Shaping The Infinite, Or How Not to Die of Routine

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Hilary Mantel, when she writes fiction, prefers to grab on a fact. A handhold, if you will. “I aim to make fiction flexible enough so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them,” she said in her Paris Review interview last week. If someone were to claim that the pursuit of the factual runs counter to the aims of fiction, she’d reply that most of human history remains unknown to us, anyway – we have only fragments of Sappho and stumps of buildings and broken statues and fields and fields of unmarked graves all over the world. So if you are lucky enough to build a human universe around any kind of factual handhold, why wouldn’t you use all you could get? To extend the climbing metaphor: just because you can, improbably, hoist yourself along a sheer cliff face doesn’t make the risk of falling any less, or the vista behind you any less stunning.

Mantel regards being a novelist (even a decorated one) as a consolation prize for not being able to become a historian, but historians create beautiful arguments about the past using her very outlook. Harvard professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore’s 2013 book Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin is about the probable life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister – and along the way, a thorough study of the extent to which early American women’s lives have been lost to history because of the limits placed on their educations. Using the tiny written record Jane left behind – a hand-sewn folio in which she recorded her children’s births and deaths – Lepore “bends” the story of Jane’s life around it. The few records eighteenth-century Boston had that related to Jane give the story additional shape, as well as the letters she saved from her famous brother (he did not save hers, evidently) which create an inverse portrait of her and her apparently pithy mind. The facts are the curves of the dressmaker’s dummy, the story the cloth.

Every time a movie comes out that treats historical material, that bends story around fact in this way, we worry the facts will be lost in the story. See the heated debates over LBJ’s portrayal in Selma, Alan Turing’s in The Imitation Game. But with historical fiction, as Mantel points out, we fear the opposite: when a novel bends a story around fact, we fear that the story will be lost in the facts, or that out of the facts we have, no story will emerge. Is this because we know thousands of people will see a movie, while we believe people have to be recruited to read novels? Meanwhile, historians suffer the reputation of being dull seekers of facts, rather than what the best of them are, which is shapers of stories, both around facts and out of them. Lepore’s work, like that of any biographer working with limited primary sources, throws into relief the extent to which historical fact-finding has a margin of error, the possibility that every story told may “flicker” between fact and fiction.

We treat these various ways of presenting events on earth with hypocrisy, unsure of whether we think the novelist, biopic director, or historian does the least justice to the truth, by which we mean, depending on how closely we hold the story, the facts or the reason for telling the story — its meaning. But our uncertainty speaks to the fact that we are as bewildered as ever by an ancient task: out of the indifferent infinite, making the shape of our lives.

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Shapeliness. Shapely used to strike me as an odd word: something’s quality of being shaped the way it is supposed to be shaped, only somehow more so. Every writer receives “good” rejections; the best of mine began: “Leah, thank you for these shapely poems…” When something is shapely, a poem or a spring day or a great novel or a meal, you can see and understand the beginning and the end of it, and those points communicate a rapport with its middle. It’s not only shaped, as in sketched or planned, but sculpted, the unnecessary parts smoothed away. (Until recently, it’s interesting to note, shape was a feminine word, connoting the way a woman’s body naturally forms, and sculpting belonged to men who passed hours in the gym, making of their bodies what they wanted).

A good short story is shapely. An irrational number is not, until you start looking in it for short stories. With a comely lime-maple tart, I celebrated Pi Day last weekend. One non-mathematician friend wondered on Facebook whether pi could be considered a “gallery of the possible,” in the manner of Borges’s Library of Babel. What can be found there? Your birthday, perhaps. September 11, 2001. December 7, 1941. Possibly any numeric combination that has significance for a human.

Why should we care that pi contains these combinations? It does not care that it contains them – pi is not a novelist or a historian. But here is why we should care. The more anything tends toward infinity, the less shapely it becomes. Not so long ago, for example, people talked about the end of the physical book. Readers bemoaned the rumors of its decline not because the content of an e-book is any different than that of its paper and cloth counterpart, but because a stack of pages can be measured in both time and space. It is a concrete partner, if a simplified one, to the shape the book’s sentences make in the mind. And it, like the text, begins and ends (“how to end without beginning” writes the poet Ben Lerner). To have the texts of our favorite books absorbed into the endless text living in our computer screens and iPhones might have felt like a loss of shape.

Finding your grandmother’s birthday or the date of the apocalypse in pi, however much it feels like reading tea leaves, reminds us that as much as the infinite seems to draw closer with every Internet hole we fall down, we are not infinite creatures. We do not play well with endlessness. Infinity tempts us to draw walls around it, to see patterns in it. In Rhoda Kellogg’s archive of childhood graphic expression, many children first draw without regard for the borders of the page – you can see that their lines, even though they must stop, go on. Older children seem to crave corners (remember those winking suns) and borders, obsessing over thickened outlines of people and houses. This is finite us, beginning, middle, end: when presented with a round world, we call it flat. But all the time, we crave infinity: when presented with a horizon, we navigate off its edge.

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I work an office job, in a room with brown carpet and no windows. I sit in the same position for several hours at a time; most of my work happens in the exchange of email messages and the creation of documents and spreadsheets. In the mornings, I pack my bag, drink my coffee, get on the train to Manhattan. In the evenings, I shut down my work computer, clean up my desk, pack my bag, and get on the train to Brooklyn. When I began this routine a year and a half ago, it seemed to me that it would kill me. Although I read endlessly on the train, wrote the beginnings of essays and poems, talked with my colleagues and did my work the best I could, it still seemed that there were vast swaths of time unaccounted for, in which nothing had a shape, in which everything was gray, carpeted, and made the slow, fatal sound of leaking air. I had never felt this way as a child, or even a young adult. When had I stopped knowing how to see things, how to be fascinated? Was this the way most people spent their days, their whole lives?

Only recently I realized something obvious: the shape my days had when I was younger had so much to do with the books I read, not the life I was living. The shapes my favorite authors made of their characters’ lives, of the language they used, allowed me to project those shapes onto my own experience. This doesn’t mean I actually saw the events of the books in front of me, but it broadened the realm of the possible. At twelve, I saw a woman take a stroller from in front of a small-town store and was convinced I had witnessed a kidnapping. I had an imagination, of course, but you would have to go back very far to show me that imagination untouched by the words and stories and figures of other people. Sometimes, especially when I was reading a sentence that I had never read before but which I felt I had known forever, I felt a physical feeling like I imagined a prophet has when he is about to hear the word of God. Like I was plugging the world into itself.

How could it have taken me so long to know that the authors of those books had made those shapes, had provided me with this solace from the infinite, because they needed such solace themselves? They could have been traveling back and forth on a bus or train every day, doing the same tasks with the same small chunk of their brains. They could have been wondering how the same terrible things could happen in 2015 as happened in 1950. How could they convince themselves it would not go on forever? By finishing the shape, focusing: taking a fact and bending the story around it. Handhold, rock-face. Dummy, silk.

What let me understand it finally, and what gave me a kind of silent ammunition against those who believed in fiction as pure imagination or history as pure fact, was drawing. More often than writing, I had drawn to tell stories as a child, and in the adult purgatory of my morning commute this habit had come back to me. In New York, this is a creepy habit. All but the subtlest sketchers draw attention to themselves. But a face is a fact: I hold onto it. I study a brow, the bones of a cheek. Sometimes the person I stare at gets off the train before I can finish. But surprisingly, because I have been looking closely and imagining at the same time, the shapes around the brow or the cheek come easily. They come, like ghosts, from two places simultaneously: from the intimate familiar, our little ledge of the known, and from the gulley we dangle over, held inside us.

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