To ask how we read is to enter a heavily contested warzone. If you dare to peer through the heavy smoke thrown up by all the busted ordnances, you can make out a bunch of half-animate bodies. Few have been completelykilled off, but none have lasted unharmed. They continue to trudge on, dealt fatal blows but refusing to concede.
There walks the skeleton of the early 19th-century Romantics, who imagined literature to be the ineffable given form by genius and the reader a vessel to be filled. Vernon Lee, long thought dead, has merged with a Frankenstein animated by the current scientist vogue (see James Somers’s article) to claim the reader’s mind is but the passive responder to the writer’s code. Floating beyond her is the ghost of old man StanleyFish, whose disembodied voice intones from up high on how the text is wholly the product of the reader’s mind, recreated each time anew. In the distance are menacing structuralist tanks, rusty and unmanned, but still in motion, powered by the thought of Roman Jakobsen and Tzvetan Todorov, which tells us that neither author impregnates reader, nor reader gives life to author, but that the text reads us—author and reader are at the mercy of preexisting meanings.
But rather than spray critical fire in this zombie land, Nick Bakshi engages with the questions that haunted these thinkers through fiction. And it’s a brave and complex attempt. It’s not a cold mental exercise, simply an excuse to explore a concept, but a vibrant story that’s beautifuland haunting in its own right. It’s the story of how we read, and I thought it a pretty damn accurate account.
I lost myself in the sweetness of Nick’s prose. There’s this rhythm that swept me forward, blithely relishing his parade of sensual images—the lonely girl, her salty tears falling around her lips sticky with cherry juice; her younger avatar, brimming with ruddy warmth in the cold; the boy who is reading, “you,” fascinated by the pain and blood that comes when the shard pierces his skin. I was both lost in the story and lost in the story of how we lose ourselves in the story—how we end up living it.
But this is all brought to a shocking halt. I found myself ambushed, implicated in this despicable action that I had neverbefore associated with reading. The engagement, the association, the performance of “you” in the girl’s world all made sense—but the assault? I wasn’t prepared for that.
Is this really how we relate to characters? Do we really breathe life into them only for a moment of pleasure? When it comes to reading fiction, are we all serial rapists?
Bakshi doesn’t offer us an authoritative answer. He isn’t assuming the theoretician’s mantel and telling us how we read, but offering us questions to ponder. Fiction is the stuff of thought, not thought’s mandate. You may very well have gotten something totally different out of his story, and that’s the beauty of it—even if what it may be telling us is something very disturbing, indeed.