David Hayden’s story “What the Canal Took” appears in AGNI 89.
Omer Friedlander/AGNI: Your story “What the Canal Took” is grounded in bodily sensation and physical detail, such as “The water is hot, her hands are red,” “breathing heavily as one who doesn’t run often breathes when running,” and “it was cold against her ear.” In an article you wrote for Lit Hub you say that “people write out of their skin, their memory and their blood.” How important is physical and bodily sensation to this story?
Flannery O’Connor wrote that “Fiction is incarnational,” which, in her intention, carries within it a Catholic narrative that I won’t attempt to summarize here, but can be an acute and brilliantly suggestive observation on the relationship between body, experience, language, and story. I’ve written elsewhere:
What we forget does not forget us. The forgotten is not unthought but remains lost. Forgetting—the forgotten—are part of the realm of the sensible. That which is in the bone, in the body dark, in the body’s flows and sparks, can be made available through the words that are found by noticing. What comes in through the ear, the eye, the skin, can be rematerialized as words for the reader to make sense with, to live with, to remember or forget.
The sensory, the feeling, and the thinking being are one person. I can’t imagine writing fiction that isn’t a process of intense, often pre- or even post-verbal, noticing, dragged or ignited into words, and shaped or fanned out into stories. For me, rhythm, or cadence, is essential for catching hold of any small part or moment of the world in precise, palpable, sense-derived images and putting them into language that moves, breathes, and can be seen and felt by the reader.
Cadence, by one definition, is the sense of motion in writing, and, through that motion, the apprehension of feeling, of the object world (internal and external), of time, of change and, ultimately, of endings. The means for achieving this are present, bodily, in the writer and the reader. Every single word has a rhythmic value, which is part of the freight of its meaning that exists in addition to—and embedded within—its literal meaning. Cadence is as present in “purely” descriptive writing as it is in poetic prose, as much in C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins as Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
Combinations of words generate patterns of rhythm, of sound and its absence, they generate a pulse and a flow, and all of these are an extension of the meaning of the words individually, combinatorily, syntactically. Imagery comes out of an understanding of the visual value of this language, as well as out of the body and through the senses. Writers, I think, need to feel the charge of energy in their use of images, to see their expression as not neutral and purely descriptive but as living, resistant, and generative, The language of imagery, for me, has an irreducible core that might be called rationally mysterious. A sentence is not merely a delivery system for transparent meaning. Orwell’s clear pane of glass metaphor for good English prose assumes that meaning can be made to exist separate to expression, perhaps even that the bodily confusions that language rises out of are to be suspected, rejected, sloughed off, washed away. My view is that you cannot separate “what” is read from “how” it is read.
In your story, the “radio in the kitchen plays between stations.” This kind of in-between language, or inability to communicate, is echoed in the moments where words literally fail: “he grunted and moaned; unable to make words” and “bubbles rose. They might have been words.” One of the most powerful things about this story is what is not said, what is kept hidden or only partly revealed. What interests you about the ways in which communication fails?
Failure is an essential part of being human, of course. In my view, language is both almost limitlessly construable, that is, generative of meanings, and always incomplete. A great deal of fiction makes a pretense, or an assertion, of being total and complete in its understanding of the world it describes (or that the reader makes in reading). But, much as I love novels and stories of this kind, I see this instrumentally, as a fiction about fiction that can be useful for making good work, or not.
The unsaid, and the unsayable, are great creative and destructive powers in life, and they are, and have been, important elements of fictions as different as Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. “What the Canal Took” is structured around a present silence, which is made palpable to the reader, I hope, in the progress of the story. I’m aware that writing a story in the way I did here can be seen as stubbornly, intentionally difficult— a kind of performative opacity that is almost an offence against the reader. But for me, what you call the “in-between” language, and the failure of words to mean, is a way of enacting and describing the hidden struggling against silence. It is both part of the way the story is told, and the subject of the story—the formal and language choices are driven by necessity, and emotionally so. I’ve been told that my work can seem to “lack generosity towards the reader” but I hope that the opposite is true; that I’m telling stories that can’t be told truly, by my lights, in any other way.
Omer Friedlander is an editorial assistant at AGNI.