• Sprawl

    Katie Kitamura

    Summer 2022


    In September 2021, during what would become only a brief dip in the pandemic’s waves—rather than the end we hoped, or perhaps even believed it to be—I boarded a plane for Italy. I had been invited to spend a week in Sicily, in the company of a renowned immunologist, a historian, a curator, and a magazine editor. The trip had been organized by two artists, working in concert for some time under the moniker Goldin+Senneby.

    I think of Simon (Goldin) and Jakob (Senneby) as two of the most quietly persuasive individuals I know. They are able to talk people into outlandish propositions, situations that almost certainly go against their best interests. In my case, it was because of Simon and Jakob that I had agreed to leave my family and pass through the battery of COVID tests required to enter and then leave Italy, to spend time in what had been described as a research trip, but felt equally like a social experiment, or the setup to a joke.

    What was it, I asked the magazine editor, about them?

    Well, he said after a moment’s thought. They’re very nice. People like being around them. And their ideas are interesting. We’re here because we’re interested and intrigued. And, he said with a shrug, because it’s Italy.

    Simon and Jakob regularly bring together collaborators of different sorts—in the past, they have worked with magicians, quants, actors, and playwrights. Those individuals contribute to ongoing artworks, the gestation of which sometimes takes close to a decade, and the concrete manifestation of which ranges from sculpture to performance to meetings and happenings to (and this was why I was there in Italy) works of collaborative fiction.

    I had agreed to write a novel in collaboration with Goldin+Senneby. They would stage a series of interventions and actions, in response to which I would write a chapter or two of the novel, in response to which they would conceive of another action, in response to which I would write another chapter or two of the novel, and so on and so forth until we had completed the manuscript in a conceptual relay race of sorts.

    Or that was the plan, anyway. When I tried to describe the project to people, I was generally only able to list the individual elements that would, we hoped, somehow cohere in the text: autoimmunity, genetic modification, multiple sclerosis, climate change, and pharmaceutical companies. There were also concrete objects in this portfolio of ideas and starting points: a genetically modified pine tree, engineered to produce excess sap as a form of increased immunity; and a tray of fungus, which was the basis for an experimental therapy treating multiple sclerosis. Those two objects were the foundation of the novel, the starting point for a fictional exploration of the themes listed above.

    One thing that struck me as I worked with Simon and Jakob was that they had a peculiar fidelity—a dogged attachment—to the novel as a form. At one point, the editor asked, Why a novel? Why not a film? Or a magazine? Or a podcast? Why the novel? They shook their heads. It has to be a novel, they said. They believed in the ability of the novel to synthesize complex systems of thought and information, all the individual elements and constituent parts listed above.

    More precisely, Simon and Jakob believed such synthesis was possible through collective authorship. There are a handful of examples of collective authorship in contemporary fiction: the Italian collective Wu Ming, or the novel Reena Spaulings, by the large and porous artist collective Bernadette Corporation. And of course every translated text is the product of a collaborative practice. But on the whole, fictional authorship tends to be conceived of in terms of a singular voice and identity.

    The idea of collective authorship has long intrigued me. It isn’t coincidence that my last two novels have featured, respectively, a translator and an interpreter, characters who give voice to language they don’t necessarily author. That relationship to language is part of what makes me interested in collective authorship, and in what the literary critic Emily Apter calls “deauthorship” in her book Against World Literature:

    Translation, seen as authorized plagiarism, emerges as a form of creative property that belongs fully to no one. As a model of deowned literature, it stands against the swell of corporate privatization of the arts, with its awards given to individual genius and bias against collective authorship.

    In working with Simon and Jakob, I hoped to move from exploring this idea of collective authorship as a subject of fiction, to putting the concept into practice. And yet I was apprehensive. Over the course of several calls and emails in the early stages of the project, I managed to lower expectations. We agreed to call it a novella rather than a novel, and for some reason that redesignation made me feel a little more at ease. In due course, both a genetically modified pine tree and a tray of fungus were delivered to my home—the inciting objects, the start of the game. I wrote several chapters and sent them off. But then, I slowed, and over the following months I made very little progress, despite the gently inquiring emails from Simon and Jakob.. The project was in danger of genuinely stalling. Perhaps sensing this, the artists had arranged for this expedition to Sicily.

    We were staying in a large and somewhat ramshackle villa in the town of Messina, on the northern coast of Sicily. With us was the immunologist who had pioneered a new theory of immunology known as the Danger Model. The currently prevailing theory of immunology proposes that the immune system operates according to a paradigm of self and non-self, in which the body identified and attacked what was “other” to itself. The language in which this model was expressed—of boundaries and distinctions, of foreign bodies primed to attack the sovereign body, toward which an offensive posture must be taken—has an explicit political dimension.

    The Danger Model, by contrast, proposes that instead of identifying things that are foreign, the immune system identifies things that are likely to cause damage. In other words, what triggers the immune system is not “otherness,” but danger itself. Think of it this way, the immunologist said one morning at breakfast. In the first model, you think of the immune system as a police force. They patrol the town, and they descend upon any outsiders. In my model, you think of the immune system as a team of firemen. When they hear the fire alarm, they rush to the source of danger. The opposition between inside and outside, native and foreign, isn’t relevant.

    The immunologist’s ability to explain complex ideas with remarkable clarity was a gift. For hours, as we sat on the terrace, she delivered an impromptu lecture on the immune system and our shifting understanding of it. I had always known, intellectually, theoretically, that science was contingent. But listening to the immunologist outline the rapid evolution of theories, that sense of contingency became overwhelming.

    It also became clear that language is central to the development of science. Ideas are communicated through language, but they are also defined by language, and nowhere more so than in the case of immunity. The double meaning of immunity—resistance from infection or disease, but also exemption from a rule or penalty—inscribes a legal element into our scientific understanding of the body and its systems. The parallel between physical and social bodies, the ways in which they are defined and policed, was not difficult to see.

    The following day, we went to the Messina harbor, in search of the building where the Russian immunologist Ilya Metchnikoff had stayed for a period of some months in 1882. It was during this stay in Messina that he had the breakthrough that would lead to a new understanding of immunity, and the research that would eventually earn him the Nobel Prize.

    While in Messina, Metchnikoff began experimenting with starfish larvae, inserting rose (in some accounts, citrus) thorns into the larvae. White blood cells quickly gathered at the places where the thorns had been inserted. Metchnikoff hypothesized that these cells surrounded and then killed pathogens. The term he gave to this process was phagocytosis, from the Greek for “devouring cells.”

    Laced in amidst the science was a kind of surrealist poetry—the rose, the thorns, the starfish and their larvae. Metchnikoff was the reason we were in Messina, or as Simon began calling it over the course of that week, the least picturesque town in Sicily. Simon and Jakob were keen to find the house Metchnikoff had stayed in while in Messina, and so we made our way down to the harbor, where Metchnikoff was said to have obtained his starfish specimen.

    As we drove around in search of a parking spot, we peered out the windows and tried to identify the building where Metchnikoff might have stayed. We had very little information to go on, and nothing very specific. Once we had parked the car and piled out, we began to wander along the road parallel to the water, looking for a likely building.

    According to his own account, Metchnikoff plucked the thorns off a rose bush in his garden. He describes the garden and a mandarin orange tree, out of which the family had fashioned a Christmas tree of sorts (it was unclear what this meant; had they lopped off branches in approximation of a tree, or had they merely decorated a tree outside?). We walked the length of the street, looking for a house sufficiently grand to house a scientist of his reputation, and a story of such significance.

    After some time, we found what seemed a plausible house, with a large lemon tree in the front garden. And although we knew it couldn’t have been the tree Metchnikoff mentioned—which in any case had been described as an orange and not a lemon tree—we still chose to take as a good omen the single, lustrous lemon hanging from its branch. Perhaps we were looking for a reason or a justification to call it a day and proceed to the waterfront. Someone said, Didn’t you think there’d  be a plaque? 

    We moved to the waterfront where Metchnikoff walked while in the grips of his inspiration, his self-described eureka moment. We sat in the shade on a bench. We stared out at the water and tried to imagine the starfish. Do you think he pulled them out of the water himself? The larvae? Surely they’re too small. I thought he got them off the fishermen. Do fishermen collect starfish larvae? Someone smoked a cigarette. Someone else asked what we should do for dinner.

    It was during that excursion that I learned that the curator who was with us was a cancer survivor whose immune system had been irradiated by extended sessions of chemotherapy. This body, she said, clutching her slender torso, I had to build it back from nothing. She moved with grace, holding her body upright, as a dancer does, so that the torso appears cradled or suspended. She had, she explained, a vested interest in what the immunologist had shared with us.

    The next morning, the two of us went to have coffee on the edge of the garden. There was a small stone table surrounded by trees that tipped up toward the sky, enormous yucca plants, the vegetation specific to Sicily. She told me that while Simon and Jakob were preoccupied with trees and immunology, she was mostly interested in mushrooms. It was her contact, she explained, who had sent me the tray of fungus that arrived shortly after the genetically modified pine tree, those two objects around which the novel would—or so we hoped—turn, but which had as yet to generate very much more than a few chapters.

    Trees and fungus were inextricably related, she explained. Mycorrhizal networks, extending deep underground, connected trees, transmitting information and resources. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals—all these were transmitted through underground fungal threads.

    The curator paused. One of the most beautiful things about trees is how they pool resources. Trees will send nutrients and carbon via these networks to ailing trees. And a tree on the brink of death will send out its store of carbon to surrounding trees in a final, sacrificial gesture. Trees in isolation are vulnerable, because they are deprived of this network of communication, this community.

    She rose to her feet and knelt on the ground. Come look, she said. I joined her as she pointed to a collection of mushrooms pushing out of the soil. Kneeling, I examined their spongy trunks, the delicate ribbing of the gills, the fluted shape of the caps. They were somehow improbable, in the way that deep sea fish appear improbable—an entirely alien life-form.

    This was only the fruiting part of the fungus, she explained. Below the surface of the soil, the fungus would extend deep into the earth, in a rhizomatic network called mycelium. You can think of it like a nervous system. She pointed up to the trees and then drew a circle down to the ground. She couldn’t help but see significance in the cluster of mushrooms, placed between the two trees, a message or a manifestation of sorts.

    We stood and went back to the table. Behind us, there were signs of life in the house and the curator said, It must be time for breakfast. We returned to the house. We would soon disperse, each heading to a different country. But I continued to think about the mushrooms and their mycelium.

    Across a number of books, the philosopher Timothy Morton has argued for a reevaluation of the distinction between human and nonhuman, and by extension a reconsideration of what we think of as subjectivity, the question of who—and what—we grant consciousness. Morton is preoccupied with decentering human experience and human subjectivity; that shift, he argues, will allow us to better comprehend and live within a profoundly destabilized climate disaster.

    There are many reasons for a writer to read Morton: he’s a wonderful reader of poetry and fiction (as an example, The Ecological Thought contains an exhilarating close read of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), but he can also blow down the walls of whatever house of fiction you currently reside in. When you read Morton, you begin to wonder what a novel would look like from the perspective of a tree, or a fungus, or a bacterium. You begin to wonder how narrative would function—or not function—from a nonhuman, ecological consciousness.

    Usefully, Morton tends to look at text in a fairly granular way, examining narrative structures and points of view. In Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, he writes:

    There is no pronoun entirely suitable to describe ecological beings. If I call them “I”, then I’m appropriating them to myself or to some pantheistic or Gaia concept that swallows them without regard to their specificity. If I call them “you,” I differentiate them from the kind of being that I am. If I call them “he” or “she,” then I’m gendering them according to heteronormative concepts. . . . If grammar lines up against speaking ecological beings at such a basic level, what hope is there?

    Third person, first-person singular—these tend to be the obvious choices for a piece of fiction. There are the handful of formally and technically gifted writers who are able to sustain first-person plural or second person across the length of a novel. But there don’t appear, at least at first glance, to be many other options. But considering how freighted each of those forms is, how can they succeed in voicing the consciousness that Morton describes? Or does the task require jettisoning these forms and finding something new?

    There is an overlap between the notion of collective authorship and the project of imagining nonhuman subjectivity and points of view. The idea of a distributed consciousness would be central to any imagining of the consciousness of a tree, or fungus, or bacteria. The link isn’t entirely clear to me, and I’m not yet delusional enough to think that a group of artists and curators and writers in some way approximates a rhizomatic fungal structure. But still, I sometimes like to place two things side by side in my mind, to see what the juxtaposition produces.

    Being a writer is letting myself notice synchronicity—taking note of points of connection and overlap, the network of theme and resonance that encase the text, creating layers of meaning beyond the primary one. In Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, translated by Adriana Hunter, a moderately successful writer declares, “It would take only one of his sentences being more intelligent than he is for this miracle to make a writer of him.” That intelligence, beyond the conscious capacity of the writer, often emerges from out of that network of resonance.

    Not long after I returned from Italy, I was scheduled to do two book events. The first was with Elif Shafak, whose most recent novel, The Island of Missing Trees, is set in Cyprus and London and tracks the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Among other things, the novel is concerned with what it means to witness history. It is also narrated by a fig tree, first planted in Cyprus, and then transported to London in the form of a cutting.

    As I read The Island of Missing Trees, I recalled that Simon and Jakob had several times suggested that I write a chapter from the point of view of the genetically modified pine tree they had sent to me. As it turned out, The Island of Missing Trees stages its fig tree as the primary consciousness that witnesses the conflict from both a micro and macro perspective. During our event, I asked Shafak how she arrived at the decision to write from the perspective of the fig tree. Tree time is different from human time, she replied.

    That simple sentence gave me a little access into how she had succeeded in writing a nonhuman voice and consciousness. When she said that tree time was different from human time, she described the movement beyond a purely human consciousness. When Simon and Jakob had suggested that I write from the point of view of the tree, I had seen this primarily as a constraint—perhaps because so much of our project seemed to turn around constraint, in the way of an Oulipo text. But Shafak uses the voice of the tree as a way of breaking free of the limitations of a purely human consciousness, thereby gaining a radically different perspective on human history and activity.

    In this way, Shafak touches upon the constellation of ideas explored by Morton, who in The Ecological Thought describes “one of the longest-term ecological problems: how to deal with the existence of hyperobjects, products such as Styrofoam and plutonium that exist on almost unthinkable timescales. Like the strange stranger, these materials confound our limited, fixated, self-oriented frameworks.” By coaxing the reader into imagining a different kind of time, Shafak also forces the reader to confront this “limited, fixated, self-oriented framework” that remains the foundation of most fiction.

    Shortly after the event with Shafak, I was asked to interview Ruth Ozeki about her novel The Book of Form and Emptiness.  When, in preparation for our talk, I began to read her book, I discovered that her novel begins with a direct address to the reader from the book itself. The book goes on to narrate the story of a boy named Benny who hears the voices of insentient objects around him—not talking dogs or cats or birds, not even talking trees, but entirely inanimate objects. Books, tables, glasses.

    One interpretation of The Book of Form and Emptiness is that it is a novel about mental illness. The behavior of the two central characters is consistent with diagnoses of schizophrenia and hoarding. But the novel presents a fictional world in which the voices Benny hears are at once a manifestation of his mental illness and also entirely “real.” There is a koan, Ozeki explained during the event, that asks, Can insentient beings speak the dharma? Ozeki’s novel is about everything in the world, and the struggle to comprehend that totality. It is about a widening of consciousness.

    Sometimes, the life outside of the book overlaps with the life inside the book. Something takes place, a synchronicity that is beyond the range of mere craft or skill, and which allows the book to reach out and speak to you, exactly as you are, at that particular moment. I felt that sensation with The Book of Form and Emptiness, and never more than in the following passage:

    On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 astronauts took a photograph of a gibbous Earth at a distance of eighteen thousand miles from its surface. The photograph showed the planet, partially obscured by swirling clouds, floating all alone like a blue glass marble in the vast, black infinity of outer space. This historic image, dubbed the Blue Marble, became a symbol of the environmental movement and caused a profound shift in the way people conceived of the planet, shrinking it from something incomprehensibly immense and awesome into a fragile, lonely orb that you could cradle in the palm of your hand or crush beneath a careless heel.

    Even as the Blue Marble was miniaturizing your conception of Earth, it was inflating your sense of importance in relation to it, endowing you a godlike perspective and agency. The image caused, in other words, a derangement of scale, from which you people still suffer. As your anxiety about the disastrous effects of your behavior on the biosphere grows, you console yourself with the thought that by changing a light bulb or recycling a bottle or choosing paper instead of plastic, you can save the planet.

    In both Ozeki’s and Shafak’s novels, there is an ethical dimension to this act of projection—into another, nonhuman perspective. In fiction, the ethical dimension of a text is often conceived in terms of empathy, in terms of how we relate to and understand other people. But Ozeki and Shafak make the persuasive case that this ethical imperative can also be served by taking a detour into another kind of consciousness altogether. As Morton writes, “Seeing the Earth from space is the beginning of ecological thinking . . . Seeing yourself from another point of view is the beginning of ethics and politics.”

    For several months, I read fiction that featured, if not talking objects or animals (although sometimes they did), then passages expressly written from a nonhuman point of view. It was not something that I had thought of as a genre, and yet when I began to look, examples abounded. Within that reading, I was looking for models that moved away from the singular to the plural, the centralized to the distributed, in keeping with our project’s basis in collective authorship. One of the more notable is the twelfth section of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. “Spiral,” translated by William Weaver, is narrated by a mollusc, a first-person voice thoroughly modulated by the biology of the mollusc and its consequences:

    The water was a source of information, reliable and precise. . . . The system worked like this: a wave would come, and I, still sticking to the rock, would raise myself up a little bit, imperceptibly—all I had to do was loosen the pressure slightly—and, splat, the water passed beneath me, full of substances and sensations and stimuli. You never knew how those stimuli were going to turn out, sometimes a tickling that made you die laughing, other times a shudder, a burning, an itch; so it was a constant seesaw of amusement and emotion.

    The voice is a model in porousness and formlessness, one that begins in the physiological experience of the mollusc but then extends to consciousness and form:

    But since I had no form I could feel all possible forms in myself, and all actions and expressions and possibilities of making noises, even rude ones. In short, there were no limitations to my thoughts, which weren’t thoughts, after all, because I had no brain to think them; every cell on its own thought every thinkable thing all at once, not through images, since we had no images of any kind at our disposal, but simply in that indeterminate way of feeling oneself there, which did not prevent us from feeling ourselves equally there in some way.

    It was a rich and free and contented condition, my condition at that time, quite the contrary of what you might think. . . . When you’re young, all evolution lies before you, every road is open to you, and at the same time you can enjoy the fact of being there on the rock, flat mollusc-pulp, damp and happy. If you compare yourself with the limitations that came afterwards, if you think of how having one form excludes other forms, of the monotonous routine where you finally feel trapped, well, I don’t mind saying, life was beautiful in those days.

    Although Calvino uses the familiar first person, he renders it strange not only through the reference and exploration of the mollusc’s formlessness, its permeability and simultaneity, but also through the very contradictions of this first-person voice—the “I” voice that speaks for the brainless and the formless, the consciousness that has “no brain to think” the very thoughts (or non-thoughts) the voice articulates.

    A more recent example of the hybrid consciousness Calvino evokes through the contradictions of the first-person voice in “Spiral” is found in Benjamin Percy’s genre-melding The Unfamiliar Garden, in which a researcher is infected with a sentient alien fungi and becomes a kind of symbiote:

    He unlaces his shoes, peels off his socks, and tidily places them aside. Then he digs his pale pink feet into the black dirt of the forest floor and closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

    There is a sound that follows, like the sudden turning of many earthworms. His feet tickle as the soles open—and filaments tongue out of his flesh and burrow downward. With his eyes closed, other senses take over. A conversation with rock and dirt and plant, with ant and fungus. The understory of the forest. The information flows from root to root like nerve impulses travel from neuron to neuron in the brain. His intelligence becomes collective. Five minutes pass or maybe fifty. A moth lands in his hair. Spiders scuttle up his ankles and into his pants. When he opens his eyes again, they are threaded with red and green capillaries.

    As with Calvino, Percy hews close to biology to imagine the subjective experience of his character. And like Calvino, he is especially interested in the notion of simultaneity, of “feeling oneself out there,” which is in both cases posited as breaching an enclosure or limitation:

    Going green. That’s what Peaches calls it when he lets the other part of himself take over. The symbiont.

    A normal mind is like a mansion, one that’s always under construction, with a new wing or garage being added. Some of the rooms you visit regularly; others, not so much. Every room has dressers and cabinets and end tables, and all of them have drawers or shelves. There are things filed away in them, like papers and books and photos that aren’t referenced often and collect dust. You surprise yourself sometimes. You go down a hallway you forgot existed and visit a room threaded with cobwebs and remember the faint smells, textures, and faded voices that linger in the air.

    And this is necessary. We need to compartmentalize. To categorize. To file. We have too many moments. We’ve eaten too many meals and had too many conversations. If we remembered it all—all the time and all at once—we’d go crazy.

    Going green is a little like going crazy. Because the mind of the forest knows no limit. Imagine if every door of the mansion was blown open and every light flickered on and every drawer spilled its guts? And you could be in the master bath and the dining room and the garden at the same time?

    He always has trouble cutting it off and coming back to the constraints and limitations of the present.

    Both Percy and Calvino imagine a distributed consciousness, brainless only in the sense that the narrating consciousness is not centralized. In his book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures, biologist Merlin Sheldrake asks, “How does one part of a mycelial network ‘know’ what is happening in a distant part of the network? Mycelium sprawls, yet must somehow be able to stay in touch—with itself.” Like Calvino and Percy, Sheldrake sees a possibility in the unbounded form of the fungus:

    The Latin root of the word extravagant means “to wander outside or beyond.” It is a good word for mycelium, which ceaselessly wanders outside and beyond its limits, none of which are preset as they are in most animal bodies. Mycelium is a body without a body plan.

    In describing his research into fungi, Sheldrake describes occupying ideas and places that move “outside or beyond”:

    The “loss of a sense of self-identity, delusions of self-identity and experiences of ‘alien control,’”observed an elder statesman in the field of microbiome research, are all potential symptoms of mental illness. It made my head spin to think of how many ideas had to be revisited, not least our culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence.

    I thought then of Ozeki’s Benny, who exists in that same unbordered space. The “culturally treasured” idea of the self Sheldrake describes is the same self that is buttressed by conventional models of immunity as described to us by the immunologist, the self that is distinct from the nonself. But in reconceptualizing this traditional idea of self, it is not only ideas of mental and physical health that would be altered. Our ideas of voice and authorship would necessarily grow more elastic, the parameters stretching, the space of narrative expanding.

    Back in Italy, in the car on the way to the Catania airport, I remember asking the editor if he thought it would be possible to write a chapter from the point of view of the tree, or even the fungus. He frowned. Like the object novel? I said that I had never heard of the object novel. He took out his phone and after a little searching, sent me a link to an academic article about the object novel in eighteenth-century English fiction—sometimes referred to as “it narratives,” or novels of circulation.

    These novels, written in response to the accelerating rate of commerce and trade, narrate the journey of an object from place to place and from owner to owner—the journey of a coin, for example, or a house slipper, or a watch. They are often narrated in the first-person singular, and with titles like The Adventures of a Watch or The Secret History of an Old Shoe, mimic or satirize the biography as a form.

    But they also emphasize social structures and connections, with the objects slipping in and out of a variety of social contexts. They also helped lay the foundation for later novels that would feature objects or animals that would lead human characters toward a state of derangement—the white whale in Moby-Dick, the antiques in The Spoils of Poynton (originally published under the more prosaic title, The Old Things)

    I then remembered, having long forgotten, that as an undergraduate I had for a period been preoccupied with talking objects. Improbable as it now seems, I had written numerous student papers about talking objects and animals, although the only one I could now recall with any specificity was about the starling in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, who repeats, “I can’t get out.” What had the argument of those papers been? I had been reading Deleuze and Guattari, and some Friederich Kittler, so I could hazard a guess that there would have been something about disembodied voices, deterritorialization—something along those lines, although it now felt almost too remote to recall.

    Early in Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, translated by John LambertCarrère suddenly recalls a forgotten period in his life some twenty years earlier, when he had been fervently religious. He is embarking upon an extended inquiry into the nature of Christian faith, from the distance of a nonbeliever, when the episode from the past is suddenly restored:

    Moreover, although it took me a surprisingly long time, I finally realized that it was ludicrous to want to interview Christians the way I’d interview people who’d survived a plane crash, been struck by lightning, or been held hostage. Because in fact I’ve had very close access to one Christian for several years, someone, indeed, you could hardly be closer to, because it was me.

    Carrère goes on to explain:

    I don’t have very good memories of this period and have done my best to forget them. Miracles of the unconscious: I did such a good job that I was able to start writing on the origins of Christianity without making the connection, and without remembering that there was a time when I believed in this story that so interests me today.

    The first time I read the book, this moment struck me as strenuously improbable. How could Carrère have started this book-length inquiry into the nature of Christian faith without recalling that as a young man he had, for a brief period, attended mass daily, and taken copious notes on the Gospel of John? I continued to return to the moment over the years, troubled and unconvinced by it, even as I admired its audacity. But now, the moment suddenly revealed itself to me. I understood how it resonated with the key themes of the book—for what is faith, if not the suspension of disbelief? But more importantly, that long period of forgetting and the sudden miracle of recuperation captures the scope of a life as it is actually lived and remembered.

    As I grow older, I simultaneously see how divorced I am from the past—there are large sections of my past that feel impossibly remote, and that do not cohere into any particular narrative—and, at the same time and in an entirely contradictory way, I see the past everywhere in the present. Looking at the last two novels I had written, which had taken the better part of a decade to produce, and which I had spent many years thinking about, it is only now that I see how some of the fundamental concerns of the books—featuring as they do characters who speak the words of other people, tracing language as it crosses borders, moving from person to person and place to place—were already in place, long before I thought of writing fiction.

    To talk of mushrooms and symbiotes and inhuman consciousness—all those things that operate in unbordered spaces—is necessarily to talk about what is alien and external to us. And yet, as Morton says, “seeing yourself from another point of view is the beginning of ethics and politics.” He describes the importance of the movement outside or beyond the self, the willingness to grow remote from yourself. But he is also describing the act of locating and identifying yourself all over again, and anew.

    We sprawl out only to coil back. The picture of who we are unfolds in fits and starts. But one of the places where that slow and inconsistent emergence takes place is in writing. When I started writing, I thought I wrote in order to understand the world. But the longer I write, the more I realize that I write, at least in part, because it is through writing that I meet myself again. That is the strangest encounter of fiction, the most uncanny. The understanding that the self is the strange stranger—for me, this forms the aesthetic and ethical basis of fiction.

    Katie Kitamura’s most recent novel is Intimacies. One of The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2021, it was longlisted for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her third novel, A Separation, was a finalist for the Premio von Rezzori and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Gone To The Forest and The Longshot, both finalists for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. 

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