conceptual flaw is this very documentary style--albeit ingenious in construct: it lacks consistency, for at points we have characters remembering and a direct quote from Dr. Ain’s former professor, yet somehow the story ends on the point that people alive to question the characters would not have been alive to witness the final story events. Presumably the narrators are a new breed of intelligence quite apart from these characters--so who is chronicling these events, recognizing their importance?

Despite this crack in the story’s foundation, Tiptree’s building stands as a firm testament like _1984_ whose warnings allow us to change our ways before the occurrence of such dire events. And so, in the hands of the right wielder, suggestion can make us think beyond the story. Here, both Barth and Tiptree excel at giving enough information to decode their grand suggestions, instead of wandering dumbly about wondering what the hell they meant.


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