Stories

I reach for my copy of Plexus by Henry Miller. I’m wondering if I’ve written all I can about Miller. I open the book to find out. There’s always something more in here. Today I read Miller’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, his strange spiral version of the tale, itself told in Plexus along with the interruptions from the children he’s telling it to.

What is a story? A state of affairs in the world or in a single human soul, then an encounter, and then something is changed forever. Miller’s Goldilocks story comes around (eventually) in a neat circle, but then this is a fairy tale. We grow out of this sort of story, don’t we? Still, I’m as gripped reading this as the children Miller is telling it to.

Miller often claimed he couldn’t tell stories, and yet here they are: fairy stories, legends of the middle ages, true stories of Miller’s own childhood, records of his dreams … The stories are hopelessly tangled, all taking Miller’s “spiral form,” so that we seem to drift back and forth in time and space. The children are frustrated at first that Henry isn’t sticking to the script.

Plexus is a book for an aspiring writer, asking himself: when am I going to be able to write my own stories? He dreams of being a writer like Miller. Not in terms of style – “imitation is creepy,” writes Steve Aylett, and the writer is ashamed of his own creepiness, familiar alien voices stealing into his writing at times. Our writer wants to be a story-teller in the way Miller is, that specific way of his, unravelling truth as he spins his yarns. This aspiring writer is drawn to fantasy because he can hide himself away in it, but he longs for the ice shock of truth even as he fears it …

Miller’s Goldilocks story seems to be an exception to the rule: he strays from his commitment to truth for the sake of entertaining the children. Where is the truth in a fairy tale? And yet “embedded in all fiction and falsehood there is a core of truth.” All story-tellers will give themselves away in the lies they tell, to anyone listening closely enough. Miller is different because, rather than fall into this trap, instead he throws himself into it: he is committed to writing as a circuitous form of confession, a method for revealing himself obliquely in all that he writes.

Obliquely? Miller gives the impression of directness, no compromise, spitting in the face of convention – and yet all this is an illusion. We never get a direct truth from Miller. This is why everything contradicts everything else in all he writes. “Don’t worry about errors when you’re writing,” he advises. “The biographers will explain all errors.” There’s no statement of fact that could sum up a human being, even if you could hold them forever unchanging in a single moment, and so you forget about facts and instead create a living, breathing portrait, and the only way to create such a vital portrait is through literature.

An essay about a great book is itself a little story. Some mood causes you to take up the book, there is an encounter, and something in you is changed forever … The encounter is one-sided, the essayist hears the voice of the author long dead and can offer nothing in return. And so instead he offers his essay into the void, to anyone who might listen. And if no one is there to listen then at least life will go on and there will be fresh encounters …

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