- “Mask To Mask. The ‘Real’ Joke”: Surfiction/Autofiction, or the Tale of the Purloined Watermelon
I think it was Geral I first heard call a watermelon a letter from home. After all these years I understand a little better what she meant. She was saying the melon is a letter addressed to us. A story for us from down home. Down home being everywhere we have never been, the rural South, the old days, slavery, Africa. That juicy striped message with red meat and seeds, which always looked like roaches to me was blackness as cross and celebration, a history we could taste and chew. And it was meant for us. Addressed to us. We were meant to slit it open and take care of business.—John Edgar Wideman, Damballah (my emphasis)
There is no absolute meaning; it is exactly the other way round: meaning is the meaning of an impossible.—Serge Leclaire, Démasquer le réel (117)
“Surfiction” is one of the “stories” included in John Edgar Wideman’s anthology of short stories Fever published in 1989. 1 The title of this story recalls Raymond Federman’s essay entitled “Surfiction: Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction” (1975) in Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1981). 2 Federman defines surfiction as the fictionalization, the transfiguration, of lived experience through writing which both allows and facilitates access to a certain truth. He comments on his own autofictional work as follows:
The truth of imagination is more real than truth without imagination, and besides reality never seemed very interesting to me. And, strange as it may seem, this fictionalization of my life provided me access to the truth of my own existence. 3
The problematics of writing and creative imagination in relation to reality are from the outset placed within the frame of truth and fiction, an interrelation familiar to John Edgar Wideman, who has entitled one of his collections All Stories Are True (1992). 4 To say that fiction is truer and more real than fact is a “chestnut,” 5 and Wideman, who [End Page 695] knows it, goes back to Chesnutt’s tale “A Deep Sleeper” in order to offer his own tongue-in-cheek twist to this hackneyed question. 6
The “story” entitled “Surfiction” introduces an “I” narrator who strangely resembles “John Edgar Wideman,” Professor of English literature: “Among my notes on the first section of Charles Chesnutt’s Deep Sleeper there are these remarks”; “Rereading, I realize my remarks are a pastiche of . . .” (“Surfiction” 59–60, my emphasis). Since the story tells readers that this professor is writing a story about a professor, the reader assumes that there is a relation of “identity” between the “I” in the text and the name on the cover page. But they have been told that these are all stories, a proposition the plot summary makes plain: “A professor of literature at a university in Wyoming (the only university in Wyoming) by coincidence is teaching two courses in which are enrolled two students (one in each of the professor’s seminars) who are husband and wife” (“Surfiction” 66–67). Readers thus find themselves confronted with “autofiction.” Autofiction, or self-fiction, is a specific category of fictional writing related to autobiography. Its genesis as a critical category goes back to Philippe Lejeune’s theoretical work. Trying to map the relationship between autobiography and the novel on the basis of an equation of identity between the author, the “I” character, and the narrator, Lejeune envisaged certain contradictory combinations or vacant structures. 7 One of them consisted in a fictional story whose hero would bear the author’s name and yet would be boldly labeled untrue. Serge Doubrovsky’s Fils (1977), written as the critic was elaborating his theoretical categories, filled in the empty slot—“blackened the square”—in Lejeune’s critical grid and Doubrovsky, himself a literary critic, gave his work the name of autofiction as the dust cover makes clear 8 :
Is this an autobiography? No, this privilege is reserved to the important people of this world on the eve of their lives. Fictions of strictly real events and facts; autofiction, if you want, because one...