• Puzzlement Over Answers: On Fiction as a Mode of Inquiry

    Mary Lane Potter Considers Stories by Clarice Lispector, Kevin McIlvoy, and Alva Noë

    “How to bear happiness?” That’s the question a character identified only as “Number 81 in line” asks of DMV Clerk Number 7 in the closing story of Kevin McIlvoy’s posthumous collection, Is It So? Clerk Number 7 refers the matter to Clerk Number 9, who promptly leads the questioner upstairs, through “narrower and narrow flights and past numberless corridors,” until they reach the Office of the Clerk of Happiness, who sits at a desk petting and licking the questioner’s “tongue-shaped paper proof of number” before pressing it onto a spindle. This entire set of events takes place in the boldfaced title of the story. The clerk’s answer appears in roman font as the story itself, which reads, in its entirety:

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    Number 81, what you thought is not true not true not true not true not true: you thought that your beloved could annihilate you or would if you created a space in you no larger than an alms bowl, and asked, “What is the sin in us living in joy together?”

    How to go?
    Go the way you came.
    Next, please.

    What to make of this story, cryptic yet marvelously evocative? The long, bolded black title, made heavier by its large type, almost eclipses the story. Or perhaps it magnifies the story’s clarity and light by contrast. And yet the answer is no less perplexing than the question. Is the clerk one of Kafka’s maddening bureaucrats? A wise guide? God? All three? Is this a dream? A parable? Is it a short story at all? All that’s certain is that we’ve entered strange territory.

    “Art starts when things get strange.”

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    So writes philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë in Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. For me, Noë’s striking claim illuminates the stories in Is It So?—and also the work of Clarice Lispector, who shares McIlvoy’s gift for strangeness. A beloved Brazilian writer of novels, novellas, and short stories, Clarice (Chaya) Lispector came to Brazil in 1921 as an infant with her family, Jewish refugees from the pogroms in Ukraine.

    For years she wrote weekly columns for the Jornal do Brasil called crônicas, a form that straddles fiction and nonfiction. Kevin “Mc” (pronounced “Mac”) McIlvoy, who died in September of 2022, also wrote across genres and forms: novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry. A beloved teacher, he was raised in Illinois in a family who first attended a Polish Catholic church (his mother’s family emigrated from Lithuania) and later an Irish Catholic one. This formed him, he said, in different kinds of mysticism.

    Both writers have been called experimental, offbeat, or volatilely strange. To describe their work, critics reach for words like absurdist, surreal, and irreal. But what if, instead of measuring them against “reality,” we look at their work as a form of inquiry into our ways of perceiving reality and the way we tell stories? What if we receive their stories as opportunities to deepen our understanding of ourselves—or what Noë calls “strange tools”?

    A parable? Is it a short story at all? All that’s certain is that we’ve entered strange territory.

    What makes a work of art a strange tool? For Noë, such a work is “useless”: it is no help in getting things done; it yields no information or explanation. And yet we make such works to think with. They help us find our way around in a world where we often “get lost in the complex patterns of organization that make up our lives.” In other words, “the true work of art is philosophical.” Like philosophy, art is a practice, a method of research aimed at “illuminating the ways we find ourselves organized, and so, also, the ways we might reorganize ourselves.”

    Like philosophy, art interrupts and subverts our conventional ideas and activities, creating space for transformation. Take the art of storytelling. Just as philosophers are preoccupied with our habitual ways of thinking, Noë writes, so “literary artists take all the ways we find we must express ourselves, or write down our stories, or articulate our lives, and they make that their problem. They try to invent new ways of writing…. Writing, so familiar, so dominant, so hegemonic, is made strange.” If a story results, it invites us to wonder what we could see in or with that story.

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    If narrative—the meaningful sequencing of images—is the habitual human form of storytelling, as Antonio Damasio argues in The Strange Order of Things, McIlvoy and Lispector challenge us to investigate our familiar ways of organizing narratives and imagine other possibilities. They invent playful new forms that invite us to look again at the profound mystery of human being, perception, and expression.

    Consider the strange forms their stories take. McIlvoy’s “glimpses, glyphs, and found novels” (as the book’s subtitle calls them) are brief, spare, full of gaps, silence, absences, and leaps of logic. They are more like resonant ruins than complete structures, as McIlvoy once suggested to an interviewer. One glimpse, “Passerby,” walks the reader step by step through each extra’s appearance in Gene Kelly’s famous dance in Singin’ in the Rain, each one waiting for their “moment in the lights,” even if it’s only a few seconds and no one notices how they matter to the whole. In another, “Cake all day,” we overhear a man and woman in a senior care center who talk only about cake (“Cake was convincing evidence that God existed: The Baker”) as they look out on the world together, but who are, underneath the words, through the words, deeply present to one another, “alert in the listening.” The glyphs offer snippets of conversations, notes sharpied on hatboxes or windshields, responses to confederate statues being removed—a chorus of voices singing of complex lives. The found novels are all tiny clusters of words found in a public library: stenciled on the ceiling, stamped on a book spine, and written over a urinal (“The appearance of the Deep Blue Sealant rising up through the drain holes indicates the need for [illegible]”).

    Lispector’s stories are no less strange. Some swirl around metaphysical questions: origins and identity in “The Egg and the Chicken”; imagination and the existence of God in “Forgiving God”; creation in “Brasília” (“We are all deformed by our adaptation to the freedom of God”); and the mystery of being in “Dry Sketch of Horses” (“The beasts never abandoned their secret life that goes on in the dark”).

    In “Report on the Thing,” a dizzying rumination on time, the narrator says: “This is a report. Sveglia [a clock] does not allow short stories or novellas no matter what. It only permits transmissions. It hardly allows me to call this a report. I call it a report on the mystery.” In “The Fifth Story,” the narrator compresses five “true” ways to tell a story of killing cockroaches (one of Lispector’s recurring images, a nod to Kafka) into a few pages. Eschewing linear flow, these stories move more like eddies that whirl up riches from the depths. Almost all are vertiginous, disorienting.

    None of these stories has a familiar narrative arrangement or arc—whether Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end, Freytag’s dramatic pyramid, Joyce’s epiphany, Chekov’s lyric, or a contemporary collage arrangement. They’re hard to parse, destabilizing the reader, who often wonders, Who’s speaking? What’s the context? What’s happening? What? They’re not after explanations, logical coherence, or tidied-up completeness. Instead, they make us wonder: What is a story? And, if form is meaning, if meaning emerges from the way a story is told, what do these strange forms suggest?

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    For one thing, both these writers felt themselves pressed against the ungraspability of the mystery in which we live and move and have our being, and both nevertheless used the tools they had—words, syntax, narrative—to point us to that mystery, saying, Look closer, look underneath, look beyond. Their stories reach toward what is just out of reach; they exist at the limits of language, toward what Lispector calls in Discovering the World “a more delicate and difficult reality.”

    One of her narrators puts it this way: “Beyond the ear there is a sound, at the far end of sight a view, at the tips of the fingers an object—that’s where I’m going.” Both writers are in search of words and forms that can faithfully enact that “beyond.” Lispector’s characters call this unreachable mystery “the breath of life,” “pure movement,” “the mystery of the nature of beings,” “the secret life that goes on in the dark,” or “extreme presentness.” McIlvoy’s characters call it “this underworld aliveness” or “the most-all-ness” of a thing, which art can never reach because it is able to rise only to a “thing’s almostness.”

    Because these stories are inquiries, invitations to wonder at the mystery just beyond our reach, their language, word by word, sentence by sentence, is as fresh and alive as their forms—and often as difficult to comprehend on first reading. They draw us in even as they baffle us. Both writers—music lovers—compose as much by sound as sense. Both invent words. Both disrupt syntax. Yet it’s hard to read either’s work without sensing how they glory in the possibilities of language, even as they mark its inadequacy. This is one reason their work is at once mournful and ludic.

    Though both challenge readers’ expectations, neither is difficult for the sake of being difficult. Neither is out to confound or trick the reader. Nor do they aim to call attention to their own cleverness. Nor are they concerned with “building beauty,” for, as the narrator of Lispector’s “Brasília” says, “that would be easy.” Instead, their art is about erecting “inexplicable astonishment. Creation is not a new comprehension, it is a new mystery.” In accepting their invitation to be destabilized and disoriented, we may find ourselves in this new mystery, created anew. Not surprisingly, Lispector and McIlvoy each enflesh the mystery of being in their own way.

    A strong temptation in reading McIlvoy’s Is It So? is to reduce these stories to something graspable, whether to recurring themes (death, aging, memory, suffering, sin, joy), the narrator’s arc, flashes of Buddhism, or vestigial Catholicism. These elements are all present, but to dwell on them would be to betray the disturbance the collection causes. The table of contents itself warns against imposing order, for though the stories are grouped there according to form—as glyphs, glimpses, and found novels—in the book, they appear in a different order. Already our expectation of how collected stories are organized is exposed and called into question.

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    The opening stories focus on appearance and its relation to the elusive deeper reality of things, on the almost impossible task of seeing what is there in things, in nature, in persons. In “Wineglass,” the graying narrator and his wife “more generously imagined each other in readiness for further erasure.” In “A wish,” the narrator notes the difficulty of drawing a wineglass. If he draws it wrong, from memory, the base seems to slide off the table. If he draws it “almost right, an unnatural disturbance” in the wallpaper pattern results. But if he could draw it rightly and wrongly at once, he could “stop drawing what appears before me” and draw “what reappears.”

    The undertone of these stories echoes Noë’s account of his conversation with an artist about the science of visual perception. When Noë spoke of the “tiny distorted upside-down images in the eyes” and marveled at how we see so much on the basis of so little, the artist responded with a question similar the one McIlvoy seems to ask in these opening stories: “Why are we so blind, why do we see so little, when there is so much around us to see?”

    Lispector’s stories also invite us to wonder at the “more” of our existence, though for her that often means plunging us deep inside the passions and anxieties of her characters, whose interior worlds roam wider, burn hotter, and run more wildly than those of McIlvoy’s characters. Joy, love, and mystical ecstasy form an ostinato bassline in her work, whereas in McIlvoy’s they sound more like grace notes. Yet, like McIlvoy, Lispector calls our attention to what is not being seen or can’t quite be seen, to what goes on in the dark, the powerful undercurrents of people’s lives, the unique mystery of each human being. Blindness, literal and metaphorical, winds through her stories.

    In “The Smallest Woman in the World,” a series of characters from different walks of life observe a pregnant eighteen-inch-tall woman from Africa—each of them paying attention only to something that fits neatly inside their own experience. These seeings-not-seeing cascade toward the woman, “the rare thing herself,” and her own experience of herself, as herself. Contrary to the ways she is perceived, she is “laughing, warm, warm…delighting in life.” Similarly, in “Happy Birthday,” a family gathered for an eighty-nine-year-old grandmother’s birthday party sees only what she appears to be, not who she is: a woman who knows that life is short and “death is her mystery.”

    In “The Egg and the Chicken,” Lispector questions the act of seeing itself: “In the morning in the kitchen on the table I see the egg,” the story opens. “I look at the egg with a single gaze. Immediately I perceive that one cannot be seeing an egg.” That observation launches the narrator into brooding on surfaces, what is obvious and what is hidden beneath, the elusive thing a person is hungry for—soul, sacrifice, metamorphosis, the mystery of selfhood.

    The stories in Is It So? raise a question that disturbs the book’s own narrator: Even when we pay attention, when we make an effort to see the world in all its vivid colors and shapes, what about the unifying transparency that surrounds the world? Can we draw or write the whole that embraces us all? In “A difficulty,” which takes the form of an enigmatic conversation between the narrator and his wife, the wife offhandedly remarks that drawing a goldfish is “a difficulty.” Not so for the narrator. “I get goldfish, really get them,” he says. “I can be them, draw them—still, and moving.” For him, it’s the clear plastic bag that is “the problem.” That transparent surround, the whole in which the fish swims, frustrates “drawing magic.” Likewise, he can draw mouths and other parts of the human body, but the nose, which “holds it all together,” eludes him.

    The next story, “If a small ocean,” echoes this. Speaking of Fra Bartolomeo’s Magdalen, the narrator says he “gets” drapery; he can “be drapery.What eludes him is “gesture and form.” The magic of art, whether drawing, music, birding, or writing, threads through the stories in Is It So? But it is always coupled with a plaintive acknowledgment that the narrator is never able to draw, write, or compose as he wishes. There is something more that frustrates his skill as an artist. Art is for him “an unsolvable crisis of beauty.”

    Lispector too is keenly aware of the inability of art to capture the wildness of being, the mystery of existence. The wife in “The Imitation of the Rose” muses that “extreme beauty made her uncomfortable.” In “Boy in Pen and Ink,” the narrator confesses, “I don’t know how to sketch the boy. I know it’s impossible to sketch him in charcoal, for even pen and ink bleed on the paper beyond the incredibly fine line of extreme presentness in which he lives. One day we’ll domesticate him into a human, and then we can sketch him.”

    In “Inaugural Address,” a group of artists creates a line “guaranteed to be eternal,” a “metallic line that does not run the same risk as the line of flesh.” They sacrifice for this work of art, even though they know that it does not and cannot understand them, that it will “find them strange and be ashamed of [them]. And that living is a suicide mission.” Art investigates the mysteries of human living, love, sacrifice, and being, but it cannot “get” us.

    As McIlvoy’s collection moves forward, yet another question emerges. In “Blue Squill,” the story that gives us the collection’s title, the narrator’s sister, “adept at using biblical jargon,” puts to him a stark choice, one reminiscent of Moses’s directive to Israel in Deuteronomy, “Choose you this day, life or death.” She asks him to choose between two sentences that correspond to two ways of being: “Why is it so?” or “It is so.”

    One could read this from a Christian point of view, as a choice between skepticism and faith, or from a Buddhist perspective, as a choice between resistance to reality (which causes suffering) and acceptance of it. Neither reading does justice to this narrator, who sidesteps the choice, offering a third way. He asks his sister, “Is it so?” What are we to make of this third way? In rejecting the “why” and turning the statement into a question, this narrator reveals that he is not out to make sense out of the human condition, to order the chaos of life, or to show the mystery of grace in action.

    He is unlike Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver. Neither does he seek to dispassionately affirm impermanence, nor to enlighten us with Zen koans. And though there’s plenty of absurdity in these stories (in a style more akin to Beckett than Kafka), they don’t seem aimed at exposing the cracks in our carefully organized bureaucratic world. The narrator of “Blue Squill”—like McIlvoy, I would argue—is after something different.

    The epigraph of his collection, from Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic, yields a clue: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Between nature, with its regular laws, and supernature, which appears to break those laws, there is… hesitation.

    The moment in which a person grounded in reality experiences something seemingly beyond reality is a liminal moment, a moment not of certainty or doubt, faith or skepticism, but of inquiry and wonder. The realm of the fantastic is the realm of the between, the possible, the imagination. It is the territory of the strange. “Is it so?” means “Come into the strange with me and look around.”

    Near the end of “Blue Squill,” the narrator recounts how as a ten-year-old he taught his baby sister to walk. If he gave her a tennis ball, “she would stand, start walking, holding it slightly before her, gazing self-hypnotically at the yellow sphere.” Then this: “Her walking with her magic friend: those days gave me such laughing-out-loud joy.

    At all points when I remember that period in her life and ours, greater joy arrives, and it has broken open more room in me for welcoming the magic hour and the magic object held forth as a projection of holy possibility in a world that has lost all sense of the sublime.” The fantastic, the realm of “Is it so?” is “holy possibility,” the domain of art, which holds out to us magic objects we gaze into to experience new ways of moving through the world. Strange tools indeed.

    A practicing Buddhist who was raised Catholic, McIlvoy uses words like “holy” circumspectly: Mother of God, christs, miracle, mystery, saint, Jesus, church, the garden. His characters sometimes find themselves in moments of deep, calm awareness untinged by guilt or sorrow—what some might call grace, others mindfulness—like his character Lagan in “Yew,” who is recovering from an operation to restore his sight.

    As he walks through a graveyard, Lagan is picked up by a stray dog he names Yew, and together they walk “along the wall of the churchyard.” Lagan never enters the church. He “can’t walk the miles and miles of Time to meet the singers, to hear the whole hymn lifting them to another condition.” But he finds peace and healing in the vicinity, letting the church’s “mercy-light” warm him, in the company of his own miracle of connection. “You’re a miracle,” he tells Yew.

    No conventional religion or spirituality here. No soul storms or mystic ecstasies. Yet McIlvoy’s writing is spiritual and mystical, as he himself notes. “Eventually,” he said in an interview, “you have to face what [Julio Cortázar] calls the metaphysical phase in which you have to confront the fact that your thinking was simple-minded; you have to recognize that what you have done with language reflects spiritual mysteries and mystical experiences.”

    Like Lispector, McIlvoy seeks to write a “more delicate and difficult reality” that cannot be represented in conventional narrative with ordinary language. He too wants to point to the elusive whole, the unseen connections that bind us all together, human to human, human to animal, human to nature, all of us to an emptiness-cum-fullness, a silence full of sound.

    Lispector and McIlvoy eschew conventional forms to offer us stories to think with. They’re not interested in realism or linearity. Their vocation is, as Lispector says in one of her crônicas, to honor the silence, the emptiness, that enfolds and undergirds our existence.

    Lispector’s work presents much more immediately as spiritual and mystical. She, a Jew living in a Catholic country, uses religious language freely, most of it drawn from Christianity: God, forgiveness, grace, sin, Christ, the cross, communion, miracle, mystery, angels, annunciation, Jesus, the garden. She embraces ecstasy, which as she says in Breath of Life means “losing the illusory multiplicity of worldly things and starting to feel everything as a whole.”

    Many of her characters (frequently women) experience ecstatic “soul storms”—joyful or horrifying—that well up without warning amid their daily lives (often in kitchens or living rooms) and overwhelm them, physically, mentally, and emotionally. In “The Servant,” the maid Eremita drinks “from some unknown fount,” ancient and pure. She has found a trail in the forest where she has experiences “in a single glance, too fleeting to be anything but a mystery,” of “wholeness of spirit,” and for which she has no words.

    Though Lispector’s characters often find themselves suddenly overcome by something beyond nature, they don’t know if their experiences are “mystical or mystifying.” But the stories are mystical. Lispector is always seeking to write that “more delicate and difficult reality,” always writing toward that whole beyond the multiplicity we get lost in. The epigraph she chose for her novella Água Viva, from Michel Seuphor, makes this explicit: There must be a kind of painting totally free of the dependence on the figure—or object—which, like music, illustrates nothing, tells no story, and launches no myth. Such painting would simply evoke the incommunicable kingdoms of the spirit, where dream becomes thought, where line becomes existence.”

    Lispector and McIlvoy eschew conventional forms to offer us stories to think with. They’re not interested in realism or linearity. Their vocation is, as Lispector says in one of her crônicas, to honor the silence, the emptiness, that enfolds and undergirds our existence: “Since one is obliged to write, let it be without obscuring the space between the lines of words.” Half a century apart, both writers revel in words because they want us to hear the silences, to see between the lines.

    By stripping down his stories, by opening so many gaps, McIlvoy calls our attention to what is not there, or perhaps to what we sense but cannot draw or write. He reveals that transparent bag the goldfish swims in, the building that once stood where a ruin now greets us, the vibrant person underneath the weary-worn shape standing before us. With her veerings and whirlings and eruptions, Lispector does the same. They both point to “holy possibility,” saying, “Look! There’s so much more to see.”

    “The general form of a work of art,” Noë says, “is: See me if you can!… Every work of art challenges you to see it, or to get it.” Works of art are puzzling, and their magic often doesn’t strike us on first encounter. McIlvoy’s and Lispector’s stories certainly bear this out. They may in fact be “all too complicated for a sufficient number of readers to relate to,” as an editor tells “the author” in “Mollycrawlbottom,” McIlvoy’s rejection-letter-cum-story.

    But for those who love ruins and eddies; who stand in awe before the mystery of the whole and human being; who don’t want to remain lost in the complexity of our habits and conventional ideas; who choose inquiry over certainty, puzzlement over answers; who want to gaze into a story in order to walk toward holy possibility, toward the sound at the tip of the ear; for those readers, these stories, these strange tools, will satisfy a deep hunger we may not even know we have.


    This essay was originally published in Issue 119 of Image.

    Mary Lane Potter
    Mary Lane Potter’s books include Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountryand the novel A Woman of Salt(both from Counterpoint). Her essays have appeared in Parabola, Witness, River Teeth, Tiferet, Tablet, Sufi, ARTS, and more.

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