The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described the function of narratives in his concept of traces. Unlike the beautiful traces of the French deconstructionist Derrida (traces as spaces between words and letters that are necessary to produce difference, meaning), Gramsci's traces were the personal, historical, social matter/data that are deposited into us randomly, and then, as the years progress, arranged into a sensible, narratable order. This process, the process of collecting and ordering traces, finds its most complete artistic expression and reflection in the novel. The novel is the art of narration; it takes all of our traces (or stories, as the Russian formalists called them) and then forms them into a complex system of narratives (plots, as the Russian formalists called them). Like real life, the structure of the novel is this: It has an overarching national narrative (in Marcel Proust's novel Remembrance of Things Past, this was the trial of the Jewish army officer Dreyfuss. The narrator, also named Marcel, often refers to this trial because it represents the drama of the nation, which is, as Jean-François Lyotard once put it, France's "progressive emancipation of reason and freedom"). Then there is the class narrative (Marcel's social climbing from the top of bourgeoisie circles to the bottom of aristocratic circles). Next there is the family narrative (Marcel's poor, indeed nonexistent, relationship with his father, and his close--too close--relationship with his mother). And finally, there is the narrative of the self (which, in the case of Marcel, is the apprenticeship of a writer, as Gilles Deleuze argues in Proust and Signs).
At this point, which is exactly the halfway mark of this desperately short essay, I must tell you the bad news: This description of narratives and their uses and their representation in novels is now obsolete. Yes, I have wasted over 500 words on something that no longer exists--offered you nothing more than the faded image of a dead man. The living, real-life situation of narratives is something else altogether. And the implications of the new use, structure, and experience of narratives is so radically different today that it's now impossible to do two things: (a) die; (b) write a novel in any traditional sense.
Now I must back up these outrageous claims. To start, let me share with you two significant quotes. One: "At the end of life you are supposed to turn around and pull a string and everything, your entire life, is straightened out" (James Latteier). Two: "Through the years, a man peoples a space with images, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face" (Jorge Luis Borges). What's significant about these quotes is the idea that our labyrinthine, chaotic peregrination through the world--our traces, travels, travails--are to form, just before entering the next and more terrifying abyss, a narrative architecture that stands as the meaning of our life.
The problem now is we can no longer pull a string and see our total narrative. Why? Two reasons. First, because the national narrative, or metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard calls it in The Postmodern Condition, "[has] fallen into disuse and can no longer analyze the numerous social texts that have been forged from their ruins." Second, the fall of the arching narrative or founding narrative--which Hannah Arendt has shown we borrowed from the Romans, who, unlike the Greeks, were obsessed with the narration of the founding of their nation--has prompted a series of internal collapses that lead straight down to the core: our individual narrative, the story of our work, of our apprenticeship, our progress from delivery boy to manager to CEO.
"In a lifetime," conventional wisdom says, "a person can expect to go through five different jobs." In a word, we can't anticipate the narrative of one job, nor consistency within the field of a job like writing (author, teacher, essayist), or driving (taxi driver, mechanic, car dealer), or sex work (porn star, prostitute, movie star). Now there's only a disorderly clump of unrelated jobs (bus driver, teacher, cook, research assistant, gas station attendant). And these jobs do not form a narrative, but what I call narratemes--little narratives that have no relationship with each other. They are as independent, as complete within themselves as planets without a center, without a sun to hold them, to rotate them in a system. Work is now symbolized not by the commute: from the suburb to the center; but by space travel: from one planet to another planet. And each world is different: one has two suns, another green clouds, another giant plants that look like Venus flytraps. None of these worlds ever align or collide, they just drift further and further apart.
This lack of coherence means that we can no longer step back and see our face at the end of our life. In fact, it means we don't die, or, better put, when we die it is but a little death, which occurs in the miniature world of a narrateme. And this little death never bleeds into, connects with, or informs the other miniature narratives we've entered and dramatized during our brief lifetime. So, if we don't die, and we don't have narratives, whose life does the novel, with its organized traces, represent? Certainly not us, but another form of life from long ago. In fact, the narratemes we experience are so independent of one another that if we attempted to represent them in fictional form they would look something like this: Chapter 1, a political pamphlet; Chapter 2, a police report; Chapter 3, a business memo; Chapter 4, a city ordinance; Chapter 5, a letter from your attorney. And none of these disparate texts, these narratemes, would lead anywhere, progress, or gel--each would be complete in itself.
If narrators happen to die in the pages of this new type of fiction, the fiction of our age, their death will only illuminate the last little world, the last narrateme (Chapter 30, the scientific report), and mean nothing to the rest of the book. Indeed, the end of the narrative is the end of death.