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Inside Out

Among the many pleasures that fiction puts on offer, the opportunity to lose oneself in mild abstraction is by no means the least, and I imagine that all of us have availed ourselves of that opportunity, whether sparingly or in a more insouciant manner. For my part, I am intrigued by the different shapes that state of abstraction assumes, and by its conditions of possibility. I would propose to parse it closely and methodically here, were it not for the fact that its dimensions are so mutable, as mutable as individual readerly experience can be. Instead, I shall focus on a few textual passages that seem to me to incorporate clear invitations to the kind of abstracted state that interests me, hoping thereby better to understand that phenomenon.

Outside In

The first passage I would like to visit occurs when the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom is gazing out of his window into a rainswept Parisian street:

It was raining. The street was wet, the sidewalks dark. Cars were parking. Other cars, already parked, were covered with rain. People were crossing the street quickly, going in and out of the post office in the modern building across from me. A little vapor began to cover my windowpane. Behind the thin coat of mist, I observed the passersby sending their letters. The rain gave them a conspiratorial air: stopping in front of the mailbox, they would draw an envelope from their coat and thrust it through the slot very quickly so as not to get it wet, meanwhile pulling up their collars against the rain. I put my face close to the window and, eyes against the glass, suddenly had the impression that all these people were inside an aquarium. Perhaps they were afraid? The aquarium was slowly filling.

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Many things could be said about this textual moment. I am chiefly interested, however, in the way that the narrator imagines his own situation with regard to the world around him. On the one hand, he is clearly inside his apartment, looking out at the street and at the people hurrying along it. On the other hand, as soon as he imagines that those people are in an aquarium, his position shifts to that of someone on the outside looking in. That outside-inness is more than passingly uncanny, and yet it seems to me perfectly exemplary of the kind of site that we inhabit when we read fiction. [End Page 162]

For clearly, reading is a real-world activity. By that I mean that it takes place in the world of phenomena, a behavior that is conditioned (and sometimes constrained) by real-world considerations. We sit upright in our favorite chair or sprawl flat out on our sofa; the dogs are barking or they are silent; the telephone rings or it does not; our gimpy right knee is bothering us or it feels okay; we have made our mortgage payment on time or we are badly in arrears. Yet when we read fiction, we also dwell in the fictional world. Therein, we partake of the heady fruit of the lotus and lose ourselves. We listen as a peer of the realm sounds his horn too late; we gaze aghast upon the tortured souls in the eighth circle of Hell; we test the keen edge of a harpoon honed by a tattooed Kokovokoan; we detect the very particular aromas emanating from the kitchen as a middle-aged Irishman prepares to dine on the inner organs of beasts and fowls; we taste a perfectly prepared martini cocktail, shaken, not stirred.

In other terms, we are always divided when we read fiction. We are here, but we are also there—and vice versa, as it were. We may not be the only ones whose attention is divided, moreover. Ross Chambers has argued that certain kinds of literature are characterized by a similar kind of divided attention. Pointing toward works that wager upon the dilatory, upon apparent idleness and diversion, Chambers coins the term loiterature to designate them. “Critical as it may well be behind its entertaining façade,” he argues, “loiterly writing disarms criticism of...


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