Home > Essays > Fabulously Real
Published: Thu Apr 15 2004
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Fabulously Real


At the fitness center where I work out,* one treadmill, the seventh from the left, has a view different from the others. Whereas one through six face an unending video of painted cinderblock, number seven is positioned at a jut in the wall, a simple jog that widens the room, so that when I look up from setting my coordinates and weight, my gaze falls on retreating lines of mortar that, by the drafter’s laws of perspective, must meet at the horizon. “Have a good workout,” the machine insists, and I reluctantly convert my walk into an awkward trot until the belt reaches full speed. I am the Queen of Hearts in a checkout lane, trying to keep from being scanned and bagged. As I run, the lines of mortar begin to wobble. When I’m on the other treadmills, the cinderblocks might bob a little—usually they don’t do much—but from here the receding lines undulate like vinyl siding hanging off the back of a pickup. That the work-study who reads Self behind a brown metal desk looks up and sees the walls in perfect order, rigid as ever and numbingly yellow, doesn’t change the fact that I, five minutes into my run, can’t even trick myself into seeing the wall as stable masonry. I’ve stared at those lines, trying to force them to fall when I rise, and rise when I fall—simple linear motion described by the delta between my distance from the ground and theirs—but no. They snap and bend like whips, impervious to my rationalisms. I’ve given up. Against the tendencies of my era and the bent of my mind, I’ve accepted the obvious: there’s magic around that treadmill and I will never run there without watching the wall soften at the pounding of my feet.


Any consideration of realism quickly stumbles on the many meanings of the word. “Realism” can mean almost anything, just as “real” can. If “real” sometimes means “very” (“That’s real good pie!”), realism could conceivably mean very-ism, or some sort of systematic principle of excess—which wouldn’t be too far from what, in practice, it has often meant. “Fabulism,” on the other hand, seems to be a newer term. The most etymologically sound definition would be the tendency to use elements of fable in one’s writing, elements of the fanciful, the purely imaginary. Fabulists bend the world through the prism of a character’s subjectivity, or, beginning not with the self but with the social, they rework the world to explore the inscrutable outside of us and between us. The ghosts in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, are a subjective fabulism; magical realism is by and large an external one; and Kafka’s The Trial is famously read both ways, as an account of mysteries within us and an account of those that surround us, a spirit’s struggle and bureaucracy’s madness.

But how far from the real world does the “purely imaginary” need to be? As soon as thought is portrayed, the novelist is accessing and representing the invisible and intangible. No method will be more or less realistic than any other. Do we think in words? Do we have only one thought at a time? Portrayals of the inner life are analogies, tropes, guesses, transfigurations.

B. F. Skinner had the temerity to believe that thought doesn’t exist. In the late 1980s he told a group of students over lunch that he secretly believed that what we call thought is not a predecessor but an afterimage of physical processes and that bent steel, restraightened, has a memory in exactly the same way we do. Would a fictional world depicted along those lines be realist or fabulist? Would it be realistic or otherworldly? Are those two questions the same?


The work of a wonderfully realistic fabulist shows us how inadequate our categories are. Anyone who has read about Bruno Schulz might remember a few striking details: he was an unassuming high school art teacher in the unassuming Polish town of Drogobych; his growing reputation among writers is based on only two books (volumes of short stories at that, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass); and the Nazis killed him in 1942, cutting short one of the most original literary oeuvres of the twentieth century. The crosscurrents of fact and imagination in Schulz’s writing can be summed up neatly: Philip Roth has called The Street of Crocodiles “an autobiographical novel,” yet one of its characters dwindles to a petal of ash and another turns, Gregor Samsa–like, into a cockroach.

Whenever I read Schulz, I feel myself delivered into another, plausible life. His prose creates an effect entirely realistic to me. Yet the conventions of realism mingle in his work with clearly fabulist devices, just as ordinary rain in García Márquez’s Macondo shades into myth. Can we say where fabulism enters, or when we have left the real? Children who seem to “float in the air in long colored chains and fly over the city like migrating birds” in the next sentence “push one another on small clattering carts.” Schulz’s fabulism is grounded, and his realism is unhinged.

Moreover, Schulz’s fabulism is itself a canny form of realism—an antidote to literalism. Everything in his fiction, the settings, events, descriptions, is metaphor. What happens is both real and fantastic, literal and internal. A wonderful sentence in the story “Visitation” encapsulates his method: “I remember more than once waking in the middle of the night to see [Father] in his nightshirt, running in his bare feet up and down the leather sofa to demonstrate his irritation to my baffled mother.” The running up and down demonstrates his frustration. Father is running, but the running is also a metaphoric stand-in for something that can’t otherwise be shown, an abstract, internal state. Scaled up, we get the “hatching out of birds’ eggs” in “Birds” as a metaphor for Father’s madness:

Not content with the hatching out of more and more new specimens, my father arranged the marriages of birds in the attic, he sent out matchmakers, he tied up eager attractive brides in the holes and crannies under the roof, and soon the roof of our house, an enormous double-ridged shingle roof, became a real birds’ hostel, a Noah’s ark to which all kinds of feathery creatures flew from far afield.

Does any of it happen? Do the birds exist? Yes and no. The birds are Father’s madness, in every sense. They show it, prove it, represent it, replace it. But when we try to determine whether the scene is realist or fabulist, we stumble. Where does excess creep into the description of the mating birds? Is everything faithfully described up to the point of undeniable hyperbole, the equation of the attic to Noah’s ark? Or is the entire thing overblown and impossible?

Metaphoric stand-ins of a certain sort become allegory, but in Schulz we are dealing with metaphor in what the cultural theorist Hannah Arendt calls “its original, nonallegorical sense of metapherein (to transfer),” explaining, “[A] metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation, while an allegory always proceeds from an abstract notion and then invents something palpable to represent it almost at will.” In most novels, metaphors are not riddles to be solved. They are essences, manifestations in which the world conspires. They are physical transferences of inner states (which is not the same as T. S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” but related as effect is related to cause). Arendt writes, “Linguistic ‘transference’ enables us to give material form to the invisible…and thus to render it capable of being experienced.” The mind cannot be represented in any more faithful or realistic way.


Like everything artificial, realism has multiple histories. In each of its beginnings, realism arose in reaction to some other artistic tendency—which is to say, not in reaction to the real but in reaction to other writers’, poets’, sculptors’, and painters’ ways of using or filtering or rearranging the experience of being alive. George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, and the school of French realists who took Flaubert to be their father were reacting against the excesses of literary romanticism. But the novel itself, as a form, was a similarly motivated reaction to the stock characters and improbable plots of medieval chivalric literature. The development of the novel did for character-in-prose what Milton’s choice of English over Latin did for language; that is, it moved literature from an epic to a common scale. But Chaucer had already chosen to depict high and low, coarse and refined, elegantly coarse and coarsely refined, and he did it in a fifteenth-century version of Saul Bellow’s English: idiomatic, comic, rough-and-ready, yet erudite, sonorous, and metaphoric, a high-low English that suited his mixed estate of characters. The titular realists, in fiction as in painting, did not set themselves to conveying humanness more accurately than Chaucer, or more accurately than Rembrandt—they had a platform that went beyond capturing reality. They wanted to convey the plight of people whom literature and “polite society” had ignored.

Without blinking at the word “normal,” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics says that realist poetry “will describe normal situations and average characters in ordinary settings (often with emphasis on the lower strata of society)” and “renounce the use of far-fetched images and metaphors.” Ordinary madness, it seems, is out, birds or no birds. But as the entry continues, things get interesting. We have the “grim, almost satirical, realism” of Synge and the “ecstatic realism” of Whitman (italics added)—each realism adding something to reality, showing its attachment not to the world, but to Wordsworth, who wrote in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads of a dual mission “to choose incidents and situations from common life . . . and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination.” His mission evolved into the catch phrase “the poetry of the everyday.”


In the twentieth century, realism as a movement most often wore the red-and-yellow of dialectical materialism. For the foremost theorist of this branch, the Marxist critic Georg Lukács, realism had to reveal the inevitable progress of history, the “tendency of social development itself,” which goes unseen until it is “made conscious by the poet.” This ideological or interpretive fiber defines realist fiction for Lukács (and “socialist realism” for the Soviets), yet it is neither necessary nor sufficient to the project of writing “realistic” fiction. It is a Hegelian-Marxist fancy: that the tyrannies of history will be righted, that capital will inevitably lose to labor, that the meek will inherit the earth.

Yet all conventions are just this kind of fantastic imposition. They imply a worldview. They bend light, so to speak. And they do not exist in the world outside of the novel. What does the physical world know of chapter divisions or the arc of a scene?


Schulz’s work shows “the poetry of the everyday” to be an oxymoron. Poetry is a blacksmith, convention an anvil, and metaphor the hammer that works the everyday into something new:

The suburban houses were sinking, windows and all, into the exuberant tangle of blossom in their little gardens. Overlooked by the light of day, weeds and wildflowers of all kinds luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams beyond the margin of time on the borders of an endless day. An enormous sunflower, lifted on a powerful stem and suffering from hypertrophy, clad in the yellow mourning of the last sorrowful days of its life, bent under the weight of its monstrous girth. But the naïve, suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower’s tragedy. (“August”)

The houses molder into the surrounding growth, as if our human world were mere fertilizer for the great social comedy of nature. Where did Schulz find models for these transformations? The flowers’ drama recasts a realist trope and sets it in a novel of manners: it is Hardy meets Austen, Dreiser meets Wharton. Schulz’s techniques are not simply those of the romantics or the fable writers. The great impresario of the realist movement, Émile Zola (who called his approach “naturalism”), animates his fictional worlds in a similar fashion. In the 1885 novel Germinal, the coal pit is “a voracious beast ready to devour the world.” The pit crouches, breathes, and swallows, the coal haulier screeches like “a pulley that wants oiling,” until gradually the mines become more alive than the people doomed to work in them. Far from ignoring the realists, Schulz—like Virginia Woolf—extrapolated their transformative techniques. His work resonates with Flaubert’s, Zola’s, and even George Eliot’s.


In her novel Adam Bede, Eliot wrote what amounts to a credo of realism. Its effect on writers’ ideas on the subject is undeniable, and one can imagine it being quoted in defense of literalist approaches to fiction that eschew excess, reject coincidence, and aim for an “objective” fidelity. Ironically, the passage appears in a chapter called “In Which the Story Pauses a Little.” We are in the hands of an omniscient storyteller who has a power even a god wouldn’t seem to possess, that of stopping time.

Eliot, or the narrator, writes of her desire to avoid types, to fill her characters with the kind of complexity we find in real people—“I turn without shrinking from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors.” She praises Dutch paintings that choose everyday subjects over the epic, the highborn, the heroic, idealized, and grand. What, then, is Eliot saying that goes beyond a rededication to the novel’s original advances? She does for the theory of the novel what Wordsworth did for the theory of poetry. She writes, “I aspire to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be disturbed; the reflection faint or confused…” While pledging to depict everyday subjects, Eliot acknowledges the central fact of our lives: that human beings have never apprehended anything without the mediation of consciousness. Subjectivity is not a byproduct, but the first, irreducible truth of human existence.

I do not mean to ignore Eliot’s attachment to fidelity. “The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin—the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, the better,” she writes, “but that marvelous facility which we mistook for genius, is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion. Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth…” Many fabulisms crash on the rocks of this “delightful facility.” Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym—which until Pym’s rescue is a brilliant fusion, one of the great fabulist works of realism, or realist works of fabulism—loses itself to senseless fantasy. Eliot saw the failure of writing that seeks excess for excess’ sake and follows any avenue so long as it leads away from the real world. But if we watch how Eliot draws human beings later in this same credo passage, it becomes clear that she does not intend to exclude any particular method for getting at everyday subjects:

Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe…paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward…but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pothouse, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world… (italics added)

Even a prototypical realist like Eliot makes use of devices that are, when looked at out of context like pieces of a puzzle, not by their nature true to life but shot through with imaginative distortion. Look at the broad brush strokes, the slather of the grotesque with which Eliot paints the everyday subject. She employs satire, comic synecdoche, excess, and other purely imaginative elements—not griffins, maybe, but exaggerated lions.


When I was eight years old my mother accidentally overdosed me on a decongestant called Phenergan-D, which becomes a powerful hallucinogen when taken in large quantities. For twenty-four hours I saw everything fantastically rearranged, and my mother, who’d become my brother in every detail but her voice, stayed by my side explaining what was really happening around me as if I’d gone blind.

Of course it was all real. I was there, my mother was there. Neither of us was more human than the other, neither of our experiences less valid.

Schulz’s methods merge these two seemingly opposed visions: the compulsively literal and the helplessly fantastic. This describes, for instance, the way Schulz gives us Father’s madness. The narrative rebuilds the world as Father does, but returns again and again to the basis of the transformations: “[Father] plunged deeper every day into some strange and complex affairs that were beyond our understanding.” Father’s madness infects everything, as a father’s madness well might, but the narrator explains, connects, grounds, and rationalizes. In these passages, Schulz seems to explain the real-world basis of his fabulism: “It is worth noting how, in contact with that strange man, all things reverted, as it were, to the roots of their existence, rebuilt their outward appearance anew from their metaphysical core…” This sentence adjusts the focus until we see, once again, the mundane. The son, living with Father, shaped by him but trying to stand clear, narrates a world in which the laws of physics have been exchanged for the laws of an inscrutable metaphysics, a mad, subjective ductility. But in depicting Father’s madness Schulz does not evade reality. He struggles to convey it as effectively, as tellingly, as possible.

Another distinct mode in Schulz’s fiction, to play with the adverbs I used above, merges the helplessly realistic and the defiantly fantastic—the fantastic as a subjective escape. In a wonderful passage alluded to earlier, Aunt Perasia, who visits in the middle of a gale that reshapes the town like a mad architect, “shrinks and dwindles” until she needs splinters of wood for stilts, then keeps on shrinking until she “oxidized into a petal of ash, disintegrating into dust and nothingness.” This fabulism is the playing out of a metaphor for an agonizing reality, as Schulz hints when his narrator says: “We all stood helpless in the face of this display of self-destructive fury.” The passage gives us not only Aunt Perasia’s literal “fury” (which shares a root with “dust”) but a young mind’s need to avoid, deny, reshape, and make comic the reality of an aunt who rages through an entire visit. A similar escapism drives the storytelling in Manuel Puig’s prison, in Kiss of the Spider Woman, where Molina recounts movie after movie to his cellmate Valentin. A depiction of escapism, to remain distinct from escapism itself, requires not only the movies but also the prison, not only the stilts and petals of ash but also the self-destructive fury—the stagnant and overwhelming present.


We pay lip service to the idea that “objective reality” is an abstraction. We know that objectivity, whether beautiful or dangerous in concept, is impossible. Yet narrow definitions of realism presuppose an objective, completely shared sense of reality—the world promised by nineteenth-century science.

Lukács begins one of his essays with a quotation from Heraclitus: “Those who are awake have a world in common, but every sleeper has a world of his own.” I think of those great sleepers Raskolnikov, Faulkner’s Benjy, Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, Gregor Samsa, and certainly Schulz’s narrator. As we follow their somnambulisms, we can’t help but think that we’re all, in some chamber of our hearts, either asleep or convinced we are.


Maybe it was Confucius who said, “Great novels make their own categories.” In practice, the realists who remain important to us did not rigidly follow any definition of realism. Though George Eliot discarded many of the excesses of literary romanticism, she retained its habit of giving material form to the invisible. My copy of the mid-1980s Penguin paperback of Middlemarch has on the cover a detail from The Pathway to the Village Church by Thomas Creswick: a young woman stands at a fence and gazes into the woods. If Creswick had chosen to show her with a stream running from her head, he would have been packed off to an asylum for wayward painters, to be hauled out in Magritte’s time, dusted off, and hailed as a precursor. But in the novel, Mr. Casaubon’s feelings form “an exceedingly shallow rill”: “As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him…” Inside the characters, we find not merely thoughts, feelings, and memories, but books, blooming flowers, a shadow world of objects, an odd sense of vegetal growth.

Nor does the book consistently give us Heraclitus’s “world in common.” Eliot’s narrator sometimes retreats, allowing characters’ ways of seeing to shape the physical world. To alert us to the subtly fabulist element in a seemingly straightforward chapter, Eliot begins with an epigraph from Don Quixote:

‘Seest thou not yon cavalier who cometh toward us on a dapplegrey steed, and weareth a golden helmet?’ ‘What I see,’ answered Sancho, ‘is nothing but a man on a grey ass like my own, who carries something shiny on his head.’ ‘Just so,’ answered Don Quixote: ‘and that resplendent object is the helmet of Mambrino.’

Opposed points of view are a condition of the real, yet strict realism calls for the portrayal of an external world independent of the characters’ minds. When Mr. Casaubon first appears, our only view of him accords with Dorothea’s: “His manners, she thought, were very dignified; the set of his iron-grey hair and his deep eye-sockets made him resemble the portrait of Locke. He had the spare form and the pale complexion which became a student…” We get the impression of a heroic figure: a powerful intelligence, a man young enough to be compared to a student yet mature enough to be compared to a great philosopher—all of which hardly prepares us for the portrait of the same man, at the end of the chapter, as a “dried bookworm towards fifty.” Eliot uses the techniques of conventional realism here: the tag “she thought” preserves the wall between the external world and Dorothea’s perspective. But by withholding any other view of Casaubon, Eliot shows that point of view is capable of producing fabulisms in the heart of realism. In other words, the conventions of realism can be used to manipulate our perception of the external world until the work becomes deeply eccentric, as in the case of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. Technically and thematically, Eliot points toward the jousting of radical subjectivities: Dorothea’s sister asks, “Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?” And Dorothea answers, “Oh, I daresay! when people of a certain sort looked at him…” The endemically fabulist power of third-person narration is that it allows descriptions to blur between the subjective and the external. It is Sir James who considers Casaubon a “dried bookworm,” just as later it is Celia whose mind produces the grotesque picture of “the skin of [Monsieur Liret’s] bald head moving about.” But their words appear as part of the narrative itself, infusing it with excess and bending it toward the subjective.


Unlike Kafka, who rarely gives us an alternate picture of what might be happening, Schulz often leaves us feeling the way we might after reading Robert Coover’s story “The Babysitter” or his masterful novel Spanking the Maid: torn between alternate versions, wondering what “really” happened and what that means. Schulz’s scenes, like Don Quixote’s, remain poised between the fantastic and the everyday. Realism and fabulism are not binary, not two positions of a switch, but mutually reliant tendencies. If we miss the differences between Schulz and Kafka, we miss the fact that excess is needed to create a work as close to the ground as Madame Bovary.


We were picnicking on KFC in our aluminum Sea Nymph this past fall when I noticed smoke rising through the woods across the lake. I tried to point it out to my daughter, but she couldn’t see it at first. I wondered if she knew what she was looking for. A painter wouldn’t paint smoke in trees—the painter would paint what I then described to her: trees lighter than the others, less distinct, bluish gray. In literature, too, the effect is the truth. A strict realism adhered to sentence by sentence (in essence, literalism) may not create the effect of accuracy at all. Madame Bovary, like Shakespeare’s plays, seems to satisfy all movements, parties, and camps. It is “committed,” it is “pure.” It is formally pristine, it is character-driven. It breathes style, it carries emotion. It is naturalist in the sense that the individual is crushed by society, realist in the sense—another definition!—that the individual fights her bonds and controls her own fate. Just as a new critical theory stands and falls on its ability to explain King Lear or The Tempest, dissimilar writers and creative movements have explained their approaches in relation to Madame Bovary. Faulkner credited Flaubert for his leap forward in The Sound and the Fury, Nabokov anticipated writing a book on Madame Bovary’s structure, and, as the Argentinian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa points out in his excellent study of Madame Bovary, Zola, Maupassant, James, Proust, Turgenev, and the New Novelists all considered themselves Flaubertian.

Few would doubt, I think, that the effect of Madame Bovary is thoroughly realistic. It is perhaps one of the most realistic novels ever written, in the sense that it grips us with a sense of real life. James wrote that “its subject was fundamentally a negation of the remote, the splendid and the strange…” And though Nabokov called it a romantic fairy tale, I think given the predominant concept of realism in the United States, or what I take to be the current writerly notion of realism, Flaubert will stand well as the shining, if somewhat too glowing, model of a realist. But are his methods strictly realist? James wrote that Flaubert’s subject in Madame Bovary “would seem very nearly to exclude the free play of the imagination, and the way this faculty on the author’s part nevertheless presides is one of those accidents, manœuvres, inspirations, we hardly know what to call them, by which masterpieces grow.” Flaubert started with the everyday and arrived at poetry.


Though bent on a kind of narrative objectivity that would hide all traces of the author, Flaubert does not banish subjectivity. He deploys elaborate techniques to let us experience Emma Bovary’s inner life—techniques that go well beyond the conventions generally thought of as realist.

Metaphor has long borne “that element of the poetic which conveys cognition,” as Hannah Arendt puts it. She cites, for example, the following section of The Iliad, in which “the tearing onslaught of fear and grief on the hearts of the Achaians corresponds to the combined onslaught of winds from the north and west on the dark waters”:

. . . Meanwhile immortal
Panic, companion of cold Terror, gripped the Achaians
as all their best were stricken with grief that passes endurance.
As two winds rise to shake the sea where the fish swarm, Boreas
and Zephyros, north wind and west, that blow from Thraceward,
suddenly descending, and the darkened water is gathered
to crests, and far across the salt water scatters the seaweed;
so the heart in the breast of each Achaian was troubled.

Homer superimposes on abstract panic and grief a physical image whose violence we feel more readily. The winds of the world descend on the Achaians, the darkened water of their spirits gathers to crests and uproots everything inside them.

From there to the words that convey Emma Bovary’s grief after Léon departs Yonville, the distance is not far. But Flaubert accepts the implications of his trope and walks Emma into the new landscape it forms:

Thereafter, the image she had of Léon became the center of her distress: it glowed more brightly than a traveler’s fire left burning on the snow of a Russian steppe. She ran up to it, crouched beside it, stirred it carefully when it was on the verge of extinction, grasped at everything within reach that might bring it back to life.

At first only compared to a fire, Emma’s mental image morphs into one. That is, her subjective experience is externalized; the abstract becomes visible and material. She runs up to the glowing image, seeks warmth from it, and stirs the embers.


“It is…surprising,” Vargas Llosa writes, “that for more than a century Madame Bovary, a novel in which mind becomes matter and matter mind, has been taken as an example of realism, in the sense of a pure literary duplication of the real.” Yet Vargas Llosa stresses that Flaubert had “a veristic conception of the novel” and chose his subjects “because they are true, because they represent human experience.”

At times the fabulist conjunctions in Flaubert create such realistic effects that we can be fooled into thinking his techniques are literal. He devises settings, for instance, that put pressure on his characters’ emotions. That is, he manipulates the external to reflect and magnify the subjective in a way characteristic also of Kafka. When Emma receives Rodolphe’s letter, it gives her a “feeling of dread,” and “as though she were fleeing from a fire,” she runs “panic-stricken up the stairs.” When she reaches the attic, the fire is waiting for her:

There the roof slates were throwing down a heat that was all but unbearable; it pressed on her so that she could scarcely breathe. She dragged herself over to the dormer, whose shutters were closed; she pulled back the bolt, and the dazzling sunlight poured in.

. . . Below her the village square was empty; the stone sidewalk glittered…

Leaning against the window frame she read the letter through…

The rays of bright light reflected directly up to her from below were pulling the weight of her body toward the abyss.

By the last sentence of the quotation, Flaubert has moved frankly into the territory that Schulz later consolidates and extends. But even in the first, the conjunction of Emma’s emotions with the attic’s heat puts us in territory foreign to the real world. The attic in the scene is a precisely realist attic, but a fabulist impulse structures the scene, allowing the little room to conspire against Emma like the trees that come to life in The Wizard of Oz. Emma’s flight up the stairs is hardly different from her run to the glowing image of Léon: she moves into her emotions, which have fused with the outside world. The Bovarys’ attic would not be out of place in The Trial.

It may be that the fields and attics of real life do not participate in our dramas, but those who indiscriminately inveigh against what Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy” would install a literalism that prefers scientific verities to human ones. Sometimes we experience the world as existing for itself, indifferent, disinterested. But sometimes we can’t. When our spouses say they are leaving, our brothers that they are dying, our children that we are terrible parents, the Earth’s gravity increases and the walls press close. Narratives that interpose a demure and conventional “seeming” run the risk of not taking the experience seriously—they keep an unrealistic, unexperienced distance. Until we reflect and rationalize, we don’t feel as if. We feel the thing itself.


All fiction relies on the mind’s openness to transferences, our innate susceptibility to extralogical or extranatural implications and connections. Even realist literature wears a nimbus of magic, dream, spirit, and the imaginary. Think how fantastic: a conversation about laundry is never only about the laundry. Everything works toward some effect and is designed to do so. As George Eliot wrote, fiction is a “fancied ‘might-be’” that we are “in the habit of opposing to the actual.”

The sublime hugeness of even one minute of our lives makes any direct approach akin to the dab of paint that sometimes serves to depict another head in a crowd. As Mary Garth says in Middlemarch, “How can one describe a man? I can give you an inventory: heavy eyebrows, dark eyes, a straight nose, thick dark hair, large solid white hands—and…an exquisite cambric pocket handkerchief.” But for all that, the man has no arms, legs, or feet, no mouth, and we have to assume he has a pocket for his handkerchief.

As Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw show, it is possible to write Trojan-horse fabulism—fiction that disguises itself in the conventions of realism yet harbors mystery and otherness at its core. Is “The Secret Sharer” closer to Flaubert or Schulz? Is Leggatt, the sharer, actual or metaphoric? The story’s essence relies on our understanding him as a double, yet Conrad’s technique suppresses the uncanny.


A third order of fabulism pervades Schulz’s fiction. If the first two can be seen in “Birds” (Father’s matchmaking in the attic) and “The Gale” (which includes Aunt Perasia’s immolation), the third predominates in “Cinnamon Shops” and “The Comet” and is used to portray the sometimes wonderful, sometimes frightening immensity of the world. Though this order also reflects the subjective—the experience of confronting the incomprehensible, or the sublimely complex—it carries not just an existential truth but also an epistemological one.

“When my brother brought an electromagnet for the first time home from school,” the narrator tells us in “The Comet,” “when with a shiver we all sensed by touch the vibrations of the mysterious life enclosed in an electric circuit, my father smiled a mysterious smile.” And in the experiments that follow, Father’s madness merges with the madness of the world, the madness of science:

The metals dipped in acid solutions, salty and rusting in that painful bath, began to conduct in darkness. Awakened from their stiff lifelessness, they hummed monotonously, sang metallically, shone molecularly in the incessant dusk of those mournful and late days. Invisible charges rose in the poles and swamped them, escaping into the circling darkness.

These sections give us a keen sense of how little we know. Schulz does not ferret out the cabbalistic knowledges of the modern world; he does not try to add field upon field until the reader can pretend everything is within reach. Father’s experiments, finally conducted with wands and legerdemain, reveal the vast fantasy of knowledge: despite the pretensions of science, we are forced by the sheer number of discoveries to accept most everything on faith, just as the Druids, Saracens, and Incas did.


On the whole, we have been too profligate in letting science circumscribe what reality feels like. Just as the business model is remaking the world’s other organizational structures (the university, the hospital), the worldview of experimental science moved beyond its proper sphere to bewitch the imaginative faculties of the nineteenth century. Not that it should have been ignored. Flaubert, for instance, took what he needed, admitting materiality without depreciating the subjective. But the ideals of high realism, which developed in Flaubert’s wake, encouraged the use of data and rejected the structuring necessary to art. As George J. Becker writes in Documents of Modern Literary Realism, “[T]he early realists held rigorously to an external view. . . . Thought and feelings were largely ignored as being merely epiphenomenal accompaniments of external events, wherein lay the external chain of causality.” Yet no person in the history of the world has experienced life without thought (though plenty, presumably, have experienced it without language). Even if Skinner is right, we are fooled into believing that thought exists, and that it matters.

The influence of that aspect of realism redolent of nineteenth-century laboratories persists mainly in the received idea that “realistic” writing must achieve a rigorous separation of mind and matter. But in the era of quantum mechanics, the striving after a well-behaved, autonomous physical world becomes arbitrary. Works that comprise multiple, conflicting versions of events gain a powerful claim to the term “realist,” influenced as they are, and bewitched at times, by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger—for instance, Vassily Aksyonov’s The Burn, Stephen Dixon’s Interstate, Coover’s “The Babysitter,” Roth’s The Counterlife. And with the latest revolution in physics, string theory, positing ten or more dimensions in our midst, we have once again reached a point where no experiment can verify science’s most comprehensive theory of the material world. Data has lost its privilege.


In her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, Arendt writes, “The art of taking proverbial and idiomatic speech literally enabled Benjamin—as it did Kafka . . .—to write a prose of such singularly enchanting and enchanted closeness to reality.” This is the essential paradox of literature: that closeness to reality is enchanted. The supposedly distinct categories of realism and fabulism—the real in literature and the unreal—bleed into each other completely. They share organs and major arteries and would be impossible to separate without the death of both. The so-called progress of science will continue to change our idea of “objective reality,” where none of us has ever lived for a moment. Separated from lived experience—in which a table shrinks as we grow from childhood to youth—does the same table have to be described in terms of its atoms, the atoms in terms of their quarks and leptons? (The known quarks, to move further into the deep strangeness of a true literalism, are called Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Top, and Bottom.)

“Think of a kitchen table, then,” he told her, “when you’re not there.”

So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsey’s work, a scrubbed kitchen table. It lodged now in the fork of a pear tree, for they had reached the orchard. And with a painful effort of concentration, she focused her mind, not upon the silverbossed bark of the tree, or upon its fish-shaped leaves, but upon a phantom kitchen table, one of those scrubbed board tables, grained and knotted, whose virtue seems to have been laid bare by years of muscular integrity, which stuck there, its four legs in air. (Woolf, To the Lighthouse)

As soon as we write the word “table” we posit a consciousness, and as soon as we posit a consciousness, we are positing a subjectivity, an originality—one with universal elements, no doubt: a human originality—and the table, once again, will be capable of shrinking and changing shape without the effects of humidity or the wind. We know it doesn’t change shape, but we experience its shape-changing. Our knowledge is an overlay, which convinces us to put down what our spirits have taken up.


* With apologies to Harvey Blume in AGNI 57. [return]

See what's inside AGNI 59

William Pierce is coeditor of AGNI. His short stories have appeared in Granta, Ecotone, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel Twenty Sixteen can be found in Harvard Review, The Western Humanities Review, and on the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, and other work has appeared in Electric Literature, Little Star, Tin House online, The Writer’s Chronicle, Solstice, Glimmer Train, Consequence, and as part of MacArthur Fellow Anna Schuleit Haber’s art project “The Alphabet,” commissioned by the Fitchburg Art Museum. Pierce is the author of Reality Hunger: On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Arrowsmith Press, 2016), a monograph first serialized as a three-part essay at The Los Angeles Review of Books. With E. C. Osondu, he coedited The AGNI Portfolio of African Fiction. Find more at williampiercewriter.com. (updated 3/2023)

His first essay for AGNI, “Fabulously Real,” received special mention in the 2006 Pushcart Prize anthology, and his introduction to AGNI 91, “The Peculiarities of Literary Meaning,” is cited in the 2022 Pushcart anthology. He is interviewed here at NewPages.com.

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