The Reader’s Virtual Body: Narrative Space and Its Reconstruction
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The Reader’s Virtual Body
Narrative Space and Its Reconstruction

This essay is concerned with the reader’s imaginative projection into fictional worlds, and with the role of such projective acts in the reconstruction of narrative space. The essay has three parts. In the first I investigate the fictionalization of the reader’s virtual body. By “fictionalization” I mean “actualization within the fictional world.” In particular I argue that some passages provide the reader with a fictionally actual body on which to ground his or her virtual body. In the second part I examine what happens when the reader’s virtual body is left to itself, without any fictional anchoring. Finally, in the conclusion I attempt to position all the cases considered on a scale of fictionalization.

My emphasis is not on the reader’s real body, but on the reader’s virtual body—the counterpart of the real body the reader sends into fictional worlds in order to reconstruct fictional space. This phenomenon is clearly [End Page 117] related to what has been described as “being transported” by Richard J. Gerrig (1993: 2–17), “fictional recentering” by Marie-Laure Ryan (2001: 103–5), or “deictic shift” by David Herman (2002: 271–74). For instance, Ryan defines her idea of “fictional recentering” in these terms: “consciousness relocates itself to another world and . . . reorganizes the entire universe of being around this virtual reality” (2001: 104). But as I argue, it is not just the consciousness that relocates itself; rather, narrative texts call upon the reader’s virtual body to enter fictional worlds, as part of the process of co-constructing those worlds. No doubt, the authors I just listed are on the right track, but they seem to stop short of examining the phenomenon I have in mind. I argue that their accounts need to be extended along at least two dimensions. First, they seem to overlook the role our body plays in our “being transported” to fictional worlds. Of course, there are reams of pages on the embodiment of our cognitive faculties; it is well beyond the scope of this essay to review that literature. 1 However, I would point out that—since experience is always embodied—our bodily presence in fictional worlds could answer for the increased sense of experientiality some texts give us (that is, the sense that while reading them we are going through an experience).2 Second, labels such as “being transported” or “fictional recentering” are suggestive, but they are meant to be understood in a metaphorical manner, and this seems to blunt their effect. On the contrary I believe that their full cognitive potential is unleashed only when we regard them as describing something that virtually happens to our own bodies. In a way we just need to take these metaphors more seriously.

Before turning to my case studies, however, I want to say a few words about the reader’s virtual body and its relationship to his or her real body. To be sure, the reader’s real and virtual bodies are linked, as Elaine Scarry acknowledges: the reader’s eye and hand movements (visually scanning the text and turning the pages) are sometimes “incorporated into the motion of fictional persons” (2001: 148) with the aim of making it more vivid—that is, more similar to perceived motion than to imagined motion. If Scarry is right, something happening within the fiction is grounded in or tied to the reader’s nonfictional routine actions; but since the reader doesn’t do much apart from scanning the text and turning the pages, these slight movements cannot account for the variety [End Page 118] of movements within the fiction—including the movements of the reader’s fictionalized body. Thus, we need to turn to a more sophisticated model of how the reader’s virtual body is linked to his or her real body. Psychological work on text processing can provide us with such a model. Specifically, Rolf A. Zwaan has developed what he calls the “Immersed Experiencer Framework” (IEF) for language comprehension. What Zwaan argues is basically that in order to comprehend a sentence, the comprehender has to “construct an experiential (perception plus action...