The ‘Suspension of Belief’ among Readers

As we discussed briefly in class this week, the “world” of People of Paper is a strange mix of realism and fantasy in which the characters accept every premise and every invention of the author.  On the one hand, the book presents us with actual, living people made out of paper; mechanical tortoises; the strange “unmasking” of saints; and towns that, literally, disintegrate. On the other hand, the events and characters are all within the context of a “real” world of flower pickers, dominoes, cock fights, and travel in dusty pickups.  Tijuana and El Monte are real places; Rita Hayworth makes a “real” appearance as herself, but with a completely fake biography. This strange juxtaposition of the fantastical and the real is not always easy to follow, but, surprisingly, it is still easy to “go along” with these odd premises and become engaged in the story.

This makes me think more about the notion of “suspension of belief” when we read a novel.  When we enter a world created by an author, we as readers give that author a certain credibility and latitude; we’re willing to go along with whatever scenarios and characters he or she has created in exchange for (one hopes) a well-constructed narrative, interesting characters, good writing, thought-provoking themes (writ small or large), or just a good story. We willingly share the author’s make-believe world, and there is, I believe, a kind of covenant between reader and author; we suspend belief to dive into the creative work of the author. This is true whether we are considering “fantasy” works like Harry Potter or the “realistic” fiction of Flaubert or Hemingway.

In postmodern fiction, however, is that covenant on shakier ground?  Does a covenant even exist; are all bets off? If nothing, postmodernist fiction, as we learned in our first week in this course, is frequently counterintuitive. Our patience was tested (sorely) in House of Leaves, for example, as Danielewski alternately drew us in to a compelling, scary story and then taunted us for getting sucked in. The Female Man messed around with character identities in a way that was frequently confusing.  Dream Jungle drew us into characters but kept those characters at times hidden from us; many of their story lines, such as that of Rizalina, simply petered out with no conclusion (maybe that was the point). I seriously don’t suspect that postmodern writers, if they even think of themselves as postmodern, care nothing for their relationship with readers (why would any author want his or her work to be a failure, after all?); I assume they want to bring readers along for their experiment with new forms and challenges to old conventions and histories.  I just wonder if all of this will soon take on a dated feel, a faddishness. In People of Paper, for example, Chapter Three begins with “Many years after the Saturn War and in the unwritten afterword of this book…” (41). Here we go again, another instance of the book/author speaking directly to the audience, breaking down that “fourth wall.”  I kind of get this “been there, done that” feeling. So, ultimately, what must hold up a novel against the test of time is not just its form but also its content.